A great writer has passed, Julian May 1931 – 2017

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Science fiction is undergoing a cinematic renaissance. Over the past few years we’ve had an undeniably great continuation of the Starwars saga, two populist reimaginings of Star Trek, and superhero shows to every taste. Bladerunner just had a remarkably tolerable sequel, albeit one that like the original, bombed in America. The most popular cartoon is a hard SF parody, and the best satire on Netflix is cerebral future shock. For ‘a that, there have been surprisingly few recent adaptations of major science fiction novels or series. Fewer still have been artistically or commercially successful. There’s no Rama or Ringworld movie, no Hyperion or Xeelee series. ‘Syfy’ channel efforts to bring life to Riverworld, Dune and Earth Sea have done more harm than good. The reason is undeniably budgetary. Sure, CG has come to the point where digital compositing is routinely used to take the place of location shooting. Yes, movies like Gravity have demonstrated an almost entirely digital set can, with care and expense appear photorealistic. However, the old fast, good, cheap equation still applies. In the case of CG the response is, ‘pick one’.

That’s one reason I have so much trepidation about the proposed adaptation of Julian May’s classic Saga of Pliocene Exile. Julian May died recently, at eighty six. She was perhaps my favourite writer. The books you stare deeply into as a child become the lens through which you view the world as an adult. As a tween I ate up late Victorian & Edwardian comic fiction, from Just William, to Jeeves and Wooster to Three Men in a Boat. To this day I still have an inappropriate fondness for the aesthetics and chummy noblesse oblige of late British imperium. When early adolescence hit, another perhaps only slightly less fanciful genre became my focus. I ate the greats of science fiction in huge, unchewed swallows – from Asimov and Clarke to Aldis, and Baxter. Later I nibbled weirder stuff, Lem, Dick, Ballard and Delany.

Science fiction was for me, as for so many others, an escape from a miserable adolescence. It spoke to the possibility of a future filled with wonder. Alien life and artificial intelligence offered the possibility that we, and I, were not alone. The endless vistas of space were a joyous vacation from the confines of early 90s Ireland. With its apologia of technological magic, science fiction offered a believable, and by inference hopeful future. One light years from Catholic Ireland, original sin, and the mundane suburbs of The Pale. From my wooden, inkwell holed desk in St Joesph’s Christian Brothers school in Drogheda, I could run the endless strips of Trantor. Wet arsed on the grey ceilinged beaches of Laytown, I could walk without rhythm across the sand dunes of Arakis. Each mind bending short story by Niven or Heinlein or Bester, offered the possibility of a word vivid and different, a world of hope and change, in a place and time that seemed devoid of both.

For an unhappy child in an unwholesome place, the believability of escapism was paramount. And no one justified her fantasies like Julian May. Her magic was the ability to craft from hokey tropes like telekinesis, spiritual possession and alien visitations, a world at once mundane and utopian. My exposure came through the journalist dad of a school friend. He was occasionally sent books with covers and premises to garish to review, and kind enough to pass on a few to me. That’s how I came across The Galactic Milieu series, and through those May’s best known work The Saga of the Exiles.

Julian May spent decades writing copious non fiction. Including “7,000 encyclopedia articles on science and technology, [and] over 200 juvenile nonfiction books on science, sports, and biography”. That experience gave her with a literally encyclopaedic general knowledge. Her narratives are bedded in a profound mythological erudition, rivalling that of that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkin. The Saga of the Exiles is saturated with Scandinavian and Celtic mythology (one fabulous conceit of the books is that they explain the origin of the myths that inspired them). Not to mention fanatical attention to the detail of geology, mountaineering, materials science, cordon bleu cookery and a hundred other disciplines. Her characterisation is rooted not in Joesph Campbell, but in Jung’s primordial archetypes – as filtered through mythology and classical literature.

The books are littered with wordplay connecting characters and ancient alien races to Irish mythology. For example the Firvulag (a race in the Saga of the Exiles) take their name from the Fir Bolg, one of the first peoples of Ireland mentioned in the legendary volume of Irish pre-history Lebor Gabála Érenn. The Firvulag’s ancient rivals the Tanu, take their name from the Tuatha Dé Danann an ancient race of Irish gods. Their leader was Nuada Airgetlám, who becomes Nodonn Battlemaster, a powerful alien psychic in May’s universe. Game of Thrones might be the apex of contemporary fantasy world building, but for depth of mythological reference, complex psychologically diverse characters, and the fusion of the conceptual depth of SF with the magical conceits of fantasy, The Saga of the Exiles has it beat.

May blended science fiction and fantasy in a way only giants like Frank Herbert and Anne McCaffrey had previously attempted. Both in terms of content (fantastical beasts, Arthurian aristocracies, hyperspace travel) and mythic resonance. Her work took the tropes of fantasy seriously in a way that authors whose popularity transcended the genre (with notable exceptions like Ursula K. LeGuin and Susan Cooper) rarely did. Her taxonomy of ‘metaphysic’ mental abilities, developed out of a fascination with parapsychology. She reenergised the ‘next stage of human evolution’ trope by imagining super human abilities emerging gradually and inconsistently throughout human history; accounting for everything from ghostly apparitions to faith healers. As with the x-men franchise, the mistreatment and eventual acceptance of her psychic operants can be read as an allegory for the civil rights and the emerging American gay rights movement.

Over two interconnected series, May constructed a grand and intricate narrative. A genre defying tale of warring political dynasties, organised crime, time travel, serial killers, psychic abilities, mountain survivalism, ancient reptiles and near future space colonisation. Her books are undeniably science fiction, just as they are undeniably fantasy, noir, political thriller and philosophical treatise. Her characters are human, in a way that is all too rare even today in genre fiction. As likely to argue Quebecois history or the theories of Catholic philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as they are to battle on flying beasts over the skies of Pliocene Europe.

This unrivalled ambition was not always successful. Her work can at times become bogged down in sheer detail, and the meta-narrative that connects her two best series can seem initially impenetrable. The final two Galactic Milieu books inexplicably run out of steam, just as they arrival at a conflict that should bring the arcs of all her central characters to a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps these factors explain why her work is not as well remembered as it should be. Just as likely, the books are simply too difficult to categorise to be truly marketable. Like the high fantasy-SF of real life spy Cordwainer Smith; May’s fiction remains too human and quirky for genre fans, yet too fantastical and narratively focused for literary fiction.

Julian May died two weeks ago. Perhaps the rumoured TV adaptation of her Saga of the Exiles will give the books a second life, but I doubt it. The scope, ambition and sheer scale of her major series would require a visual treatment dwarfing Game of Thrones. They’ll likely remain second hand book store favourites, passed from fan to fan. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

“A professional writer for my entire adult life. Married to the same man for thirty years. Mother of three grownup children. I have three cats that keep the house messed up and a big Japanese Akita guard dog that goes backpacking with me. I grow cute little miniature roses. I play pop songs on a mighty theatre organ and love to go to the opera. I drive a bronco four-wheeler. I sew on a 1928-vintage electric sewing machine. I’m a practical, hard-headed pro. I write for money and make no bones about it. Starving for the sake of art has never appealed to me. I like to write and I’m good at it – but it’s my profession, not my pastime. “

Julian May, 1981

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