SFX Book Club: Helliconia Spring

With spring in the air (honest – you just need to look carefully), we thought we’d tread the path of the bleedin’ obvious by spotlighting a couple of books with a vernal feel to their titles.  With a canvas as big as a planet, and a story arc that makes the transition from winer to summer an intrinsic element in its grand narrative, we are delighted to offer you a tour of the the giant world of Helliconia, courtesy of our good friends at SFX, who have kindly allowed us to republish their SFX Book Club article on the novel. And who better to act as our guide than Gollancz‘s resident master of wide-screen SF, Stephen Baxter, multi-award-winning author, BSFA president and collaborator with Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Sir Terry Pratchett, to introduce us to Star Maker by the influential Olaf Stapledon . . .

In 1982 Brian Aldiss was 57 years old. Having exploded onto the SF scene in 1958 with the generation-starship classic Non-Stop, later becoming a key figure in the experimental New Wave of the ’60s, he had perhaps become better known for non-genre fiction, as a critic, and as a literary figure. It was a surprise, then, when Aldiss suddenly returned to SF with a massive trilogy. When asked what Helliconia was about, Aldiss gave a very English answer. “It’s about a change in the weather…”

Helliconia is an Earth-like planet orbiting a sun-like star, Batalix. But Batalix itself follows an elliptical orbit around a second, giant star, Freyr. As Batalix and Helliconia approach and recede from Freyr, there is a “Great Year” during which a five-hundred-year Ice Age winter gives way to thousand-year warm seasons, and ultimately a collapse back to the ice.

In Helliconia Spring the world emerges from the cold. Hunter Yuli and his descendants rediscover farming and found new religions and government, their lives shaped by wider factors of which they have little understanding. In the long summers humans build civilisations, fall in love, wage wars and puzzle out their world, but it’s all lost again when the ice returns, and the enigmatic, Minotaur-like phagors emerge from their fastnesses. To tell his wider story Aldiss uses a hierarchy of viewpoints. Helliconia is studied by the inhabitants of an orbiting Earth space station, Avernus, who are bewitched by the human drama down below.

This might remind you of Asimov’s classic story “Nightfall” (1941), in which a single night of darkness every few thousand years causes human cultures to crash, and Helliconia does have a similar romantic intensity. And in its length and scope Aldiss’s trilogy recalls Olaf Stapledon in ambition, though Aldiss is much more interested in the people’s little lives than Stapledon ever was.

But Helliconia was actually a very new kind of story, for it is all about ecology. While books like Dune (1965) had raised eco-awareness in the genre years earlier, Aldiss was among the first to reflect in fiction James Lovelock’s then-new Gaia hypothesis, which describes the Earth as a vast self-organised machine providing a stable refuge for life. In Helliconia, Aldiss “hoped to dramatise on a generous scale, and on a planet where extremes of climate are more marked than on Earth, the workings out of Lovelock’s hypothesis.”

To achieve this feat of world-building he called on experts such as anthropologist Desmond Morris and evolutionary biologist Jack Cohen. At times the earnest results can feel intrusive, with the human story interrupted by the “monster of the week”, like a dodgy Primeval episode. But overall the detailed working-out of the world and its shaping by “a change in the weather” is convincing. The most compelling aspect is humanity’s relationship with the phagors. In the summers humans enslave phagors, but in the winters they worship them as gods. These creatures of summer and winter are yin and yang, implacable enemies. But, as Aldiss says, humans and phagors are actually “a binary life form”.

Aldiss has always been a Wellsian; he calls Helliconia a “scientific romance”. But in fact Helliconia was ahead of its time. In its detailed world-building it anticipated sagas like Kim Stanley Robison’s Mars trilogy, and as the first great drama of Gaia it’s as relevant and compelling today as it was 30 years ago. And it serves too as a kind of summary of Aldiss’s own concerns. In books like Hothouse (1962) he dramatised the struggles of mankind in a universe beyond its comprehension. Helliconia is a hugely detailed working-out of this theme, and you’ll cheer as its heroes defy the dead hand of their world’s astronomical logic.

Helliconia Spring is available as part of the Helliconia SF Masterworks paperback and as an SF Gateway eBook. You can read more about Brian Aldiss in his entry at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

This piece was written by Stephen Baxter and appears courtesy of SFX magazine, where it was originally published as part of their regular SFX Book Club feature. You can subscribe to SFX magazine here – and you should!

Stephen Baxter is the author of the acclaimed Xeelee sequence of hard SF novels, the Time Odyssey books with Arthur C. Clarke and the Long Earth books with Terry Pratchett. His latest novel is Ultima, which is available in hardback, trade paperback, eBook and as an Audio download. Stephen Baxter’s website is www.stephen-baxter.com and you can read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.