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|Author||Brian W. Aldiss|
|Published||1982; 1983; 1985|
The Helliconia trilogy is a series of science fiction books by British writer Brian W. Aldiss, set on the Earth-like planet Helliconia. It is an epic chronicling the rise and fall of a civilisation over more than a thousand years as the planet progresses through its incredibly long seasons, which last for centuries.
The trilogy consists of the books Helliconia Spring (published in 1982), Helliconia Summer (1983) and Helliconia Winter (1985).
- 1 Synopsis
- 2 Earth
- 3 Helliconia
- 4 Storylines and characters
- 5 References and annotations
- 6 External links
The central character is not any person but the planet itself and its science, particularly in the light of James Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis. The books describe realistic and credible details of the planet from the perspectives of a great variety of fields of study – astronomy, geology, climatology, geobiology, microbiology, religion, society, and many others – for which Aldiss gained the help of many Oxford academics. Connections are drawn which show numerous ways in which these aspects of life affect each other.
The books are set some six thousand years in the future. A space station from Earth, the Avernus, is orbiting Helliconia and closely observing the planet, including the activities of its intelligent inhabitants. The temptation to interfere in Helliconian affairs is a recurring dilemma for the inhabitants of Avernus.
Helliconia has a very long year (called The Great Year), equivalent to some 2500 Earth years, and global temperatures vary greatly over the year. A major theme of the trilogy is the fragility of human civilisation in the context of environmental changes, and the ability of humanity to preserve and recreate civilisation. Phenomena related to the changing of the seasons of the Great Year provide a deus ex machina plot device in the climax of each of the three books (the exploding trees at the end of Spring which allow the heroes to escape a phagor attack, the migrating fish at the end of Summer which allow the heroes to escape from an invading army, and the marauding phagors at the end of Winter which allow Luterin to escape from his captors).
Helliconia is populated by two intelligent races, humans and phagors. The humans are actually not the same species as Earth humans but a species that is remarkably similar.
Since the present day, the humans of Earth have been through an era of space exploration. This proved to be largely disappointing: faster than light travel was impossible, and few planets were found with life beyond the microbial. The one great success was the discovery of Helliconia. The Avernus was dispatched to monitor but not interfere with Helliconia, providing the Earth with scientific data and the entertainment of an epic reality show.
Somewhat later, the human race destroyed itself and most other life on Earth with a nuclear war. After a thousand years or so, the Earth's Gaian repair mechanisms repopulated the world with new life, including a small number of humans, who now live a simple nomadic life and have no interest in technology.
The massive space station Avernus is visible from the surface of Helliconia as a bright, fast-moving star. There are thousands of probes and other monitoring devices down on the planet, providing scientific readings, video pictures, etc., which Avernus collects and transmits on to Earth.
Six thousand people, the descendants of the original crew, live on the Avernus in a small but comfortable high-technology environment. After the nuclear war, transmissions from Earth suddenly stop for no reason apparent to the residents of Avernus. Avernus continues with its work for many centuries but eventually its isolated people descend into madness and sexual perversion (a common theme in Aldiss's works, which he treats with revulsion rather than salaciousness). At the end of the trilogy, Avernus is a lifeless, empty shell.
Helliconia lies in a loose binary star system, which consists of a yellow-orange dwarf similar to our sun, Batalix (spectral class G4), and a hotter and brighter white star, Freyr (Type A supergiant). Helliconia orbits Batalix, which in turn orbits Freyr. The Batalix-Freyr system is supposedly in the constellation of Ophiuchus, about a thousand light years from Earth.
Helliconia orbits Batalix in 480 days, this is called the "small year". (Each day of the small year comprises 25 hours each of 40 minutes which in turn are each 100 seconds long.) Helliconia and Batalix's orbit around Freyr, the "great year", is highly elliptical and takes approximately 1,825 small years which equates to some 2,592 Earth years. At periastron Batalix is 236 astronomical units from Freyr, whilst at apastron is 710 AU distant. A Helliconian week is eight days. There are six weeks in a tenner. There are 10 tenners in a Helliconian small year. While seasonal changes in the small year are slighter than those of Earth, the long seasons of the great year are much more marked. When distant from Freyr, Batalix's illumination is sufficient only to maintain ice age conditions. However, Freyr's output is many times greater than Batalix's, so as Helliconia approaches Freyr, the tropics of Helliconia become hotter even than the tropics of Earth.
