Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689
Little question exists that the Helliconia Trilogy is Brian Aldiss’s epic masterpiece and one of the masterpieces of science fiction. The planet and binary sun system Aldiss created is one of the most complex ever to spring from the pages of science fiction. It is also one of the most human—and most humane—as well as the most germane. Readers seem to share the fascination with the planet that spurs the activities of the observers on Avernus. They can readily understand how Earth dwellers are virtually hypnotized by the long-running epic saga of Helliconia.
The Helliconia Trilogy is far more than a science-fiction epic. It is a fully fleshed artistic creation in which Aldiss wishes not only to tell a series of loosely connected stores, both epic and miniature, but also to relate a parable about humanitys ability to ignore reality and revel in eductainment. The three Helliconia novels are as much about Earth and its ways of approaching reality, its methods of ignoring the “shadow side” of itself, its headlong flight from unpleasantness, and its ability to revel in distancing itself from problems as it is about the multifaceted panorama of the Great Year and its effects on Helliconia.
Aldiss appears to ask if people could become so fascinated by distant drama, made unreal by distance and time, that they could fail to see the approaching apocalypse. Seeming to echo German physicist Werner Heisenberg, he asks if the very act of observing changes both the observer and the observed. Are the people of Earth changed by their ages-long observation of Helliconia? Can the five thousand exiled residents of Avernus remain unchanged because they can only observe but never interfere? What about the Helliconians themselves, unaware that they have provided eductainment to millions on a faraway planet? Is their climate so inexorable that change is forced upon them, albeit with glacial slowness?
Aldiss has returned in this trilogy to one of his most elemental themes, the question of change. The theme of awareness of change (or lack of awareness) pervades many of his novels and short stories, and he frequently explores the effects of change or the results of stasis. Rarely are these questions asked without some relevance to art. In these novels, the art is Helliconia itself as well as the interstellar space opera it has engendered.
Perhaps the most telling section of this remarkable series of novels occurs toward the end of Helliconia Winter, in one of the italicized passages that concern Earth or Avernus rather than Helliconia. More than seven thousand Earth years have passed since the common era began, yet the memory of Helliconia still haunts the survivors of the apocalypse, and a new glacial age brought about by the overuse of fossil fuels stalks them. One character then advances the Gaia hypothesis: Earth itself may possess life, and humankind has to learn not to try to possess Earth or to ignore its needs.
Another major question raised by Aldiss is the nature of the ferocious phagors. Reminiscent of demoniac creatures, nightmarish minotaurs, and other hateful and hated monsters, they may provide some hideous balance with the humans they ceaselessly wage war against. Aldiss seems to ask if they are in some way the same as humans, merely in another guise or form.
Multiple meanings, all of them intended and many of them ironic, are found in the name of the planet Helliconia. The name draws upon the words halcyon, helix, and helios, as well as the flower helliconia itself. All give some hints of how Aldiss works: He provides questions rather than answers, and he suggests, hints, or alludes rather than being simplistic. Aldiss would be the first to insist that he is not in the business of writing to provide answers. He might maintain that there are no definitive answers to the questions he raises, that in fact the position of the artist is simply to question, to require the reader to think and to probe, not merely to be entertained. His requirement of careful thought is perhaps the best single reason to ponder—and be entertained by—the Helliconia Trilogy.