1985’s Helliconia Winter is the third and final volume in Brian W. Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy.
General Luterin Shokerandit wins the battle of Isturiacha, crushing the forces of Campannlat. He returns to the capital to deliver news of his victory to the Oligarch of Sibornal, expecting a wondrous reward for his service.
His reward? Death.
Helliconia and its sun are retreating from the giant star that both orbit. A centuries-long winter looms. Also looming is a plague, the Fat Death, that kills that kills half of its victims. Luterin’s armies may well have been exposed to the Fat Death and may be bringing it back to Sibornal.
The Oligarch of Sibornal (whose true identity is a closely held secret) has the power to do whatever is necessary to preserve Sibornal as the winter approaches. The solution: exterminate Luterin and his army as plague vectors.
The Oligarch has taken other steps to protect Sibornal from the Fat Death. Trade with other regions is summarily halted, which causes great distress to trader Odim. The trader is thus willing to conspire with Luterin. Luterin and Odim flee the Oligarch via ship.
Too bad for them that the Oligarch was right. Luterin has brought the plague onboard. Most of the crew and passengers die. But Luterin, Odim, and the doctor that saved them, one Toress, survive. Temporarily. The Oligarch is relentless. His forces are everywhere in Sibornal. Luterin and his companions may have survived their voyage, but it’s not clear that they can evade the Oligarch’s soldiers.
The Helliconia trilogy was an interesting experiment, not least because unlike certain other ambitious projects of the same era, Aldiss actually delivered the full trilogy over a four-year time span (1982 – 1985).
But what of the Terran space station orbiting high above Helliconia, you ask? What happened to it? Nothing good. Much the same can be said of women’s rights on Helliconia, which are essentially non-existent throughout the series.
The Helliconia books are an SFnal exploration of Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which proposes that the Earth and its flora and fauna form a self-regulating ecosphere. The series takes a bird’s eye view of grand historical and climatic processes on Helliconia, assuming that this planet too is an ecosphere. Each novel illustrates developments with a closer look at the trials and travails of individual Helliconians as they try to survive. The author also adds a precis of thousands of years of Terrestrial history and its extra-solar colonies.
With each volume, Aldiss’ interpretation of the Gaia hypothesis drifts farther and farther from scientific verisimilitude. Lovelock might have meant Gaia as a useful metaphor but Helliconia’s analog appears to have intent.
Luterin’s story, on the other hand, is straightforward. Sibornal’s Oligarch is an autocrat in the model of a Stalin or Qin Shi Huang, one whose decrees are carried out without question. Too bad that the Oligarch is wrong. We eventually learn that the Fat Death leaves its survivors better able to survive winter. Thus, the hard man who makes the hard decisions in the name of the greater good is in fact reducing the odds that Sibornal and its people will survive the ice age.
One might assume that the Oligarch is ignorant of the utility of the plague. Oddly enough, he knows that in the past it has helped his realm survive. But in the future? Can the future be different?
(The Oligarch) did not know what would happen if Sibornal was rid of (the means by which Fat Death spreads) forever. He just believed that it was something necessary to do, whatever the consequences. We don’t know what will happen either, despite what it may say in some fusty old documents….” More to himself, he said, “I think he felt some drastic break with the past was needed, no matter what the cost. An act of defiance, (…)”
How that worked out for Sibornal in the long run is left to the reader’s imagination. One cannot help but notice that Terrestrial humans ultimately have to learn to live within the constraints of the ecosphere. Indeed, the novel speculates in passing that intelligent beings who do not learn how to accommodate their world’s version of Gaia fail to pass the Great Filter; this is why the sky is not filled with the radio chatter of a myriad of civilizations.
Human-scale stories are inherently too brief to show the processes Aldiss wanted to highlight. But his compromise between bird’s eye view and ground level works well enough. However, I was not keen on what I saw as climate mysticism nor on the generally lamentable treatment of women throughout the entire story. Still, it was an ambitious effort, worth a glance1 just on that basis.
1 Provided you can read a couple of thousand pages at a glance.