Previously Helliconia only orbited Batalix, but the Helliconia-Batalix system was captured by Freyr's gravitational pull about eight million Earth-years ago(i.e., very recently by astronomical and evolutionary standards). The Freyr stellar system originally consisted of two stars, but during the encounter by Batalix, the sister-star of Freyr was thrown out of the system, along with one of Batalix's original planets and a moon of Helliconia, called T'Sehn-Hrr by the phagor race 
Helliconia is 1.28 Earth masses in size, making it somewhat larger than Earth and with a bigger axial tilt of 35 degrees. This means that small year seasons are harsher but the planet still has huge polar ice caps, capable of surviving even the great summer, and the human-habitable surface area is comparable to that of Earth.
There are three continents, a tropical continent (Campannlat), a northern continent (Sibornal) and a southern continent (Hespagorat). "Helliconia Spring" and "Helliconia Summer" mainly take place in Campannlat, with its rich vitality, and "Helliconia Winter" focuses on Sibornal, where the harsher environment encourages technological progress. The southern continent features only briefly in the books.
The trilogy describes a variety of imagined plants and animals, and how they cope with the extremes of the climate. The most memorable is the Wutra's Worm, an immense creature whose life span matches the great year, the Helliconia equivalent of a dragon. In the summer the young worms fly in the air, and in the winter the now-wingless mature worms live in a great network of tunnels beneath the surface.
Phagors, also called the "ancipitals", are white-furred humanoid beings, roughly the size of humans but with features resembling the mythical minotaur. They are intelligent, with their own languages and cultures, but their civilisation has never advanced beyond a hunter-gatherer level. Phagors are described as having a number of odd physical characteristics, their blood is golden rather than red and their guts sit above their lungs within their torsos. They are described as hardy, though not tolerant of warm conditions and water, and long lived. If allowed to reach great age they shrink and gradually become keratinised, so that they eventually resemble furred totems showing no overt biological life. Living phagors continue to be able to commune with the spirits of those ancestors in a keratinised state by assuming a mental state called "tether". When in tether they perceive their ancestors as small quadrupedal sprites. These sprites fulfil the same role as the human "gossies" and "fessups", as ancestral spirits able to be contacted.
Humans and phagors have, since the appearance of Freyr, been in conflict worldwide, with the phagors dominant in the great winter and the humans dominant in the great summer. The slow swings in fortune between the two races are dominated by the climate and biology, rendering military conflicts between the races essentially irrelevant.
In a reversal of their original relationship, phagors are described as sometimes being kept as slaves by humans, even during the "Great Winter". Phagors were also sometimes employed as soldiers by human societies.
Phagors were the dominant race on Helliconia before the Helliconia-Batalix system was captured by Freyr. The increased temperatures caused by the new stellar configuration, it is implied, kick-started the evolution of humans on Helliconia. Before Freyr the ancestors of humans had been ape-like creatures sometimes kept as pets by the phagors. Because the humans emerged after the capture by the sun Freyr, the phagors call them "Sons of Freyr". Remnants of the evolution of humans are found in the persistence of several races of semi-humans, such as the Nondads, who are in some cases still interfertile. The humans on Helliconia and those of Earth are therefore, despite an apparent near-identity, unrelated, a product of convergent evolution.
At the end of great autumn, the humans have developed levels of civilisation comparable at their most advanced to renaissance Europe. However, each time the thousand-year great winter returns, human civilisation inevitably regresses and has to be rebuilt again the next spring. (Similar if less regular patterns of advance and regression can be observed in Earth history.) The books hint that humans in some regions are becoming more competent at preserving knowledge and social structures through the winter, and that in the next few great years they may develop a scientific-industrial civilisation capable of surviving throughout the great year and thus completely dominating Helliconia.
Bone Fever and Fat Death
Bone Fever is a human disease characterised by an extreme form of anorexia, an epidemic of which sweeps the world early in the great spring. Fat Death is a disease characterised by an extreme form of binge eating, an epidemic of which sweeps the world late in the great autumn.
