Thursday, May 17, 2012

Review of "Helliconia Summer" by Brian Aldiss

The shape of Brian Aldiss’s SF Masterwork Helliconia could be said to be parabolic.  If Helliconia Spring is the slow, curving entry point, then Helliconia Summer, the middle volume, is the zenith story-wise.  Or at least that’s the feel two-thirds of through the series.  Aldiss trying to paint a historical and evolutionary picture of humanity’s existence on a distant planet, Helliconia Summer’s narrative does not pick up where the first volume left off, and instead focuses on a point in the society’s development loosely equivalent to the Baroque Era many centuries in the future from Helliconia Spring.  Were the lives of the kings and queens the only focal points, some would say that the book is mere alternate universe fantasy.  But that Aldiss juxtaposes the land dwellers’ lives with the crew of the space station orbiting Helliconia, focus changes from medieval drama to soft science fiction.  Cementing this idea are the clashes of ideology, science vs. religion, for example, which seed the plot and create points of realistic contention for those inhabiting and orbiting the fantastika of Helliconia.

A more consistent offering than Helliconia Spring, the plot of Helliconia Summer, while unraveling in an atypical, almost backward timeline, forms a cohesive whole with a poignant resolution.  The book opens with the king and queen of one of Helliconia’s many 16th century-esque kingdoms contemplating the divorce the king has organized so that he can marry another.  Feeling shunned, the queen stands on a beach pondering her future when a corpse wearing a digital watch washes ashore.  Stopping at this point, Aldiss jumps back in time to narrate the history of these circumstances, and at the conclusion, resolves the wave of cultural enmity and religious fervor that has built around the two and caused the schism.

Each story woven like strands in a braid into a larger narrative, the number of viewpoints grows in the telling of the king and queen’s history.  A merchant, a scientist, an advisor, a diplomat, the king’s children, and a general, among others, round out the short list of main characters and give the novel the depth needed to describe the variety of lands, cultures, authorities, and interests scattered over the planet.  Once again receiving stage time is the species Aldiss introduced in Helliconia Spring, the phagors.  The planet’s summer a low point in their cycle of existence, the majority of phagors have been killed off or are slaved to humans.  Only random groups are able to live in hiding or in the arctic wilds with any sense of freedom, and as such, inter-species hatred continues playing a hand in human affairs on the planet.
But where Aldiss really advances the overall Helliconia narrative is by developing the Avernus storyline.  Life on the orbiting space station routine and sterile, many of the crew, upon seeing the pleasures and pains of the humans below, yearn for something similar.  Injecting hope into the doldrums and ennui of their prescribed lives, a lottery is routinely held where one member of the crew is allowed to go to the surface to both live and end their life—the microbes and viruses on Helliconia 100% lethal.  In keeping with the denouement of Brave New World, Billy Xiao Pin is a character selected to leave the rote of Avernus for a more visceral life planet-side.  Knowing death is imminent, the manner in which Billy spends his time shows Aldiss has a firm grasp on instincts inherent to humanity.  That Billy’s flaming out in existential glory is viewed as desirable by the crew on Avernus only further indicates the author’s understanding of fundamental human desires.  The lives of those on the planet below likewise wanting more, it seems the grass is always greener on the other side.
And there are a variety of other subjects touched upon in Helliconia Summer.  Foremost among them are religion, science, and the value and role each have in society.  Not a drum beater for science rather a conservative proponent, Aldiss recognizes the value of the more subjective principles of society and entwines them nicely with the narrative.  There is also a Gaian perspective to the novel.  Descriptions of atmospheric, geological, and geomorphic changes appear and reappear, and the fact man is subject to the larger, uncontrollable forces of nature is continually emphasized.  Applicable even to those on Avernus, Aldiss never loses touch of scope.
In the end, Helliconia Summer is an improvement on the previous volume.  The cosmological setup of planets revolving around suns revolving around suns is used to stronger effect.  The characters are more complex and realistic and the storyline is smoother and more oriented toward theme.  Developing the book as such, the “big ideas” underpinning the story punch deeper into both the narrative and reader’s understanding of the text.  The only faults that remain have to do with a rather ordinary prose style and space limitations.  Trying to paint a picture of planet-sized dimensions, including its dispersed cultures, characterization takes a back seat.  But while most characters may indeed be representative, a few, including the king and queen, are fleshed out in enough detail that upon climax it’s possible a pang of empathy may arise for their circumstances.  Fans of Cherryh, Le Guin, and other such writers will want to take note of the series as a whole, and those who’ve read Helliconia Spring and liked it will want to continue.  The series brought to its zenith, it will be interesting to see how the narrative plays out at the other end of the parabola, Helliconia Winter.


  1. Billy gets to do what every reader wishes, namely to jump into the narrative himself after being a passive observer for so long. How many people would give their lives to fall into their favorite book?

  2. You say Summer is better than Spring, yet you say twice that Summer is the nadir, which means the lowest, or worst. I'm confused.

    1. Apologies, Bob. You're absolutely right. I got my astronomy flipped 'round - not good for a sci-fi aficionado. I intended 'zenith', but wrote 'nadir'. Also, I was not referring to quality, rather the story arc, most particularly its size.