Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review of "Helliconia Winter" by Brian Aldiss

Like an architect seeing a cathedral they’ve designed have the steeple raised, or an engineer watching the bowsprit attached to a ship they’ve built, so too must Aldiss have felt writing the final chapter of Helliconia Winter.   The orbits within orbits, themes revolving around themes, and characters caught in the cycle of life, come to an end.  But only on the page.
More than a year or two in the making, the series has been millennia.  The third and final book, Helliconia Winter, continues to tell a human scale tale in harmony with the larger forces at play—geology, astrophysics, and biology all heavily influencing the narrative.  This time around, however, Aldiss wields a heavier thematic hammer.  The understated Gaian theme of Spring and Summer is now pressed on the reader in more overt and convincing tones.  Tying into the major concepts presented in earlier volumes, Winter is a genuine capstone to a sublime series.
Like Helliconia Summer, Winter does not pick up the story where the previous volume ended.  It instead jumps roughly 500 Helliconian years into the future.  Steam engines are beginning to replace livestock, a railway network is starting to take shape, and cannons and guns are manufactured with precision and consistency.  The apex of the planet’s blistering summer has passed and the onset of winter moves imminently closer with each technological advance. 
Mankind forever subject to their whim, the elements tighten their grip in Helliconia Winter.  The main character Luterin and his fight to survive radically shifts as the religious and political order adapt to Helliconia’s great winter, wars turning civil as the looming cold threatens men’s principles and shorten tempers.  In the harshening weather, even Luterin’s friends turn against him, and in the end he must choose a new path.  Complicating his plight, plague and its ensuing fear storm the land, forcing Luterin to sacrifice everything to survive.
Luterin’s difficulties are only the surface layer of Helliconia Winter, however.  Removing the casing, the larger cogs and gears Aldiss designed into the system back in Spring and rotated in Summer can still be seen moving in Winter.  Humanity’s subjugation to nature, Sisyphian cycles of life, slavery and man’s willingness to enslave others, anthropology, climate change, disease, geography, evolutionary biology, and a variety of other soft science themes fill the book.  The Gaian theme, however, is the strongest. 
In his 1979 Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, James Lovelock writes: “it can now be demonstrated… that a diverse chain of predators and prey is more stable and a stronger ecosystem than a single self-contained species”.  Though never stated in such explicit terms, Brian Aldiss hammers home a similar point in Helliconia, Winter being the strongest and final blow.  Humans, on the planet, on Avernus (Helliconia’s manmade orbital), and on Earth, are defined within a framework of being subject to nature.  Phagors provide balance planetside, ennui drastically changes life aboard the orbital, while on Earth, the usual mixture of hubris and acumen continue to spin events out of control, the planets revolving ceaselessly all the while.  Mankind is its own best and worst friend.
If the book—or series—has any faults, it’s inconsistency in style.  Helliconia Spring starts with a 150 page narrative that never breaks from linear, then moves to a variety of viewpoints told in anything but linear fashion.  Narrative and viewpoint focused into a regular cadence, Helliconia Summer is the most consistent of the three.  The beginning of Helliconia Winter, however,  suffers from much the same troubles as the latter half of Spring.  Syntax disjointed and storyline never congealing properly at the outset, it isn’t until about a third of the way through that Aldiss settles down and establishes a rhythm.  Another fault is the abrupt change in perspective on gender.  Women often occupying strong roles in the first two books, Winter finds its two main female protagonists submissive like kittens.  Perhaps requiring a re-read to better determine the author’s reasoning behind the choice, at first glance the message does not shine positively.
Before concluding, I would like address reviewer criticisms regarding Helliconia Winter as obviously some misunderstanding has occurred.  Some have commented that the non-Helliconian portions—the narrative devoted to Avernus and events on Earth—are boring and over-philosophized.  A matter of taste, the point remains that without these sections, Helliconia is just another fantasy series.  With them, however, the scope shifts to sci-fi in the short run, and social, geographical, and evolutionary commentary in the long.  These meta-settings are a juxtaposition, a moral contrast, to the primitive worldview of life on Helliconia and are what make the series worthwhile.  The thought-provoking regions of sci-fi rather are touched upon, than just adventurous. 
Still others have commented that Luterin’s story reads like a travelogue with no purpose or climax.  Again, these readers fail to see how events surrounding the main character draw him unwillingly into the fray, highlighting the Gaian theme as a result.  The climax of Luterin’s story, while subtle, is of utmost importance toward emphasizing the fundamental nature of humanity as Aldiss sees it, instinct the name of the day.  Thus, readers who approach the book as mere entertainment will be missing out on a great deal of human insight.
In the end, Helliconia Winter is a more than fitting conclusion.  It is the best of the series and deserving of the BSFA award it won.  Grand in scope and perfectly suited in setting, Aldiss is able to contextualize the planet, the forms of life existing there, and humanity propagating on it in sublime fashion.  The touch of hope and despair regarding humanity’s future closing the novel is icing on the cake.  As the Gaian theme is pressed hard, readers who enjoyed the story elements of the previous books may be a little disappointed by Winter.  However, those who’ve followed Aldiss’s underlying concepts thus far and are curious how he will connect the oh-so human lives on the planet’s surface with those on Earth will be more than satisfied.  Innate to science fiction is the potential for grandeur, and Aldiss has taken full advantage with Helliconia.

1 comment:

  1. Remember that in this book, the flowers have faded and the leaves are falling, and Mankind is preparing to creep into caves and fatten like a hibernating bear. Submission is the order or the day, not just for the women but for every living creature; even the phagors move into their winter mode. They are all bound to the Wheel, inching along in darkness as it turns slowly, waiting for that tiny chink to open and let the sun back into their lives, to awaken and bloom again, to ride swift hoxneys across green fields, to blow the horns and wake Oldorando once more!