What if the planets orbited not only the sun, but the whole solar system orbited another, even larger sun? Cycles within cycles is the basic premise of Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia trilogy, of which the first installment is Helliconia Spring (1983). A planet of the fantastic, Helliconia is home to a diverse variety of imaginative flora and fauna a la Jack Vance. The sentient life, however, bears comparison to our own. Struggling Darwinian style, humans and a species called Phagors inhabit the planet, the latter forming a group which thrives in the ice ages that cover Helliconia in the millennia its meta-orbit moves through aphelion. Humans likewise having their moment in the sun (forgive the pun) in perihelion, this ongoing cycle highlights the species battles for survival.
Primarily an examination of the base virtues and vices of humanity, Helliconia Spring places more importance on theme than entertainment. Enforcing this idea is a secondary storyline featuring researchers in an orbiting satellite, observing and watching as life develops and recedes on Helliconia like scientists over an ant farm. This Gaian perspective sets the mood of the text, both literally and figuratively. Except for the first 130 pages which tell the unpredictable and fascinating story of Yuli, linear storytelling takes backseat to a collage of interconnected vignettes serving to portray the fundamental struggles and glories of a group of humans and Phagors.
A situation earth’s present day humanity simply cannot empathize with, the Phagor are a novel element in the puzzle of life on Helliconia. Able to compete with mankind (from an evolutionary standpoint), these sentient yeti-like beings cause and bear the brunt of humanity’s enmity and physical violence. Acting as a cultural mirror from which humanity’s own actions and behavior can be plotted and critiqued, it is through these confrontations, big and small, that Aldiss utilizes the “Lucifer Effect” to subtle effect - one of the strong points of the book.
That being said, there are also weak points. When trying to outlay an entire species’ motivations, shortcomings, and strengths, a writer of fiction must inevitably choose a few characters to exemplify the ideals they wish to express. While Aldiss does this with a finesse many writers of realist literature fail to achieve, the story nevertheless fails to realize planet-wide dimensions. On few occasions does the reader get the feeling that the scope of the story is beyond the small group of humans and their town of Oldorodan where the majority of the novel takes place. By selecting such an isolated group, the wider variety of lives and experiences of people across the planet fails to manifest itself. It’s possible that in Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter Aldiss goes on to provide the reader a wider perspective, but for the moment, viewpoints are limited, though it would seem Aldiss was aiming at something larger.
The second bone to pick, albeit minor, is the novel’s clock. There are moments time is necessarily accelerated to better contrast societal rather than individual development. While these transitions most often come across well, there are moments a few of the characters seem caught on a bunjee cord of time. Some lives zoom ahead but are talked about in the present, while in the next paragraph, a related character’s circumstances are addressed in the present but two years prior. This situation leads to an occasionally disorienting narrative (particularly the Phagor sections) for what is otherwise a well organized storyline.
In the end, fans of Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction will find something to like about Helliconia Spring. Using the “soft” approach, Aldiss examines the social, religious, anthropological, mythological, evolutionary, and gendered aspects of humanity in a science fiction setting. There are no space ships, lasers, or interplanetary wars. In fact, the extra-planetary setting and the orbiting station are the only true sci-fi devices; the remainder is able to be read as pure fantasy. The creatures and animals are creatively imagined and therefore will interest readers of Jack Vance – just don’t come looking for the fast paced plot and wry humor. Aldiss’ prose is descriptive, direct, flows nicely, and is rarely amateur. Thankfully, it also has more color than the notes of the scientists orbiting Helliconia, observing man as he emerges from his shell to struggle in the spring of life yet again…