Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Helliconia

Go To

The Helliconia Trilogy, by Brian Aldiss, is an epic sci-fi series that follows the lives of the Human Aliens that live on the titular planet. The trilogy's timeline stretches a thousand years, following certain influential characters as civilizations rise and fall. Set in a binary star system, Helliconia has "years" of two different lengths. The "Small Year", about 480 days, is how long it takes for Helliconia to orbit its main star Batalix. The "Great Year", in which Helliconia and Batalix both orbit the much larger star Freyr, is over 1,800 Small Years.

Helliconia spends about half of the Great Year as an ice planet, as Batalix is much dimmer than Earth's sunnote  and its highly elliptical orbit means that Freyr is too distant to provide any warmth. As the Great Year proceeds, though, the much larger and brighter Freyr comes into play, causing gradual but severe climactic changes. As such, Helliconia goes though extended "seasons" lasting centuries.

Despite being relatively Earth-like, Helliconia is host to multiple intelligent species, the most prominent of which are Humans and the Phagors, mankind's primary antagonist.

The series picks up as Helliconia is transitioning from its long Winter into Spring. As the planet begins warming up and becomes more hospitable, mankind begins to develop civilization and become dominant in the world.

The trilogy comprises these books:

  • Helliconia Spring
  • Helliconia Summer
  • Helliconia Winter

This series provides examples of:

