Edition: Triad/Granada, 1983 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1094
The Helliconia trilogy has an immense theme. In the eighties, one of Aldiss' interests was the rise and fall of civilization; his previous novel to Helliconia Spring, Life in the West, is about the decline of our own. As his introductory note here says, Aldiss was not completely happy with the way that it turned out, and so he produced the Helliconia trilogy, taking the theme and exploring it within a science fictional context, in the genre in which he had originally made his name.
Because of the way in which the background of the story can be tailored to whatever specification is desired, science fiction provides an ideal way to emphasise the things an author has to say about such a theme. In fact, there is of course already a considerable subgenre devoted to the fall and rise of civilisation, the post-apocalyptic story. (This body of precedent may have been a reason for Aldiss' original attempt to explore the theme outside the genre.)
The background he sets up is a planetary system which induces a regular cycle of barbarism and sophistication; part of a double star system, a massive long "year" of millennia is superimposed on the usual seasons, bringing regular and bitter ice ages. (The resulting scenario is very similar to Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky, though that is the result of different astronomy.) In this first novel, then, humans begin to rise from savagery as the barely survivable ice age begins to thaw; Aldiss follows the history of the descendants of a particular individual, a man who challenges the ancient gods.
Aldiss gives extra force to events by introducing a second intelligent species to Helliconia, the phagors. They play surprisingly little part in Helliconia Spring, which concentrates on the emergence of a particular group of people from a shamanistic hunter-gatherer culture over several generations.
Something that Helliconia Spring has going for it is Aldiss' reversal of the ideas of spiritualism. It is possible for Helliconians to communicate with their dead ancestors, but this is unrewarding as they have been reduced to pure expressions of negative violent emotion: anger, spite and hatred. This is a real - and much more believable - contrast to the cosy optimism of real world spiritualists that the dead become more benevolent.
As far as it goes, Helliconia is an imaginative setting, but some of the details Aldiss adds detract from the effectiveness of the trilogy, at least as far as I am concerned. Unknown to the inhabitants of Helliconia, a satellite orbits the planet. From there, a colony of earth humans beams back the story of events on Helliconia to their original home, a huge piece of "reality TV" style entertainment. This is a plot strand which becomes important later on in the trilogy, but it diminishes the impact of the first hand narrative of Yuli and his descendants, trivialising it, even if it is on a scale undreamt of by the producers of "docusoaps" and the like. (It also, of course, pre-dates the concepts of these programmes by some years.) It makes Helliconia seem to be some kind of giant experiment, a feeling heightened by having human beings at the centre of the story - this would have probably passed without analysis as a commonplace of the genre if they had been placed on Helliconia by themselves and if they were not the subject of this surveillance, particularly if the only reason the reader is given for thinking of them as human is in identifying with their concerns.
More immediately of concern to a reader, Helliconia Spring is not Aldiss' most immediately successful piece of characterisation. To portray a theme which spans generations does of course make this difficult anyway, and the world portrayed in this novel is more alien than its successors (unless you live in Siberia). Concentrating on the outsider, on those who bring about change, means that this flaw is highlighted at the expense of the interest provided by the immediate backgrounds, the strange troglodyte culture surrounding Yuli, or the village on the verge of the Neolithic revolution inhabited by his great-grandchildren. The enormous scale of the undertaking fires the imagination, and this reader at least wants more than Aldiss provides. On the other hand, it is this scale which makes the Helliconia trilogy one of the most memorable pieces of science fiction of the eighties; still great despite its flaws.