Beneath Helliconian Skies
The sky has always inspired awe in human beings. Long before we were able to write down our myths and legends the sky was the great source of wonder and transcendence. There are echoes in some of humanity’s earliest myths – preserved in trace form in the writings of 5,000 years ago – of Palaeolithic beliefs, all evoking some kind of sky-awe. Later, as the Neolithic age arrived, that sky would become populated with human-modelled deities, while the original, abstract, ineffable sky paled into irrelevance. An example of this is the ancient Greek god Ouranos (Uranus) being castrated into insignificance by his son Kronos (who would later be overthrown and imprisoned by his own son, Zeus).
I read Brian Aldiss’ remarkable Helliconia trilogy (Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, Helliconia Winter) shortly after they were published in the early ‘80s, and they had an immediate effect on me. Their sense of grandeur, rooted both in the astronomical situation (a planet going around a star, Batalix, which goes around a hotter, whiter star named Freyr), and in the immense, richly imagined life forms that swept across Helliconia’s surface, was vivid in all three novels. But the characters were flawed and human-sized. This served even more to highlight the awesome nature of the Helliconian system, home to environmental forces immeasurably larger than the characters, who are all forced to submit to planetary grandeur as the micro-seasons and macro-seasons roll on. Alongside Dune and The Book Of The New Sun, the Helliconia trilogy would be at the top of my best-SF list. Critics spoke of “a masterpiece of world-building and storytelling” and “an astonishing trilogy.”
When I last re-read the trilogy a few years ago I noticed there were lots of dramatic descriptions of the Helliconian skies. Many were evocative one-liners, but others were more substantial:
The atmosphere was iron. Wutra, God of the skies, had withdrawn his shawls of light and shrouded his domain with overcast… Under this dark curtain, Freyr became visible only when it reached the horizon. Blankets of cloud rumpled back to reveal the sentinel smouldering in a perspective of golden ashes…
Marvellous! I think such descriptions were a deliberate ploy by the author. I think he wanted to evoke the sky’s massive panorama by appealing to its majesty – its clouds, its storms, and at night the astronomical wonders of the two-star system.
For four hours, Batalix worried at the flank of Freyr, as a hound worried a bone. Only then was the brighter light entirely engulfed. All the early afternoon, steely shadow lay on the land. Not an insect stirred. For three hours, Freyr was gone from the world, stolen from the day sky. By sunset, it had only partially reappeared. Nobody could guarantee that it would ever be whole again. Thick cloud filled the sky from horizon to horizon. So the day died…
But there is far more to Wutra than appears in the first volume. Though he is God of the skies, his appearance is unusual:
Wutra was depicted, head and shoulders, in a furry cloak. His eyes glared down from a long animal-like face with an expression which could be interpreted as compassion. His face was blue, representing an ideal colour of sky, where he dwelt. Rough white hair, almost mane-like, surmounted the head; but the most startling departure from the human norm was a pair of horns thrusting upwards from his skull…
He is in fact modelled upon a phagor, the alien race of Helliconia, but this is not at first recognised by the human-like inhabitants of the planet, who are co-residents. Wutra is an alien god. He is akin to Kronos, in that he has anthropomorphic attributes while at the same time being transcendent, terrifying and storm-wracked.
Although our gods of the sky were demoted as cultural evolution continued through the Neolithic, the sky itself, and its abstract quality of height, were always significant of sacred concepts. Just as mountains (mid-way between earth and heaven) have long been considered sacred for this reason, so the mighty winter-loving phagors descend from the stratosphere-scraping Nktryhk Mountains, against which our Himalayas are just foothills.
… in the Nktryhk daily temperatures showed wide variation, from minus twelve centigrade to minus one hundred and fifty degrees, about the temperature at which krypton turns to liquid… Jet streams were observed over Nktryhk travelling at speeds in excess of two hundred and seventy five miles per hour.
So high, the atmospheric effects are spectacular:
… livid clouds had drawn over the snowscape. Light was reflected back and forth between overcast and ground. In the diffused, nonpolarized illumination, where no shadows were cast and living things became spectres, human beings would have been lost. There was no horizon. Everything was pearly grey.
Aldiss makes much use of strange colours and atmospheric effects in his descriptions:
In the cool dawn light, colour had scarcely return to the world. Grey mist lay in strata, completely screening the old hamlet from their sight. The world lay in a succulent grey-green mist, characteristic of a Batalix sunrise in these days.
In Helliconia Winter, set at the other end of Freyr’s two and a half thousand year Great Year, the sky descriptions are just as epic:
… a watery sun emerged from scudding cloud to set in the west amid a dramatic display of colour. When it was quenched by the horizon, the world was not plunged into darkness. A second sun, Freyr, burned low in the south. When the cloud formations parted about it, it threw shadows of men like pointed fingers to the north.
Aldiss had a wide range of help designing this two-sun system, with all the astronomical configurations – and most importantly how those configurations would be perceived by inhabitants of Helliconia – ascertained in advance of writing. In this matter he had the assistance of Dr Iain Nicolson, the well known space scientist and author. The trilogy ends in Helliconia Winter with the ultimate event of sky-significance to those living near Kharnabhar at the polar circle: the day of Myrkwyr, when Freyr appears for just one moment upon the horizon, before vanishing for centuries:
The horizon itself was clear, and bright with dawn – with sunrise. Above its crusty line rose a rim of red, a red of heaviness, of congealing blood, the upper part of Freyr’s orb… A shaft of light spread upon the world, casting shadows, flooding a range of far hills with pink light ‘til they gleamed against the slatey sky behind them… The privileged glared upon that sliver of disc. It remained as it was, growing no greater. The most intense scrutiny could not determine the instant at which, instead of increasing, it began to shrink. Sunrise was an enantiodromic sunset… By now the giant sun had in actuality set: what remained was an image of it, a refraction through the thickness of atmosphere of the real thing below the horizon… The red image shrivelled. It divided itself into bars of light. Shattered… Auroras would unfold their mysterious banners in the skies above the mountain. Meteorites would briefly glitter. Comets would occasionally be sighted… For all who experienced it, Myrkwyr was a day of doom.
Enantiodromia is the word Aldiss used in the Helliconia trilogy to evoke the drama of things turning into their opposites. Sentient beings are limited by the environment they live in, and so the immense enantiodromic forces of Helliconia constrain their cultures. In Helliconian skies the process of enantiodromia is revealed.