Saturday, July 16, 2011

A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion

Damning with faint praise is bad. And relentless negativity is bad. So the only way I can think of starting this, in my current mood, is with some effusive over-the-top praise for Julian May’s work.

I thought the Saga of the Pliocene Exiles was... really good. I have been meaning to re-read it for some time but can’t find the first volume of the four. What has always stayed with me in a particularly intense way is the story of the guy who goes back in time following the woman who isn’t at all interested in him, and dies forgotten in an out of the way corner of the narrative remembered by no one. See, I can’t even remember his name. I remember the woman’s name started with ‘M’. That was my first encounter with the couplet that most of my native-born fellow-citizens associate most closely with Robert Menzies (pbuh): ‘I did but see her passing by/And yet I love her till I die.’ I liked the old palaeontological couple, and good old Stein who pissed in Odin’s mead bowl, and Felice the psychopath/professional athlete. In fact, a lot of the characters have really stuck with me in all these years since I last read it as interesting and appealing people.  The world where they did their stuff was also well done: it was obviously created by someone who had kept one eye on New Scientist to make the Pliocene as scientifically accurate as they could. I remember being troubled by the body count when I first read the series, for the same reason I gave up trying to read the only Anne Rice book I ever tried to read: ‘This is demographically impossible. No society could survive this.’ But then I realised that was the whole point. The Tanu/Firvulag society is shown to us in its death throes, the equilibrium it had attained having been trashed by the influx of all these pesky humans, and the story is *about* its collapse.

In the SPE I was especially taken with the little fragments we were shown of the world of the Galactic Milieu. I thought they were just boffo. As a possible future, it was imaginative, unique, and seemed carefully thought out.  I wanted to read more about it.  I liked the way the Galactic Milieu made such a big deal of Teilhard Chardin, because rather than despite I think he was a fruitcake. If aliens turn out to be enthusiastic fans of any human philosopher or theologian, it is a lay down misere that they will pick a fruitcake.

So I eagerly awaited the books about the Galactic Milieu, more than I think I have eagerly awaited any other books with the possible exception of ‘God Emperor of Dune’.  ‘Intervention’ I also really liked.  Where the SPE had shown us sympathetic portraits of the people who didn’t fit into the utopia of the Galactic Milieu, ‘Intervention’ did a good job of showing why a lot of equally sincere people – plausibly a majority of people – would have welcomed it, Earth being such a mess and all. And it quoted another bit of poetry, this time one I had already heard in German class, that I was especially fond of: ‘Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten/sie fliegen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten./Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger erschießen/Es bleibet dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!’  But that’s not important right now. Except perhaps to show that the sort of people who don’t feel like being ruled by superpowered psychics and aliens still come across as more my kind of people, though they aren’t drawn with as much affection.

Everything is set up splendidly for a meaty social and political confrontation between equally sincere groups of people wanting what is best for humanity.

But then... this is all thrown away. In the Galactic Milieu Trilogy the forces opposing the Galactic Milieu turn out to be manipulated and controlled by a ridiculous cartoon bad guy. Everything touched by this shoddy plot device is spoiled. For me, to the degree that I couldn’t finish the GMT when it first came out, after waiting for it so very eagerly, and didn’t read it to the end until 2009.

I can’t find anything relevant on the first page of my Google search for ‘hydra galactic milieu shoddy plot device’. Maybe one day this will change.

Some signs Fury/Hydra is a shoddy plot device:

1) Fury/Hydra is evil for the sake of being evil. No rationale for it being so evil is ever given except that people’s souls taste nice. It is just smash, kill, destroy.

2) Fury/Hydra cannot be defeated by having its magic ring destroyed in the fires of the volcano in which it was forged, the only allowed justification for 1).

3) Fury/Hydra is ridiculously overpowered. So far as I can remember, any individual metapsychic ubermind that tangles with it gets swatted. (Of course not everything that is ridiculously overpowered is a shoddy plot device, but this is one of the Fourteen Secret Signs known to the Elect.)

4) Fury/Hydra is not consistent with the universe of the books as revealed to us elsewhere. If you want to make the anti-GM forces the pawns of some sinister overpowered demonic being, fine, there should be good and evil Lylmik just like there are good and evil Eldila. But Fury does not seem to be a neevil Lylmik, or anything else that can be fit into the categories of sentient being described elsewhere in the series.

To expand on 4): Julian May is supposed to be a Catholic, and by validating the theories of Teilhard Chardin, and showing high-ranking Milieu humans professing Catholic beliefs throughout the series, she implies that there is a considerable overlap between the worldview of the Galactic Milieu and something that cannot be too far removed from an orthodox Catholic worldview. But Hydra, as described, is practically the *least* Catholic plot device possible.

Catholicism is all about free will and redemption. Fury is created unconsciously out of some fragment of a good character’s personality: no free will there. The younger generation of Remillards are recruited to it in utero: no free will there. The unconscious creator of Fury finally eliminates the menace by committing suicide. Not very Catholic. None of the human components of Hydra are ever redeemed in any way. Not even the possibility of redemption is discussed. Throughout their lives they are two-dimensional bad guys, addicted to being evil, who never think for a moment that they might be on the wrong path, despite being exposed throughout their lives to the full armoury of the Sacraments: they are baptised, confirmed, take part in the Eucharist, are exposed to all the things that in a Catholic world evil spirits are supposed to flee from in terror. By omission the Church is shown to be utterly powerless. If it was seriously part of the evolving metapsychic noosphere, as the GM implies by its endorsement of Teilhard Chardin, one would expect it not to be.

Why inflict this shoddy plot device upon us? There must have been better ways to manipulate the narrative to make us barrack for the Galactic Milieu vs. the Metapsychic rebels. I don’t know.

I would have been *so* much happier if this shoddy plot device had been excised and the GMT had been straight future history without an overarching narrative: a James Michener-style century-long epic about the Remillard family and Earth’s embedment in the Galactic Milieu. That would have been good.  Not every trilogy needs ‘a plot’.

Ever since I heard David Byrne’s quote:  “Singing is a trick to get people to listen to music for longer than they would ordinarily”, I have thought: “Plot is a trick to get people to read words for longer than they would ordinarily”. The Galactic Milieu trilogy are three books that would have been better off without one.


Cornelius Gallows said...

Darn. This is a good solid rant which I have every confidence I would appreciate more if I had any prior knowledge whatsoever of the series in question. I had no idea there was a sequel series to the Pliocene Exiles series.

Then again, apart from a handful of cool characters, I can't recall being all that enamoured of that series either, so presumably I was just not paying attention.

Looking at the wikipedia article, it sounds a little on the convoluted side.

(Also: I am not ashamed that I had to look up what "periphrastic" means. Thanks Clam. Now I've learned something! Well, apart from that I probably needn't bother with the Galactic Milieu series)

Dr Clam said...

Thanks Cornelius! Looking at this again, I think I could tighten up the rant a lot more by re-reading the series, but life is short... How is your Diana Wynne Jones reading coming along, BTW?