The two diseases are extremely unpleasant and have very high mortality rates. However, the survivors are left with bodies which are respectively much thinner or fatter and altered in other ways, and are much better adapted to the conditions of, respectively, summer or winter. The two diseases are caused by the same virus which is carried by ticks and is triggered by seasonal changes in the environment. The humans therefore have a symbiotic relationship with the virus and (unknowingly) with the phagors, who carry the ticks and hence the virus. Logically those human populations isolated from Phagors will be least likely to survive the change of season. Despite this, it is common knowledge that some rare people are immune to the virus and will survive in remote area, considered as ugly pariahs by survivors (horribly fat or thin by other humans’ standards).
The diseases, while being essential for human survival on Helliconia, are fatal in all seasons to the Earth humans on board the Avernus, who have no natural defence against it. Nonetheless, many of them choose to enter a "lottery", where they can win the chance to visit the surface and personally interact with the population, knowing that the deadly disease will kill them within a matter of days.
The Original Beholder
Just as Earth in the novels is sustained by Gaia, the Earth-mother force, Helliconia is tended by a similar yet separate entity referred to as "The Original Beholder" (or in "Spring" The Original Boulder). The most notable difference between Earth humans and Helliconian humans (and phagors) is their ability to communicate with the spirits of the dead, as their life force is slowly returned to the Original Beholder. The humans and phagors both can enter into a sort of shamanistic trance which allows this direct communication, which the humans call "pauk" and the phagors call "tether". Recently deceased human spirits are termed "gossies" those of more ancient demise are called "fessups."
A major plot point in the trilogies (first described in Helliconia Spring, and explained in detail in Helliconia Winter) is the changing character of the pauk experience for the Helliconian humans. The spirits of the dead are extremely emotional, and are naturally bitter and angry towards the visiting spirits of the living. After the Helliconian civilisations become of interest to the Earth humans, a planet-wide effort on Earth is made to psychically transmit empathic energy from Gaia to the Original Beholder, in an effort to lend their support to the humans on Helliconia. This effort has a positive effect on the spirits of the dead Helliconian humans, making them uniformly happy and nurturing to the spirits of the living.
Storylines and characters
Synopsis of Helliconia Spring
Late winter. Phagors are dominant. Most Humans live in primitive hunter-gatherer tribes, the few civilised areas are governed harshly. Yuli and his father Alehaw travel far from their family to hunt during an annual migration but are attacked by Phagors and Alehaw is taken as a slave. Yuli wanders south seeking food and shelter, he eventually comes to Pannoval, a theocratic city in a giant cave system. Yuli comes to be a part of the ruling priests but falls in love and loses faith, eventually fleeing Pannoval with a small party of heretics. They emerge on the surface, where the climate is becoming mild enough for them to survive and soon come to rule first one settlement, then another. Spring breaks and everybody gets Bone Fever. The settlement's head start with the superior culture that the original party brought enables it to grow rapidly in size and power as human civilisation reappears on the surface. The rest of the book follows Yuli's descendants who live in Embruddock in the face of a Phagor migration.
Synopsis of Helliconia Summer
High summer. The settlement is now the capital city of a great empire. Meanwhile, the residents of Avernus are holding occasional lotteries to ameliorate their ennui, the winners being allowed to go down to the planet and experience real life. They soon contract Bone Fever/Fat Death and die, but it is a great adventure and there are many volunteers. One winner, Billy Xiao Pin, gets involved in high politics, with messy consequences.
Synopsis of Helliconia Winter
Late autumn. The focus is on the politics of the northern continent Sibornal and on a globe-spanning chase, during which everybody gets Fat Death. The protagonist Luterin Shokerandit is the second son of the Keeper of the Wheel of Kharnabar (in Sibornal, above the Arctic Circle of Helliconia). The Wheel is an extraordinary revolving monastery/prison in a ring-shaped tunnel with a single exit. The Wheel rotates once in 10 years.
The book begins when Luterin has just recovered from a mysterious illness (not the Fat Death) that kept him immobile for about a year after the unexplained suicide of his elder brother Favin, whose name it is now forbidden to speak. His father and his neighbour arranged a long time ago that Luterin would one day marry the neighbour's daughter Insil Esikananzi, thereby forging a closer tie between their two prominent families. Luterin goes to visit Insil but she confuses him as she always does, and gives him the feeling that she disapproves of him.
His almost always absent father sends Luterin into the army, where he gains renown under Archpriest-Militant Asperamanka during a campaign to protect the town of Isturiacha on the southern border from an invasion by troops from what they call the Savage Continent (tropical Campannlat). Luterin kills Bandal Eith Lahl, commandant of the Borldorian battalion of the opposing army, and takes Bandal's widow Toress Lahl as his slave. Soon, the Fat Death shows itself in the Sibornalese army.
