Why Julian May isn’t a figure of renown in in sci-fi and fantasy circles is a mystery to me, as is why no one is making multi-million dollar TV shows based on her fantastic Pliocene Exile novels (The Many-Colored Land, The Golden Torc, The Nonborn King, and The Adversary). Originally published in the 1980s, these four books (and the rest of Mays’ interconnected Galactic Milieu novels) are incredibly imaginative, exciting, dramatic, and as “realistic” and gritty as anything George R.R. Martin dreamed up in the kingdom of Westeros.
In fact, I love these books so hard I’d argue they’re in some ways better than A Game of Thrones and its sequels (heresy!). Don’t get me wrong: Martin’s books are rightly considered among the most important fantasies of the modern age. But if we’re talking about complex, creative, sprawling epics, May’s books should definitely be a part of the conversation.
Huge in scale
Like your fantasy/sci-fi stories to be epic in scale? Try this: in the 21st century, a one-way time portal is created more or less by accident, allowing people and things to be sent millions of years into Earth’s Pliocene Epoch. There is no return trip, so the portal is regarded as a curiosity—until it begins to be used to send back volunteers who find they don’t fit into the new “galactic milieu” that Earth has joined, and believe they can make a better home for themselves at the dawn of time. Upon arrival, however, they discover that the Pliocene isn’t an empty paradise: aliens fleeing their home galaxy have crash-landed on Earth, and using mental powers (both natural and amplified by “torcs” they wear around their necks), they soon enslave the humans.
The aliens aren’t a unified force; they’re a “dimorphic” race, with two halves differentiated by appearance and ability. The beautiful, tall Tanu and the short, uglier Firvulag are bitter enemies locked in and endless war, and the politics of each side and the machinations between them—and, eventually, the human newcomers—are devious and unpredictable. Suffice it to say, the human factor slowly becomes a destabilizing force in Tanu/Firvulag society.
Sexual politics and gender roles
Like Martin, May envisions a universe in which violence and power are intertwined, resulting in disturbing plot developments that nevertheless feel real. The Tanu, affected by the Earth’s radiation, have trouble reproducing, and find that forced breeding with humans is one strategy for overcoming this limitation. Yes, there is rape and sexual aggression—never explicitly rendered, but there, and significantly depicted against men as well as women. May explores the complicated relationships not only between human men and women thrown into unprecedented circumstances, but between the alien races themselves.
Gutsy plot twists
Love how Martin surprises you with gasp inducing twists? Were you one of the people waiting for the Red Wedding to hit the TV show so you could finally talk about it with your non-reading friends? May has a similar touch, always zigging her story when you expect a zag. In fact, the second book in the series ends with an event that could only be described as apocalyptic—but there are still two more books to go. A climax that other writers might have used to end their epic is, for May, just a way to shake up the playing board.
Deeply drawn characters
At a time when a lot of fantasy and sci-fi was regurgitating stock characters seemingly generated from a throw of a role-playing die, May offered up characters who arrive on the scene damaged and complex. Remember, these are misfits fleeing the future, remember, and the way they react to the mind-blowing reality of Earth’s past, the sudden mental powers some acquire through use of the Tanu’s torcs, and the exotic religion and social structure of the world they arrive in is as varied and unexpected as can be.
Into this complex saga, May introduces two incredible characters: Aiken Drum, the trickster made into one of the most power beings on Earth through the use of a Golden Torc, and Marc Remillard, a man with natural mental powers exiled from the future for, well, trying to destroy it. While other players move their pieces around the board, these two sow chaos and reap destruction, constantly taking the story in surprising directions.
It’s long past time for a Julian May resurgence, and the Pliocene Saga is the best place to start. Best of all, if you enjoy it, she wrote the story of her universe’s future, too, in the Galactic Milieu series. And very best of all? All the fun, no waiting: May’s sagas are complete.