A great writer has passed, Julian May 1931 – 2017


Science fiction is undergoing a cinematic renaissance. Over the past few years we’ve had an undeniably great continuation of the Starwars saga, two populist reimaginings of Star Trek, and superhero shows to every taste. Bladerunner just had a remarkably tolerable sequel, albeit one that like the original, bombed in America. The most popular cartoon is a hard SF parody, and the best satire on Netflix is cerebral future shock. For ‘a that, there have been surprisingly few recent adaptations of major science fiction novels or series. Fewer still have been artistically or commercially successful. There’s no Rama or Ringworld movie, no Hyperion or Xeelee series. ‘Syfy’ channel efforts to bring life to Riverworld, Dune and Earth Sea have done more harm than good. The reason is undeniably budgetary. Sure, CG has come to the point where digital compositing is routinely used to take the place of location shooting. Yes, movies like Gravity have demonstrated an almost entirely digital set can, with care and expense appear photorealistic. However, the old fast, good, cheap equation still applies. In the case of CG the response is, ‘pick one’.

That’s one reason I have so much trepidation about the proposed adaptation of Julian May’s classic Saga of Pliocene Exile. Julian May died recently, at eighty six. She was perhaps my favourite writer. The books you stare deeply into as a child become the lens through which you view the world as an adult. As a tween I ate up late Victorian & Edwardian comic fiction, from Just William, to Jeeves and Wooster to Three Men in a Boat. To this day I still have an inappropriate fondness for the aesthetics and chummy noblesse oblige of late British imperium. When early adolescence hit, another perhaps only slightly less fanciful genre became my focus. I ate the greats of science fiction in huge, unchewed swallows – from Asimov and Clarke to Aldis, and Baxter. Later I nibbled weirder stuff, Lem, Dick, Ballard and Delany.

Science fiction was for me, as for so many others, an escape from a miserable adolescence. It spoke to the possibility of a future filled with wonder. Alien life and artificial intelligence offered the possibility that we, and I, were not alone. The endless vistas of space were a joyous vacation from the confines of early 90s Ireland. With its apologia of technological magic, science fiction offered a believable, and by inference hopeful future. One light years from Catholic Ireland, original sin, and the mundane suburbs of The Pale. From my wooden, inkwell holed desk in St Joesph’s Christian Brothers school in Drogheda, I could run the endless strips of Trantor. Wet arsed on the grey ceilinged beaches of Laytown, I could walk without rhythm across the sand dunes of Arakis. Each mind bending short story by Niven or Heinlein or Bester, offered the possibility of a word vivid and different, a world of hope and change, in a place and time that seemed devoid of both.

For an unhappy child in an unwholesome place, the believability of escapism was paramount. And no one justified her fantasies like Julian May. Her magic was the ability to craft from hokey tropes like telekinesis, spiritual possession and alien visitations, a world at once mundane and utopian. My exposure came through the journalist dad of a school friend. He was occasionally sent books with covers and premises to garish to review, and kind enough to pass on a few to me. That’s how I came across The Galactic Milieu series, and through those May’s best known work The Saga of the Exiles.

Julian May spent decades writing copious non fiction. Including “7,000 encyclopedia articles on science and technology, [and] over 200 juvenile nonfiction books on science, sports, and biography”. That experience gave her with a literally encyclopaedic general knowledge. Her narratives are bedded in a profound mythological erudition, rivalling that of that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkin. The Saga of the Exiles is saturated with Scandinavian and Celtic mythology (one fabulous conceit of the books is that they explain the origin of the myths that inspired them). Not to mention fanatical attention to the detail of geology, mountaineering, materials science, cordon bleu cookery and a hundred other disciplines. Her characterisation is rooted not in Joesph Campbell, but in Jung’s primordial archetypes – as filtered through mythology and classical literature.

The books are littered with wordplay connecting characters and ancient alien races to Irish mythology. For example the Firvulag (a race in the Saga of the Exiles) take their name from the Fir Bolg, one of the first peoples of Ireland mentioned in the legendary volume of Irish pre-history Lebor Gabála Érenn. The Firvulag’s ancient rivals the Tanu, take their name from the Tuatha Dé Danann an ancient race of Irish gods. Their leader was Nuada Airgetlám, who becomes Nodonn Battlemaster, a powerful alien psychic in May’s universe. Game of Thrones might be the apex of contemporary fantasy world building, but for depth of mythological reference, complex psychologically diverse characters, and the fusion of the conceptual depth of SF with the magical conceits of fantasy, The Saga of the Exiles has it beat.

May blended science fiction and fantasy in a way only giants like Frank Herbert and Anne McCaffrey had previously attempted. Both in terms of content (fantastical beasts, Arthurian aristocracies, hyperspace travel) and mythic resonance. Her work took the tropes of fantasy seriously in a way that authors whose popularity transcended the genre (with notable exceptions like Ursula K. LeGuin and Susan Cooper) rarely did. Her taxonomy of ‘metaphysic’ mental abilities, developed out of a fascination with parapsychology. She reenergised the ‘next stage of human evolution’ trope by imagining super human abilities emerging gradually and inconsistently throughout human history; accounting for everything from ghostly apparitions to faith healers. As with the x-men franchise, the mistreatment and eventual acceptance of her psychic operants can be read as an allegory for the civil rights and the emerging American gay rights movement.

