Jack the Bodiless, Julian May

Jack the Bodiless, Julian May

Jack the Bodiless, Julian May

And we’re heading into the homestretch of the Julian May re-read I started back in September! I might end up drawing this out long than one book a week, mainly because I think I’ll be sad when I’m done.

Jack the Bodiless is the first in the Galactic Milieu trilogy and it’s one hell of a ride.  Taking place nearly 40 years after the events of Intervention, it again focuses on the Remillard family and is told, in part, as a memoir written by Rogatien Remillard. And, as in the Intervention duology, drunk Uncle Rogi is the best.

And he plays a slightly more active role in this book, too.

There’s a few things going on in this book–we learn more about the different alien races and I have to admit, it amuses me that the Krondaku are tentacle monsters and that the Simbiari are slimy green humanoids. May is not-so-gently poking fun at these particularly hoary tropes of SF (I especially love the scene in the Krondaku settlement at the Galactic settlement).

The heart of this book, though, is taken up with the clandestine pregnancy of Teresa Kendall, the birth of Jon (Jack) Remillard, the adolescence of Marc Remillard, and the birth and growth of Fury and Hydra.

One of the conditions of being accepting into the Galactic Milieu was the imposition of reproductive restrictions that I think most people would find onerous and oppressive–basically, if you have a defective genome (as decided by the Simbiari), no kids for you. And if you’re an operant and have an illegal pregnancy and then an illegal baby (never mind that no person is illegal), then it’s death penalty time. Also death penalty time for anyone who helps you out. It is seriously draconian and there’s really no good reason for it except for the fact that May needed to have some narrative tension around Teresa’s pregnancy with Jack. Teresa, after having four children and a number of stillbirths and then forced abortions has become secretly pregnant after being prohibited from future pregnancies by the Simbiari. For whatever reason, she feels she needs to have one last child and becomes pregnant with Jack and when she is found out, she’s informed by her family that they will terminate the pregnancy.  She has metapsychically called to Marc–her oldest son but still a kid at 14 years old–for help.

Anyhow, Marc figures out an incredibly complicated plan to spirit Teresa and Rogi away to the wilds of Canada, in the middle of a Sasquatch reserve. Because Bigfoot apparently exists. This really is a charming and readable section–we get to have lots of scenes with Rogi and Teresa (who is more or less an actual character and not just a baby-making vessel like so many of the other women married to Remillard men–at least until her narrative purpose is exhausted and May’s done with her) and we come to understand how extraordinary her fetus is and why she was willing to flout the law on his behalf. There is also a fairly explicit in terms of gore childbirth scene which is not something I’ve seen in a whole lot of SF books and while not something I’d want to encounter all the time it was nice to see it presented as a very, ah, organic process.

So there’s that going on and then there’s the Fury/Hydra plot going on, too. It’s a bit confusing in places but by the end of the book it’s clear who Hydra is and looking at this after knowing where this story line is going, it’s fairly clear who Fury is, too.  I don’t think it’s possible to really know for sure that it is this person on the first read through, though.

There’s also a lot about suffering in this book–this book is, in may ways, very religious. There is definitely a mystical component to Jack’s condition and as he is self-aware in utero, the birth experience is presented as something that will cause him pain and suffering but which will also allow him to grow. As we recall from the Pliocene Exile books, pain is one way in which metapsychics achieve latency–it is apparently one way in which they can also increase their abilities.  Jack’s suffering and eventual transformation into little more than a disembodied floating brain (srsly) is cast in religious terms.

Something else I noticed about this book is the way the Remillards know they have tons of privilege and see it as their due and rightful inheritance. They all get appointed to big deal positions in the Galactic Milieu, they’re celebrities, they can literally get away with murder. It’s quite troubling, to be honest, especially when you see that all the other characters are basically tokens and foils to show how awesome the Remillards are–even when they’re being assholes, they’re still awesome in the narrative. I can’t say it was comfortable reading them skirt around laws and knowing that they can get away with pretty much whatever they wanted because of who they are–but then again, that’s often how privilege works.

I also enjoy the many times Atoning Unifex shows up in the book, especially when he’s there to boss around Marc. It’s delightful. And Unifex feels less distant in this book than he did in Intervention, which is also a good thing. I also really liked noticing that the seeds of the Metapsychic Rebellion were independent of Marc’s rivalry with Jack and that the concept of Mental Man and the imagery of the Angel of the Abyss isn’t derived from that rivalry, either and that even the faceless (so far) entity known as Fury has a role to play in the upcoming tragedy. For it is a tragedy that will be happening over the next two books.

The Metaconcert, Julian May (Intervention #2)

The Metaconcert, Julian May

The Metaconcert, Julian May

Hey! It’s our 100th post here at the Radish! And we still have lots of things to say! Whee!

And to celebrate, how about some more Julian May? (At this point, I know I’m about the only person who cares about these books and I do not care!)

The second half of Intervention is The Metaconcert and things are much darker in what, at the time, was the future but is now the past. That’s sort of the awesome thing about these books–the intervention part of things takes place in 2012.

My main complaint about this book is that there isn’t enough drunk Uncle Rogi or enough scenes with aliens–there’s a lot more political maneuvering amongst the various human factions and honestly, I find it kind of boring. I’d rather read more about the Remillard family–even about super-perfect Denis–than about politicians in Washington.

On the other hand, this book is episodic enough that if one section isn’t very interesting then there will be another one shortly.

The book ends with the Intervention–that is, all the aliens showing up to say hello and it feels really anti-climactic for some reason. I’m not sure why–possibly because I was really disengaged from most of the story. I don’t know.

Uncle Rogi continues to be awesome, though. And I did enjoy the bits with the evil operants and I wanted to know more about how Kieran O’Connor’s mind worked–especially in light of his relationship with his daughter and with Victor Remillard. Shannon O’Connor’s death is also extremely suggestive of things that will go down in the next set of books…

But one thing that strikes me as a fundamental flaw is this: for all the talk of the need for operants to be non-violent and to use peaceful means to achieve their goal of acceptance among the population, there is not a single mention of the civil rights movement in the US which was also a movement that was essentially non-violent. Or Indian independence from Great Britain, also a movement with a strong non-violent component. The only non-white players are literally inscrutable Asians or a Tibetan monk who ends up a martyr.  It just doesn’t sit right with me–and I know that’s not the story May was wanting to tell, but the sheer white man-ness of this story gets to be a bit much after a while.

So these two books are a useful bridge to the Galactic Milieu series, but I don’t know if they’re really worth reading outside of that context–I think that if I didn’t know that there were three more books to come that I wouldn’t have bothered finishing the second half of Intervention. It really just didn’t work for me. More drunk Uncle Rogi!

The Surveillance, Julian May (Intervention #1)

The Surveillance, Julian May

The Surveillance, Julian May

It’s time for another installment in my Julian May re-read! Spoilers ahoy! (If it’s possible to spoil a book published in 1987.)

The Surveillance is the first half of Julian May’s Intervention, which she calls a vinculum between the Saga of Pliocene Exile and that Galactic Milieu trilogy. Intervention is now available as a single volume, however I own the two separate volumes and that’s how I’m going to review them.

Much like the Saga of Pliocene Exile, there is the use of multiple points of view and episodic chapters to propel the story forward. Set in an analogue of “now”, I find it interesting how un-dated this story is, considering. The Soviet Union persists into the 1990’s, but the technology in use isn’t laughably implausible and this story is firmly grounded in SF tradition–specifically Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John, explicitly referred to and summarized in the text (to the advantage of those who haven’t yet read it, ahem).

The heart of this book is the Remillard family, specifically Rogatien Remillard (Uncle Rogi) and his nephew, Denis. Prompted to write his memoirs by an entity he refers to as the Family Ghost, who is also known as Atoning Unifex (giant clue!), the story starts in his childhood and proceeds until his middle age and the point at which Denis and his fellow metapsychics come out of the closet, as it were.

While this is all very interesting, I have to admit on this reading that Denis Remillard’s precociousness really rubbed me the wrong way. He seems very Charles Wallace-esque, from his appearance to his amazing specialness that must be nurtured no matter the cost. One of the reasons May does this, of course, is to engender sympathy and horror at Denis’s eventual downfall in the Galactic Milieu trilogy. He’s presented as a quietly heroic figure–and one who is isolated from the wider population, partially by choice/inclination and partially by geography and culture–much is made of the fact that the family is a bunch of anti-assimilationist Francophones.

Something else I find interesting and somewhat implausible is the ease with which Denis establishes not only his academic career but also the careers of those surrounding him, his Coterie. Many of them were non-traditional students who were easily able to gain admittance to Dartmouth and who proceeded to do all their degrees at that institution at a relatively high rate of speed. I know this is science fiction, but that’s one disbelief I’m unable to suspend.

In between Uncle Rogi’s drunken reminiscences (I seriously love drunk Uncle Rogi), May intersperses short chapters told from different perspectives: from the Milieu ship that is performing the surveillance alluded to in the title, from the Lylmik ship which is freaky and awesome and hey, it’s the same kind of ship that the Tanu/Firvulag used when they left their homeland, and to the development of other metapsychic groups in other countries. I find it extremely interesting that the lawful good metapsychics tend to be the ones who are affiliated with academic or governmental institutions while the chaotic evil ones are basically mobsters. It’s an interesting dichotomy and while the metapsychics reveal themselves at the end in an appropriately dramatic fashion via international press conference, the text focuses on the military applications almost exclusively; there are some upset Swiss bankers, too–but that’s it by way of industrial espionage.

May continues to be an engaging storyteller and this is a pretty easy book to read. The episodic structure works really well and even if only a handful of characters are really developed well, it’s no matter because there are a lot of them. And there enough tantalizing hints dropped to, at least, make me want to keep reading to see what happens next. It must have been murder back in 1987 when this was published to have to wait just over a year to see what happened next–there’s that much narrative tension built up at the end.

The Adversary, Julian May

The Adversary, Julian May

The Adversary, Julian May

The Adversary is the fourth and final volume in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile and is the culmination of everything that’s been set up in the previous three books.  However, it takes some time to get to the denouement.

Aiken Drum has subsumed the metapsychic abilities of both Mercy Lamballe and Nodonn Battlemaster–and they’re apparently arguing in his head. He is unable to sleep and his own abilities are greatly depleted. With the Grand Combat coming up, he has to be sure that none of his subjects are aware of this–and eventually he goes to Elizabeth for healing.

Elizabeth finally starts to play a more active role in this book–one of the central scenes is the one where she and Marc Remillard heal a black torc child and are able to push him to full operancy without a torc. It is this scene which convinces Elizabeth that Marc isn’t all that much of a monster and which lays the groundwork for his actions at the end of the book.

Of course, this is also the book which reveals precisely what Mental Man is and I have to admit: I am a bit flummoxed at the way everyone is more or less horrified by it. Maybe I’ve read too many books about the singularity for the idea of disembodied human intelligence to be frightening, even if augmented by technology such as Marc’s cerebroenergetic suit (how the hell is that thing powered? nuclear reactor?), but it has always seemed to me that everyone is seriously overreacting here. But then again, I remember reading Joan D. Vinge’s Catspaw in the late 80’s and being utterly intrigued by what happens to Eleanor taMing in that book, so I’m not the best person to be horrified at the idea of disembodied human intelligence, be it in the form of floating brains or uploading one’s consciousness into a computer (speaking of books I should reread…)

Other things going on in this book: the ongoing torture of poor Tony Wayland who is ultimately reunited with his Howler bride (and who hopefully gets to live out the rest of his days peacefully), the travel of Remillard and his rebels back to Europe, and the political machinations of the three exotic factions–as it become clear that the goals of the Howlers do not match with those of the Firvulag, they secretly ally themselves with the Tanu.

I really love the Howlers, especially Sugoll and his human-Tanu hybrid wife, Katlinel. I wish there were more about them, because the bits we do get are fantastic, especially when Sugoll is talking to Sharn and Ayfa about how they are able to work in metaconcert fairly easily because they had to learn to cooperate to survive while the rest of the Firvulag did not (and this is, in fact, a fatal flaw for the Firvulag). I love Crazy Greggy’s devotion to them and his work to help them fix their genome–it is an interesting puzzle for him, but he is so empathic and caring towards them as well. He clearly sees them as individuals and not just as test subjects.

When May sets her mind to it, she is really great at characterization and it’s almost a shame that these books are so heavy on plot and light on characterization–the relationship between Marc and Elizabeth really suffers from this. May is pretty clearly uncomfortable writing about romantic relationships (the Stein/Sukey relationship seems to be an exception and they aren’t even close to being major players) so whatever it is between Marc and Elizabeth is so subtle as to be nearly non-existent–they go off to the Duat galaxy at the end of the book, but it’s really unclear if they also love each other. Elizabeth seems to love Marc–there’s a telling scene where she runs to him in the back half of the book–but Marc is really opaque and hard to read. His actions towards his children at the end show that he isn’t completely the monster they all believe him to be, although he does some pretty monstrous things in this book amidst all his flitting about helping random people while he’s learning to teleport (so glad he saved Basil, I love Basil).

