Saturday, January 7, 2012

Tanu dig it? Many Coloured Land and The Golden Torc reviewed

My reader's block seems to have been well and truly overcome - hurrah! Checking back in with the 'classics' has reinvigorated me, even if, like the Covenant chronicles, I've been reminded of their flaws as well as their merits.

An easier ride this time with my rediscovery of the latter-day planetary romance par excellence, The Saga of The Exiles by Julian May, or parts 1 and 2 thereof, The Many-Coloured Land and The Golden Torc. For novels of aliens, prehistoric beasts and psychic powers, they've aged surprisingly well.

The Golden Torc, with our very own sabre-toothed kitteh.

The set-up - misfits in a post-scarcity future take a one-way trip back in time to Pliocene Europe (pre-ice age, post dinos) to find that aliens got there first - requires a fair amount of willingness to suspend disbelief. To find that these aliens - the Tanu and the Firvulag - are distinctly reminiscent of the Tuatha de Danann and Formorians of Celtic myth, even more so. On the other hand, it sounded pretty awesome when I was 15.

All credit to Julian May - she takes this superficially very silly idea and makes it tick like Swiss clockwork. While TMCL is her first major novel, she came to it after a lifetime of writing and editing and it shows.Few genre novels juggle the perspectives and stories of eight (eight!) main characters and make each of them interesting, three-dimensional and vital. And without screwing up the plot - that's serious writing chops.

The thoughtfulness which lies behind two alien societies, her intricate model of psychic powers, and her future galactic civilization is deployed lightly but clearly. For example, I can't think of many science-fiction writers which would draw on the ideas of 'universal consciousness' put forward by theologian Teilhard de Chardin. I can think of still fewer writers that would do without resorting to screeds of exposition.

Reading as an adult, I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that the main theme of the series was love. Straight-up romance, loveless sex, sadomasochism, same-sex love, narcissism, amour fou, love of God - all are embodied and worked out in the lives of the ensemble cast. And done in such a way that I can only remove my reading hat in the profoundest of respect.

Not only did this pretty much all elude my teenage self, I also hadn't realised quite how much sex there was in the Saga. I can be partly forgiven for this, given that it's very rarely happening in the scene and when it is, it's described in a few passing, delicate remarks. More often, it's alluded to, talked about but off-stage. A masterclass in how to have a novel with a lot of [justified] sex in it without having to write screeds of awkward description or objectification.

Possibly even better than I remembered it - a pleasant surprise.

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