Every once in a while I read a book solely because of its title; thus, with a blog name like mine I felt I had to review Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia trilogy.
Helliconia Spring is the first of three books documenting the inhabitants of Helliconia, a planet in a binary star system. The main consequence of this arrangement (planet orbits star B, which in turn orbits star A; like the moon orbiting the earth orbiting the sun, but the “earth”‘s orbit is highly elliptical) is that when star B is furthest away from the much hotter star A, Helliconia experiences perpetual winter, while when it’s at perigee it’s constantly summer. Each Great Year (orbit around star A) takes many generations, so entire dynasties rise and fall within a season.
Although the reader learns about the arrangement of the Helliconia star system before the characters figure it out, it’s difficult to get a mental image of the planet itself. Specifically, there’s talk of several different regions, but no map. I’m enough of a visual learner that this lack made me unable to picture the planet’s layout, which was occasionally frustrating (especially when people and creatures start moving around the continent later in the book).
The book opens with an overly-long prelude (~75 pages), whose storyline doesn’t seem to be necessary for understanding the subsequent book. The hero of the prelude is the great-grandfather of the “protagonist” (I’ll get to the scare quotes later) of the main story, and some of the mythology/religion is relevant, but it’s nothing that couldn’t be explained with a few extra sentences in the main narrative, and didn’t add any interest for me.
The book is set as Helliconia exits its long winter. The realm of Embruddock, also called Oldorando, is inhabited by a small population who subsist mainly by hunting and foraging but have some handicraft traditions; commune with their ancestors and believe in an air-god called Wutra, but have expelled their priests and don’t formally worship; and have a history of power struggles and violent overthrow. There are other human populations/cities that occasionally trade with Embruddock, some nomadic “protognostic” tribes, and the phagors, a sentient species that are effectively the sworn enemies of humans, with both species killing or enslaving the other regularly.
The first roughly half of the book lays out the relationships among the main human characters in Embruddock. I found it slow, with inconsistent characterization and no focus on any single protagonist. The latter is fine by me, especially in grand idea-driven SF, but it wasn’t what I expected from the first few paragraphs, in which importance seems to be attached to Laintal Ay, great-grandson of the aforementioned hero of the prelude. One thing I did like about the character development was that there were no “good guys”. The population of Embruddock is divided on several lines: there are multiple parties interested in the leadership; there’s also a (largely male-female) divide between workers and the Academy (more on that in a bit). Everyone behaves selfishly; everyone has good and bad qualities and ideas. But the population’s so small (at first) that they often have to put aside their differences just to get by. Which is a lot like real life—we don’t often get to settle differences with duels. (Alas.)
The story began to hold my interest more when it focused on the community’s attempts to adjust to the warming climate. It parallels what archaeologists at the time thought about the process of our own civilization*. Embruddock begins to grow grain and domesticates “hoxnies”, a species that becomes more common in response to warmer weather. Most interesting is the gender dichotomy: women of the Academy essentially invent horticulture, while it’s the men—specifically, the hunters—that domesticate animals, and it’s specifically done to build a cavalry rather than for food or ploughing. They first begin to attack and take over neighbouring regions, then begin to trade with them. Intellectual life takes off, but leads to conflict with those who think it’s not practical work. Most of the intellectuals are women, led by one Shay Tal, who founds an Academy and urges a sort of spiritual renewal to bring Embruddock “out of the farmyard”. Although it’s the Academy’s idea to start growing grain, it also takes the women away from their traditional jobs (making food and drink, etc.); this is the source of the conflict between them and workers who see them as lazy intellectuals.
It is one of these intellectuals, Vry, who figures out the binary star system. At first even Shay Tal thinks Vry’s interest in astronomy is a waste of time. Vry becomes a sort of Cassandra who predicts eclipses and explains the reasons for the warming climate. Vry’s easily the most well-developed and sympathetic character; she goes from a shy disciple of Shay Tal to an independent thinker, a scholar, and a “doer” while Shay Tal retreats into seclusion. Vry is romantically conflicted between an honest man who’s a good leader but can’t stand her being independent and/or brainy, and a power-hungry, slightly treacherous man who actually wants to hear what Vry has to say and doesn’t mind her doing astronomy. I guess I was expecting the romantic dilemma to bit more preachy—i.e. handsome but a jerk versus dorky but “he loves me the way I am!”—so, despite the fact that her situation is frustrating, I was pleased with how it was written.
What is most remarkable about Helliconia Spring is its prescience. First, and rather obviously, it’s about global warming. And it was published in 1982. The ecology of it—the emergence of new diseases, the range shifts of humans and animals alike, the adaptations of things like trees that live long enough to adapt to a full Great Year—is detailed and scientifically accurate. The idea of social upheaval caused by climate change and subsequent changes in land use and availability is also relevant, though I hope it proves to be inaccurate.
Secondly, and this is a HUGE spoiler, this book totally predicts the modern obsession with reality TV! We find out early on that an Earth satellite is observing Helliconia; later it’s revealed that they are beaming everything back to earth for entertainment thousands of years in the future. It’s like a combination of the modern fashion for sweeping nature documentaries (Earth, Life, etc.), 24-hour news, and reality TV.
The book has some great quotes, too. From the prelude, much of which takes place in near-total darkness:
In this world of nebulous gloom, words were like lights.
And two Hawkingesque bits from later:
“You think we live at the centre of the universe. I saw we live in the centre of a farmyard. Our position is so obscure that you cannot realise how obscure.” (spoken by Shay Tal)
“[T]he universe is not random. It is a machine. Therefore one can know its movements.” (spoken by Vry)
And this, which is totally irrelevant, from the author’s dedication (addressed to his son):
No one wants a passport to a nation of talking slugs.
…with which I heartily disagree.
I’m not sure if I’ll continue on to the other two books in the trilogy (Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter). Although by the end of Spring I was starting to enjoy the big picture, the first half of the book was frankly dull. Since what kept me the most interested was the characters’ coming to understand their place in the universe (in a Galilean/Copernican, not spiritual, sense), I don’t see how the next two books could keep it up. Perhaps when my list of books to read has gotten a little shorter and I have lots of spare time I’ll finish the trilogy.
*Though not always, viz. the women founding the Academy.