The Adversary is the fourth and final volume in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile and is the culmination of everything that’s been set up in the previous three books. However, it takes some time to get to the denouement.
Aiken Drum has subsumed the metapsychic abilities of both Mercy Lamballe and Nodonn Battlemaster–and they’re apparently arguing in his head. He is unable to sleep and his own abilities are greatly depleted. With the Grand Combat coming up, he has to be sure that none of his subjects are aware of this–and eventually he goes to Elizabeth for healing.
Elizabeth finally starts to play a more active role in this book–one of the central scenes is the one where she and Marc Remillard heal a black torc child and are able to push him to full operancy without a torc. It is this scene which convinces Elizabeth that Marc isn’t all that much of a monster and which lays the groundwork for his actions at the end of the book.
Of course, this is also the book which reveals precisely what Mental Man is and I have to admit: I am a bit flummoxed at the way everyone is more or less horrified by it. Maybe I’ve read too many books about the singularity for the idea of disembodied human intelligence to be frightening, even if augmented by technology such as Marc’s cerebroenergetic suit (how the hell is that thing powered? nuclear reactor?), but it has always seemed to me that everyone is seriously overreacting here. But then again, I remember reading Joan D. Vinge’s Catspaw in the late 80’s and being utterly intrigued by what happens to Eleanor taMing in that book, so I’m not the best person to be horrified at the idea of disembodied human intelligence, be it in the form of floating brains or uploading one’s consciousness into a computer (speaking of books I should reread…)
Other things going on in this book: the ongoing torture of poor Tony Wayland who is ultimately reunited with his Howler bride (and who hopefully gets to live out the rest of his days peacefully), the travel of Remillard and his rebels back to Europe, and the political machinations of the three exotic factions–as it become clear that the goals of the Howlers do not match with those of the Firvulag, they secretly ally themselves with the Tanu.
I really love the Howlers, especially Sugoll and his human-Tanu hybrid wife, Katlinel. I wish there were more about them, because the bits we do get are fantastic, especially when Sugoll is talking to Sharn and Ayfa about how they are able to work in metaconcert fairly easily because they had to learn to cooperate to survive while the rest of the Firvulag did not (and this is, in fact, a fatal flaw for the Firvulag). I love Crazy Greggy’s devotion to them and his work to help them fix their genome–it is an interesting puzzle for him, but he is so empathic and caring towards them as well. He clearly sees them as individuals and not just as test subjects.
When May sets her mind to it, she is really great at characterization and it’s almost a shame that these books are so heavy on plot and light on characterization–the relationship between Marc and Elizabeth really suffers from this. May is pretty clearly uncomfortable writing about romantic relationships (the Stein/Sukey relationship seems to be an exception and they aren’t even close to being major players) so whatever it is between Marc and Elizabeth is so subtle as to be nearly non-existent–they go off to the Duat galaxy at the end of the book, but it’s really unclear if they also love each other. Elizabeth seems to love Marc–there’s a telling scene where she runs to him in the back half of the book–but Marc is really opaque and hard to read. His actions towards his children at the end show that he isn’t completely the monster they all believe him to be, although he does some pretty monstrous things in this book amidst all his flitting about helping random people while he’s learning to teleport (so glad he saved Basil, I love Basil).
Overall, this group of four books is highly readable, even nearly 30 years after initial publication and while there are some things are problematic to modern eyes, they have aged surprisingly well. Certainly much better than some other books from this era. May is, I think, ridiculously unknown to contemporary readers and that’s a damn shame.