Over two interconnected series, May constructed a grand and intricate narrative. A genre defying tale of warring political dynasties, organised crime, time travel, serial killers, psychic abilities, mountain survivalism, ancient reptiles and near future space colonisation. Her books are undeniably science fiction, just as they are undeniably fantasy, noir, political thriller and philosophical treatise. Her characters are human, in a way that is all too rare even today in genre fiction. As likely to argue Quebecois history or the theories of Catholic philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as they are to battle on flying beasts over the skies of Pliocene Europe.

This unrivalled ambition was not always successful. Her work can at times become bogged down in sheer detail, and the meta-narrative that connects her two best series can seem initially impenetrable. The final two Galactic Milieu books inexplicably run out of steam, just as they arrival at a conflict that should bring the arcs of all her central characters to a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps these factors explain why her work is not as well remembered as it should be. Just as likely, the books are simply too difficult to categorise to be truly marketable. Like the high fantasy-SF of real life spy Cordwainer Smith; May’s fiction remains too human and quirky for genre fans, yet too fantastical and narratively focused for literary fiction.

Julian May died two weeks ago. Perhaps the rumoured TV adaptation of her Saga of the Exiles will give the books a second life, but I doubt it. The scope, ambition and sheer scale of her major series would require a visual treatment dwarfing Game of Thrones. They’ll likely remain second hand book store favourites, passed from fan to fan. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

“A professional writer for my entire adult life. Married to the same man for thirty years. Mother of three grownup children. I have three cats that keep the house messed up and a big Japanese Akita guard dog that goes backpacking with me. I grow cute little miniature roses. I play pop songs on a mighty theatre organ and love to go to the opera. I drive a bronco four-wheeler. I sew on a 1928-vintage electric sewing machine. I’m a practical, hard-headed pro. I write for money and make no bones about it. Starving for the sake of art has never appealed to me. I like to write and I’m good at it – but it’s my profession, not my pastime. “

Julian May, 1981

The Great Big SF Reading List


Display of ‘vintage’ science fiction titles in Chapters window

Arthur C. Clark once called science fiction “The only genuinely mind expanding drug”, proof positive that he hadn’t tried any of the others. And yet, there’s something to this flippant quote. SF is the literary genre, next to the romantic novel, most often demeaned; despite this, it is perhaps the genre which has most influenced our recent history – inspiring technological and social change as varied as mass transit systems, space travel, and urban promiscuity.

Science Fiction is a kind of architecture of the mind, laying out possibilities sometimes loosely and grandly, sometimes explicitly and with the greatest conservatism – for technology to engineer. There’s another quote I like about the genre, this one by Frederik Pohl- “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.” This cuts to the experimental nature of writing about the future, and the knack great authors have had of deriving subtly correct predictions about complex chaotic systems.

Today, the pace of change has outstripped the possibility, and perhaps even the desirability, of accurately predicting the future. The death of positivism, the dissolution of main stream culture in favour of a neutered commercialisation of the counter-culture, a near universal alienation from the corrupt pragmatism of politics; these things don’t lend themselves to the problem solving, manifest destiny of John W. Campbell’s lauded ‘Golden Age’. Science fiction has had to change – bifurcating into the utopianism of the post singularity genre, worlds in which all of our insurmountable problems disappear in the radical compression of technological advancement enabled by post human intelligences; and the experiential literary speculative fictions of Philip K. Dick’s paranoic simulcra, JG Ballards reconstructions of a reality erased by virtualities, and Bruce Sterling’s subjective political dystopias.

Science Fiction rests at an interesting cross roads. It’s deep unfashionability is contradicted and intertwined with the its cultural influence. This Summer every major ‘tent pole’ release is a Sci-Fi movie: although few of these films have much in common with the intellectually freewheeling, ‘sensawonda’ produced by written SF, the thought provoking kick that Clark eluded to. High fashion, dulled to irrelevance by hipster ‘makers’ and neoludite artists, seems poised to adopt Steam Punk whole sale. The art world, for decades addicted to the shocking and shallowly theoretical delights of conceptualism, has been shaken awake by Low Brow / Pop Surrealism – figurative painting and sculpture born of the weirdo SF aesthetic of underground comix and the Ballardeque machine love of the Hot Rod subculture.

Back in literary science fiction land, the magazines – paying authors tiny, near worthless fractions of their former story rates [in the introduction to Kurt Vonnegut’s short story collection ‘Bagombo Snuff Box’ – that’s the one where he laid out his infamous 8 Rules of writing – the author notes that after WW2, he earned more selling his first three stories than in a year working at GE] – have devolved into endless repetitions of succouring libertarian space opera (Asimovs), or abandoned SF wholesale in favour of fusions of low Fantasy and Horror (New Weird, Bizarro).

