Helliconia is an unremarkable planet. Its primary orbit is around Batalix, with a year equal to about 480 Earth days. But Batalix is in an irregular orbit around Freyr, a larger star. This orbit causes some unusual fluctuations in Helliconia’s climate, with the result that it experiences a second year, which the inhabitants refer to as a “Great Year,” marking an orbit around the larger sun. The cold equations that govern the universe mean that the seasons of the Great Year last several centuries, though…
Brian Aldiss (1925 – 2017) was regarded as a giant of the UK – and world – SF scene. His early novels (such as Hothouse and Frankenstein Unbound) were mindbending examples of what the genre is capable of when you approach it side-on with a bit of a 1000-yard squint. But he also appreciated the literary side of fiction and this is reflected in a lot of his writing which is dense and laden with symbolism and metaphor. He was also the author/editor of Billion Year Spree and its updated version Trillion Year Spree which detailed, somewhat snootily in places (Aldiss famously coined the phrase “cosy catastrophe” to describe the novels of John Wyndham), the history of Science Fiction. The Helliconia Trilogy is frequently regarded as a late-career masterpiece for him. It was published across three hefty volumes and deals in themes that are often considered too abstract for conventional SF. A lot of critics compared it to Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which while superficially accurate, is quite wrong: here we get events viewed across an expanse of history measured in centuries rather than years and the characters in each volume have frequently never heard of the others because they are only footnotes in history.
It begins with Helliconia Spring (1982). Helliconia is coming out of the Winter of its Great Year. The novel begins with a lengthy prologue about Yuli, who escapes from an undergound city built to shelter from the harsh winter and then founds a village called Oldorando. As Spring begins, Yuli’s family, friends and rivals begin to discover, or possibly rediscover, the laws of nature and start collecting some rules of what will become science. But, like all grand epics, it’s never that easy. In this novel we see a society grasping its way out of a geologically-induced Dark Age, along with all the problems that rebuilding a world might have along the way. But there are a few other hurdles that we did not experience on our own world…
First up, there’s the matter of the Phagors. They are a furry, horned race – not dissimilar to Minotaurs – that have kept mankind under a form of subjugation during the Winter. Wonderfully equipped to survive the extremes of cold, they have taken advantage of the humanoid race we are following the adventures of and are currently in the ascendant. But with the advent of Spring in the Great Year, those circumstances are apt to change.
The second hurdle is known as the Bone Death. This is a plague that surfaces twice in each Great Year to alter the humans in preparation for the changing seasons. In the onset of Winter we have the Fat Plague, in which the survivors have had their metabolisms altered to accumulate fat and bone mass so they can live through the centuries-long cold. In Spring they suffer from the Bone Plague, which essentially does the reverse, preparing the world for the heat that is to come. Both diseases (or, in reality, the two aspects of the one disease) serve a vital evolutionary purpose that enables the future survival of the humanoid race.
The last isn’t really a hurdle at all: it’s an observation station in orbit above the planet wherein several hundred people from Earth have devoted their lives, and those of their descendants, to record what is happening on Helliconia and transmit it back to Earth…
The story continues with Helliconia Summer (1983). This novel begins several centuries later, halfway across the world from Oldorando. Annoyingly, to this reader at least, we only get glimpses and very brief mentions of what has happened to the characters we read about in the previous book. But you quickly get distracted away from that as you become engrossed in the events of what could become a Renaissance, or a Reformation. It really all comes down to your viewpoint. Human society has advanced to a level that we might recognise as being similar to the late middle ages in our own history and some advances in science and technology have led to some ideas about the nature of the universe and the world being unleashed upon the world. Having experienced some of the history ourselves, we can see where the notions are incorrect or are slightly off from the reality.
There’s also a visitor from the observatory roaming around the place. Every so often, it seems, there’s a lottery among the human clans to visit the surface of Helliconia. It’s a one-way trip because the atmosphere of Helliconia is poisonous in the long-term to unprotected humans, but many grasp the opportunity to leave what they see as the stale environment of the Avernus, as it is known, to set foot on a real planet for possibly the only time in their lives (By the way, go and look up what “Avernus” means because if you’re like me, you’ll get that extra frisson of excitement about how a seemingly innocuous background detail can change your perspective on a story). Billy Xiao Ping, the current lottery winner, takes the opportunity during his brief visit to experience as much of what he can in the time allotted to him. He plays a very small part in the events that follow, and he isn’t even close to being a catalyst for the upheaval: rather, it is just the clues deduced from his existence that cause certain conclusions to be corroborated and made public. Which is when, as they say in the classics, hijinks ensue.
