BOOK REVIEW: Helliconia, by Brian Aldiss

Rating: 3 out of 5.
  • An omnibus of Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Spring and Helliconia Winter
  • First Published in 2010
  • A Gollancz SF Masterwork
  • An epoch-spanning Social SF
  • 1303 pages

Helliconia. A world where a single orbit lasts for thousands of Earth years. A world where civilisations rise and fall under the watchful eye of the suns. But there is another eye. The satellite Avernus relays its observations to distant Earth. But what lessons will humanity learn from this world of wonders . . ?

Though I can’t be one hundred percent certain, I think this omnibus edition of the Helliconia trilogy might be the longest book I’ve ever read. What I do know, is that it felt like the longest. Right off the bat I’ll say it: this book was a slog. While it’s great to hold such a weighty tome in your hands, this book is dense in more than just physical terms. If I were to have read this series in single volumes, I doubt I’d have made it past Helliconia Spring. It was only the odd moment of interest and my determination to finish every book I start that carried me through to the end. All of that might make it sound like I hated the book. And yes, at times I did. But not because it’s a bad book. There’s a lot here that’s worth exploring, but there’s also a lot that infuriated me. The main problem I had was the disconnect between the concept and the execution.

The concept was what drew me to Helliconia. I love stories that take place over long periods of time. I love Foundation, I love The Dark Forest, and I love For All Mankind. When I found out that Helliconia takes place over the course of three thousand years, I fully expected to love it too. But the story Aldiss tells doesn’t do all that much with those three thousand years. Each of the novels in this omnibus follows a single small community over the course of a few years. There’s also a prelude which uses the same approach. But while these stories are set thousands of years apart, the transition is wholly glossed over. We see first a Palaeolithic society, then a mediaeval one, then an industrial one. But there’s no connective tissue. More than that, each story is depressingly small in scope, more concerned with the characters who will soon be swept away by history than with the history itself.

Aldiss does one thing very well, and that is worldbuilding. Though the setting sometimes has the feel of an epic fantasy about it, the science behind it all is immaculately developed. There is an entire appendix relating to orbital mechanics. The life cycle of every animal and bacteria is fully realised. Even the ‘human’ inhabitants follow a cycle affected by their environment. The exception to this is the fact that the spirits of the dead continue to linger on Helliconia. There’s only the thinnest of scientific explanations for this, and it sows the seeds for the element of the novel that really failed to grab me.

The idea is called Gaia. Put simply, it’s a philosophy that suggests all living things on a planet are part of one larger being. It turns up in real life theories, and in fiction such as Foundation’s Edge. Quite frankly, I think it’s a load of nonsense. But Aldiss takes it as gospel, and spends hundreds of pages trying to convert the reader. If this had been a living planet as sci fi concept, I could have handled it. Long live Zonama Sekot, for those who get the reference. But no, Aldiss insists on bringing Earth into the Gaia Principle too. It’s the sort of philosophical moralising that I’ve never had any time now. It’s annoying, and gets in the way of the rest of the story.

I can respect Helliconia for its scale and its ambition, but I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much. If you’re going to read it, I suggest you set aside quite a few days to do so.

If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
The Redemption of Time, by Baoshu
Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon
The Shape of Things to Come, by H.G. Wells

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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