This I tell you all. Some disaster happened in the past, in the long past. So complete was it that no one can explain to you what it was or how it came about. We know only that it brought darkness and cold.
You try to live the best you can. Good, good, live well, love one another, be kind. But don’t pretend that the disaster has nothing to do with you. It may have happened long ago, yet it infects every day of our lives.
Brian Aldiss is a British science fiction author and anthologist who produced his first novel, Non-Stop, in 1956, and who has been writing pretty much continuously ever since. I first encountered his work in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when he was a prominent exponent of the British “New Wave” style of science fiction then being championed by Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard in the magazine New Worlds. I had little patience for the New Wave and its non-stories full of image and metaphor, and so pretty much ignored Aldiss after a few disappointing encounters.
Then, in 1982, he produced Helliconia Spring, the first instalment of what looked very much like a good old-fashioned hard science fiction trilogy—what was promised was a long, detailed exploration of an exotic planet, spanning several centuries. Helliconia Summer followed in 1983, and Helliconia Winter in 1985. (Winter brought with it our first sight of Aldiss’s detailed map of Helliconian towns and geographical features, something that would have been useful when reading the sprawling narrative of Summer. The newer omnibus editions of the trilogy put the map where it should be, right at the start of the work.)
The novels are set on the planet Helliconia, which orbits the star Batalix, a thousand light-years from Earth. Batalix is a little dimmer than our sun, and Helliconia orbits a little farther from it than Earth orbits the sun. It would therefore be a constantly chilly place, if Batalix did not in turn follow a wide, slow, elliptical orbit around a fiercely hot supergiant star, Freyr. Every 2600 years, Batalix dips close to Freyr, and Helliconia undergoes a baking millennial summer; half an orbit later, Batalix is three times farther from Freyr, and Helliconia is locked in a planet-wide winter.
Life on the planet must adapt to this long seasonal sequence of what Aldiss calls the “Great Year”, and during the course of the three novels he gives us glimpses of these adaptations—the plants that put down deep roots to tap geothermal sources in order to survive the winter chill; the mammals that pass the centuries of winter underground, in a glass-like state of extreme hibernation; and the Wutra’s worms, which go through four separate metamorphoses as the long seasons pass.
Humans, too, have their own seasonal cycle, triggered by a virus. In spring, a pandemic called Bone Fever converts the chubby endomorphs who survived the winter into slim ectomorphs, ready for the rigours of summer; in autumn, the same virus induces the Fat Death, and those humans who survive the plague emerge fat and metabolically adapted to cold conditions. The planet also hosts another intelligent race, the minotaur-like phagors, who are cold-adapted to a degree humans cannot match. Phagors dominate Helliconia in winter, enslaving those humans who do not flee to the narrow band of relative warmth at the equator; humans dominate in the summer, enslaving those phagors who do not escape to the high, cold mountains.
Aldiss put a lot of work into the detail of his world, enlisting the help of astronomers, geologists, climatologists, biologists, anthropologists and even philologists in his native Oxford*. And he built himself a detailed map of the planet and its star system, which you can inspect on his website, here. Some reviewers have remarked (often in a negative way) that this means the planet itself is the central character in the novels; the Wikipedia page about the trilogy blithely repeats the same statement. But this is (not to put too fine a point on it) complete bollocks. Aldiss is simply too good a writer to let that happen—in each novel he provides us with a rich and varied cast of well-developed, believable characters. I chose the quote at the head of this page (taken from Spring) specifically to illustrate the relationship between Aldiss’s characters and their world. In his own words, he created
… characters to which an ordinary reader might lend sympathy: people not given over to heroics, though sometimes to heroism; not faultless people, set apart by virtue; but people, men and women, caught in the toils of life, often unclear about where they were going, and involved in their feelings for one another; in short, courageous people without a great deal of insight. And these people would be shown in contrast to the gigantic background of their planet at periods when both the climate and history were undergoing change.
In Spring, he tells the story of the founding of a village by humans still adapting to the thaw, tormented by Bone Fever and conflict with the phagors, and undergoing a dawning realization that much knowledge of the world has been lost during the long winter. In Summer, a king puts aside his beloved queen so that he can marry a child bride, a princess from another kingdom, in order to cement an expedient political alliance—little good comes of it. And in Winter, a victorious army returns home, bringing with it the Fat Death plague, with complex consequences for both the soldiers and their homeland, as the phagors again rise towards dominance in the cooling world.