The Great Year ends with Helliconia Winter (1985). Helliconian society has developed to a period that we might equate to the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Centuries CE: merchant families and concerns have established shipping lanes and company branches across the world, and technology has reached the level that might be familiar to anyone who’s read up on the Dutch East India Company. But times are becoming tough: the Winter is beginning again, and the Phagors – long considered harmless – have begun harassing small communities and travellers. Worse still, the Fat Death is doing the rounds…
Off the planet, things aren’t looking good on the Avernus, either: the human observation team have sunk into decadence and internal fighting, ultimately leaving the station unmanned due to wars of attrition. We also get a glimpse of what has been happening on Earth during the course of this Great Year and it seems that they’ve had their own problems, as well.
This is a superb and wide-ranging set of novels. They cover the grand themes of history and conflict that have plagued our own cultures and transplant them to a world that, it is hinted, goes through them over and over again, without any real advancement over long, epochal periods of time. Each of the books looks at the world in different ways as well. Spring crackles with the energy of a world that is just waking up after a long slumber: the Helliconians are discovering or rediscovering things long forgotten about their world, mirroring the rapid changes that are occurring to the biosphere around them. Summer looks at a society comfortable in its position that has to face the prospect of new ideas that come along to upset what has been established, while Winter deals with a cast of characters aware that they are facing possible extinction and that there is very little they can do to avert it which, during the time that this series was published, was very familiar to its audience, and which, nearly forty years later, is still familiar, although for a different reason.
I was 16 when I read the first volume in this series. A friend of mine had actually shoplifted it and not finding it to his taste, passed it on to me. I loved it. It was written in a style that was literary but not impenetrable, and it immediately grabbed me with its sense of history. It felt like a novel that knew precisely what it wanted to get across and how to do it. And the concerns of it, that of a society recovering from an immense planet-wide disaster, struck 16-year-old me as being intensely relevant to the time I was reading it in because, although there were signs of the Cold War cooling, there were still some indicators that we could be plunged into a nuclear darkness at any time if we weren’t careful. I was mostly a Fantasy reader at the time, although I did love me a good Space Opera, but I was beginning to become disillusioned with the idea of magic in my reading because very few writers seemed to have a proper grasp on what you could do with it or how it might affect the people and society around it. So, I did like reading this novel that was Fantasy-in-all-but-name and which dealt more with the concerns of what Knowledge represented and what it could do to people – there’s a scene in Spring where a character uses her burgeoning knowledge of science to sway public opinion in a way that is quite similar to how Allan Quatermain demonstrates his “superiority” to a hostile crowd in King Solomon’s Mines.
It’s also got links to Fantasy in that it deals with a season being extended beyond what we are used to. That’s a theme/idea that you see explored or used in all sorts of fantasy novels, from C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books right through to George R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. Here, though, it’s dealt with in ways that expand from the core idea of the trilogy: that a planet orbiting a sun that in turn orbits a larger star will have its climate affected in ways we can barely dream of. Indeed, Aldiss acknowledges the work of several scientists in his books, such was the detail that he wanted to get right… or, at least, scientifically accurate. But it also serves as a metaphor for the development of Helliconian society over time.
Anyway, despite really enjoying that first volume it was another four years before I got around to reading the second and third books. By that time I’d started reading a little more history and was also a little more knowledgeable about what was going on around me and how groups in society tried to manipulate events and the interpretation of them to their advantage. Something that I also came to appreciate was that it was full of characters that I didn’t necessarily like but whom I could see were looking at more than their own ambitions and feelings when they were relating to the world: they were characters who weren’t completely right or wrong but who were trying to look at things as being greater than their own experience or needs. This plays out especially well in Summer, wherein we have several sides competing in a Shakespearian-like drama where the only stakes are the future of society… and a society that is going to change whether the characters want it to or not. Something else that appealed to me was the presence of the dry authorial voice that explained several events that the characters were amazed by as simply being a product of rapid climatic change. The idea that we are watching this story like some kind of nature documentary – or like the human observers on the Avernus, and on Earth, several more centuries into the future – adds another layer or a potential fourth wall to the story when you consider that this history, real to the participants, is being watched like a soap opera or historical drama by other characters, who are being observed by us as readers. It’s a framing device that isn’t fully explored by Aldiss until the third volume but is interesting to consider as yet another lens to examine the story under.
All these different perspectives and layers aren’t necessary to get the most out of the books but I find that the extra depth and detail they provide enhances my reading. I don’t go consciously looking for symbols and metaphors in my reading because that isn’t what attracts me to a piece of writing, but it almost never detracts from my enjoyment if I find them. I’d even say that it improves the reading experience because it does give you even more to look for and pay attention to as the plot unfolds. However, it’s more fun to ignore a lot of these literary implications and just sit back to enjoy a grand pageant of ideas and characters and exotic places that remind you of our own history, and also get you thinking about the future and what you can do to change it.
Find out more about Brian Aldiss at https://brianaldiss.co.uk/