Genetic engineering is scrutinized once again, this time through the lens of an intense moral microscope, in Steel Helix, a new novel by Ann Tonsor Zeddies about the lone 'baseline' human living among a society of super-clones. Piers Rameau is the human, a doctor whose work on a group of ornamental entertainers -- dancers and acrobats so fragile they cannot survive outside of a zero-gravity environment -- has brought him to the attention of a cult of militaristic test-tube creations known as Original Man.
As the novel opens, Rameau's existence seems idyllic: living aboard an amply luxurious space station, he spends his time caring for the genetically altered performers. His existence revolves around one dancer in particular, a woman named Dakini for whom he feels an obsessive and unhealthy love. Then the spacefleet of Original Man arrives, destroying not only the space station but Rameau's homeworld too. Dakini is killed, while the doctor is kidnapped and impressed into service aboard the Original Man flagship, the Langstaff.
Original Men usually kill and recycle their injured members, but now combat exigencies have forced them to tend to their wounded men, who are known as cohorts. Rameau is thus obliged to treat the very soldiers who massacred Dakini and the other space station inhabitants.
He fights his captivity all the way, only truly cooperating in those moments when he is also actively seeking revenge on the Langstaff crew. Vengeance is a nearly vain hope -- a mere human, he is vulnerable and weak next to the genetically amped-up cohorts of the ship's crew, and they have no compunctions about forcing him to obey. As the imprisonment continues, Rameau begins to understand more about his relationship with Dakini, to comprehend her frustration and thwarted need for freedom. . . as well as his own complicity in keeping her enslaved.
There is little time for Rameau to contemplate old sins, however. Original Man has broken into factions, and the Langstaff crew is at odds with the clone society's leadership. The outcome of the power struggle may have profound consequences for baseline humans like Rameau, and the Langstaff crew may be the closest thing Rameau can find to an ally in a regime that is hostile to all baseline humans. At the same time, setting aside his dreams of revenge may require more strength of character than one lonely and flawed human can muster.
Steel Helix is an intriguing meditation on captivity, allegiance, and love. Ann Tonsor Zeddies has woven some strange threads into her tale -- a barely-likable protagonist whose life choices are almost as repugnant as those of his kidnappers, characters who rarely have names, and a complex culture in the midst of a crisis that Rameau can barely understand, let alone change. At the same time, Rameau's plight is movingly pitiful, and he is forced to make emotional accommodations to his situation which are all very nearly beyond him. The resourcefulness he develops as a result is thrilling.
Zeddies has a way with language that makes the book acoustically pleasing, a pleasure to read. Her treatment of the Original Man dialect is appealing; the language has changed significantly when compared to twenty-first century English, but its meaning is clear, and its rhythms capture the emotionally abrupt nature of the Original Man society perfectly.
One of the peculiar dynamics of the novel, and particularly Zeddies' Original Man culture, is that it is an exclusively male world. An artificially structured society, Original Man is fundamentally unbalanced and also strangely innocent. Its cohorts' sexual tension is routinely burned off in ritualized, violent, orgies. There are no couples, no love relationships, no family units. All of this is by and large as the clones' revered Founder intended it, but here and there cracks in the façade show. The oldest cohorts -- the ones raised in traditional family settings -- are viewed with suspicion by their more mechanically reared brothers, for example, while rivalries emerge between groups with differing work specialties.
This novel also offers one purely masterful moment, when a seemingly minor revelation about the nature of the cohorts on Langstaff and the other ships changes everything, for Rameau and the reader both. Afterwards, the tone shifts, and the doctor's fumbling acceptance of responsibility for his patients -- his often eccentric attempts to reach their strangely programmed hearts and minds -- is sincerely moving.
Steel Helix is the portrayal of a deeply limited man who is pushed beyond endurance and comes through the experience changed -- not merely into a better person, but into someone quite extraordinary. As such, this novel is both ambitious in scope and a challenging read, one whose rewards are great but also deeply surprising.
Copyright © 2003 A. M. Dellamonica
A. M. Dellamonica's fiction first appeared in print in 1986 and despite repeated washings remains in circulation, most recently in Mojo: Conjure Stories and Land/Space. Three of her works can be found anytime at scifi.com, and her 2002 story "A Slow Day at the Gallery" is in The Year's Best SF 8. To contact her, email email@example.com.
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