The Helix War
I had not heard of Edward Willett until he started following the Two Dudes Twitter feed. (Considering the amount and content of Two Dudes twittering, being followed by an actual published author is borderline miraculous.) Any author kind enough to pay attention to us, or even pretend to pay attention, is going to get read and reviewed, so the most interesting looking of Willett’s books got tossed on the Must Read Now pile, which is shorter than both the Must Read Soon and Would Like To Read One of These Days piles. Mr. Willett flying under the Two Dudes radar is not an indication of quality or fame; the two halves of The Helix War respectively won and were nominated for Canada’s Prix Aurora Award, which goes to show that we are just not quite omniscient yet. Consequently, one more gap in the Hoover Dam of our knowledge has now been plugged. Thank you, Twitter, for saving the day yet again.
The Helix War is actually two books: Marseguro and Terra Insegura. Neither really stands alone however, so it’s best to dive straight into the heftier omnibus volume. Otherwise there is a cliffhanger in one (Marseguro) and things would be utterly incomprehensible in the other (Terra Insegura). I am vaguely curious if the author has optioned this to Hollywood, because aside from their length, these are ready made action SF movie fodder. James Cameron would have a field day, for reasons we will get into later.
First, a brief explanation so the rest of the review makes sense. Earth is ruled by The Body Purified, a fundamentalist, anti-gene modification religion. They are bad. Earth has a few interstellar colonies, one of which is the hidden world of Marseguro. On it dwell the Selkies, a human sub species genetically modified to live in the water. There is also a small community of unmodified humans who are allied with the Selkies and came with them on their panicked flight from Earth. The Body Purified would love nothing more than to eradicate this stain, so by page 100 they have launched an invasion. This sets up a classic “Superior force invades the planet, plucky good guys fight back” trope, which is a pretty foolproof way to set up a fun story. How the reader feels about the course of the story probably depends a great deal on the reader’s opinion of Hollywood fare.
What is it about The Helix War that reminds me of summer blockbusters? Well, shall we begin with the bad guys? The Body Purified is the kind of religious bugaboo that writers of both screenplays and SF love. (Is it just me, or do Canadian writers take a particularly biting tone with US-based religion? Example #1: Robert Sawyer.) El Body isn’t Christian, but it’s all the fundamentalism and intolerance that we rational types love to hate. Loathsome in general, it is none too likable in particular, with the individual characters a rogue’s gallery of mental illnesses. Paranoia, delusional megalomania, and frantic denial are all on the platter, with very few rational bad guys in view. There is even a mad scientist who threatens destruction via super powerful killing device at one point. Good times!
The good guys are given more depth than just “we are honorable and fighting for our homes.” The ocean dwelling Selkies are an interesting creation and well thought out; their unmodified human allies also have complicated enough back stories and development to be engaging. Willett also resists the urge to make anyone a Heinlein-ian superman. Indeed, the audience is bound to spend a certain amount of time yelling, “stop, you fool!” at the screen, rather like we do when the horror movie starlet says something like, “I’ll just go upstairs now and see what that noise was.” The good guys spend the books making the best they can out of a bad situation, screwing up just like any of us would, and trying bravely to do The Right Thing. There are consequences for their actions and the author doesn’t shy away from violence begetting more violence. Everyone spends a fair amount of time hashing out moral dilemmas with each other, usually arriving at the conclusion that we should all be nice to each other. There is a veneer of philosophy to the book, but like the Selkies, it isn’t engineered for deep water.
700 pages seems like a lot, but the narrative moves briskly and cinematically. The camera jumps between multiple viewpoints, giving a clear view of all the action and a summary of what each key player is thinking. After 100 pages or so of school and troubled childhoods, the fun finally begins and never really lets up. Willett tosses in twists fairly regularly, especially in the second book. At one point I started to get whiplash, as the “wait … what?” moments piled up. (I can’t really say much about them in the review, as it would turn into spoiler city. Suffice it to say that pages 400-600 have more twists than a Chubby Checker concert.) Despite my skepticism, things held together. I still wanted to club a couple of the characters for doing clearly bone-headed stuff, but everything seemed to end happily enough.
Thus far, the Hollywood-esque bits of the story are less of a good or bad thing, and mostly just a thing. There were a couple of details that bothered me though. First, the whole thing with the asteroids that brought The Body Purified to power baffled me. I wonder if I missed a paragraph somewhere, because there was something in the resolution that seemed fishy at best and plain impossible at worst, but was never really explained. Second, if people have gone off into space and founded a super secret hidden colony, wouldn’t they, say, put a lock on the door of the emergency phone home beacon? Barring that, one or two surveillance satellites in orbit? It was awfully easy for the bad guys to find Marseguro. (Well, not too easy, but still. “Gee Berle, do you think that somebody, somewhere in the thousands of people here might get angry/crazy/drunk and accidentally/vindictively fire up this here thing that would call the raging, homicidal, religious freaks?” “Nah, let’s just leave it out here where anyone can find it.” “Alright. I won’t bother to conceal the activation code either.”)
A verdict? The Helix War was fun. I laughed, I cried, I was on the edge of my bus seat. It won’t appeal to certain demographics, but would probably be a good SF gateway drug. Readers looking for Hard SF, right wing MilSF, or gritty fantasy where GRRM kills everyone will probably be nonplussed. Someone taking a break between heavier stuff will probably enjoy the quick ride. It’s not Stranger in a Strange Land, but not everything needs to be. I’ll be adding more Edward Willett books to my pile.
Rating: The Spanish National Team pre-2006 or so. Lots of flash and running around, fun to watch, but somewhat lacking in depth.