The Helliconia trilogy, by Brian W. Aldiss, is an epic microcosm of a story – a tale of civilizations trapped by circumstances and directed by forces larger and more implacable than any human construct – their environment. It reminds us that we’re part of a larger fabric, that we have a place in our habitat, our planet, and the stars themselves.

I initially didn’t see any value in picking this book apart as part of my One Person Book Club (to contrast, the only previous book I’ve reviewed through this lens, The Dispossessed, had several obviously relevant themes wrapped in a much less epic bow). I didn’t see how it could relate to either sustainable cities or my time in Vietnam, but I’d heard it was considered a Masterwork, and (completed) sci-fi series are kind of my jam. So, what the hell. I gave it a shot. I’d been reading way too much news recently, anyway.

It wasn’t until partially through the second book that I came to see the connections between the larger themes and how they related to my own interests. The enormous, detailed environmental canvas provides a cosmic level of context for the actions of the characters (a context that we humans can easily forget we’re a part of), letting us see the natural, sociological, and psychic ramifications of a cataclysm that shook nature itself to the core.

The themes of natural change are all-important. The unusual phenomena which created this environment dominates everything in this story. The three stories detail the fallout of a solar system’s disastrous encounter with a second star, which causes the climates, evolution, and civilizations of a planet to spin wildly out of control, colliding in fascinating and mind-expanding ways over the course of centuries and eons.

A diagram of Helliconia’s altered orbit.

After a rogue star, Freyr, was captured by Helliconia’s Sun eons ago, Helliconia’s orbit became highly elliptical, creating seasons that last for centuries. The principle focus of the series is on changes wrought on each civilization during the course of the Great Year, which is made up of 1,825 regular years. Entire civilizations are birthed in the spring, flourish in the summer, and fall in the winter. Helliconia Spring’s story begins with humans tentatively peeking outside after centuries underground, their memory of the scientific and technological advances achieved in the previous Great Year virtually eradicated.

Consisting of three volumes, Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, and Helliconia Winter [and recently consolidated into a single tome, appropriately], the books tells us the story of Helliconia through three different POVs.

First and foremost are the stories of the individuals and civilizations of Helliconia itself, observed first hand. One step removed, we see the earth-humans of the Alvernus Observation Station, cursed to watch, analyze, and broadcast the drama unfolding below, but prevented from participating in it (due to a deadly virus that doesn’t allow Earth-humans to adapt to the wildly shifting climes). Finally, we zoom out another layer, observing as the remaining inhabitants of Earth watch the unfolding crises of a sister-civilization in flux, broadcast over 1000 light years by the scientific equipment on the Alvernus. We, the readers, are a fourth observation station, viewing humanity and nature through both macro and micro lens and becoming aware of an almost divine spiritual connection between organisms and the environments that produce them.

Phagor and Ostrich-horse.

Early on we are introduced to the Phagors, an alien race (that I imagine look like horned Chewbaccas riding ostrich-horses) that has long been feared and hated by mankind. While the Great Summer may belong to the humans, Winter unequivocally belongs to the Phagors. The Phagors are the original sentient species of Helliconia, and have a long-lived race memory (thanks to the functional psychic underworld operating on the planet – more on this in a bit) of the humans as usurping monkey pets. Mankind has evolved parallel to Earth-humans (and are one of several branches of humanity still extant on Helliconia) and, for the purposes of the story, essentially outwardly identical to the humans of Earth and the orbiting Alvernus. As humans regain knowledge lost centuries before, advances in biology, astrophysics, geology, government, and religion wreak sociological havoc among the emerging societies.

It was as I started book three that I began to appreciate the epic, massive themes Aldiss had built in this grand cathedral of a series. I identified three main themes I was interested in:

The first major actor is the ever-changing environment.

