Friday 29 November 2013

Helliconia Spring

Well, Carl's Sci-Fi Experience 2014 doesn't officially begin until Sunday but, unable to resist the temptation, I started my first book over a week ago.

Helliconia Spring, by Brian W. Aldiss, is science fiction on a huge canvas. This is in fact the first part of a trilogy and the most important thing to understand is the astromony of the system to which the planet of Helliconia belongs. It's one of several planets that revolve around the star, Batalix. All of these in turn revolve around a much bigger star, Freyr. Helliconia is a planet with two suns. What this means for this inhabited planet is that basically it has two years. One is around the same length as ours - slightly longer - and the other is over 1,800 years long. What prevails, climate-wise is the year that is 1,800 years long, which means that the seasons they get are each nearly 500 years in length.

Their winters are like an ice-age, their summers unbearably hot to the point of extinction of huge numbers of the population. In the space of one of these centuries long 'years', whole civilisations rise and then are brought to the edge of extinction again.

When the book begins a young human boy, Yuli, is out hunting with his father. It seems like the dead of a snow and ice filled winter but in fact, unbeknown to them, it is not. The endless winter is coming to an end. They of course know nothing about this. They need food to take back to Yuli's mother who is ill. A massive herd of grazing beasts passes them and a few days later while harvesting the fallen and trampled animals, Yuli's father is taken prisoner by Phagors, the other sentient beings on the planet. Yuli is now alone with nowhere to go.

The boy wanders and eventually ends up in Pannoval, a city built under a mountain. Eventually the boy becomes a priest to try and discover some of the secrets of the city. It's hinted that there are places where the secrets of the history of the planet can be found, but are there?

Yuli's descendants in the town of Oldorando will be the people who experience the huge climate changes that the planet of Helliconia is now undergoing. And it's the women with their thirst for knowledge who will try to change the way humans think and act and who will aim once more at a modern civilisation for the population.

Very, very hard to do this book any justice at all. As I said before it's a painting on a huge canvas. If you're looking for a fast paced, exciting science fiction novel to read then this is probably not it. The story deals with several generations of the same primitive family living in conditions similar to early Native American Indians... and probably those living in the frozen wastes of Canada - at the start anyway. As the weather warms up things begin to change but attitudes remain entrenched... the women do the work while the men hunt. Thus it has always been and thus it will always stay if the men have their way. It's up to the women to try and introduce education but it's an uphill struggle and I found it a very interesting process to follow. Rather frustrating at times as you know the women are right but the men are not good at listening.

Along with all this we learn that orbiting the planet is a space-city peopled with Terrans, and that they are watching and recording events on the planet. They know that the Phagors who kidnapped Yuli's father are carrying a disease. They know what will happen as the climate warms. And thus, little dribs and drabs of information are fed to the reader regarding astronomy, the science of the planet, diseases endemic to the world and so on. It's all utterly fascinating... well I found it so anyway. It might not be to everyone's taste but this mix of factual science and a character-driven narrative suited me right down to the ground.

The world-building in the book is some of the best I've ever encountered. I'm a bit of a sucker for a good alien world anyway... possibly it could have been a trifle more alien as it does read rather like Earth during the Ice-Age... but I found enough differences to keep me happy and mysteries enough to keep me absorbed. There's a lot you're not told that's presumably being kept for successive books. Basically, this is a 'Rise and Fall of Civilisation' book... I gather Brian Aldiss was/is (he's still alive and writing) very interested in that theme.

At 550 pages this is quite a chunky read. The slowness of it might put some people off too; it isn't a quick read, partly because of its length and partly because of all the detail. It's densely written and you need to concentrate while reading. But oh goodness, is it worth sticking with it. I finished this book days ago and am still thinking about it, wondering what the next two books, Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter, will hold and whether they'll answer various questions. I now have both books and intend reading at least one more for the sci-fi experience. These books are from the early to mid-1980s and part of me wishes I'd read them earlier as I did know about them. The rest of me is actually grateful I didn't as I'm certain my reading brain is far more mature than it was 30 years ago and I'm not at all sure I would have appreciated this book as much back then as I do now.



DesLily said...

holy cow! you were more than ready to read that big book that quickly!! I love it when a big book makes us read it so fast lol.. glad you enjoyed the book!!

Kailana said...

Carl is always pretty easy-going with his time frames. :) Sounds like a good book! I need to get to some sci-fi!

GeraniumCat said...

I was very impressed by this book - as you say it's so huge it's almost impossible to describe. I went on to read at least two more, but I don't think I ever found a copy of the last - I have Spring on the TBR pile to re-read one day.

Carl V. Anderson said...

Great review.

The whole idea of the climate set up here and the way it affects the life cycles on the planet sound fascinating, especially from a storytelling idea. Could you imagine any one season lasting 500 years? I could do Spring that way, and possibly Autumn, but certainly not Summer or Winter. Yikes. It really would make for an interesting planet history is that you are right in that the life on the planet would flourish and fall in half century blocks of time.

If you read the next two I'll be curious as to how you think this all plays out.

Cath said...

Hi Pat. I checked my dates on Goodreads and it took me 8 days to read the book, so not as quick as I thought. LOL.

Kelly: Yeah, he is. Luckily he's as enthusiastic as we are. :-)

Geranium Cat: I found it really hard to describe, to be honest. So much going on in it. There are three books in all, Helliconia Spring, Summer and Winter. I got copies of the next two very easily... *too* easily. LOL!

Carl: I found the whole premise of the book, with the climate affecting the population so severely, absolutely fascinating. Mind boggling really. Like you, I could do Spring and Autumn and *maybe* Winter, but Summer, no. The way it was described was so real too: I could easily imagine it happening somewhere in our galaxy. I fully intend to read the next two and will review them as I do.

I'm finding the Vorkosigan book unputdownable, btw. Already halfway through... And Shards of Honour arrived today.

Carl V. Anderson said...

Glad to hear that as I look forward to reading it. And now you'll get to meet Cordelia, that will be fun. I liked Shards a great deal and thought Barrayar was even better.

Cath said...

Carl: I'm really looking forward to reading Shards as I now have all kinds of questions about Miles... how what happened to his mother affected him in the womb, his upbringing etc. I'll be getting Barrayar too.

Jay Dee said...

Very interesting. Looks like something I'd like to read. Too many books, too little time, though. But I'll add it to my to read list.

Cath said...

Jay Dee: Oh boy, do I know what you mean about too many books and too little time. I have plenty of time really and there are *still* too many books!

Anonymous said...

I'm really glad you reviewed this. I read it early this year, but have never been able to condense the thing into a concise post. It's one of those books that I almost feel like I'm not up to reviewing, like it's more than I'm able to handle.

I still haven't even decided how much I liked it, though I couldn't stop reading. Aldiss certainly doesn't write conventional SF.

Cath said...

Twodudesff: You can see by the length of my review how much trouble I had condensing it into a non-rambling review. I was so intimidated by doing it but gave it go anyway. I don't claim to be a brilliant reviewer but I always give it my best shot. LOL

I decided I liked the book a lot but I know what you mean... it really was very different. Sort of a history book but set on another planet. I love that concept. Nice to meet someone else who has read it so thanks for commenting.

Susan said...

Well, you really enjoyed it, Cath! I have seen them around for years, but never been tempted - until your review, of course. I don't know that I can read it this winter, I don't seem to be able to read books intense on details like this one, right now. I will keep it in mind for sometime next year.

Cath said...

Susan: I did enjoy it, in fact it'll be one of my books of the year I suspect. So glad I rediscovered classic sci-fi.