‘Orphans Of The Helix’ by Dan Simmons
The four Hyperion books cover more than thirteen centuries in time, tens of thousands of light-years in space, more than three thousand pages of the reader’s time, the rise and fall of at least two major interstellar civilisations, and more ideas than the author could shake an epistemological stick at. They are, in other words, space opera.
So Simmons describes his own work and he’s not wrong. When he published the Hyperion Cantos (1989-90), he was the space opera don. His poorly received Endymion sequels (1996-7) and a re-evaluation of the more problematic aspects of his horror fiction have somewhat tarnished his reputation but ‘Orphans Of The Helix’ (1990) is as good an example of space opera at this length as you are going to get (certainly within the pages of The Space Opera Renaissance).
It starts in the way of all the best stories: a distress signal deep in space.
The great spinship translated down from Hawking space into the red-and-white double light ogf a close binary. While the 684,300 people of the Amoiete Spectrum Helix dreamt on in a depp cryogenic sleep, the five AIs in charge of the ship conferred. They had encountered an unusual phenomenon and while four of the five had agreed it important enough to bring the huge spinship out of C-plus Hawking space, there was a lively debate – continuing for several microseconds – about what to do next.
We have artificial intelligence, we have aliens, we have posthumans with hundred kilometre electromagnetic wings and baseline humans with radically different cultures to anything currently in existence. We have vast ships and habitats that are dwarfed by the awesome scale of space. It also has a “threshing machine from hell” and it is a shame Hartwell and Cramer don’t explore the idea of the gothic as an integral part of the New Space Opera:
The Helix was a kilometre long. The base of this other spacecraft was at least a thousand times as long. The monster was huge and broad, bulbous and ugly, carbon black and insectoidal, bearing the worst features of both organic evolution and industrial manufacture. Centrered in the front of it was what appeared to be a steel-toothed maw, a rough opening lined with a seemingly endless series of manidibles and shredding baldes and razor-sharp rotors.
If there is a weakness to ‘Orphans Of The Helix’, it is that it is part of a massive future history which threats to burst the seams of the story, particularly at the conclusion. Also some of the characterisation is very cursory, perhaps not surprising given the number of players in such a small space; for example, one woman is only ever described as some variation on young, attractive or flaky. But really, the editors couldn’t have picked a better story for their purpose.