The constantly shifting ecological landscape and its effects are the central focus of the series, in that the main character of the series is arguably the planet of Helliconia itself – every other individual is just along for the ride. Aldiss artfully captures the very first awakenings of an organic entity irrevocably altered by a cataclysm that bathed virtually every cell on the planet in waves of hard radiation. Entire ecosystems are carefully established and used to dramatic effect, showing us how nature found a way to cope with such an erratic and potentially life-destroying event – and foreshadowing the effects this same event would have upon the native intelligences brutally vying for control of the planet.

In many ways, each of the books (and especially Winter) is nothing more than an extravagant travelogue, documenting the inexorably changing climate for us each step of the way. Nature is depicted as harsh and inscrutable, its methods for survival and evolution brutal yet necessary. Changed and altered by their environment, humans must physically accept their role in the natural order or be eliminated and replaced.

The second defining wrinkle he introduced was the role of humans… and our unusual ability to deny our natural niche.

It took the usual personal drama – murder, gender inequality, brutality, power struggles, natural disasters, and the everyday life of a people subjected to vast and powerful forces – of any great story and used it to tell a powerful story firmly set within the sphere of human imagination, yet constantly shaped by an environment with no regard for the individual, only continued existence of the whole.

It’s easy for the people to Earth to become obsessed with Helliconia, the only intelligent life they’ve discovered in the universe, because in a very real sense they are just as human as they are – prone to both great hubris and great acumen. It’s an astounding biological quirk that the two races are physically so similar, but it is the symmetry of their minds that captures the attention of Earth, and the reader. It is soon clear that humans themselves, wherever they call home, are their own worst enemy – but also the only potential source of their own survival.

A third long-term player is the underworld, a psychically-accessible cache of deceased sentient beings that have existed on Helliconia.

Both Phagors and Humans have the ability to physically go into ‘pauk’ (a sort of deep meditation) and speak to their ancestors. In a system where record-keeping is lost or destroyed during the Great Winter, Aldiss posits that this is an evolutionary advantage. These ‘gossies’ of the dead are initially depicted as cruel and wicked in the Spring, seeking to trap visitors’ souls, but by the second book we are sensing a change – a more helpful attitude. At first, it seems unconnected to any of our other threads… but all is not what it seems. The underworld in book three has completed the transformation into a benevolent extra-natural entity. Besides the implication of a physical soul that can be separated from the body, it amplifies the importance of histories – oral, written, or psychic – in setting a course for our shared futures.

Changes happen rapidly both to and within the human civilizations. The bulk of book two, Helliconia Spring, concerns a longer political/dynastic drama between two nation-states and the preparations for the height of the Great Summer, only 80 years hence, when much of their two nations will suffer drought and crippling heat that will last for generations.

On the station Alvernus, philosophy has diverged in a major way from that on Helliconia or Earth. Born into essential bondage for a goal they can neither experience firsthand (as the virus that allows Helliconian life to weather the Great Year is lethal to them) nor know the reactions to (as Earth is one thousand light years in the future), the scientific clans and elders of the station have resorted to questioning the very nature of reality itself. They have become ungrounded, so to speak – any psychic or natural connection to either world is no longer within their grasp. As the centuries roll by and the Great Year grinds on, science and observation begin to falter on the station. Without a purpose in a larger ecological picture, the inhabitants slowly become unhinged from the moors of civilization and their own humanity.

Book three, Helliconia Winter, is the most layered book in the series. It has built the ideas of a necessary, psychic bond between planet and the life it hosts into one of survival and evolution for all parties involved. Earth has experienced a nuclear holocaust, but humankind has emerged again, wiser and more in tune with their place in the grand scheme of things. The drama on Helliconia becomes more than must-see TV on Earth – it’s the experiences and hopes of an entire species, longing for its own childhood and desperately needing the offspring of its soul to avoid the mistakes they made. Everyone knows the people, drama, environment, and situation on Helliconia, thanks to the broadcast from the Alvernus… until the Alvernus ceases to function.

In one final push to help tie the civilizations of Helliconia together over their long winters, to strengthen the living memory available through pauk, the humans of Earth try something unprecedented – empathy. The series presents the evolution of Helliconia’s underworld from malevolent and hollow to emotional and benevolent as the result of an intensive wave of empathy from every remaining soul on Earth, over an extended period of time. The two planets, now inextricably entwined, continue to thrive and rebuild themselves in ways that neither can fathom or know. Humans on Earth have been so re-grounded in their environment that it makes no difference whether they know the outcome – simply to try is what is desirable.

Meanwhile, things have gone poorly on the Alvernus. Without a home planet or natural ecosystem to ground them, physically or psychically, the scientific clans of the station descend into tribalism, barbarism, and cannibalism. All of the -isms, really, including some seriously messed up genetic stuff. Needless to say, the story makes clear that without a connection to their own home, and a larger unifying structure where they play a part, they are adrift, lost, alone in the void, and unable to call for help.

As Earth heals itself and Helliconia is strengthened by the outpouring of intergalactic empathy, the souls trapped on the orbiting Alvernus fall into hell, ironically unable even to see their own downfall. Deserters struggle to settle nearby asteroids and moons, but each attempt fails unequivocally – without a connection to the natural system that developed them, some role to play in a larger production, permanence is not an option, only transience: a footprint on a dusty, airless rock, and a broken-down re-broadcasting station full of genetic monstrosities and human bones. Their role in connecting the two planets was vital, but unsustainable.

Now that I’ve gotten the nuts and bolts out of the way, let’s see how this inspired me to think about Ho Chi Minh City, development, urbanism, and community! My thoughts about this series grew more complicated as I began to understand Aldiss’ larger complex themes. Once it began to move away from ordinary “historical sci-fi” and begin asking the big questions, I latched on, and hard. I find it both comforting and grounding to think that we are no different than any organism, designed to fill a role and perform certain vital functions within a larger whole. I believe that recognizing this fact, and then consciously designing with it in mind can bring about positive changes to any environment where humans live, bringing advantages for both humans and nature.

Climate Change, Hubris, & Acumen


Earth is now in the middle of an unprecedented era of environmental change, and the actions we take/don’t take soon will reverberate for decades and centuries. (Let’s for the moment forget how ridiculously politically charged this subject is in America.) The Helliconia trilogy slams home one idea unequivocally: A civilization can either adapt with their environment or they can fight it… but a fight will irrevocably end in failure. Ignoring one’s place in the natural order can and will result in a catastrophe dooming the participants. Fortunately, humans are really great at both completely ignoring objective reality and making spontaneous, accurate judgement calls. Humans continue to show both great wisdom and great folly in this series, but the upside is always there: we’re slowly getting it. Acumen is winning.

One of our most genius human qualities is the ability to live in almost any environment on our planet. Climate change on Helliconia is dramatically presented as a constantly changing ‘new normal’ where humans must either adapt or die. Throughout the books there are individual characters that champion adapting and preparing for an altered tomorrow, and others that oppose any change at all as premature or fear-mongering. Hubris wins in the end (with the possibility that at least one northern kingdom has essentially committed suicide, and possibly doomed all of humanity), but the ecological cycle trundles on, unforgiving and monolithic. Nature waits for no man.

As an artist, my belief in the human spirit is almost absolute. I really do believe, given time, knowledge, and determination, that humanity’s leaders can find a way out of the climate change box we’re painting ourselves into. Through forward thinking and a deep, instinctual need to propagate ourselves, I believe we’ll probably pull it together before it’s too late. If nothing else, the earth will survive – humanity itself surviving, however, is not a foregone conclusion. We must work for and earn our place at the table of Earth’s ecological system.

Empathetic Thought & Community

Home in the Helliconian universe means more than where one is born. As an organism dedicated to fulfilling a niche in an larger ecological picture, humans learn that not only are they not alone in the universe, but that they’re inseparable from their environment in any meaningful manner. To be taken away from the eco-function you were built to perform is no more or less than death. In the final book of the trilogy, Earth humans forge an empathic link to the psycho-fossilized remains of Helliconia’s sentient species, strengthening and amplifying them with a spirit of pure brotherhood.