Overall, this group of four books is highly readable, even nearly 30 years after initial publication and while there are some things are problematic to modern eyes, they have aged surprisingly well. Certainly much better than some other books from this era. May is, I think, ridiculously unknown to contemporary readers and that’s a damn shame.

The Nonborn King, Julian May

The Nonborn King, Julian May

The Nonborn King, Julian May

The third book in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile is The Nonborn King. Taking place immediately after the events of the first two books (which I wrote about here and here), the Tanu, Firvulag, and humans find themselves in the midst of a lot of social upheaval. Aiken Drum has set himself up as the Tanu’s King and has taken Mercy Lamballe as his consort. He wants to re-work a lot of the ritual gatherings of the Tanu and Firvulag so they are less lethal–a smart choice with the reduced populations of both groups in the aftermath of the flood.

Elizabeth has retreated to Black Crag, where she has set herself up as the planet’s dirigent–a role which is not fully explained in this volume. Felice is insane and is collecting spare golden torcs to hoard them in her mountain lair in between her searches for Culluket (who is being protected by Aiken Drum).

We also find out about a group of humans who came through the time gate 28 years before the beginning of the series–Marc Remillard and the surviving members of the Metapsychic Rebellion. They came through the gate with a metric ass-ton of future tech and weapons, so were able to avoid capture by the Tanu and promptly set sail for North America. The Tanu decided to pretend it had never happened.

Despite lots of people getting killed off in The Golden Torc, there is still a pretty big and unruly cast of characters in this book –and it definitely makes it hard to keep up with what’s going on if one isn’t paying very close attention. (Attention, what’s that?) There are the Firvulag and the Howlers and a few stray Tanu who have survived the flood (notably Nodonn, who is super-important towards the end of this book and who has some seriously icky stuff happen to him by those who rescue him). There are the various groups of humans, all with their own agendas.

And then there’s Marc Remillard. His first scenes are very interesting–he is an isolated figure who likes to fish without using any of his prodigious mental powers. He is ineffably melancholy and generally described in a way that none of the other characters are–it is almost loving, really. He is an enigma wrapped in a mystery with a core of secrecy underneath it all. We know he’s done something bad but not what–and this is, I think, deliberate. May wants us to find Marc intriguing and sympathetic–and then she shows us what a cold-hearted bastard he can be when he decided to turn his son into a fish (but he got better) for interrupting his conquest of the tarpon (a kind of fish). Marc is only interested in one thing: finding a world with a coadunate Mind that will come and fetch them from their exile. To this end, he has a cerebroenergetic suit that boosts his metafaculties like whoa. He goes into the suit for a month at a time and during which time he is basically on life support. His children and the children of the other rebels are getting tired of this–so while he’s in the suit, they take one of the boats and run away to Europe (they end up in Africa because Marc ends up fucking up the winds for them).

So there’s a lot going on in this book. A LOT. And it is, for the most part, pretty interesting. We have Aiken Drum showing off his metapsychic abilities and politicking–he’s an ass, but an entertaining ass. We have Elizabeth talking Felice into letting her try to heal her, with predictably disastrous results (there are intimations that her parents may have sexually abused her as an infant and small child and that this is why she is broken–this is really offensive, for a lot of different reasons that I shouldn’t have to go into). There’s Mercy, plotting against Aiken as best she can and thwarting him at the end–and then him fucking her to death. And then there are all the new players, doing their best to manipulate everyone into doing what they thing they should do.  Up to and including creating a metaconcert program intended to kill both Aiken Drum and Felice (we see what you did there, Marc Remillard).

I am definitely still finding these books entertaining but I am also looking forward to the books set on modern-day (ish) Earth and the Galactic Milieu. There are times when all the characters doing their things feels a bit forced and I am not sure how I feel about none of the characters ever really changing–they’re all remarkably static in their characterizations which is at times really frustrating and which is, I think, a possible artifact of May’s use of archetypes for them.

I’ll be writing about the final book in the Saga of Pliocene Exile next week, then I’ll take a short detour into some other stuff before jumping into the rest of the books in this setting.