Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles (1981 – 1984)
Julian May is a name unfamiliar to most readers of Sci-Fi or Fantasy literature which is strange since she (Julian being the nom de plume of Julia May) is the author of a closely linked set of books published in two series which have been hailed since they first appeared in the 1980s as the equal of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien or Frank Herbert.
The novels making up the ‘Saga of Pliocene Exile’ (or the ‘Saga of the Exiles’) and the later ‘Galactic Milieu Series’ are without doubt Julian May’s greatest contribution to the Science-Fiction and Fantasy genres. Beginning in 1981 with the appearance of ‘The Many-Coloured Land’, the first of four books in the ‘Exile’ series, they are an epic work of remarkable ability, all the more so since they came from a writer then in her late 40s and early 50s whose only previous known SF work had been the novella ‘Dune Roller’, published two decades earlier. Taking some of the most familiar tropes of Science-Fiction (aliens, time travel, galactic civilizations, extraterrestrial encounters, psychic powers and super technologies) and blending them together in an intensely believable form, May produced a series that stands head and shoulders above most other efforts in the SF or Fantasy fields (indeed the phrase Science-Fantasy probably best sums up the feeling of the earlier ‘Exile’ books more than anything else). However, unlike most other SF literature, none of the human story was lost and the characters are anything but two-dimensional stereotypes or cardboard cut-outs. Instead they are fully rounded men and women (and others): complex human beings driven by the sort of passions and emotions we are all too familiar with and that are the essential ingredients of life – and drama.
The story of the ‘Saga’ itself is complex, beginning in a near future period of our own world, and then plunging back into a far, far distant past, as we follow the adventures and misadventures of a diverse group of men and women across primeval Europe and beyond. Indeed in is from the past and specifically our own Celtic past here in Ireland, that Julian May drew her chief inspiration. The world created for us is one populated by peoples and cultures that for anyone of Irish, Scottish or Welsh descent are both eerily familiar yet obviously alien. And if you’re worried that this is yet another awful rehashing of Irish and Celtic Mythology under Fantasy or Science-Fiction dress, don’t be. The Saga is much more than that, much greater, much grander, and at times altogether more moving. It is one of those very rare stories in literature where, when the final character has issued their final words, and the author has finished the last closing sentence, we are left with a profound sense of loss, as if we have left an old friend behind. The only other work to have touched me so was Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’, and the only work in my opinion to come close to rivalling it.
Some years later, to the gratitude of readers like me, Julian May returned to the universe she had created, but wisely not to the original story. Instead she took us forward (and backward) to a tale that explained how the world shown in the books of the ‘Saga’ came to be. It is, I suppose, a prequel, but that, with its dire overtones of other lesser prequels to SF and Fantasy works by lesser writers eager to cash in on the popularity of their books, implies something grubby and exploitative, a reselling of old ideas in a new form. The books of the ‘Milieu Series’ are most certainly not that. They are entirely new, entirely Science-Fiction, and an epic in their own right but one much more personal, much more focused, much more (ironically) human. They are like a literary Celtic knot that ties the two series of her imagination together, so that there is no beginning, no end, but an incredible seamless whole.
If, from all the above, you take it that I am a passionate fan of the Pliocene and Milieu books, then you are entirely correct. When I first started reading them in my mid teens, they were a true awakening. Just as I was beginning to experience adult emotions and adult thinking here came a series of novels littered with adults (not, as with so much of SF and Fantasy, children in the guise of adults). I grew up as they grew up. At the same time I found in Julian May’s stories a host of echoes, ghosts from my own childhood and culture, the myths and legends that my mother raised me with, that I learned in school and began a life-long love affair with. I fully admit that for anyone of Irish descent these books will have a particular satisfaction, they will spark feelings and emotions, a sort of race memory, deep inside. But many others, far and away from these Celtic Isles, have similarly been touched by the magic of these stories – magic that lies in the imagination of their author and the undoubted skill of her words.
Julian May left the world (or worlds) of the ‘Exiles’ and ‘Milieu Series’ books behind long ago, and has published many other novels since. However none have come close to equalling that which came before, being somewhat mundane middle-of-the-road SF efforts. But that doesn’t matter. With her two earlier series she has established herself as one of the truly great writers of the SF genre.
The four-book original series, the ‘Saga of Pliocene Exile’ in the USA (or the ‘Saga of the Exiles’ elsewhere), is now out of print and is hard to come by. If you do find any copies I cannot recommend it highly enough to you. The later trilogy, the ‘Galactic Milieu Series’, though very different is just as good but unfortunately is also out of print. However if you do find it I again recommend it as a worthy purchase for your hard earned cash (don’t worry about the dates and years in the books themselves, just enjoy).There is a book that brilliantly links the two series, the ‘Intervention’ (in the USA it was published inexplicably as two volumes, ‘Surveillance’ and ‘Metaconcert’) that should be read before entering upon the latter set of novels (and yes, I love Uncle Rogi too). Finally there is the standalone and very hard to find ‘A Pliocene Companion’, which contains a wealth of information about the ‘Saga’ and an interview with Julian May, and is well worth hunting down, if you (like me) long to know what happened after Aiken Drum left us on the final page.
UPDATE 29/01/2013: Good news! Tor Books are reissuing the entire series of novels in the Saga of the (Pliocene) Exiles and the Milieu sequence. More information here and an interview with Julia (Julian) May here from 1982. Though dated by some of the events of recent history I still say: buy these books!