There are stirrings of hope for the commercial life of the genre. Podcasts have become paying markets and built new audiences for short form SF (Steve Eley’s Escape pod being the most prominent). Blogs which collate the flash fiction of young authors, provide the exposure and the experience once obtainable via the magazines. As for the direction of the genre, and the possibility of original work being done, only the future can tell.

For the longest of times, I’ve been promising my girlfriend a recommended reading list to bone up on Science Fictiony goodness. I grew up reading SF almost exclusively, and though my palate has now tempered, and I’m far from an expert in the genre, I remain smugly opinionated about matters Science Fictional.

What self respective geek can TIVo the Battle Star finale, without first having first explored the genres literary routes? What Watchmench can argue the finer details of squid replacement, without a thorough steeping in the pulps? I kid, a little. In any case, the wee lady was keen that I make her a list, and being far too bumptious an individual to construct such a bibliography without sharing it with the world, I present ‘The Great Big SF Reading List’, being an incomplete and arbitrary list of titles considered to be of exceptional worth or peculiar interest.

The list does not purport to provide a canon, but rather one perspective. The collated preferences of a life well wasted. Heinlein, Silverberg or Scott Card are notable by their absence. There’s little enough representation from the 90’s and beyond- no Ted Chiang, Vernor Vinge, Charlie Stross, Rudy Rucker nor Bruce Sterling; more recent authors, some of whose short story work I’ve greatly enjoyed.

It is an introductory list, deliberately incomplete, heterogeneous. A list that tries to distil a taste of the golden age, new wave, cyberpunk and post singularity genres. It leans toward softer ‘social science’ SF, but doesn’t negate the hardest of scientific speculation. This is a list of slivers. Slivers of that diverse, obtuse and gloriously indefinable thing called Science Fiction. A list that hopelessly fails, and is delicious just the same.

The Books

Intervention, Saga of the Exiles (The Many Coloured Land, The Golden Torc, The Non-Born King, The Adversary), Galactic Milieu Trilogy (Jack the Bodiless, Diamond Mask, Magnificat)Julian May

Dune (first of a series, but fine on it’s own) – Frank Herbert
Rama, Rendezvous with Rama (Rama 2) – Arthur C. Clark
Man in the High Castle, A Scanner Darkly, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, Dr. BloodmoneyPhilip K. Dick

Foundation Series (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation, Foundations Edge, Foundation and Earth, Prelude to Foundation + Friends of Foundation) – Isaac Asimov

The Xeelee Sequence (Raft, Timelike infinity, Flux, Ring) – Stephen Baxter
Dangerous Visions (ed Harlan Ellison)
Earth Sea Trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore) – Ursula K. Le Guin
Forty Thousand in Gehenna, Downbelow Station – CJ Cherryh (tomes, wonderful tomes but tomes)
The Earth Book of StormgatePoul Anderson
NeuromancerWilliam Gibson
More than HumanTheodore Sturgeon
Space ChanteyRA Lafferty
The Dark is Rising Sequence (Over Sea, Under Stone; The Dark is Rising; Greenwitch; The Grey King; Silver on the Tree) – Susan Cooper
The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, Short Stories (any collection) – HG Wells
Short Stories (any collection) – Larry Niven
Orbitsville, One Million Tomorrows, The Ceres SolutionBob Shaw
The Stainless Steel RatHarry Harrison
Norstrilia, The Rediscovery of ManCordwainer Smith
Slaughterhouse 5, Cats CradleKurt Vonnegut
A Clockwork OrangeAnthony Burgess
Farenheit 451Ray Bradbury
The Drowned World, CrashJG Ballard
Hothouse, Dracula Unbound Brian Aldiss
Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) – Kim Stanley Robinson
Brave New WorldAldous Huxley
Orynx and Crake, The Handmaids TaleMargaret Atwood
Virtual Mode Piers Anthony
1984George Orwell
Times FoolGlyn Maxwell
Lanark Alasdair Grey
Babel-17 Samuel R. Delany
The Star Rover Jack London
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (a trilogy in five parts) – Douglas Adams
Graphic Novels – Y The Last Man, Preacher, Transmetropolitan
LullabyChuck Palahniuk

Addendum (Items added on further consideration)

Down and Out in the Magic KingdomCory Doctorow
The Metamorphosis of Prime IntellectRoger Williams

That’s my brief list. Here’s another more substantial.

Starship Sofa


Over the past year, I’ve contributed a handful of readings to the wonderful Starship Sofa science fiction podcast. Ciaran O’Carroll and Tony C. Smith began the show in 2006, as an in depth discussion of the life and works of a variety of New Wave and Golden Age Science Fiction authors. Ciaran left the show last year, but far from this being the harbinger of podfade, it spurred Tony on to new heights of fevered podcasting activity. The Sofa began to acquire the audio rights to a host of science fiction stories, poetry and factual articles, and started soliciting it’s own fictional content in the form of flash fiction.

Continue reading “Starship Sofa”