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Helm    by Steven Gould order for
by Steven Gould
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 1999 (1998)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Wesley Williamson

Helm is Steven Gould's breakout novel. He had already written three highly readable SF stories, but with Helm he climbed to a totally new level with a book which could be classed with the greats in the field. As background to this tale, life on Earth was destroyed, leaving a few thousand refugees trapped in tunnels in the Moon, where they still had access to Earth's most advanced technology. Most of them could be transported in cold sleep to a distant planet (in progress of being terraformed), which would be reasonably habitable after the 125 years taken by their journey. However, only limited technology would be available to the colonists. To give them the highest chance of survival, it was decided to imprint them with a strongly enforced code of behaviour, using a recently developed technology whose misuse was the root cause of Earth's destruction.

Hundreds of years later, a large part of the libraries sent from Earth have been destroyed by anti-technology fanatics, and only one of the imprinting devices is left intact and capable of use. This device, the helm of the story, is stored (to allow it to be charged by sunlight) on top of the almost inaccessible Needle, a rock spire in Laal, one of the stewardships of Noramland. Only Guide Dulan de Laal has used the helm, and knows of its properties. His eldest son is being groomed to don the helm now that it has been recharged, and acquire, if he can receive it and remain sane, the information stored by the personality imprinted in it. However, Guide de Laal's youngest son, Leland, looked down on by his family and friends because of his passion for peace and scholarship, decides to show them what he can do by scaling the Needle.

Unwittingly, Leland puts the helm on his head, and awakens in a very different world. When he recovers, he is forced by his father to backbreaking tasks, and his brothers are ordered to beat him with a cane whenever they can catch him unaware. He receives a short relief when the Chief Steward of Noramland pays a state visit, and Leland accidentally meets his younger daughter Marilyn. He becomes adept at evading the cane. Then Leland is sent to take lessons in the martial art, aikido, under the master Denesse Sensei, where the imprinted personality, also a master of aikido, begins to come to the surface.

Laal is threatened by treachery in high places, and betrayal from within. Leland is forced to use all his ability, with the help of the personality imprinted on his mind, to drive out the conquerors of his stewardship, and prevent the unprincipalled usurper from using the helm to bring the entire world under his grip. The last third of the book is almost continuous action, lightened somewhat by Leland's budding romance with Marilyn. A major theme is aikido, which is described fluently, and illustrated by the quotations heading each chapter. Helm is indeed a superbly conceived and well written SF novel.

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