Archpriest-Militant Asperamanka sends Luterin Shokerandit north to the town of Koriantura with a battle report for onward transmission to the mysterious Oligarch, autocratic but never seen ruler of Sibornal, but one of the Oligarch's spies had taken the same route a bit earlier and reported the outbreak of the Fat Death. Soon, other Sibornalese troops show up in Koriantura with orders from the Oligarch to destroy the returning army of Archpriest-Militant Asperamanka, in an attempt to halt the spread of the Fat Death. One of these troops is Captain Harbin Fashnalgid, who gets billeted with Eedap Mun Odim, trader in porcelain.
The Oligarch proclaims ever more strict rules and regulations, ostensibly to curtail the Plague (Fat Death), but really intended to toughen people up for the impending harsh centuries-long winter, at whatever cost. Odim's forefathers came from distant Kuj-Juvec some generations before, and hence Odim and his family are still regarded as foreigners. The newest regulations from the Oligarch mean that Odim and his few dozen family members cannot remain in Koriantura any longer. Odim arranges to sell his business and his house and to use the proceeds to buy a ship to transport him and his family to his brother Odirin Nan Odim in far-away Shivenink.
Captain Fashnalgid secretly hates the Oligarch and the army, into which he was sold by his father. He sneaks out of Koriantura and intercepts and warns Luterin Shokerandit and Toress Lahl before they are seen by the Oligarch's army. Luterin doesn't fully trust the captain but heeds his warning and follows him to the coast, where Fashnalgid has a dinghy waiting. There Luterin falls ill with the Fat Death. Toress Lahl and Captain Fashnalgid sneak Luterin and themselves into the house of Odim in Koriantura, with the help of Odim's slave woman Besi.
Fashnalgid's superior officer Major Gardeterark noticed Fashnalgid's desertion (and didn't like him anyway) and comes to arrest him in Odim's house. Odim tricks and kills the major, and then he and his family and also Fashnalgid, Luterin, and Toress Lahl escape in Odim's ship, the New Season. The army in Koriantura does indeed annihilate Asperamanka's army returning from victory at Isturiacha. The Oligarch announces that a plague-ridden invasion army was successfully destroyed.
While the ship is at sea, the Fat Death spreads among the travellers. Sufferers lose their capability for rational thought and turn into cannibals. Through the foresight of Toress Lahl, who was trained as a medical doctor, Luterin and she survive. Odim and Fashnalgid also survive, as do enough of the crew to continue to sail the ship.
Meanwhile, Chubsalid, the popular leader of the Church, decides to oppose the Oligarch's latest edict, which is against the practice of communing with ancestors by going into Pauk. Archpriest-Militant Asperamanka has survived the massacre at Koriantura and joins Chubsalid in a visit to the Oligarch, who condemns them to be burnt at the stake for opposing the State (i.e., him). Asperamanka throws in his lot with the Oligarch and is spared, but Chubsalid is killed. This marks the separation (and opposition) of Church and State in Sibornal.
Eventually the ship reaches Shivenink, and Odim and the remainder of his family move in with his brother Odirim. The army comes to search the house. Fashnalgid assumes they've come for him and evades them by blowing up a biogas installation in Odirim's house, and escapes with Luterin and Toress to the town of Sharagatt on the way to Kharnabar. There Luterin hires an asokin sled (an asokin is a sort of super dog) with an Ondod (humanoid but not quite human) driver called Uuundaamp to take him, Fashnalgid, and Toress Lahl across the cold, high, snowy mountain roads to Kharnabar.
Fashnalgid mortally offends Uuundaamp by sleeping with Uuundaamp's wife Moub without Uuundaamp's permission. Uuundaamp warns Luterin, and when the sled moves through the long and dangerous Noonat Tunnel, Uuundaamp's phagor slave shoves Fashnalgid from the sled. Luterin tries to save Fashnalgid but falls from the sled, too. Luterin walks and runs for many miles through the polar cold until he reaches the village of Noonat, the last stop before Kharnabar. Fashnalgid fell behind and disappeared. In Noonat, Luterin finds and patches things up with Uuundaamp again, and they continue on to the Shokerandit estate near Kharnabar.
