Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Short SF Review #20: The Helix

"The Helix," by Gerard Rejskind
Appeared in Worlds of If, January-February 1971

"When a train takes a tunnel leading to the Helix, sensors pick up its presence, the computers make sure the route is clear for it and operate the circuitry to take it into the Helix and out the other side. Here, for instance--" he pointed to a trio of lights on the panel-- "we have a train approaching the Helix southbound on line six. These two trains--" he pointed again-- "are within the Helix. They're doing the seemingly impossible. They're crossing the same space without being aware of each other."

When you ride public transit, you sacrifice. You sacrifice the freedom, to a degree, to leave when you want and to choose what route you want to take to get there. You give up the option of going at your own pace and according to your own desires. You put yourself in the control of whoever's managing the vehicle you're on. For some people, like me, these sacrifices are easy to make when they mean I don't have to worry about the expense of a car, of licensing, of fuel and maintenance and parking and the responsibility of knowing that if I make a mistake, someone could die.*

When you ride public transit, you have to have some level of trust in the person running it all; that they know how to do their job and that you'll get where you're going without any big problems. This is an opportunity for storytelling - after all, what happens when they don't?

"Helix" is, according to the ISFDB, one of only two science fiction works by Gerard Rejskind ever published, and it likely represents one of the first appearances of the Montreal Metro in science fiction; the system was not even five years old when this story was published.

In "Helix" it's the late 1980s, and Montreal's traffic woes are being addressed with a revolutionary new technology, the Geoffroy Helix, a device buried beneath downtown Montreal which enables subway trains to pass each other in the same space without encountering each other by rotating them through a fourth and a fifth dimension. That's right, folks - a device is built that enables things to pass through each other, and the most prominent use it's put to is producing efficiencies in the Montreal Metro. You'd think they'd have installed in Toronto, with its older and larger system, but one aspect of this story's early-1970s nature is that it forecasts a Montreal that seems to remain resolutely Anglophone to the degree that the Metro is run by the Montreal Transportation Commission, rather than the more familiar Société de transport de Montréal - an interesting reminder of the things that sneak up on writers when they're building their worlds.

Of course, stories aren't interesting unless there's conflict, and in a device story the source of the conflict is obvious - that is, after four years of sterling service, the Helix doesn't only quit working, but does so while there's a train stuck inside it. The story then becomes about the struggle of the Helix's builder, Ed Fontaine, to figure out the problem and free the rush-hour-packed subway train from its interdimensional imprisonment; after all, if the hundreds of passengers aboard weren't inducement enough, he has every reason to believe his fiancée is one of them.

Now, ordinarily I strive not to unravel too many plot details in these reviews... but let's be fair, this story is forty years old, well beyond the statute of limitations for spoilers, I reckon, and a lot of my comments and gripes won't make any sense without a knowledge of where this story goes.

So here's the thing about the Helix - in the story's major twist, the characters discover that the Helix isn't exactly as advertised. Let me clarify, here, that the characters are Don Carruthers, a man from the New York Transit Authority to see if a Helix would be a good add to the land of the subway vigilante, and Ed Fontaine, the man who built the thing at the ancient age of twenty-five. Even the builder of this thing does not know what it really does.

Through the course of the story, he gets to discover what it is he's actually built. Likewise, we get to discover that the Helix was installed and used in an incredibly reckless way - despite four years of operation, despite having a miniature model of it in the control center, no one ever thought to test what would happen in an unusual situation until that unusual situation manifested itself; it's only the presence of Carruthers from New York, asking if they'd ever thought of that, that brings Our Hero to actually consider that angle. Even something as simple as turning the thing off and on again while a marble was inside the miniature Helix, just to find out what would happen, wasn't done. I mean, seriously - just who the hell signed off on this?

I recognize that this may be the author's intention - now that I really consider it, the protagonist isn't necessarily the "hero" at all - it's actually Carruthers who moves the story forward, and without him the Helix staff would have flailed around and if they stumbled onto a solution it would have been pure chance. It's Carruthers who suggests using the miniature Helix to test their theories, Carruthers who goes over the original mathematics and realizes that the correspondence between the mathematical and physics models for the Helix aren't exact, that it's in actuality a destructive teleporter - destroying subway trains as they enter it and reassembling them on the other end, and if the Helix is rebooted, the computers controlling it will forget how to reassemble the train and it, and its passengers, will be lost forever. To be honest, this is probably the most ambitious "trapped in the pattern buffer" story I've encountered; usually it's just a person stuck in the machinery.

In the end, though, the characters don't have to do anything. Almost as soon as they realize just what's really happening, the fault in the Helix goes away and the lost train pulls into Berri-de-Montigny station, then as now the core of the Metro... but it's not so easy, is it? Here, let me quote.

"Carruthers had been right. The Helix was no helix at all. It destroyed and reconstituted them from memory. But its memory was limited. It remembered by repeating the message, over and over, to itself..."

I don't know how accurate this was with respect to computers that you'd be able to find in 1971 - it doesn't really jive with what I know of them today, and I'd think that a computer with insufficient memory to store an entire metro train and all of its passengers would react rather differently, and what it spit out on the other end wouldn't live very long - fortunately. But no, the machines reassemble a train that actually works, and reassembles the passengers as purple, wrinkled, anteater-like beings with dripping snouts that don't immediately die, but survive at least long enough to get off the train and exit the station. I mean, for the result of a game of telephone played for way too long, that's a pretty good result; you'd expect them to look more like that alien pig lizard in Galaxy Quest after it got beamed up to the Protector.

Nevertheless - it was a good enough story, however the characters within it acted, that the ideas behind it stuck with me for a while afterward. I wouldn't necessarily have written it the same way myself - had it been up to me, I'd have just done something where the train returned empty or not at all - but it works even with the ending. It feeds into our concerns about the people watching over us, that the people who make sure that we get from place to place in safety are just ordinary, fallible people who make mistakes and build things wrong.

And the moral of the story, ladies and germs: for dang's sake, don't use destructive teleporters! They're murder on the complexion.


Previous Short SF Reviews:
* I know that people can also commute by bicycle or on foot, but come on - sometimes binary options are good for setting the mood.

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