Section 10 - 1984
Book Review - Helliconia Spring
(page 4/8)


I find now-a-days that a lot of science fiction books do not deserve the covers they are given. A brilliantly executed work of "art" on the jacket often bears no relationship to the clumsily written, brashly coloured novels inside. This is one of the great deceptions of science fiction, bearing out the old adage that "you can't judge a book by its cover". The two books discussed here are exceptions: the covers are part of the writing, an expression of what lies within.

Helliconia Spring


Brian Aldiss is not a science fiction writer - he is a writer of science fiction. But unlike Asimov (or Heinlein) he is not trapped beneath the thin veneer of the "Golden Age Of S.F.", Aldiss is more demanding of his readers, and perhaps because of this, his popularity has not fared so well (e.g. "Report On Probability A" and "Barefoot In The Head", not easy books to read). He is also not above writing a bad book ("The Interpretor" and "Equator" for example), but with "Helliconia Spring" he has written his best and most ambitious book to date.

The Helliconia of the title is the name of the planet on which most of the action occurs (Earth is only a mysteriously distant observer). It is part of a binary star system (Batalix and Freyr). Helliconia orbits around Batalix, and Batalix orbits about the much larger Freyr. Thus the climate on Helliconia is to a very large extent dictated by Batelix's distance from Freyr, as Batalix has a very long (3000 years) and erratic orbit. Helliconia is subjected to a thousand years of intense cold followed by periods of intense heat. It is against this majestically sweeping background of the planet and the extremes in climate that the narrative is set.

The book opens towards the end of the thousand year winter as Batalix is once again moving closer to Freyr. The human drama revolves around Yuli and his descendants. Yuli is stranded by the capture of his father by the Phagors, a race of bear-like creatures who unwillingly share Helliconia with the human population. We are recounted his journeying through the wastes of Campannlat and shown the wonders of a crude Medieval society through the eyes of a "savage". The book then successfully jumps some three generations (- 40 years) to the establishment of Embruddock by Yuli's descendants. The narrative now centres around Laintal Ay, the Great-great grandson of Yuli, and the rest of the book is concerned with the affairs of the small, rapidly developing, medieval town and how it is influenced by the rapidly changing climate.

The book is well executed on a number of levels. The sudden shifts in the time scale are handled so that there is no dislocation in the flow of the narrative (of Larry Niven who fails to achieve the same in the "Protector"). Similarly, the description of the planet and its rapidly changing aspect is fitted smoothly into the story (unlike "Lord Of The Rings" where everything grinds to a halt as Tolkien gets carried away by the "pretty" landscapes). As for the Phagors, well, here too Aldiss is successful in depicting an alien race in conflict with the humans (as he did in the brilliantly scathing "The Dark Light Years"). They are in decline for they are creatures of the cold and dread the coming of Freyr . But their origin and purpose are not revealed in this book. The most pleasing aspect are the human characters particularly the inhabitants of Embruddock (Orlando). Their development, the conflicts between them and their reaction to the changing climate are dealt with with a persuasion rarely found in science fiction. The people here aren't the traditional superman cardboard cut-outs of S.F. but are real people, suffering the problems that real people suffer, and it is this more than anything else that makes the book come true.