Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Helliconia Winter by Brian W. Aldiss

The world of Helliconia is moving away from the supergiant star Freyr. The Great Winter is about to descend on the planet with full, unmitigated fury. The tropical continent of Campannlat is ill-prepared to deal with the falling temperatures, and the defeat of their armies by the forces of the harsh northern landmass of Sibornal signals the beginning of the end of their period of dominance. Luterin Shokerandit, a soldier in the Sibornalese army, returns home in triumph, only to face treachery. The ruthless leader of Sibornal, the Oligarch, has decreed that the victorious army is returning home infested with plague, and cannot be allowed to reach succor.


Meanwhile, life on the Earth Observation Station Avernus, in orbit around Helliconia for almost four millennia, is drawing to an end as the inhabitants revert to savage barbarism, even as the world beneath them falls from the glories of Summer into the abyss of Winter. But some in Sibornal have vowed that humanity and civilisation will ride out the Winter no matter the cost in blood...

Helliconia Winter picks up the story of the world of Helliconia 478 local years - 669 Earth years - after the events of Helliconia Summer. As before, whilst the individual characters who starred in the previous novel are long dead the fall-out of their actions continues to have consequences in this novel, although in this case at something of a remove, since the action is now transplanted to the northern continent of Sibornal. Here, we follow a band of characters led by the betrayed Luterin as he struggles to return to his distant home in the Shivenink Chain, giving rise to what, potentially, should have been the most dynamic storyline in The Helliconia Trilogy. Instead, we get a travelogue. A fascinating, intelligent, well thought-out travelogue, but nevertheless there is the feeling of Aldiss pointing out the cool scenery at the expense of developing his themes in tandem with the plot.


This is not to say that the themes Aldiss wished to explore with the trilogy have been neglected, but they have been shunted into a somewhat unfocused subplot that ranges from the Avernus back to Earth and to one of Earth's almost-failed colony worlds. These ideas are interesting and intelligently-handled, but whilst in Spring and Summer they integrated nicely into the Helliconian story, here they are separated, to the detriment of both. That said, it is satisfying to get an answer for the mystery of why the Helliconian afterlife spirits went from angry, monstrous creatures in Helliconia Spring to peaceful, loving entities in Helliconia Summer, and these developments do a good job of tying the relevance of events in the two earlier books to the events of this one.

On the plus side, Aldiss's gift for invention remains formidable here. The landforms the characters pass through, the political machinations within the government of Sibornal and its member-states and the constant evolution of the flora and fauna of Helliconia to deal with its climatic extremes all remain stunning. His characters are similarly well-drawn and convincing, but it has to be said in this case they are mostly unpleasant and selfish characters whose ambitions and motivations are interesting on an intellectual level, but unengaging on an emotional one. In particular, his female characters receive short shrift here, which is odd especially after the first book in the series (where it is the women of Oldorando who drive forward its scientific and technological development). The ending is also rather more unsatisfying than in the first two books, where the ambiguous conclusions are alleviated by us learning what happened next in historical texts mentioned in the succeeding volume. With no succeeding volume to Helliconia Winter, the ending is too abrupt.

Helliconia Winter (****) is packed with inventive ideas, fascinating characters and some genuinely exciting and dramatic moments. However, it is the weakest book of the trilogy, with an unsatisfying ending and a cold, remote prose style that is not as engaging as the first two books in the series. Nevertheless, the ambition and achievement of the trilogy as a whole remains stunning. The novel is available now in the USA and in the UK will be reissued as part of the new Helliconia omnibus due for release on 12 August this year.

2 comments:

Wise Bass said...

The Helliconian parts of the story were okay, but I greatly disliked the "Avernus" sections. It was just incredibly preachy, with "Gaia" and that weird stuff about empathy somehow being beamed to the planet or what not.

Adam Whitehead said...

I was dubious about the Gaia aspect, but I went with it and ended up enjoying the bit where Aldiss asks how do the people of Earth know there are these Gaia spirits on both Earth and Helliconia and the reply was that basically they don't, it might all be BS and they were just basically guessing based on the reports of the Helliconians about their encounters with the gossies/fessups.

I think the idea is that these elements are real in the story, but Aldiss doesn't say it's necessarily the only explanation.