Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

‘Orphans Of The Helix’ by Dan Simmons

with 3 comments

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.

Quality: ****
OOO: *****

Written by Martin

20 January 2013 at 14:57

3 Responses

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  1. The poorly received Endymion books, a re-evaluation of his horror work, and the fact that his blog posts revealed him to be a gibbering right-wing xenophobe. (As James Nicoll put it, “Muslims: Under The Bed And Always Evil”. Also, Barack Obama is destroying America! Along with drugs, moral weakness, and renewable energy!)

    The re-evaluation wasn’t limited to his horror work, either. _Hyperion_ is still a fine book in many ways, but after a couple of readings you realize that he’s got a wire crossed with sex and death (people tend to die or have bad things happen to them right after sex; the sexless Bikura are immortal; the squicky Remembering Siri story; etc., etc.) and then you can’t unsee it.

    But anyway! Is this story actually any good? You seem to think so. Say more, please, and tell how. My opinion of Simmons has sunk so low that I’d be happy to be pleasantly surprised at this point. Also-also, when was this written?


    Doug M.

    Doug M.

    22 January 2013 at 22:37

  2. The poorly received Endymion books, a re-evaluation of his horror work, and the fact that his blog posts revealed him to be a gibbering right-wing xenophobe.

    Yeah, “re-evaluation of his horror work” was code for “didn’t he turn out to be a racist?” I didn’t know the details though and had no wish to find out.

    But anyway! Is this story actually any good? You seem to think so. Say more, please, and tell how.

    What I admire most is that it compresses the key facets of space opera into small, (relatively) self-contained story. Which, as the rest of the anthology shows, is no easy job.

    So there is epic scale: it conveys very well a sense of deep time and deep space. That scale has in turn generated radical cultural difference. In particular, the crew of the Helix have based their culture on an opera that was performed only once and Simmons manages to make this seem plausible rather than a throw-away joke. The interaction between his wildly different cultures is also well judged (and that interaction is another core space opera trope). Then you have the Banksian gothic grotesquery which cuts against the crisp hard SF clothing and is then stood on its head in a plot that balances intelligence and adventure.

    Also-also, when was this written?

    Oops, I meant to put that in the post. Updated now: 1999.


    23 January 2013 at 13:59

  3. “Racist” may overstate, but yeah — stuff like _Song of Kali_ (where a lot of the horror comes from the squirming pullulation of crowds of poor brown people) has not held up well.

    Doug M.

    Doug M.

    23 January 2013 at 15:53

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