Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Helliconia Spring

Brian Aldiss Helliconia Spring (1982)
I hadn't really planned to read the Helliconia trilogy despite its admittedly intriguing premise, partially because the thing looked enormous and I tend to prefer shorter works, and partially because it's Brian Aldiss. Of the man's novels, those I've thus far read have all been excellent, even exceptional, but his short stories are so bad as to have somewhat soured my view of the man, or at least to sour my view just enough as to inspire a certain reluctance when it comes to further toes dipped into the authorial pool, so to speak; but Mrs. Pamphlets and I were at some clearancey warehouse thing, and every book was to be sold off at just twenty-five cents a pop, and there were the other two - Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter, due to be pulped if no-one bought them. Naturally I couldn't just leave them to their fate, and so then I had to hunt down Helliconia Spring because obviously I'm not going to read just the second and third part.

The aforementioned intriguing premise is of Helliconia being a world taking several thousand years to orbit its sun - or at least its principal sun - with seasons lasting about six-hundred years. This is, I suppose, partially why I thought fuck it and decided to read the thing: Aldiss gives good environment, it being more or less the main focus of those novels of his which I've read - Hothouse, Non-Stop, and the superb novella length Total Environment; and even the narratives of Earthworks and Frankenstein Unbound are determined to a significant extent by their settings. He does it again here with a developing civilisation repeatedly thrown back into its own stone age by the dramatic cycle of climate, forming a social history with the memory of an admittedly long-lived goldfish. Particularly satisfying is how Aldiss has really pulled out the stops with this one, which I guess is why it needed to be a trilogy. The main character is the history of the people of Helliconia, and here we focus on the subterranean dwelling remnants of what may have been some previous civilisation as they emerge from the ground to build themselves a new stone age as the snow retreats - for the first time so far as anyone can tell, except obviously it isn't. We experience the rebirth of mythology, science, and politics as illustrated through rudimentary society with the kind of focus which reminds me of the first few episodes of Kenneth Clarke's Civilisation television series, at least more so than it reminds me of any other novel I've read. Accordingly it's the big picture which matters, meaning - oddly - that, the details are not always of such consequence as they might be, and that the characters aren't so significant as the patterns formed by their lives. Keeping track of unfamiliar names is therefore not such an issue as it would be had Aldiss written with more obviously dynastic intent. This means that what might under other circumstances constitute a slog makes for an improbably breezy read given its page count and tendency to shuffle rather than run.

Ultimately the point of the book is revealed as being about nothing less than history itself and the vital importance of our being able to comprehend it fully.
'Do you understand that? Understanding is harder than slitting throats, isn't it? To comprehend fully what I tell you, you must first understand and then grasp the understanding with your imagination, so that the facts live. Our year is four-hundred and eighty days long, that we know. That is the time we take on Hrl-Ichor to make a complete circle about Batalix. But there is another circle to be made, the circle of Batalix and our world about Freyr. Are you prepared to hear the word? It takes eighteen-hundred and twenty-five small years... Imagine that great year! ...Until our day, few could imagine it! For each of us can expect only forty years of life. It would take forty-six of our lifetimes to add up to one whole circle of this world about Freyr. Many of our lives find no echo, yet are part of that greater thing. That is why such knowledge is difficult to grasp and easy to lose in time of trouble.'

In terms of our own political situation, this seems particular relevant now given the rise to power of a deafeningly vocal minority who apparently need the invention of the wheel explaining to them all over again. I have no idea how Helliconia will continue, but it starts well, is beautifully constructed and written, and is greatly more profound than may be obvious at first glance.


  1. I was just wondering what to read next and that's waiting on my bookshelf. Thanks!

    1. Happy to have helped. Let me know what you think.

  2. Just finished this and thought it was excellent! Also very of its time from the period when science fiction novels were getting longer but before the advent of the word processor started leading to over polished prose we usually get today.
    Curiously it also made a fantastic companion piece to my previous read, 'Four thousand years ago', a fantastic (but forgotten) old penguin history book from 1961 by Geoffrey Bibby which covers the millenium from 2000 BC to 1000 AD in a similar literary style from a mosaic of people's lives. Highly recommended if you liked Hellicona Spring...

  3. I've tried and failed to read Helliconia Spring a couple of times, but maybe (as with Lord of the Rings) the third attempt will prove successful. This review makes me want to have another go.