#WomeninSciFi (3): Saga of the Exiles – Julian May


I’m so happy and proud to have the incredibly knowledgeable Paul Graham Raven, a researcher in infrastructure futures and theory at the University of Sheffield, join the series. They way I met Paul was in a way where the internet functioned in such a positive way that we all always wanted the internet to be: One of my favorite SciFi and Comic writers is Warren Ellis who sends out a weekly newsletter that I enjoy reading. In this newsletter he recommended a futurism conference in Munich that I had not heart about before (shame on me) and that I immediately registered for. That was Zündfunk where Paul gave a really interesting talk on „Transhumanism„.

Later outside in the sunshine we chatted about his talk and also about Sci-Fi books we both love and recommend to each other. I’m still thankful for him recommending „Roadside Picnic“ to me. I mentioned that I plan to do a series on my blog about „Women in SciFi“ and was so happy when he joined in. Check out his website or follow him on Twitter, but first dive into the Exile series he features for the WomeninSciFi series:


Julian May – Saga of the Exiles

(The Many-Coloured Land / The Golden Torc / The Non-Born King / The Adversary)

Julian May was not quite the first science fiction author I read; that was Anne McCaffery. A colleague of my father’s – a die-hard sf reader, as was often the way with programmers and other such computer people in the mid-80s, and still is today – spotted racing my way through McCaffery’s Pern novels (which, now I come to think about it, may have come from his collection, too) and gave me what I now recognise as the classic pusher’s pitch: “Hey, kid – if you like those, then these are gonna blow your mind.” Maybe he started me on the female authors because I was so young; maybe because he just thought they were good. Whatever the reason, he did me a great favour.

He was not wrong about the blowing of my mind – not least because, at 8 ½ years old (the half mattered a whole lot at the time) I had to keep a dictionary handy for the big words. I was a precocious reader, but not that precocious.

It took me the best part of a year to make it all the way through the first volume of Saga of the Exiles (titled The Many-Coloured Land), at which point, sensing that I’d kinda levelled up as a reader in the interim, I went right back to the beginning and started again, McCaffery all but forgotten, along with the insipid boarding-school fictions and Enid Blyton derivatives that a child of my age and social background was supposed to be reading. Suddenly I had a new benchmark for what a book could do, what a book could be.

That benchmark has lasted, too – though it bears admitting that Exiles is showing its age a bit, just like I am. For instance, Exiles was perhaps the last big hoorah for science fiction that took the notion of psychic powers as one of its major tropes. And with the benefit of hindsight, the near-total lack of characters of colour in such a vast ensemble cast of humans is pretty hard to defend. (Though far from unusual at the time – and in May’s defence, it’s much more international a cast than was common in much USian sf of the same era. But my word, it’s pretty white… and the smattering of non-hetero characters have a tendency to either be broken from the outset, or to meet a sticky end, or both.)

But holy crap, the scale of it – the ambition, the audacity, and the water-tight synthesis of what were by then already hokey fantasy tropes with a grand sf concept. (And yeah, OK, also the wordcount; it’s a big series, though admittedly dwarfed by the latest advances in the manufacture of Extruded Fantasy Product.) Indeed, it’s way too big to summarise – and while I hold no brief for the Spoiler Police, the grand arc of Exiles is just too majestic to give away ahead of time.

(That said, anyone else raised in an environment saturated with Christian narratives, particularly the USian flavour of Roman Catholicism, or anyone who really knows their Jung, will probably see a good deal of it coming anyway – which is part of the satisfaction for an adult reader, I’d argue. Don’t let it put you off, in other words… but if you’re really allergic to Christian subtexts, I’d avoid the subsequent Galactic Milieu series like the plague; it’s far from being a bad set of books, but it’s weak sauce compared to Exiles.)

