Tuesday 14 January 2020

Helliconia Winter - Brian Aldiss (1985)

Rating: Admirable

Helliconia Winter is the third and final book in the the Helliconia Trilogy, the others being Helliconia Spring (1982) and Helliconia Summer (1983). The novel begins at the end of autumn and the planet of Helliconia is moving into the beginning of a winter that will last 300+ years, causing the human-like denizens to suffer greatly from the collapse of civilization that had reached its zenith in summer, including falling prey to the 'fat death' (which causes binge eating, including cannibalism), which in reality changes human physiology in a manner that allows a greater chance of survival during the harsh winter. For the other main dominant species, the Phagors (as pictured on the book cover), winter results in potential dominance once more over the humans (or Sons of Freyer, as they call them...). This is a very basic synopsis of the novel, which is essentially dominated by a world building narrative in its truest sense. Although they are mostly well developed, the principal protagonists are merely actors on a massive environmental stage in which Helliconia and its yellow-orange dwarf star, Batalix, follow a highly elliptical 1200 year orbit around the Type A Super-giant star Freyer. For fans of epic world building novels the Helliconia Trilogy is up there with the best and Helliconia Winter, although not quite as good as the first two novels, is quality science fiction and despite Aldiss' old-school style it is written in an intelligent and compelling manner.

Helliconia Winter is the lesser novel in the trilogy due to a number of factors; the principal characters, such as Luterin Shokerandit from the northern continent of Sibornal, have less agency in the face of declining conditions, whereas in the first two books the world is opening up to great possibilities due to the advent of spring and then summer. This novel includes much more information about Earth's history and the space station Avernus, which orbits Helliconia and transmits footage back to Earth. The depiction of Earth's future is standard science fiction fare, as is what happens to the six thousand inhabitants of Avernus (although there are some pretty freaky descriptions of giant genitalia called 'perambulant pudendolls'). However the main flaw lies in the fact that despite the trilogy being based on fairly hard science fiction concepts, including believable biological and cosmological principles, Aldiss introduces a seam of dubious mysticism into the narrative, which weakens the original premise. Some of the philosophical ruminations of future humanity are also a bit cringe-worthy, which is perhaps fair enough for humans that do nothing all day but pontificate whilst lazing in mobile towns pulled along by the energy of bizarre white lifeforms called 'geonauts'. Despite these minor flaws Helliconia Winter was an entertaining and satisfying end to one of the great trilogies in science fiction.

Thursday 9 January 2020

Arrival - Ted Chiang (2002)

Rating: Admirable

Arrival was originally published as Stories of Your Life and Others, but as I actually read this collection under the former title I'm sticking with it. The name change was, of course, brought about by the American film Arrival (2016), which is an adaptation of this collection's Story of Your Life. The film was impressive both because the Americans actually managed to make an intelligent science fiction movie, but also because the premise was a unique and intriguing first contact narrative. Appropriately the story found in this collection is conceptually brilliant and has a strong emotional core, which is something you don't always find in science fiction; actually there is something unique about all of the eight stories in Arrival. The collection begins with one of the better stories, Tower of Babylon, in which humanity is actually building the Biblical tower in an effort to reach the 'vault of heaven'. The story is compelling because you do not really know what to expect, and despite my best guesses the ending was a surprise, something that is difficult to produce when it comes to an audience familiar with science fiction tropes.

The stories that follow are all quite different from each other. The protagonist in Understand takes a drug that has the side effect of giving him a genius level intellect, but also gives him access to the parts of the brain that are normally shut off from the conscious mind. Division by Zero is the standout story, featuring a structure that mirrors the premise and leads you to an ending that is devastatingly poignant and brilliant. I did not actually understand the story until the next morning, when its significance hit me as I indulged in my muesli and coffee; now that's the kind of story every author would love to write. Unfortunately the final four stories do not quite match the brilliance of the first half. Seventy-Two Letters is inventive and entertaining enough, but Chiang's dry style strips some of the flesh from the narrative bone. The Evolution of Human Science is prosaic, despite its startling premise and Hell is the Absence of God and Liking What You See: A Documentary, are both lacking a stylistic spark that would make them much more compelling. Despite the stylistic limitations these stories feature fantastic ideas and are well worth reading. It is unfortunate that I enjoyed them less the further I proceeded through the collection, resulting in a certain degree of disappointment in the end.