The Saga of Pliocene Exile by Julian May: Fascinating, Complex, and Problematic
When I reached for the Saga of Pliocene Exile by Julian May last year as part of a re-read of my older books, I expected to be entertained. I was mildly obsessed with the series as a teen in the 1980s. However, I was also vaguely disturbed. This uneasiness prevented me from re-reading it since that time, despite the fact that I’d kept all four volumes through multiple cullings of my book collection.
There was a reason for this dissatisfaction, though I couldn’t articulate this at the time.
My re-read of The Many-Colored Land, The Golden Torc, The Nonborn King, and The Adversary proved eye-opening but, sadly, while I could still see the talent and creativity that first captured my interest, this time I also concluded that the positive aspects of the story are deeply overshadowed by the problematic aspects.
The series is transphobic, including one horrific scene where a transwoman is murdered, it falls deeply into the “bury your gays” trope, and the women have less agency than the men. Unless they’re lesbians, in which case they become a parody of macho men.
So many science fiction/fantasy experts still recommend reading the classics to know the history of the genre. But the Pliocene Exile is a case in point as to why we should be very careful of that impulse.
Past works aren’t necessary to enjoy the genre today. Some past works may even do harm to marginalized people who’ve been told to read them. And there’s a chance readers may absorb those problematic elements and prevent SF/F from moving forward as a genre.
The Basics of the Pliocene Exile
May’s epic tale is complex on every level. It includes a large cast of characters that would challenge the juggling ability of readers of George R.R. Martin. There are two fully realized settings, one in the future (22nd century) and one in the distant past, the Pliocene. It also delves deeply into the socio-economic and political aspects of the Pliocene-era inhabitants.
The future world, for all that we’re there for only 117 pages of the four volumes, includes settings across multiple planets and many aspects of society, embodied in the seven members of Group Green who will eventually travel back in time through a one-way portal mostly used by discontents.
Elizabeth Orme is a powerful metapsychic farsensor whose abilities have gone latent following a tragedy. Richard is a starship merchant who is prejudiced against the aliens who share the galaxy with humans. Stein is an Earth-based specialist with the complex and powerful machines that drill into the Earth’s crust. Bryan is a sociologist who needs to follow his lover back through time. Claude Majewski is a widowed elderly paleontologist who wants to bury his wife’s ashes in the past. Sister Amerie Roccaro is a physician. Aiken Drum is a juvenile delinquent grown from a test tube on a planet founded by people of Scottish ancestry. Felice Landry is a teenage hockey player with violent tendencies that she refuses to have treated.
Aiken and Felice have been sentenced to Exile into the past while the others choose it.
Since time travelers preparing for the one-way trip have to undergo orientation, Group Green bonds before jumping. They expect to land into a sort of pre-Homo Erectus paradise but instead enter a land dominated by alien interlopers who resemble the Celtic gods of Legends: the Tanu, the “Shining Ones’ and their enemies, the Firvulag.
These two groups from the same alien planet are locked in a never-ending struggle, according to the tenets of their violent battle religion. The Tanu, who are humanoid but larger, stronger, and effectively immortal, took advantage of the time-traveling humans in various ways. The Firvulag are kin to the Tanu but are generally smaller in stature and sometimes monstrously shaped. They have natural metaphysic abilities but they’re not overly powerful, and they tend to avoid or be hostile to humans.
The Tanu have developed metapsychic enhancers that they build into decorative golden torcs (and so the title of the second book) that provides access to all their latent powers. The various aspects of the powers are divided into farsensing, coercion, creativity, redaction(healing), coercion, and psychokinesis. The Tanu king is chosen for his ability to father many powerful metaphysic offspring.
By the time Group Green travels through the portal, seventy years have passed since humans first made the journey and, as a result, humans are somewhat integrated into the Tanu society. Metapsychically gifted humans receive silver torcs that activate any latent powers but which also have Tanu control circuits. Some intractable humans receive gray slave torcs with pleasure/pain circuits to ensure cooperation.
The story concerns the fates of Group Green, the politics of the Tanu and Firvulag kingdoms, the rebellion by untorced humans who call themselves Lowlives, and the involvement/interference of a colony of metapsychically powerful criminals who went into Exile after a galactic rebellion. These rebels live across the Atlantic in Pliocene Florida.
There are major battle sequences, both physically and metapsychically, lots of politicking among various factions, the settings includes everything from Florida’s swamps to the Pliocene Alps, and the themes concern faith, redemption, and how societies evolve.
