June 25, 2014

Review: The Saga of the Pliocene Exile


This series by Julian May ranks among my top favorites right along with Dune, The Lord of the Rings, the Barsoom series of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Howard's Conan. It's also, from a gamer's perspective, an incredibly gameable setting, so I just have to wonder why there's no RPG based on it yet, or why it doesn't seem to have much of a following. Since the books were published way back in the 1980s and had their last reprinting in 1992 or thereabouts, allow me to celebrate one of my favorite authors and introduce you to this saga if you're not familiar with it yet.

The Pliocene Exile begins, after a tantalizing prologue on a dying starship,  on 22nd century Earth shortly after a controversial Intervention by a federation of benevolent alien civilizations.  Mankind has entered a seemingly utopian age, with worldwide peace, a cleaned-up environment, apparently limitless energy, interstellar travel and generous grants of planets to colonize. Even more exciting, large numbers are being born as metapsychic operants -- able to harness mental powers previously disbelieved. In fact it's this operancy that qualifies mankind for membership in the Galactic Milieu, as all the other member species are also operant. But of course there's no such thing as a true utopia, and this age has its misfits.

The Galactic Milieu dealt with such misfits in draconian fashion, with the only options being incarceration, a sort of lobotomy with a docilization implant in the brain, or euthanasia. The story gets its kickoff when a French scientist, Theo Guderian, invents a one-way timegate that goes to France in the Pliocene, six million years in the past. When he dies his widow Angelique is importuned by misfits willing to pay big money for a way out of the Milieu. Within a few years Madame Guderian is really raking it in with a hotel where you check in and never leave -- at least not in the present.

Enter the cast of protagonists, misfits and suicidals all. Here's where some of my friends had problems with the book, as this truly sprawling saga is introduced in apparently disjointed vignettes showcasing the origins and motivations of each main character. For me though, the vignettes showcase Julian May's deft hand at world building and warm, genuine appreciation for human nature; she must be very observant. I hold her up as one of my golden icons of good writing, specially in the character-building department. This is where we truly get a picture of what post-Intervention Earth is like, with fascinating snippets of its technologies and society, all very nicely done through the unique lenses of each character, so we never get a ton of dry exposition encyclopedia-style, but instead 'shots' from individual viewpoints.

We get introduced to these as May rounds up a cast of grand archetypes -- the Warrior Maid Felice, the lovelorn Bryan, the Flying Dutchman Richard, the Raging Viking Stein, the Holy Woman Amerie, the Wise Old Man Claude,  the Athenean Elizabeth, and the fascinating Trickster, Aiken Drum. After their bouts of tragedy, in which they all choose to enter the Pliocene Exile, they all get united at Madame Guderian's inn. Here they get introduced to each other in basic survival training as Group Green; Madame has wisely decided to send time-travellers in small, trained units so they can aid each other.

The story now goes into high gear. The new Exiles find Pliocene Europe has been taken over by an alien race, the Tanu, along with their more barbarous kin the Firvulag, with whom they have an ancient and ritual enmity. Mankind has been enslaved through the use of torcs with mental control circuitry. Metapsychic latents, however, get a liberation in a way because they get silver torcs, which make them operant but still with control circuits; those absolutely loyal to the Tanu may hope to later get controller-less gold.

The shock of time travel gives Elizabeth back her mental powers, lost after an accident, and makes her -- or so she believes -- the only non-torced operant human on Pliocene Earth. As a Grand Master of farsensing and psychic healing, she's destined for grand things at the Tanu capital of Muriah. The psychotic Felice also finds her latent abilities awakening, while Aiken Drum gets collared with a silver torc and rapidly burgeons in power until it's obvious he won't be content with promotion to just gold. The completely 'normal' members of Group Green however are doomed to a more onerous kind of slavery, specially the women -- Tanu have a problem reproducing under the radiation of Earth's sun, so they've been hybridizing with humans. As for the men, hulking Stein is tapped for the Grand Combat, and Richard gets mentally traumatized in an encounter with a Tanu woman.

Group Green gets split in two, with Elizabeth, Aiken, and Bryan who though mentally normal is required at the capital for his profession, while the rest are to be sent to Finiah, the Tanu's northernmost city. The Finiah-bound group includes Felice, Richard, Claude, and Amerie, and they plot escape at the instigation of Felice, whose growing mind-powers may just make it possible. The Finiah group stages a mutiny en route, killing their guards and the Tanu woman who ravaged Richard, Epone; here they discover that the Tanu, previously thought unkillable, can die if struck with iron.

At this point May's scifi take on Celtic mythology really starts to come clear. The Tanu, as she has been hinting all along, are what will later be remembered as the Tuatha de Danann of Celtic myth, and the Firvulag are the Fir Bolg. The faerie impression is carried even further by the adventures of the Muriah-bound group, who are regaled with decadent Tanu luxury as their captors try to integrate them into Tanu society, with mixed results. In other words, the Tanu are the Seelie and the Firvulag the Unseelie.


The books continue through Group Green's parallel adventures, introducing more characters along the way. The Finiah escapees encounter Madame Guderian, who has gone through the gate herself, and is now allied with the Firvulag in a conspiracy to liberate humanity from the Tanu; Elizabeth meets Brede Shipspouse, the alien astrogator who brought the Tanu and Firvulag to Earth, who has grand plans to mature the two races; and Aiken meets Mayvar Kingmaker, a Tanu hag who does exactly as she's named. The plans of these three masterminds intertwine with each others' and the desires of the protagonists through many interesting twists and turns, through the Grand Combat and a tragically failed rebellion, Felice's making the Atlantis legend come true in a titanic feat of mental power, and the aftermath of that. Want to know more? Read the books!

The Pliocene Exile series comes in four volumes: the Many-Colored Land, the Golden Torc, the Nonborn King, and the Adversary. It is accompanied by the Galactic Milieu series, which in turn consists of (in the US editions) The Surveillance, the Intervention, Jack the Bodyless, Diamond Mask, and Magnificat. The two sagas dovetail in the character of Marc Remillard, the Pliocene Exile's Adversary, who goes through a Luciferian fall and then redemption in the books. The whole is very interesting in its use of Father Teilhard de Chardin's controversial philosophies regarding human evolution, with a time loop from the Pliocene making the final maturation possible.

All this is told with warm regard for human nature in all its variety, humor sometimes earthy and sometimes sly, Wagnerian mythic resonances, and great action in just the right amounts. May apparently was also a connoisseur of cultures, and it shows with a multicultural, multiethnic cast of characters. It's a mind-bogglingly damn good read!

It also helped a lot that the original edition came out with some truly evocative Michael Whelan covers; Whelan really works to get the details right. The 1990s reprints came out with new covers that unfortunately made the books seem like generic Euro-fantasy, doomed to be outshined by better-known franchises like The Wheel of Time. Del Rey should reissue these books, this time with the original Whelan covers.

Next post: gaming the Pliocene Exile!


  1. I fondly remember these books as well. Paul Remilard and Aiken Drum were my favourite characters when I read these in the 90s. I had no idea - until now - that these were alluding to Celtic mythology. Good review!

  2. Thanks! I just recently found out Aiken Drum is a character from a Scottish folk song.


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