  • Alien Blood: Phagor blood is golden, as is the blood of some native wildlife.
  • Alien Sky: As Helliconia is in a binary star system, this is a given. Brian Aldiss goes to great lengths to depict the movements of the stars in Helliconia's sky accurately, including how the orbital dynamics of the Helliconia-Batalix-Freyr system would play out from the perspective of Helliconia. Batalix, appearing larger in the sky, actually eclipses Freyr several times.
  • Alternative Calendar: The world has 480 days, so the calendar is unsurprisingly different: The year has ten tenners (not months, since the planet lacks a moon), with six weeks of eight days. The day has 25 hours, each hour has 40 minutes and each minute 100 seconds. Quite metric. The digital watch shows three different times. In one time, the minute seems to have at least 80 seconds — but the other two don't.
  • Baths Are Fun: During Spring, Oyre and her friends discover that hot springs near the village are not just practical to have, they're pretty fun. Bathing is explicitly said to have been all but forgotten during the Winter, along with nice clothes.
  • Beneficial Disease: A virus afflicts every human on Helliconia with Bone Fever and the Fat Death, and takes a massive death toll each time, but also brings physiological changes needed to survive the coming seasons. Humans need insulating fat to get through the winter and need to lose it to survive the blistering summer.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology:
    • The phagors have inverted organs; their intestines are above their lungs. They also have yellow blood.
    • The hoxneys, resembling zebras or horses, hibernate in the long winter as crystalline beings.
    • Barsimmip trees are actually very large, subterranean, and hollow.
    • Wutra's Worm is a gargantuan worm with a lifespan as long as the Great Year. It goes through several drastic metamorphoses as the Great Seasons pass; at one point, a Worm will actually split into two smaller worms with wings, which then take to the sky.
    • Some trees on the northern continent don't just drop their leaves, but pull their branches inside their trunks to seal themselves up and go dormant for Great Winters.
  • Bizarre Alien Reproduction: Some of the native herd animals are "necrogenes": sperm are deposited into the body cavities of the females, and the resulting embryos gestate as parasites, eventually eating their way into an artery and killing their mother. By the time they eat their way through her carcass, they're ready to live on their own.
  • Bizarre Seasons: The Great Year follows familiar seasons, but over the course of several centuries.
  • Bolivian Army Cliffhanger: The first book ends as the village/city-state where the majority of the plot takes place is about to be wiped out by an invading army of Phagors. The reader is Left Hanging, since the second book begins in a completely separate country, with new characters. Made even worse as the reader soon finds out that it's over 300 years later, and nothing about the events of the first book are even really known other than an off-handed comment about some "fire" there years ago.
  • Break the Haughty: Aoz Roon is very haughty until he gets chased by phagors, lost, nearly starves to death, lives through Bone Fever and actually befriends a phagor.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": Averted, since the various non-obviously-alien animals in the series are described pretty much as you would expect. There are sheep, pigs, and even terrestrial plants such as wheat. However....
  • Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit": ...they're never described in enough detail to tell either way. Further confused by the obviously-alien-looking creatures and fauna of Hellliconia that exist alongside the more recognizable ones (with unique obviously-alien names to boot). There's also a preponderance of creatures called "horned ____" (dogs, seals) which explicitly aren't related to the Real Life versions at all.
  • Chase Stops at Water: Phagors can't swim and hate water, so they don't chase people into it. One phagor wouldn't enter a boat even to get to safety during flood.
  • Continuity Nod: The wristwatch of an Avernus observer who descended to Helliconia's surface and died of the virus during Great Spring turns up thousands of years later as the Great Autumn is winding down. His story is apparently still being passed from owner to owner along with it, although nobody takes the tale all that seriously.
  • Dark Secret: We actually witness Aoz Roon murder the village leaders to take their place and so do several characters whose silence he buys (or already has). But he's rather paranoid about everyone else finding out.
  • Distant Sequel: The various books are set centuries apart from each other, showing how the eponymous planet changes as it and Batalix orbit around Freyr, cyclically affecting the planet's climate over centuries. The story of Aoz Roon overthrowing the two chiefs of his village and becoming one himself in Helliconia Spring is remembered in Helliconia Summer as nothing more than a cautionary tale that was probably made up whole cloth.
  • Endless Winter: Helliconia orbits Binary Suns: directly, it revolves around a dim Batalixa, and both it and its planets are in a highly elliptical orbit around the bright Freyr. This results in Long Years, with both summers and winters lasting centuries. Winters are so severe they're a de facto Reset Button for human civilization of the planet.
  • Eternal Recurrence: The Great Year brings periodic Great Winters, which always plunge humanity back into the stone age. The coming of Great Summer likewise overthrows the phagors' society, reducing them to remnant tribal bands in the high mountains.
    • Every Great Spring brings on the plague of Bone Fever, while each Great Autumn is heralded by the Fat Death. These respective pandemics alter humans' bodies to suit the new Season's climate, and the latter especially also culls their population sharply, leaving fewer mouths to divide the Great Winter's limited resources among.
    • On a smaller scale, certain events among the planet's inhabitants keep recurring as a predictable result of climate shifts plus regional geography. The battle at the beginning of Helliconia Winter takes place atop the disintegrating bones of hundreds of similar battles fought in previous Great Autumns, and the monument constructed by the victors is built from the collapsing remnants of a similar monument built last Autumn.
  • Fantastic Racism: Between the humans and phagors; both war with and enslave each other every chance they get. They also look down upon and enslave other races, given the chance.