In other words, there’s a lot of crunchy content. I can see why I was drawn to the series as an older teen.
But, through all four books, the problematic content is woven in. The obvious ones are about the role of women, the focus on non-consent in sexual relations, and how LGBTGA+ characters are treated.
Julian May’s Background
After my re-read, which included May’s Galactic Milieu series as well as the Saga of the Pliocene Exile, I read The Pliocene Companion, a non-fiction companion to the series which includes a character index, maps of various locations, descriptions of future tech, and several previously published interviews with May. This provided some insight into May’s writing process.
May first wrote science fiction in the 1950s, when she wrote a novella called “Dune Roller” in 1953 that won a Hugo. But instead of pursuing fiction, she switched careers and had a highly successful career writing juvenile non-fiction. According to the interviews, she gathered the stray bits and pieces of what would become The Saga of Pliocene Exile and the Galactic Milieu series over many years. The first book in the series, The Many-Colored Land, was published in 1981. May’s comments on feminism in interviews republished in The Pliocene Companion are revealing.
“In my world, I’ve tried to portray a world with positive relationships between the sexes.”
May further says “sexism is absent” in her created world. She also had words for “feminist” science fiction. “Too many militant feminists novels either become too strident or they rehash old attitudes or deliberately emphasize female macho.” As for her own experiences, May says “I was never downtrodden. I never had to be liberated.”
Those comments remind me of similar ones from Janet Guthrie, a pioneer in Indy Car racing, who later came to realize how much opposition to women being equals existed in Indy Car racing. (I highly recommend the documentary Qualified, an ESPN 30 For 30 documentary that focuses on Guthrie.) Spoiler. Readers, despite May’s comment on the lack of sexism, sexism is not absent from the Pliocene Exile, even acknowledging that, yes, it includes many female characters with different personalities.
And, yet, May’s series also received contemporary backlash for being “feminist.” She obliquely refers to this in the interviews. Indeed, one prominent reviewer, Algis Budrys, called the books “fannish.” Today that would be code for ‘written by a girl’ but I can only guess that this was meant to mean non-professional. The books are many things but they’re certainly technically proficient.
Let’s look at the women in the series.
Felice Landry, Teenage “Macho Man” Athlete
So many of the problems in the Saga of the Pliocene Exile can be encapsulated in Felice Landry.
Felice is the most vibrant woman in the Pliocene Exile. She also gets, metaphorically, the shaft, more so than any other character. Here’s how she gets her wish to head into Exile:
He hesitated. “The recidivist clause might have been invoked if the unfortunate MacSweeny and Barstow had elected to press charges. There is no age limit for recidivists.”
“I should have thought of that myself.” Her smirk of relief was dazzling. “Then it’s all so simple!”
She rose and came around to Shonkwiler’s side of the desk. Still smiling, she took both his shoulders in her cool little hands, pressed with the thumbs, and snapped his collarbones.
Felice is the youngest member of Group Green, not even twenty. She’s impulsive, sarcastic, fiery, and often dangerous to those around her. If this were a television series, she’d steal every scene. She’s also gifted metaphysically with great powers but can’t access them without a golden or silver torc. Silver is obviously unacceptable, so she eventually obtains a gold torc via violence. (Which, to be fair, killing Tanu seems a righteous reaction in this world.)
Felice is a lesbian, as is another member of Group Green, Sister Amerie. The two women fall in love but the Sister is true to her Catholic chastity vows and so offers platonic love, which troubles Felice, who sees it as rejection. For 1981, that was probably progressive. And yet, the mention of God in this scene, given how God is often invoked against LGBTQA+ people reads as quite uncomfortable:
“Why is it so wrong to find a little comfort and warmth? We might be dead tomorrow and that’ll be the end of us.”
“Felice, I don’t believe that-whether we live and die, I don’t believe that’s the end. That’s one of the reasons for my renunciation.”
During the 1970s, when May was putting together the pieces of this story, there was a formal religious movement to snuff out any efforts to move gay rights forward. While it was led by evangelical Christianity, embodied in Anita Bryant’s Save the Children, the Catholic Church has never recognized LGBTQA+ rights either and preached celibacy instead. So while this scene is about a nun being true to her vows it’s also impossible to read it without it being shaded by the religious objection to being lesbian.