At home, Luterin announces that he wants to marry his slave Toress Lahl instead of his intended bride Insil Esikananzi, to the disapproval of both families. Luterin gives Toress the key to a centuries-old shrine to King Jandol Anganol from Toress's homeland, located in a secluded spot. Then he goes off hunting for a couple of days. When he returns, his father is at home. Luterin expresses his hatred for the Oligarch who ordered his own army to be destroyed at Koriantura, and realises from his father's responses that his father is in fact the Oligarch. Luterin kills his father and escapes to the Wheel of Kharnabar. He enters the wheel, and is alone inside it for ten years, after which his cell lines up with the sole entrance/exit again.
When he emerges again, he finds that Ebstok Esikananzi, Insil's father, is now the Keeper of the Wheel, and that Luterin's erstwhile army commander Archpriest-Militant Asperamanka is now the Master of Kharnabar and resides in the old Shokerandit estate. The killing of the previous Oligarch is now seen as a positive thing, and Luterin's passage through the Wheel of Kharnabar has bestowed a certain measure of holiness upon him, so he is officially a free man again.
Insil has been married off to Asperamanka, and it has not been a happy marriage for her. One time she fled to the shrine of Jandol Anganol, where she found Toress Lahl who escaped there after the killing of the Oligarch and raised her and Luterin's son there. Toress and Insil became friends. Insil tells Toress that Luterin's older brother Favin was killed when he discovered to his dislike that his father was the Oligarch.
The Keeper of the Wheel and the Master of Kharnabar throw a party for Luterin, also to mark the occasion of the Day of Myrkwyr, when Freyr can be seen for the last time, at the beginning of a centuries-long polar night (for Freyr but not Batalix). After the festivities, the Master of Kharnabar has Luterin surreptitiously detained, to throw him into the Wheel a second time, to be rid of him. For phagors, Myrkwyr marks the return of conditions favourable to their kind. A company of phagors attacks the hated Sons of Freyr (humans), and kills Asperamanka. Luterin escapes in the confusion. Insil Esikananzi leads him to Toress Lahl. The book ends as Toress and Luterin leave for the shrine to King Jandol Anganol, where he will meet his now ten-year-old son for the first time.
References and annotations
- Aldiss, Brian (1983). Helliconia Summer. London: Triad Granada, p. 150
- Aldiss, Brian (1982). Helliconia Spring. London: Triad Granada. pp. 161 & p. 317. It is at this point that there, at first glance, appears to be a minor inconsistency in the calculations. A Helliconian year of 480 days x 25 hours x 40 minutes x 100 seconds (p.161) equates to a year of 48,000,000 seconds. A typical Earth year is 365.24 days x 24 hours x 60 minutes x 60 seconds equalling 31,556,736 seconds. This implies that the Helliconian year is 1.521 times longer than an Earth year. However later in the text (p. 317) the Helliconian year is confirmed to be just 1.42 times longer than an earth year (hence 1,825 years x 1.42 = 2,592 years approx). The disparity can only be explained if the Helliconian second is 93% of the earth second. This is the case according to times displayed on Billy Xiao Pin's watch in the second novel (Helliconia Summer, p.16). Two sets of times indicate that for every 210 seconds of Earth time (06:16:55 to 06:20:25), 224 Helliconian seconds elapse (12:37:76 to 13:00:00), which gives the ratio of 93.75%
- Aldiss, Brian (1985). Helliconia Winter. New York: Atheneum. p. 248. "The height of the cell was 240 centimetres, corresponding to the six weeks of a tenner times the forty minutes of the hour,or to the five times the six weeks times the eight days in a week. The width of the cell at its outer end was 2.5 meters—250 centimetres, corresponding to the ten tenners of a small years times the number of hours a day."
- Aldiss, Brian (1983). Helliconia Summer. London: Triad Granada, p. 148
- Aldiss, Brian (1983). Helliconia Summer. London: Triad Granada, p. 396
- Listen to Brian Aldiss discuss Helliconia Spring – a British Library recording
- Contemporary review of Helliconia Spring, UK magazine: Extro 3, July/August 1982
- Physics of Helliconia
- Helliconia How & Why By Brian Aldiss
- Helliconia on the official Brian Aldiss website
- Brian Aldiss's papers concerning the Helliconia Trilogy are housed at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas