A world in a binary stellar system has a complex orbit with long periods of heat and cold. Inhabited by humans, near-humans, and other species, its population re-discovers science as it emerges from each long ice age – all watched by a human orbital station that shares its findings with distant Earth.
There’s a strong similarity among Jack Vance, Robert Silverberg, and Brian Aldiss. They all use formal, sometimes stiff, language, and all describe odd, extreme characters and behaviour. Yet I’m a huge fan of Vance, lukewarm about Silverberg, and find that I don’t much care for Aldiss.
I’ve always accepted of Aldiss as one of the masters of the field, and for many years didn’t realize how little his books had actually affected me. It wasn’t until I read and heartily disliked Finches of Mars that it really hit home. So, when the chance came up to read the Helliconia trilogy, I decided to make it a definitive test. Based on book one, Aldiss fails.
The characters have little depth, and no real spark, and not solely because the book covers long time periods. Aldiss seems constantly to forget that we’re looking for story here, not just scholarship. It is interesting to see the balance of powers shift as the world emerges from the ice, and to see Aldiss’ careful delineation of economic, spiritual, and scientific development – but it’s only intellectually interesting. Only rarely did I find my emotions involved, my interest truly engaged by any of the players. While there’s a lot to work with here – especially relations between humans (an emerging power) and phagors (who prefer the cold), but to Aldiss they seem to be little more than fodder for his intellectual treatise. He creates some strong characters, but then does little with them.
Altogether, I found the book very slow going. The dense socioeconomic exploration got in the way of story, and the cold characters impeded the flow of the thought experiment. In this first book, at least, Aldiss’ great experiment is not a success.
04 September 2017 Science fiction | Brian W. Aldiss | Helliconia Trilogy |