Helliconia by Brian Aldiss
SF Masterworks Number 80.
Published by Gollancz, August 2010 (Review copy received.) Originally 1982, 1983, 1985.
Review by Mark Yon
A reread this one. Gollancz have just republished this huge tome (1328 pages) as part of their SF Masterworks branding, of which this is number 80.
I did read them back in the 1980’s when they were released as three separate books: Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter, in 1982, 1983 and 1985 respectively. Hereafter I’m going to see them as one book, which is for all intents and purposes is how they read, as a uniform body of work (albeit in three parts.)
At the time of original writing they were a surprise, if I remember right. Here was a writer known for his SF writing (Hothouse, Greybeard, Report on Probability A, etc) writing what seemed (at first) to be a fantasy.
And if I remember right, a glacially slow series. Which made them a little disappointing.
However, there is an SF element to the books. For those who don’t know, Helliconia is a planet. The tales are told from the perspective of the inhabitants as they go through the world’s seasons. The twist in the tale here is that the seasons are very long: centuries long, long enough for species to live and die within one season, and especially in the long, cruel, bitter winters.
As the tale unfolds the perspective is drawn further back to the point where we realise that all that is being told is actually part of a planetary research report from the Earth ship Avernus. It is here that the reader discovers that, as part of a binary star system, all / most life on Helliconia will be extinguished. Much of the books are spent in the debate over whether Humans should interfere with the rise and fall of civilisations on the planet, which is an interesting counterpoint to what goes on in the research ship and on Earth.
We meet a variety of people/creatures on this journey: In Helliconia Spring, Yuli is a humanoid hunter-gatherer, one of the Freyr, who, as the world reawakens, we find experiences the development of an urban civilisation. Helliconia Spring tells of Yuli and his descendants as Helliconia Winter turns to Spring and the Freyr develop from hunters to urban dwellers. By the second book we have the dominance of the human-like species in a fantasy setting. We also encounter more about the Phagors, a Morlock-like furred white humanoid species, who begin in Helliconia Spring as seemingly simple hunters and carry off Yuri’s father. As the story deepens, however, in Summer and Winter we find that they have a richer background and culture and seem to have been on Helliconia long before the emergence of the human-like dominant species. The fantasy feel is quite strong as we discover about their lifestyles. To confirm this further, there’s even a dragon-like creature, the Wutra’s Worm, with an enormous lifespan.
The book is a case study in worldbuilding: evidently Aldiss spent time with physicists, astronomers, ecologists, climatologists, sociologists and microbiologists in creating a credible environment. Most importantly (according to Aldiss’s introduction) is Lovelock’s idea of Gaia, once fairly new in the 1980’s, and now seems to be increasingly plausible Perhaps, as a result, this book doesn’t seem as way out as it did when I first read it, though just as epic and majestic. Part of the joy of this book is to see how the world changes through the seasons and how the landscape and landforms adapt accordingly.
In the style of Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men, or some of HG Wells’ work, this book is perhaps the ultimate planetary romance, and deliberately so. In such a framework the writer writes as an observer rather than as part of the narrative. Consequently, the book seems written in a rather detached style. Though this can give a feeling of weight and gravity to the long tale, it can also create a coolness that distances the reader from the world and creatures within. They are being studied rather than interacted with.
In the 25 years or so since originally reading this, I now see where Aldiss is going. It is his view on civilisations, their ability to grow and decline and the causes and effects of such development. It also raises the question of whether in the grand scheme of things Mankind in the future may be worth preserving.
Though it is still slow to develop, it is surprisingly engaging. Do not expect it to be a fast-paced romp. Instead, it is a book where you expect to be immersed and be slowly awakened to the opportunities within.
It may be my greater age and experience, it may be that in these days of global warming and biomes the world’s just caught up with the concepts herein. However this was a much more satisfying read second time around. And good to see the background details given as Appendices here too.
Consequently, very much recommended.
Mark Yon, August 2010.