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May 25th, 2010, 08:55 AM #1
The Helliconia Trilogy by Brian W. Aldiss
Yuli is a child of a hunter-gatherer family living under the light of two suns on the northern plains of Campannlat on the frigid, ice-wrapped planet of Helliconia. When his father is enslaved by the vicious phagors, Yuli is left alone. He finds his way to the subterranean city of Pannoval, where he prospers as a member of the priesthood. Tiring of torturing heretics and punishing renegades, he elects to flee the oppressive city with some like-minded allies, eventually founding the settlement of Oldorando some distance away.
Fifty years later, Yuli's descendants have conquered a larger town, renaming it Oldorando as well, and are prospering. Game is becoming more plentiful, the river is thawing and warmer winds are rising, even as the smaller sun, Freyr, grows larger in the sky. But with peace and plenty comes indolence and corruption, and the people of Oldorando find themselves bickering and feuding for power, even as a great crusade of phagors leaves their icy homes in the eastern mountains on a quest to slaughter as many humans as possible.
The great drama of life on Helliconia is observed from an orbiting Earth space station, the Avernus, the crew of which watch as Helliconia and its sun, Batalix, draw closer to the great white supergiant about which they revolve and the centuries-long winter comes to a violent end.
Helliconia Spring (originally published in 1982) is the first volume in Brian Aldiss' masterpiece, The Helliconia Trilogy. In this work, Aldiss has constructed the supreme achievement of science fiction worldbuilding: Helliconia, a planet located in a binary star system a thousand light-years distant from Earth. Batalix and Helliconia take 2,592 years to orbit Freyr in a highly elliptical orbit (Helliconia is three times further from Freyr at its most distant point than nearest), which results in seasons that last for centuries apiece. Helliconia's plants, animal and sentient lifeforms have all biologically adapted to this unusual arrangement (in a manner that prevents colonisation by Earthlings, who would be killed quickly by the planet's bacteria), but its civilisations have not adapted satisfactorily: humanity rises in the spring and becomes dominant in the summer before being toppled by the phagors in the autumn and enslaved in the winter. However, more evidence has survived of the previous cycle than normal, and this time around those humans who have discovered the truth have vowed to ensure that humanity will survive the next Great Winter triumphant over its ancestral enemy.
Helliconia Spring is a complex novel working on a literal storytelling level - the factional battles for control over Oldorando and Pannoval, the phagor crusade flooding across the continent and the search for truth and understanding of the Helliconian star system by Oldorando's scientists - and also on thematic ones, with Aldiss examining the struggles between religion and science, between those who thrive in peace and those who thrive in war and the duality of winter and summer, humanity and phagor, and though the religious ritual of pauk, between the living and the dead.
Having the orbital Earth platform is a good idea, as it gives us a literal scientific understanding of the Helliconia system which those on the surface are struggling to understand, even if it does feel a little removed from the storyline at this time. Amongst other criticisms are a lack of character closure: whilst the grand history of Helliconia and the thematic elements continue to be explored in Helliconia Summer, the story itself moves on several hundred years, leaving the main characters of this book long dead. But these are outweighed by the strengths: the effective and impressive prose, the fantastic descriptions of a near-frozen planet thawing into life with its millions of species of plant and animal life waking up under the two suns and the impressive melding of cold, impersonal scientific worldbuilding with a satisfying plot and vividly-described characters.
Helliconia Spring (*****) is a masterpiece of science fiction and features the single most impressive work of SF worldbuilding to date. The novel is available now in the USA. A new omnibus edition of the entire trilogy will be published by Gollancz as part of the SF Masterworks collection on 12 August 2010.
May 25th, 2010, 09:12 AM #2
One missing link
One problem I had with this work was the lack of explanation of the Avernus and the occasional reference to what was happening on Earth. 1,000 light years is a good distance, and the number of stars within that sphere is huge.
How the station got there always made me wonder if there were others like it around different stars. In this case it is clear that Humans could not land and colonize this planet so observing was all it had. Back on Earth people seem to have settled into a equilibrium with not much change and nothing in terms of further attempts at reaching the stars. I seem to remember reading that this took place something like 8,000 years in the future, but maybe I'm misremembering.
I always thought that this work would benefit from a prequel about the very beginning of Human contact with Helliconia sort of like Anne McCaffery did with Pern. That is just me though, I am a sucker for a connected history and like to have a timeline in the back of my mind to put things in perspective.
I read the first book twice and the others only once. So while I liked the series I never got around to revisiting the whole thing.
