Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Helliconia Winter

Brian Aldiss Helliconia Winter (1985)
Helliconia is a world caught in the complicated orbit of two stars by which one full year lasts the equivalent of many centuries on Earth, a time span ranging from winter to summer and back again for the duration of a period equivalent to the entirety of our written history. Each year, according to Helliconian legend and what we can deduce from reading between the lines, this world's version of humanity emerges from its own frozen dark age, develops, invents things, and just about makes it to something which isn't quite the industrial revolution by the time the snow and ice come back around heralding the ascendancy of the horned phagors, the sentient creatures with which they reluctantly share their planet.

I've read Spring and Summer, so now it's Winter, the final part of the story, and the one in which the point of the exercise is at last made clear. Our people seem to have achieved a vaguely Georgian level of civilisation, which is possibly why this one felt a little like certain novels set in Tzarist Russia - although the excess of snow probably accounts for some of that - and it's mostly politics, battles, and problems of church and state.

Some of what Helliconia is actually about relates to the Gaia hypothesis, our role therein, our sense of perspective and so on, hence the tale unfolding in what is essentially geological time. In this respect, it makes some interesting points, but the problem is that the people of Helliconia are more or less just texture by which Aldiss maps the broader sweep of approximately human history and our war with the environment. It's not that the characters are uninteresting so much as that the narrative is uneven, varying between engrossing intrigue and some fairly dry and lengthy ruminations which read like preliminary notes, the world building which should occur prior to actually getting the novel written rather than during. Also, for the sake of comparison, we have occasional interludes set upon a seemingly pointless space station, an outpost of Earth which observes life on Helliconia; except by the time we get to Helliconia Winter their society has broken down following a decadent interlude distinguished by the production of genetically engineered genitalia creatures - presumably giant dicks and fannies with legs. Somehow even the introduction of cock monsters doesn't make life on the failing observation station any more engaging.

The problem with Helliconia is that there's just too much of it. It could have been a magnificent, much shorter book. It has its moments, but there's too much other stuff getting in the way, and page count and scale do not necessarily amount to the same thing.

I would have posted this last week, but the timing seemed inappropriate. Rest in peace, Brian, and thanks for all the ones I liked more than this one, of which there were many.

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