In the midst of such complex human stories, the planet Helliconia occupies no more than a supporting role—a spectacular backdrop, a lurking threat, and at key moments a deus ex machina, as some new natural phenomenon shifts the balance of power or reverses a character’s fortunes.
Running through it all is Aldiss’s wry (and occasionally bleak) humour. Here’s a sample from Summer, in which he describes how the wild tribesmen of the Kaci return to their homelands at the end of a war:
To the Kaci, peace was relative; they were long accustomed to internecine struggles. They simply hung their crossbows on the back of the hut door and resumed their traditional occupations. These included hunting, blood feuds, potting—they made excellent pottery which they traded with the Madi for rugs—stealing, mining precious stones, and goading their scrawny womenfolk into working harder.
Aldiss also has a great enthusiasm for unusual words†, which of course goes down well, chez Oikofuge. Certainly the most important word he introduces is enantiodromia—the process by which things turn into their opposites. It’s a key concept in these novels, recurring over and over again—things constantly cycles through opposing values, just as Helliconia swings from summer to winter and back again. Phagors and humans alternate as rulers of the planet; the same virus causes anorexia in the spring and bulimia in the autumn; characters rise to dominance and are laid low; friends become enemies, and enemies friends; new knowledge is a joy, and then a danger; religion is a comfort, and then a betrayal. Once you’re sensitized to it, enantiodromia pops up everywhere, from the theatre that stages “tragedies dealing with broken teacups, comedies dealing with wholesale slaughter”, to the insects “which, if predatory, disguise themselves as something innocuous whereby to deceive their prey, or, if innocuous, as a poisonous species to deceive their predators.”
Another central theme is Aldiss’s sense that we’re out of harmony with the natural world, and suffering because of it. While his Helliconian characters struggle and adapt to what their world throws at them, they are observed by Earth humans in an orbiting artificial satellite, who collect reams of data about Helliconia’s natural world and its inhabitants. The observers are unable to descend to the planet, because they will die from exposure to the Fat Death / Bone Fever virus, and are unable to return to Earth, because of the distance involved. Instead, they sit as passive observers in their technological cocoon, which Aldiss teasingly names Avernus—a reference to one of the gateways to Hell in Roman mythology. The fate of the Avernus inhabitants, trapped in their unnatural world, is another of the many narrative strands woven through the books.
In the third novel, harmony with the natural world takes on a positively mystical aspect, which I feel is the weakest part of Aldiss’s conception:
[They] had failed to understand the nature of mankind: that it, like the elephant and the common daisy, is no more and no less than a part and function of a living entity. Separated from that entity, humans, being more complex than elephants and daisies, have little chance of flourishing.
Indeed, Aldiss offers us something very close to New Age Gaianism—a spiritual interpretation of James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis. Gaia is presented as a spiritual Mother Earth, rather than just a planetary homeostatic mechanism mediated by biology. This Gaia is able to communicate with the “Original Beholder”, which is Helliconia’s own governing nature spirit. And the Original Beholder is the explanation for another strange aspect of the trilogy, which is the ability of Helliconians to enter a trance in which they communicate with the dead—the spirits of departed Helliconians are gradually merging with the spirit of the Original Beholder, and therefore remain accessible for (often rather opaque) conversations with their living relatives.
I confess to finding this late development in the Helliconia story a little annoying—I recall shouting “Oh, come on!” to an empty room when I first read it, and I find I’m still unhappy with it on rereading. But I suspect it’s typical of Aldiss that he was never going to let himself be confined to the straitjacket of “hard” science fiction when he felt he had a point to make.
So for me, a flawed classic—but an undoubted, inventive and truly epic classic, nevertheless.
* For all this fact-gathering, Aldiss sometimes loses the astronomical place; the movement of the two suns in Helliconia’s sky goes awry on more than one occasion.
† Among the delightfully rarities Aldiss uses are leggiadrous (“graceful”), deuteroscopist (“seer”), retromingent (“urinating backwards”), ancipital (“double-edged”) and aularian (“pertaining to halls”). But fear not—as with the various words he coins to designate peculiarly Helliconian concepts and objects, Aldiss ensures that you don’t need to understand the word to follow the text; he either makes the meaning clear from context, or leaves it as a sparkly little decoration that isn’t necessary for the story.