May 25th, 2010, 09:21 AM #3
Your other points are all addressed in the second and third books in the series. Humanity had a 1,200-year-long starflight period during which they built drives which could operate at about 90% of lightspeed. They also had immense telescopes which could observe smaller-than-Mars-sized planets at a range of thousands of light-years, and around all the stars within a thousand light-years they didn't find a single Earth-like planet, only rocky worlds at best like Mars or Mercury. An American-Chinese observation fleet passing through the Ophiuchus dustclouds (which obscure Freyr from Earth) 700 ly away then detected Helliconia using their own telescopes, and despatched an automated colony vessel which reached the Helliconia system and built the Avernus in orbit. With no other world in the system suitable for colonisation, they turned round and headed home leaving the Avernus and its 6,000 crewmen behind, which was a rough gig (and a storyline point in the sequels).
The books take place in the seventh and eighth millenniums AD and span a period of about 1,200-1,500 Earth years, IIRC. The trilogy starts on the cusp between winter and spring and ends with the onset of the next winter (and winter lasts much longer than the other seasons due to the shape of the orbit).
May 25th, 2010, 10:02 AM #4
Truly a great book.
Very pleased Gollancz are republishing it.
May 25th, 2010, 10:02 PM #5
- Join Date
- Jun 2006
I always loved this trilogy and thought it a little underrated. Thanks for mentioning it.
Spring is the best I think, followed by Summer. And the humanoid alien problem always niggled a bit.
June 2nd, 2010, 02:49 PM #6
Helliconia basks in the glow of the Great Summer. The continent of Campannlat is now dominated by the Holy Empire, a loose religious affiliation between the three great kingdoms of Pannoval, Oldorando and Borlien. These nations find themselves threatened by the far less technologically-advanced but considerably more populous jungle and desert nations to the west and the even more savage tribes to the east. When King JandolAnganol suffers a humiliating defeat to tribesmen using firearms (bought at great cost from the progressive nations of Sibornal far to the north), he divorces his wife so he might seek a more favourable alliance by marrying a princess of Oldorando. However, the queen is a greatly popular figure in Borlien and by divorcing her the king enrages the native population, triggering political turmoil and military action that will have great ramifications for all of Helliconia.
Meanwhile, the crew of the Earth Observation Station Avernus have fallen into internal dissent and debate over the nature of reality and their own orders from distant Earth not to interfere with life on Helliconia. Rejecting this order from a world they can never see or return to, the crew hold a lottery with a grand prize: to allow the winner to visit Helliconia, so for the brief few months it will take for the planet's viruses and bacteria to kill him he can live under a real sky. The arrival of Billy Xiao Pin in Borlien's capital likewise triggers events that will have unforeseen consequences.
Helliconia Summer picks up the story of the world of Helliconia some 355 local years - more than 500 Earth years - after the conclusion of Helliconia Spring. The planet is not far from its time of closest approach to the supergiant star Freyr and humanity rules supreme over the planet, the phagor population reduced to slavery or forced to hide in remote mountain valleys. It is a time of great technological innovation, with firearms, gunpowder and cannons flowing south from Sibornal, but also of turmoil, with the doctrines of the Pannovalan Church stifling the advance of technology and science within Campannlat itself. Like its forebear, the novel mixes thematic elements such as the rise and fall of civilisations, the advance of science and the uneasy union of progress and religion, with a more traditional action and character-driven narrative.
Helliconia Summer, appropriately, sprawls luxuriantly where its forebear was more focused and constrained in narrative scope and geographical area. It is in this novel that Aldiss' achievement in creating Helliconia is best-realised, with lush descriptions of the world and its myriad animal life and human cultures in full flower. The main storyline is compelling, combining intriguing politics and well-realised (if not particularly likable) characters clashing over the fate of their kingdoms in the face of warfare, religious turmoil and arguments over the fate of the phagors, the dominant nonhuman species of Helliconia reduced by the heat into docile soldier-slaves. The relevance of having an observation station from Earth is also made clearer in this novel, with one of the Avernus crewmembers becoming an important character. There are also some intriguing mysteries, such as a murder mystery whose conclusion is ambiguous and a deeper one surrounding the changes in pauk, the bizarre ability of the Helliconian people to commune with the spirits of their ancestors after death, which provide much food-for-thought going into the third and final novel.
On the negative side, the book suffers slightly from its lack of focus compared to the first volume and also from a somewhat clumsy chronological structure, where the first several chapters take place in the present and then we rewind a year and move forward to where the first part began, then skip to after it. The story doesn't really require this structure and would perhaps have benefited from a more linear progression.