When Felice joins the Lowlifes in attempted sabotage on the torc factory, she’s captured and tortured, mentally, physically, and sexually. There are vivid descriptions of the torture via flashback. (Two other sexual assaults are also depicted in detail, another element which seems questionable because these intimate details aren’t included with consensual sex scenes.)
Felice’s Tanu torturer, Culluket the Interrogator, messes with her mind, and a Stockholm Syndrome relationship soon grows. But while her friends couldn’t immediately free Felice from torture, they do help her eventually escape. In revenge, Felice psychically destroys the land barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and the then-empty Mediterranean basin. Tens of thousands of Tanu and their human servants die in the resulting flood. (Thus ends the second volume.)
Felice becomes clinically insane following these events. She’s eventually helped to sanity by Elizabeth, who was a metaphysic teacher in her old life. Elizabeth says Felice’s “pain/pleasure” circuits were switched due to trauma and wants to reset it all so the young woman can grow and move beyond violence as a way of coping. Felice’s sanity is restored but she remains completely “self-absorbed.” She flies to Sister Amerie, who again offers her love but not sex. Felice takes this badly.
“Choose me, Amerie!” The one elevating her was now incandescently nude. “Do it and I’ll start your heart again. Just say you love me.”
Dign et justum est.
Felice flung the body in red vestements to the floor and loomed high, dimming.
The killing takes place in a Church, making the nun a religious martyr.
Felice then goes searching for her other love, Culluket, because she still apparently loves the one who helped loose her metapsychic abilities via the torture. (Pain being a gateway to great power is a continuing theme in the books.) Aiken, trying to rebuild the Tanu as their king after the flood, protects Culluket because the Tanu is important to his ambitions. Aiken never seems to hold it against Cull that the Tanu tortured and nearly killed someone who was once his friend. No one else calls out Culluket for his crimes. Indeed, the other Tanu seem to basically feel bad that Cull’s created this supposed monster. He gets a semi-romantic encounter before his death.
Felice, predictably, attacks Aiken to get to Cull, and a powerful metapsychic battle rages that nearly kills Aiken and the other Tanu. End result: Felice and Cull lock minds and exist permanently as a fused bodiless psychic essence.
Yes, Felice’s end-journey is to be eternally bound to her rapist/torturer.
Felice committed horrible wrongs but of the three main villains/protagonists, she suffers the worst fate. Aiken Drum is a hopeless criminal swindler and so ambitious he’s willing to murder to be King. Marc Remillard, the leader of the Exiles in Florida, literally destroyed an entire planet of intelligent beings before going through the portal.
Aiden and Marc are allowed to mature and see their past actions as wrong. They’re allowed redemption. Felice is hardly even allowed sympathetic moments, being seen over and over as a problem. May says in her interviews that Felice is her idea of the gender swap of a “macho man” but that baffles me because macho men are created by the toxic masculinity of the world. You can’t simply gender swap that to a woman. Felice’s crime, drowning the Tanu and killing her lover, is not without precedent in this world. She’s the only one truly punished for it.
Marc is referred to many times, even by himself, as Abaddon or the Adversary. He wanted to take humanity to the next level by creating minds without bodies. His plan would have involved the torture of children and babies to evolve them into floating brains. He tortures his son by turning him into a fish and hooking him on a line. Then there’s the destroying an entire planet thing.
Marc’s eventual fate: he and Elizabeth come to a meeting of the minds as they decide to help the home planet of the Tanu and Firvulag to evolve their metapsychic gifts without the use of the torc, thus achieving true unity, a worldmind where one retains individuality but also has access to the support and love of all other beings.
Marc seeing the light about the proper way to evolve the universe redeems all his flaws, including the killing of his wife. (Which happens before this series begins.) Marc later becomes “Atoning Unifex” a bodiless peerless mind, and serves the galaxy for six million years as atonement.
Aiken kills his wife and his greatest enemy by basically absorbing all their metaphysic powers. He even gets a scene similar to how Felice kills Amerie:
Golden and rising from the dark, full of hot energy, hungry. A living shaft, not one of glass, as she had known it would be. First discharging, light and pain, then reabsorbing its on energies and hers, all of her life-force, all the joy and sorrow, all resigning, all that had been created and matured and fulfilled. Her took her and she was gone.
He was alive and shining.
As he looked at the ashes, he was surprised at how little it hurt.