These functions mean no less if we’re in an urban setting. In fact, I believe they become more prominent. If a city is to be functional, the needs of community are paramount. And who better to direct the evolution of a city than those in it? Cities in Texas, Maine, and Oregon do, but really shouldn’t, look exactly the same – natural adaptation and design centered around individuals and communities will inevitably foster greater flexibility and a city appropriate to its niche. As we design and build major metropolitan centers, we must always keep in mind the myriad communities that will be born, thrive, and die in their shadows. As designers, we’re partially responsible for making sure that the pathways to community are open and traced with the brightest of neon glow tape.

The book goes one step further, describing this empathic bond with a home planet as absolutely essential for the long-term survival of a race. The idea that we need empathy to survive and embrace our humanity is an idea I fully believe plays into making cities livable at all, let alone vital, sustainable hubs of commerce and imagination. Humans need communities, and cities provide the structure and myriad ways to find them. Design that encourages communities to flourish is good design.

Sustainability & Our  Ecological Niche

By the incomparable Gary Larson.

A sustainable future on Helliconia means always staying one step ahead of a changing specter of Death: anticipating what nature will do and skating to where the puck will be, albeit over periods of time longer than the average human lifespan. We are the sentient products of a living system, and as such, we have a responsibility to both shape and be shaped by our environment, no matter where in the world it is. Cookie-cutter cities do both humans and our environment a major dis-service. Discovering individual niches for our metropolitan areas IS more expensive and time-consuming, but the long-term benefits are undeniably beneficial, positively impacting health, community, and quality of life standards.

As our climate and environmental habitats change more and more rapidly, it will take increasingly audacious planning to return to some subset of ‘normal.’ Pollution and sustainability are issues that will become increasingly important to humans the world over in the coming decades as cities swell and nations continue to build out infrastructure for their citizens. Fortunately, the simplest idea of sustainability – that a point CAN be sustained at all – is within our grasp, while remaining completely foreign to the civilizations on Helliconia. Climate change can probably still be arrested or stalled, while any preparations that Helliconians make for their future will only be reliable or useful for a matter of decades at most. We are fortunate we have our stable orbit, our objective scientific community, and the creative problem-solving of our species to rely on in our ongoing planet-wide drama.

Many previously unrelated parts of the world are becoming connected through this drama. For instance, Ho Chi Minh City is located on a delta, and has unique ways of working with the river to maintain a habitat that works, more or less. Environment-specific problem-solving will become increasingly important in years to come as regions around the globe face new and uncertain conditions. Rotterdam, another delta city (and one with an expertise in water management) has joined a partnership with HCMC to share ideas about living with nature and urban infrastructure. It’s these kinds of partnerships that bode well for our ability to adapt.


These three subjects (hello, literary symmetry!) are merely the tip of the iceberg in the long term interplay of humans, our cities, and our environments. Transportation, services, urban design, education, and community (among so many other factors) are all playing into the ongoing evolution of the modern global city. Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy presents us with a compelling case study as he sets narrative threads in action that inevitably and eloquently demonstrate his views on what anchors and motivates civilizations. He manages to capture the joy and challenges of being human in a dangerous time.

I’m still in the process of exploring the massive, interdisciplinary field that is sustainable cities, and I’m sure that I’ve missed or misunderstood many aspects of it as I’ve tried to tie it to the monumental themes Aldis has erected. One thing is for certain, however: through his writing, the power of stories and the sublime beauty of empathy are shown to be two of the greatest assets of a sentient species, and the traits that redeem and absolve our future selves. Aldiss has created something worth contemplating here. It’s a layered work of beauty and insight, and one which holds its flaws up high, saying, We are Humanity, We aren’t perfect, But we love you and You should love us to.

If you have the time and interest in reading a dense and ecologically interesting (right up there with Dune or Robinson’s Mars trilogy, I’d say) series, I recommend it. I’m looking forward to re-reading this in the years to come.