In Helliconia Summer (****½) Aldiss' grand ambition, nothing less than a history of an entire world and its peoples across vast chasms of time, becomes clearer and more impressive. The book is available now (albeit somewhat expensively) in the USA and will form part of the new UK Helliconia omnibus due on 12 August this year.
June 15th, 2010, 05:39 PM #7
The world of Helliconia is moving away from the supergiant star Freyr. The Great Winter is about to descend on the planet with full, unmitigated fury. The tropical continent of Campannlat is ill-prepared to deal with the falling temperatures, and the defeat of their armies by the forces of the harsh northern landmass of Sibornal signals the beginning of the end of their period of dominance. Luterin Shokerandit, a soldier in the Sibornalese army, returns home in triumph, only to face treachery. The ruthless leader of Sibornal, the Oligarch, has decreed that the victorious army is returning home infested with plague, and cannot be allowed to reach succor.
Meanwhile, life on the Earth Observation Station Avernus, in orbit around Helliconia for almost four millennia, is drawing to an end as the inhabitants revert to savage barbarism, even as the world beneath them falls from the glories of Summer into the abyss of Winter. But some in Sibornal have vowed that humanity and civilisation will ride out the Winter no matter the cost in blood...
Helliconia Winter picks up the story of the world of Helliconia 478 local years - 669 Earth years - after the events of Helliconia Summer. As before, whilst the individual characters who starred in the previous novel are long dead the fall-out of their actions continues to have consequences in this novel, although in this case at something of a remove, since the action is now transplanted to the northern continent of Sibornal. Here, we follow a band of characters led by the betrayed Luterin as he struggles to return to his distant home in the Shivenink Chain, giving rise to what, potentially, should have been the most dynamic storyline in The Helliconia Trilogy. Instead, we get a travelogue. A fascinating, intelligent, well thought-out travelogue, but nevertheless there is the feeling of Aldiss pointing out the cool scenery at the expense of developing his themes in tandem with the plot.
This is not to say that the themes Aldiss wished to explore with the trilogy have been neglected, but they have been shunted into a somewhat unfocused subplot that ranges from the Avernus back to Earth and to one of Earth's almost-failed colony worlds. These ideas are interesting and intelligently-handled, but whilst in Spring and Summer they integrated nicely into the Helliconian story, here they are separated, to the detriment of both. That said, it is satisfying to get an answer for the mystery of why the Helliconian afterlife spirits went from angry, monstrous creatures in Helliconia Spring to peaceful, loving entities in Helliconia Summer, and these developments do a good job of tying the relevance of events in the two earlier books to the events of this one.
On the plus side, Aldiss's gift for invention remains formidable here. The landforms the characters pass through, the political machinations within the government of Sibornal and its member-states and the constant evolution of the flora and fauna of Helliconia to deal with its climatic extremes all remain stunning. His characters are similarly well-drawn and convincing, but it has to be said in this case they are mostly unpleasant and selfish characters whose ambitions and motivations are interesting on an intellectual level, but unengaging on an emotional one. In particular, his female characters receive short shrift here, which is odd especially after the first book in the series (where it is the women of Oldorando who drive forward its scientific and technological development). The ending is also rather more unsatisfying than in the first two books, where the ambiguous conclusions are alleviated by us learning what happened next in historical texts mentioned in the succeeding volume. With no succeeding volume to Helliconia Winter, the ending is too abrupt.
Helliconia Winter (****) is packed with inventive ideas, fascinating characters and some genuinely exciting and dramatic moments. However, it is the weakest book of the trilogy, with an unsatisfying ending and a cold, remote prose style that is not as engaging as the first two books in the series. Nevertheless, the ambition and achievement of the trilogy as a whole remains stunning. The novel is available now in the USA and in the UK will be reissued as part of the new Helliconia omnibus due for release on 12 August this year.
June 16th, 2010, 07:20 AM #8
June 16th, 2010, 06:39 PM #9
Unfortunately these are out of print in the USA, the publisher, iBooks folded a couple of years ago. I knew I should have picked up the trilogy when I saw them all in a bookstore a few years ago.
June 16th, 2010, 07:19 PM #10
June 17th, 2010, 09:41 PM #11
June 18th, 2010, 05:45 AM #12
July 1st, 2010, 07:00 PM #13
I've been plodding through Spring since last month. Not the most gripping of Aldiss books and the writing's not up to his usual standard, but it's not bad. I get a niggling feeling of not really seeing the point of any of it though. It seems like fantasy to me anyway; why is it regarded as SF?
July 2nd, 2010, 11:05 AM #14
Helliconia was OK, but no more than that for me. I only read Spring and Winter once, never had the desire to revisit them.
July 5th, 2010, 08:14 AM #15