Yes, Aiken suffers guilt from killing his wife. But Elizabeth helps him to integrate the psychic/personality issues caused by this. (Elizabeth tries to redeem everyone—Felice, Marc, Aiken. On that, she’s consistent.) After the integration, Aiken is a more mature person, aware of his responsibility to protect his people. Not quite a benevolent dictator but certainly more evolved than any of the Tanu he replaces. Marc and Aiken’s stories are complex.
They’re allowed redemption. The reader is often put on their side.
But Felice, the most vibrant woman in the Pliocene Exile, never receives this chance and is basically a psychotic violent teenager that never changes. When you add this to the fact that Elizabeth saves the universe by choosing to pursue Marc’s new dream, and that she’s the only prominent female character to live through the series, it’s an issue.
Of the other female supporting characters, there’s Madame Guderian, the leader of the Lowlives. She dies. There’s Martha, Richard’s beloved. She dies. Sister Amerie. She dies. Mercy, Aiken’s Queen and Bryan’s beloved. Dead. The only other female supporting cast member of any import left standing beside Elizabeth is Cloud, Marc’s grown daughter. (Who Marc wanted to kill but decided not to at the last minute.)
Women’s Roles, Relationships, and Non-Consent
One of the first things we learn about the Portal is that women have to be sterilized before going through so children won’t be raised in the environment. There’s no such requirement for the men, however, because….there simply isn’t. Therefore, many more men go through the Portal than women.
That raised my eyebrows because if you’re going on a one-way trip to the past, essentially alone, why are you worried about whether you can have children or not? Plus, if children are a problem, future science should have no problem sterilizing the men either. It’s a weird, unequal detail. But, in the Pliocene Exile, this means the male characters outnumber the female characters.
The next detail that raises my eyebrows is that instead of putting these smart future women largely to work, most of them become either the Tanu’s sex toys or part of the breeding program. (Tanu learn to reverse the sterility.) An engineer named Martha is used as a breeder for Tanu children, so much so that it damages her internally. (That she’s not better cared for is a mystery, given the Tanu have good healers.)
Even the highest-ranking human woman among the Tanu, Mercy, the bride of the heir to the throne, was given no choice about sex with the King so he could implant a baby that might turn out to be psychically powerful. And Mercy’s powerful but not once does she think, hmm…maybe I should be Queen on my own, without my Tanu husband or Aiken, who I married after I thought the first one was dead. Not once does she seem to resent having no choice but to submit to the king or her husband or Aiken.
My first time reading this series, I didn’t notice these discrepancies. Now, looking at them with a more open eye, they’re part of why this series is a product of its time and its author’s generation.
These issues carry over in the lack of healthy sexual relationships. By healthy, I don’t mean the characters survive the story but rather how they relate to each other. The one shining light here is Madame Guderian and Claude, who fall in love and have a marriage ceremony. It’s sweet and their bond makes sense. Given May says she associates herself with Claude most of all her characters—he has her family name—perhaps it’s not surprising this is the one sweet relationship. (Note: they both die in a suicide pact to close the Portal and prevent more humans from coming.)
So many people are killed by their lovers, starting with Amerie being killed by Felice. Mercy, who is the wife of Nodonn, the Heir, and then Aiken’s Queen, is earlier involved in an affair—the Tanu are not monogamous–with Group Green member Bryan, who she kills with either too much sex or too much metapsychic coercion. It’s unclear but Bryan seems to accept his fate happily. Aiken, later on, of course, kills Mercy for plotting his overthrow with Nodonn.
And, as mentioned, part of Marc’s backstory is that he “accidentally” killed his beloved wife because she wanted to render him sterile and unable to create his bodiless babies.
There are other instances of rape as a plot device: Stein’s eventual lover, Sukey, has to be brought to the King for a night of sex because he has droit de seigneur over Earth women. Sukey gives away the plot to attack the torc factory in her distress. (Then she’s mentally compelled to enjoy all this.) This cascades a bit, as Sukey suffers the miscarriage of her and Stein’s child because of the rape by the king. But instead of focusing on Sukey’s pain, the focus becomes Stein’s rage, as the drilling expert helps Felice create the flood.
Not only women are sexually assaulted. When Crown Prince Nodonn is injured, a half-Firvulag/human woman sexually assaults him because she’s in love with her “god.” This assault, like Felice’s assault, is described in detail. This woman is a result of incest between her father and her mother, who was also her sister, to add further squicky details. Nodonn lets her live though because she’s pregnant with a metaphysically powerful child.
