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Brian Aldiss: Helliconia Spring

The idea is cool: the planet of the title orbits one star, which orbits another star in a very eccentric ellipse. So the planet, in addition to regular yearly seasons, has a thousands-of-years Long Season during which it goes from ice age to constant summer and back; and civilization never quite rises high enough during the summers to be able to make it through the ice ages intact. This is the first book of a trilogy, apparently set at widely separated points in that long cycle; in this one, the world is beginning to thaw and civilization is just starting to emerge again.

It was pretty neat overall, although I have a few gripes. The main one is that civilization pretty much springs into full bloom from nothing over the course of about one generation, domesticating “horses”, coming up with the idea of money, figuring out that the world goes around the sun (which goes around another one), etc. It turns out that previous go-rounds left a little help, but still. The characters are not so interesting that a lot would have been lost by spreading the advance of civilization over the course of several generations (and characters).

There’s also a totally incomprehensible element (that is, I can’t comprehend why the author put it in) of an orbiting space station from Earth which does nothing but observe the planet and the people on it (with apparently supernatural powers of observation, since it can observe individual conversations). Perhaps the point was to put in an omniscient narrator that somehow fits into the world; perhaps the reason for it becomes more clear in subsequent volumes. But here it just made me shake my head.

Good points: the world-building is very cool (I haven’t even talked about the native civilization, sort of ice-orcs who are obviously on their way out), and Aldiss has a way of narrating a primitive society that is interesting while not pretending that they’re modern people in animal skins.

I’m not sure if I would bother buying the other two books in the trilogy if I had this as a standalone, but I have an omnibus of all three volumes, so I may come back to it at some point, when and if I feel like reading something like this again. If that sounds lukewarm, I guess it is!

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