Thursday, March 18, 2010

Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss (1982)

I recently read Helliconia Spring, part of the Helliconia Trilogy by Brian Aldiss. While the book did not win any of the major awards, it was in the running for the Nebula.

The story takes place mostly on the planet Helliconia, which orbits a rather weak sun, Batalix, which provides little heat and light. Batalix in turn orbits Freyr, a much larger and hotter sun. The orbit of Batalix around Freyr (a "Great Year") takes about 2500 Earth years, and at some points Batalix and Helliconia are closer to Freyr than others. Consequently, the climate of the planet undergoes stark change from centuries of extreme cold to centuries of extreme heat.

The planet is populated by both humans and some wampa-like creatures called phagors, along with several species of subhumans and both plants and animals of remarkable biologies necessitated by the harshly varying conditions of the planet. Aldiss went so far in exploring his premise that he even considered the microbiology of the planet.

Helliconia Spring begins in extreme cold, following a character who moves from a nomadic and extremely difficult solitary lifestyle, to living in an underground society, to finally joining an established surface settlement and becoming their leader. He is the most interesting character in the book, his experiences making him a uniquely capable person.

Sadly, the book drops him about a third of the way through and picks up several generations later. But at least it picks up on another interesting character. The settlement soon experiences the onset of the spring of the Great Year, the ensuing changes in their environment and the creatures inhabiting it, and new challenges brought on by these developments. This arc of the book has many, many characters, but Aldiss somehow manages to present each of them as unique, and I don't ever recall being confused about who was whom. Most of these characters are by necessity flat characters, but enough of them are developed well so as to make them seem human.

I do have two complaints about the book, but very minor ones. First, Aldiss included some history of Earth and a space station orbiting and observing the planet, but the people of Earth and the space station do not affect the events of the story. I am, however, already in the middle of the second book, Helliconia Summer, and am beginning to see that they do affect events later in the series--so this fault is forgiven completely. Second, I found two contradictions in the book. Earlier in the book, a creature called a "stungebag" is characterized as "proverbially difficult to kill," as in, they have a saying something like, "It was tougher than killing a stungebag." Later in the book, they are characterized as easy to kill. The other contradiction is that earlier in the book a phagor would only use his horns as a weapon on another phagor and never a human, but that turns out to be untrue as well. However, the contradictions did not affect the story other than being a minor annoyance.

The Verdict: The characters are compelling, the setting is scientifically plausible (as far as I can tell) and very interesting, and the plot is complex, being driven by independent forces of both people and climate. Despite the very minor problems, I give it 5 out of 5 stars.

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