Tuesday, September 7, 2010

SF Masterworks #80: Brian Aldiss, Helliconia

Life is at once both fragile and durable.  As the seasons change, various species wax and wane in response to the conditions.  The smallest shifts in climate can wreak havoc on complex ecosystems.  Historians in recent decades have begun to place more emphasis on climatic change as being a major contributive cause to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE, as the Earth experienced six centuries of cooling that correspond almost exactly to the Age of Migration (400-1000 CE).  In addition, the spread of pathogens borne by fleas infesting rats have been responsible for plague outbreaks from the 6th to 17th centuries CE that weakened empires and changed the course of historical events.

British author Brian Aldiss in his three Helliconia novels - Helliconia Spring (1982), Helliconia Summer (1983), and Helliconia Winter (1985) - explores this complex series of relationships between environments and human societies over a span of several thousand years on the distant planet Helliconia.  Helliconia is the fourth planet orbiting the junior partner in a double star system.  The entire premise of Aldiss' trilogy revolves around the seasonal changes on this inhabited planet, as Helliconia experiences two "years," one a "small year" of a little over 400 days where it completes its rotation around its star and a "great" year of nearly 2500 years where it and its star complete a circuit around the dominant stellar partner.  With a perihelion that is three times closer to the dominant "A" star than at aphelion, there are centuries (roughly 600 or so Earth centuries) where the planet is in "summer" and the climate causes the glaciers to retreat and permits humanoid life to flourish.  But with winter comes a shrinking of habitat and the increased danger of domination from the sentient phagors, who are better adapted for Helliconia's cold season.

Over the course of these three volumes, bound together into a massive 1300 page paperback edition, Aldiss charts a history of life, not just on Helliconia, but on a Terran space station and Terran colony on the aptly-named sister planet of Avernus, over the course of Helliconia's spring, summer, and winter seasons.  In his taking of a longue durée approach, Aldiss borrows elements of Olaf Stapledon's manner of covering thousands of years of imagined history.  However, this approach of covering decades and centuries in each of these three volumes is fraught with risks that the narrative structure would crumble under the weight of its vast history and the corresponding lack of unifying human characters.  For the most part, Aldiss manages to avoid this, although there are occasions in the third volume where the narrative creaks and groans under the weight of its accumulated detail.

Helliconia Spring begins with the planet only starting to emerge from its wintry hibernation.  The human-like population has begun to shake off the shackles of phagor domination, just as Earth colonists have begun to settle the more harsh environment of Avernus.  Aldiss keeps the story more focused on the characters here, as he introduces several sets of characters who have begun the long, slow process of reestablishing human civilizations on Helliconia.  On several occasions, he references past cycles of human-phagor domination, such as in this passage early in the first novel:

Lord Wall Ein replied with his usual authority.  "It was not always thus, or you and your men would have met a different reception, you with your poor weapons.  Many centuries ago, the Land of Embruddock was great, stretching north to the Quzints and south almost as far as the sea.  Then Great King Denniss ruled, but the cold came and destroyed what he had wrought.  Now we are fewer than ever we were, for only last year, in the first quarter, we were raided by the white phagors riding like the wind on their giant mounts.  Many of our best warriors, including my son, were killed defending Embruddock, and now sink towards the original boulder."

He sighed, and added, "Perhaps you read the legend carved on this building, if you can read.  It says, "First phagors, then men."  It was for that legend and other matters that our priesthood was slain, two generations ago.  Men must be first, always.  Yet some days I wonder if the prophecy will not come true." (pp. 126-127)

It is this referencing of a larger history within the context of the characters' (and by extension, their civilizations') interactions with their changing environments and their attempt to prevent another wintry cycle of decline occurring that makes for a major overarching plot throughout the three novels.  Aldiss demonstrates that a lot of thought has been put into how best to explore the possible connections between humans and their environments; we see, throughout the trilogy, numerous asides, usually a paragraph or two in length, if that, on the Helliconians attempts to "master" their environment and to stem the cycle of rise/fall that has plagued them over the past few great years.  Yet despite these best efforts at foreplanning, so many other internal and external factors (ranging from greed to ecological changes) combine to affect these plans to preserve civilization during the decline after summer's end.

Aldiss appears to endorse a sort of Gaia view of the relationships between beings and their environments, or at least he explores what type of story would emerge if such a hypothesis were in fact real.  He does not rely on a single set of occurrences to prove or disprove this belief in a quasi-aware biosphere; he shows how actions, such as those on the Earth station and on Avernus, can affect the course of events and that not all responses to environments will be identical or as (non)effective as prior events.  This culminates in the middle volume, where the balance between the individual Hellconian (and to a lesser extent, Earthling) histories and the greater history of the zeniths of competing civilizations is almost pitch-perfect.

However, there are some problems with the structure.  By the final volume, Helliconia Winter, the repeated cycle of events has led to a staleness in the narrative; the action is not as crisp and the narrative becomes bogged down in explaining the declines not just on Helliconia, but also on the Terran stations and even with Earth itself.  These explanations become a bit too much and they threaten at times to overwhelm the narrative itself.  The conclusion is interesting, not just because it ties in directly with the themes explored over the course of the trilogy, but how it leaves individual threads within this concluding volume open-ended for interpretation.  This is not to imply that there is a surprising or even a strong finale here, but rather that Aldiss has brought this fictional environmental history as far as it could go and it just halts as another cycle is beginning.

Helliconia is one of those insanely ambitious projects that is doomed to never achieve its full goals and yet it is that failure itself that makes this a worthy book to read.  Aldiss' attempt to display both a large, vivid macrohistory of Helliconia's environment and its denizens, as well as a microhistory of individuals caught up in their civilizations' rise and fall (and rise again, seemingly ad infinitum) is intriguing because of the sheer complexity involved in balancing the two.  The fact that he was able to largely navigate the Scylla and Charybdis-like shoals between focusing more on the macrohistory and concentrating more on the microhistories for the majority of this series is impressive.  It is very easy to forgive him for the narrative structural faults that begin to emerge late in the trilogy simply because of how much of his vision he was able to accomplish despite the limitations involved with this sort of story being told.  Yet this does not mean that the trilogy deserves a complete pass on its faults.  After a while, some readers (and I am one of them) want much more than an impressive setting or "world"; we want to see a vivid story that fully realizes an impressive setting and makes it not just an impressive jewel in an otherwise plain circlet, but rather a harmonic ordering of setting, prose, theme, and characterization to create a moving story.  Helliconia has the promise of several interesting stories, but by the trilogy's end, much of that promise was left unfulfilled.  But despite these flaws, Helliconia certainly stands as one of the "masterworks" of the past quarter-century, especially for how often it does succeed in the majority of its ambitious goals.

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