I want you to picture the scene: two figures prowl the ice-bound land, blizzards around them reducing their silhouettes to little more than dark outlines in the whiteout. One of them carries a spear, a crude instrument of flint and wood hardened by fire. They come to a bluff, look down, and see a sight beyond their wildest dreams.
This is the opening of the three-volume novel Helliconia. Written between 1978 and 1985 by Brian Aldiss, one of the contemporaries of Arthur C. Clarke, it tells the story of a 'Great Year' on Helliconia, a planet orbiting a binary star system. Each of these Great Years lasts 1,825 'Small Years', or around 2,500 Terran years. As the blurb of the SF Masterworks edition points out, cultures are born in the spring, flourish in the summer, and eventually die out in the winter.
Helliconia focuses on a mix of the people, the planet, the science, and the politics which make up the planet's history. We start at the end of a winter, with Yuli. From him we go on to the early societies, then to the advancement of technology and religion, to the eventual fall of human civilisation.
It's a remarkable achievement. Ambitious in its scope, it would have been easy for Aldiss to alienate a reader by introducing too much. I only read it in the summer and on holiday because I felt that at any other time taking on the challenge of reading it would render me incapable of understanding or following it. Perhaps some readers will be alienated - who knows? The fact is that he manages to pull off everything he tries, and in my book that makes this book something of a monument to ambition. Why write small when you can write big?
I won't pretend that at times it isn't slow, difficult going. Much of the time it is. That blend of ideas and theories mixing together means that sometimes the plot - insofar as events pertaining to human protagonists make up the plot - moves at a glacial pace. This is especially noticeable in the second part, Helliconia Summer. But ultimately the standard of writing never drops and it's a rewarding experience.
Central to the whole work is this idea of the cycle. The most notable cycle is that Phagors - humanity's traditional enemy on Helliconia - dominate throughout winter, but fall under the yoke of human control in the spring and summer. Plans are laid to eliminate the Phagors - and for by the Phagors to overthrow the humans - but none comes to fruition. There are the diseases - bone fever and fat death - which are vital to the ecology of the planet but against which humanity fights, again, fruitlessly.
Earth is watching Helliconia through its observation station, Avernus, and through its observations we see another side of humanity, where everything isn't caught in a cycle. We see destruction and rebirth. We see the whole spectrum of humanity through various lenses, through the sweeping observations of life on Earth or Avernus, and the close scrutiny of Helliconian life.
Helliconia isn't a book about wonderful adventure or the everyday human dramas of life, much as it does have those things in it. It's got a grand majesty to it, being about something larger and greater. Ultimately, it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it had me interested and engaged. Much as I was pleased to see it end (it's 1,300 pages long - anyone would be quite pleased to move on!), I'm not averse to reentering its world and exploring Helliconia a little more