SF Masterwork of the Week: Helliconia

The Helliconia Trilogy belongs to a special category of books that I think I can best describe by referring to them as serendipitous – this is a purely personal category, I hasten to add; I make no claim for objective serendipity for any book mentioned in this post.

I bought my first copies of The Helliconia Trilogy at the Brighton Worldcon in 1987 and got them signed by the great man himself. Another disclaimer: I make no claim of special privilege here, either; the line was full of people clutching Brian Aldiss books and many of those were Helliconia. What leads me to regard them as serendipitous is this shameful confession: at the time I hadn’t read a word Brian Aldiss had written. I was but a callow youth, just finding his way into the brave new world of conventions and my reading had not strayed too far from the (excellent but very conservative) likes of Clarke, Asimov, Wyndham and Herbert – none of whom were present, to the best of my recollection.

I knew who Brian Aldiss was, of course, but the truth is that I bought Helliconia purely because, at the time, I thought it extremely unlikely I would ever have another opportunity to get a book signed by him. I was quite wrong as it happens, but it was a reasonable conclusion based on available data at the time. So, I came away with three signed books from a living legend – which was the primary goal – and then (and this is where the serendipity comes in) when I got home, I read them. Wow.

Helliconia (the world and the trilogy) completely blew me away. It’s a magnificent achievement, a towering work of imagination and storytelling, written by one of the greats of the field (hell, of any field) at the height of his powers – and I bought it as a de facto autograph book. In another reality, I could have put the books down and decided to spend the money elsewhere, and I might never have had the delight of having Brian Aldiss blow the top of my head off (this is a metaphor; let the record show that Mr Aldiss has never committed any act of violence towards your humble correspondent).

I consider myself very lucky to have made the right decision – and not for the only time. I recall two years earlier, at the 1985 Melbourne Worldcon, buying a book by the Guest of Honour purely because he was there and he was signing – I’d never heard of him or the book I picked up. For posterity’s sake, I will record that the book was an obscure work called The Shadow of the Torturer, and that that reading experience didn’t work out too badly for me, either!