So, no summary – but here’s the opening hook:

Some time in the 21st Century, Earth has been semi-successfully onboarded into a kind of federation of alien species known as the Galactic Milieu, and humans are busily levelling themselves up (psychically, but also politically and socially) to become equal partners in it all. Or at least most of them are – but humans, it transpires, are not as integrated and psychically well-balanced a species as their new exotic peers, and Team Homo Sapiens still harbours a goodly selection of oddballs, misfits, screw-ups, recidivists and ne’er-do-wells of various types, for whom life in the rather happy-clappy and hyper-conformist Milieu is an experience frustrating, infuriating or downright intolerable. Furthermore, refusing to integrate is the one thing that the Milieu cannot tolerate; psychic readjustment, incarceration or euthanasia are pretty much the only options for such hardcore refuseniks.


Foto: Julian May Fanpage

There’s one other option, however: a fairly well-kept secret which can nonetheless be discovered, whether by luck, or through connections of the very lowest or very highest sort. See, a few decades earlier, a human scientist based somewhere in the French countryside managed to invent a time-gate – a portal to the Pliocene era of prehistoric Earth, going back six million years or so. It’s not the sort of discovery you’d think would go unnoticed, but for its one serious flaw: it’s a one-way trip, and anything organic trying to make the reverse journey from the Pliocene to the present instantly ages every single one of the six million years it just leapt over. (This is not a survivable process.) So the time-gate ends up relegated to being an obscure scientific curiosity, of interest to paleonaturalists and temporal physicists only.

But of course, if you find the present intolerable – or if the present finds you intolerable – the whole one-way thing is actually an advantage for atavists of all kinds. It’s an escape hatch into the deep past, to a world devoid not only of the Milieu’s alien do-gooders, but of homo sapiens itself: an idyllic, low- to no-tech past in which to live out your stubborn or broken outsiderdom without anyone giving you grief or hassle (other than your fellow outsiders, natch). And so, slowly at first, and with a conveniently blind eye turned by the Milieu authorities – who, while righteous and idealistic, are far from being fools, particularly when it comes to dealing with difficult humans – the late scientist’s wife starts letting people pass through the gate into the past, on the condition that they’re sterilised (so no booting up homo sapiens ahead of schedule) and take no advanced technologies (so no leaving anachronistic indications of their presence, or otherwise meddling with causality and history as currently understood from the geological record).

As the Saga starts, we follow one such rag-tag group of burn-outs and rejects as they make their own one-way trip into the deep past… where they discover that, while humans (other than those who went ahead of them) have very definitely not yet arrived on Earth, someone else is nonetheless already there.

That’s barely the first quarter of the first volume (of a total of four) I’ve summarised – which would be an impressive plot for a novel or set of novels, even absent all the other wild and crazy shit that turns up in May’s masterpiece of a series. It’s an epic adventure in every sense, populated (quite purposefully) with characters who are avatars for all the classic Jungian archetypes, plus a crafty twist on elves, goblins, orcs and all the rest – oops, I just went and gave the game away there, didn’t I? – and bulging with incredible set-pieces (one of which takes up almost half a volume on its own), prehistorical landscapes and critters, humour and horror and pathos, and buckets and buckets and buckets of sensawunda. It’s a staggering achievement, and quite unique.

It’s also – or so I have argued – the first real extended work of transhumanist fiction, albeit one written before that term entered the lexicon in any significant way. (Those creeps were still calling themselves “extropians” back then, those of them that were even born.) Like I said at the start, Saga of the Exiles is a little dated now, but it’s still a very substantial work, and written so deftly that you should be easily able to overlook the anachronisms and cliches. If you do – and I really recommend you try – you’ll get to experience one of the most ambitious and epic works the genre has ever produced.

„Julian Clare May (July 10, 1931 – October 17, 2017) was an American science fiction, fantasy, horror, science and children’s writer who also used several literary pseudonyms. She was best known for her Saga of Pliocene Exile.“ (Quelle Wikipedia)

Auf deutsch erschien die Serie unter dem Namen „Pliozän-Zyklus“ im Heyne Verlag ist aber leider momentan nur gebraucht erhältlich.

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