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.