There is more. Another male character, a friend of Aiken, though not as powerful, is used by the Tanu women as a plaything. It’s seen as a little bit comical. The Firvulag use illusions to trick humans into sex. There’s an entire Maypole segment where a subset of them, the Howlers, who are hideously deformed, use their illusion power to lure human men to sex. This is seen as admirable, as the Howlers need new genes to breed out their deformities. One human falls in love after a night with his Howler Bride. They get a happy ending after the Howler spends time getting modified to look more human.
None of this is fully consensual.
If this series was about the uses and abuses of power, like the underrated Spartacus series on Starz, this emphasis on different types of rape could be understandable. But, instead, the series seems to be about how sometimes violence is necessary and, while the battle religion is brutal and barbaric, it’s also kinda epic and glorious. Overall, the sexual encounters mostly baffle me, as do the sexual dynamics, even taking into account the Tanu are basically aliens.
That the prominent lesbian couple ends this series with one murdering the other in a church is a big problem, especially since they’re the only lesbian couple in this series. There are no openly gay couples or, if there are, it’s buried in subtext. I suppose the series deserves something for including gay characters at all. But then things go off the rails.
The largest problem is with the trans characters. The term “transsexual” is used, an anachronism, so perhaps could be seen as a product of its time. There is also Mr. Betsy, who uses she/her pronouns, who’s a positive character, though a minor one. But the presence of Mr. Betsy doesn’t excuse the awful fate of the one transwoman in the series.
A human transwoman who was a biologist helped the Tanu reverse the sterilizations of women coming through the portal. It is said her reasoning in doing so is because she can never have her own children, so she must make sure other women have babies. When she performs the surgery to reverse sterility, she does so as part of a belly dance style performance art. She’s continually described as “mad” or insane.
Sukey is terrified when it’s her turn to reverse her sterility.
It gets worse.
Because Sukey is so upset, she calls out mentally for Stein. When Stein arrives, he murders the transwoman by impaling her on his sword. This is seen as something understandable because Sukey was so upset.
This is horrifying. Events like this are why any older books should be looked through carefully for problematic content before being recommended now.
Characters of Color
For the time it is written, the Pliocene Exile has a diverse group of characters. But there should be more, they should be more prominent, and the descriptions of them fall sometimes into racial stereotypes.
There are basically three/four characters who drive the story. Aiken Drum, who ends as king, Marc Remillard, and Elizabeth Orme. Felice might qualify as the fourth, though her story is done by the end of the second book. They are all white and their ethnic backgrounds are mentioned numerous times. Aiken is from a planet founded by those from Scotland. Marc is from Earth, from a prominent family of French-Canadian metaphysics and quotes French a number of times. Elizabeth is from Denali, a wilderness-style planet that attracted people from those areas of Earth.
It’s odd that there’s so much focus on the ethnicity of individual planets, given that racial separation hasn’t led to peace even on Earth but that perhaps could be explained away by the presence of the Unity, which bonds all together in somewhat imperfect harmony.
In the Pliocene, there are numerous characters of color, mostly among the human Lowlives. One of their leaders is a Native American, Peopeo Moxmox Burke, the self-proclaimed last of the Walla Walla Indians. Burke is a positive character, a charismatic and competent leader. But he’s also described by various racial stereotypes, such as “stoic” more than once. There are a few Black characters but no prominent ones.
There is one unfortunate conversation between one of the Black characters and Burke where they call each other a racial slur. (It includes use of the “n” word.) I see in context what the author was going for, two people from marginalized groups teasing each other, but this is surely something that trips up the modern reader and should not have been done in the first place.
Conclusion: The Pliocene Exile Belongs To the Past
I have some sympathy for the issues in the Saga of the Pliocene Exile, given the time it was written and conceived. It’s an improvement over much Science Fiction of its’ time in that the women are more than playthings. They can be educated, with all sorts of jobs, not merely wives and mothers. But it’s not enough.
Despite whatever May intended when writing the series, she wrote the male characters as far more vibrant and proactive than her female characters. May was of the generation before mine and while we can’t know what was in her head, the social structure of her time is, sadly, echoed in her story.
I could not recommend this story to anyone, despite the excellent worldbuilding.
In a time when Hollywood producers have been looking into the past for its’ adaptations, with a reboot of Dune, Marvel television based on some past regrettable Marvel comics, and other nostalgia revamps, they should also be careful to not reach for works that are problematic, but for works that properly include voices in SF/F that have been marginalized for too long.