One uncharitable, and I assume probably incorrect view, would be that Helix gets a lot of good stories about the same subject, or pushing the same point of view. Certainly we readers were spared a number of video-games-are-real stories over the years, by editors who could see a cliche coming. Doubtless there are other themes that were old before they ever left their infancy.
But there are broader, more general themes in SF, that get new flesh, new paint, new liposuction and presto, another story that looks new, hell, it may even be new, but the shock and awe dissipates long before one gets to its core. That's part of the "genre" business, of course, and probably not even a sin, much less a tragic flaw. Nevertheless, it offers a handle for real criticism as opposed to mere review.
So there's this thing, just a little hiccup, really, or an itch that one cannot localize. Try to scratch it, and I find myself wondering about the life and times and such. Once having made a tentative identification, I need to maybe check some earlier Helix stories to see how many of them also carry the virus, one that looks to be a purer strain in Helix #6.
First, though, let's put a label on it and thereby change its nature, because naming does that. I'll try to keep it broad, so there's plenty of room for argument. Then too, there's the joking callback to The Graduate:
The stories in Helix #6 are playing games with plasticity, of body especially, of society somewhat, of mind, well, there's the rub.
I hope none of these are spoilers, and I always recommend people read a story before reading my comment on it (and really, what are the relative number of readers, anyway, between me-by-my-lonesome and Helix?).
- "The Button Bin," by Mike Allen: Putting on a monster like a suit of clothes.
- "The Makeover Men" by Jayme Lynn Blaschke: Genetic therapy as the equivalent of cosmetic surgery.
- "The Mechanical Mechanic, His Apprentice, and the Judge" by Sarah K. Castle:War veteran with numerous prosthetics.
- "Kill Me," by Vylar Kaftan: Mutilation, death and resurrection via implantedcybernetic storage device.
- "The Golden Whip" by Jay Lake: Technobureaucratic apotheosis via nanotech implants.
- "The Snake's Wife" by Ann Leckle: Primitive sex change surgery.
- "The Last Stand of the Elephant Man" by Jennifer Pelland: Futuristic resurrection and soul swapping in a jaded society.
In contrast to the fairly extreme changes of physical appearance and life circumstances that appear in these stories, the people themselves, their characters, their personalities, those change little, and what change does occur, it is well within the ordinary limits of human beings.
Now granted, this last part is a feature, not a bug. Audiences are not going to tune into characters that are something other than human. In fact, as I think I�ve noted before, modern audiences will seldom connect to characters of other than modern sensibility, so that writing about a real historical character always has the tug-of-war between being faithful to the real historical personage and not losing the audience.
That segues to the biggest problem with "The Last Stand of the Elephant Man," an account of Joseph Merrick's awakening in a future where his soul (we'll call it that) has been placed in an undeformed body, while his body is inhabited by a futuristic thrill/fame seeker. Whatever the merits of the story as a commentary on the decadence of a celebrity worshiping society (who, us?), having Merrick as the point-of-view character, and worse, being authorially privy to his thoughts, kept dropping me out of the narrative. The story makes much of how people's knowledge of Merrick comes primarily from the motion picture (if the theatrical production was mentioned I missed it), but does not really supply us with much to fill in the blanks, other than possibly some Victorian prudery, and some intellect.
Both "The Button Bin" and "Kill Me" are psycho-sexual creepshows, and stand or fall on the creepiness factor, which is pretty high, so good on them. There is a little bit of the "oh, not that again," in character's revelation in "The Button Bin," but that's probably just me. On the plus side, the words-in-a-row writing is good.
"The Makeover Men" manages to turn an end-of-the-world scenario into a tale of dueling narcissists, with the future of the world going to Quagmire from Family Guy, more or less. Then the post-theocratic tale "The Mechanical Mechanic, His Apprentice, and the Judge," barely manages to hit the broad side of a barn in warning us about religious authoritarianism and patriotic hypocrisy. Still, the barn does have a broad side, so de gustibus.
I think "The Golden Whip" is the shortest and most economical of the stories here. It mines the cyberpunk style and world-view, and, assuming I interpreted it correctly (always a risk with writing that slings stream-of-consciousness plus the occasional verb-less sentence), it's a reminder of how easy it is for elephants to trample mice, or, for that matter, mice to trample mice, given the nature of giant organizations and slick technology.
"The Snake's Wife" could probably have been written any time in the last hundred years (maybe more), and I mean that in a good way. That is one of the advantages of classic land-far-away fantasy: it has no real sell-by date. It's also nice to see that the "prophecy is literally true but watch out for the loopholes" thing can apply to the gods who make the prophecies come true as well. The tale might have benefited from a little more cutting (no pun intended) and names that were easier to keep track of, but those are some more things whose effectiveness has varied within the past century, not to mention from reader to reader. The story gives the impression of being a part of a larger work, which I hope is not the case, because I like the feel of things whose edges lead into the mist.