  • Grim Up North: Sibonal, the continent encompassing Helliconia's north, has a more militant and disciplinarian culture than tempestuous, equatorial Campannlat. Played with in that, although Sibonalese politics is brutal and gets far more so in winter, it's also the only continent to weather Great Winters without completely losing technical know-how or collapsing into chaos, mostly because its coastal communities can live off the rich cold-water fishing and bio-gas heat sources once farming becomes impossible.
  • Horror Hunger: The Fat Death, which converts its survivors' bodies into a more compact shape suited to Great Winter, also induces a state of ravenous delirium in which they cannibalize other humans.
  • Horse of a Different Color: The "hoxneys", which resemble colorful zebras.
  • Human Aliens: Helliconian humans are described in nearly every way as human, yet they apparently are native to Helliconia.
  • Human Subspecies: Several, which tend to be treated horribly by both humans and phagors. One example is the "Madi", hobbit-like creatures with eight fingers on each hand and "keen eyesight" — they're most commonly depicted as slaves.
  • Humanoid Aliens: Phagors, the other dominant intelligent species on Helliconia, look like a cross between a yeti and a minotaur.
  • Imported Alien Phlebotinum: At the start of the second book, a dead man washes ashore a beach with a digital watch hidden on his person.
  • Instant Ice: Just Add Cold!: An important plot point in the first novel, when a Shay Tal seemingly flash-freezes a group of charging phagors who just happened to fall into a pond. She's never able to recreate it (since flash-freezing is a rather fickle phenomenon) but it feeds her reputation as a sorceress.
  • Interrogating the Dead: Both humans and phagors can enter shamanic trances to communicate with their dead ancestors, although human ones tend to be tremendously pissed off that they're dead and downright abusive to the descentants. They can't lie, though, and occasionally let something useful slip in between the insults.
  • Lost Technology: Due to the cyclical nature of civilization, the humans of Helliconia, despite starting in some cases at a near-stone age level, possess numerous devices that are much more advanced than they are capable of manufacturing, such as fine clocks or telescopes.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The human "gossies" and "fessups"; ancestral spirits seemingly able to be contacted by entering a trance. The Earth humans using long distance empathy on Helliconia. Despite these two possibly supernatural elements, the rest of the series is firmly in the "mundane" category. The "air octaves" and "land octaves" often mentioned in the books are used for various seemingly supernatural abilities, and yet are described suspiciously similar to magnetic fields.
  • Mundane Dogmatic: Despite being set on an alien world, the series reads more like a Fantasy novel (just without magic) due to the primitiveness of the human society and the novel's focus on the characters.
  • Our Minotaurs Are Different: The Phagors, the other sapient race of Helliconia and constant antagonists to mankind, resemble minotaurs.
  • Persecuted Intellectuals: In the first novel, the hunter Aoz Roon, after becoming the leader of human village where the plot takes place. He discourages scientific learning, as he doesn't want to have any "idle mouths" to feed (i.e. teachers, philosophers, etc). This sets him in direct conflict with Shay Tal, the village wisewoman, who sees herself as the persecuted intellectual extraordinaire, although it's repeatedly and strongly implied that they act like this because they're lusting after each other, but both are too proud to come to the other. Their young apprentices can all see it and are tired of it, especially that both have their points.
  • The Plague: Strikes cyclically, twice every Great Year (early in the spring and then in late fall). The first, "Bone Fever", kills half of who it afflicts, and those that survive lose at least a third of their body weight (and keep it off, as anorexia is a permanent side-effect). The second is correspondingly called "The Fat Death", which makes you gorge on anything edible, including your fellow persons, again killing about half of its victims. The virus is also lethal to non-Helliconians (i.e. Earthlings).
  • Precursors: Humans themselves. Humanity goes through the cycles as the "great years" pass, emerging from ignorance, building up, becoming relatively advanced, then falling back into war, ignorance, and eventually pitifulness again when the great winter falls. Cities rise up in the same location where they once were, since the ruins from past cycles are still standing (or at least the foundations provide an outline).
  • Prolonged Prologue: In the first novel, the lengthy opening details the life and times of Yuli, a man who goes on to found the village where the rest of plot takes place, generations later.
  • Secret Art: In Spring, all the guilds are based around these and showing the guild annals (which contain historical information reaching the last Year) to an outsider is punishable by death. To contrast this, Shay Tal not only wants to teach all women, she allows men into her academy.
  • Small, Secluded World:
    • Some maggots are mentioned which live in nuts, and people in-story think that the maggots must be very surprised when someone eats the nut, and the maggots suddenly realize (if they could think) that the world is much bigger than they thought. Yuli, protagonist of the prologue, compares his companions who spent their whole life in a cave to the maggots.
    • The Earthlings on Avernus, tasked to monitor the planet from their orbital station, eventually fall prey to this trope. With Earth too distant to bother communicating with and Helliconia's surface off-limits due to the virus, the monitors' society ceases to acknowledge anything beyond their station's confines as a part of their reality, and degenerates into indifference, decadence, rebellion, savagery, insanity and finally extinction over the course of the trilogy.
  • We Will Use WikiWords in the Future: Summer has WikiWord names. The story is set in Earth's future, although the cultures on Helliconia have only reached the equivalent of Renaissance.
  • What Did You Expect When You Named It ____?: Helliconia is being constantly observed by Terrans from a Space Station called Avernus, which by the final book turns into utter chaos as its inhabitants go mad from being locked up in space. Perhaps it wasn't such a brilliant idea to name it after the entrance to the underworld.