The Adversary, Julian May

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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October 8, 2012

The Adversary, Julian May

The Adversary, Julian May

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.Β  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.

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  1. Doug M.

    Aside from Marc’s white-man’s-Afro ‘do, I like this cover a lot. However, I like the Whelan cover even better:
    — Marc’s coffin, suffused with an eerie blue glow, hovering ominously between Tanu and Firvulag? Sweet stuff.

    So anyway: this is the big finale, and I do think May delivers. I can remember just blowing through the last 100 or so pages of this book: wow wow wow WOW! After spending one-and-three-quarters books building up, it’s just one kaboom after another, and IMO it works.

    Also: the first few pages of this book? The bit where the Rebels gather around the injured Mark, and we get those tantalizing flashbacks? (“Mad old man with longhaired cat.”) That was incredibly well done. Maybe too much so — she spent six! books! trying to write her way back into it, and I don’t think she really pulled it off.

    There are other issues, sure. A lot of quiet retconning in the background — I mentioned the thing with the Milieu weapons already; there are others. And any number of dropped plot threads. But by and large, May sticks the landing. You wouldn’t want to read this book without reading the others — but it’s a great payoff.

    As to Marc and Elizabeth: there’s no question that Elizabeth has fallen in love with Marc by halfway through the book. She’s in denial about it, understandably — dude’s a mass murderer — and also, Elizabeth is a pretty subdued character, not much given to emotional expression; this has been pretty well established in the earlier books. I saw it coming a couple of hundred pages out, and in-book so do Elizabeth’s friends — that’s why they go to Marc with the mitigator. Marc knows it too. The critical moment is when Elizabeth relaxes her defenses and lets him look into her mind to see that she loves him, trusting him despite the whole, you know, mass murder thing.

    (And why is this the critical moment? Because Marc won’t change his ways unless she does. Marc could, of course, do a Mr. Darcy and profess /his/ love for Elizabeth — but that’s not how he rolls, because Marc Has Control Issues. Which has also been abundantly laid out already, from the tarpon thing to the Little Mermaid torment he inflicts on Walter.)

    Doug M.

    • Natalie

      The Whelan cover is fantastic. My copy has Marc in his CE rig with Elizabeth wearing a faux medieval outfit with a prostrate Aiken Drum before them. I like the way this cover has the little red rays coming from his head, like he is thinking REALLY REALLY REALLY HARD.

      I think, for me, my gripe about the Marc-Elizabeth romance is that it’s so subtle. You really have to be looking for it. I’m not looking for a dramatic declaration, but something a bit less sideways would probably make the final denouement make more sense. I also seem to recall that in the Galactic Milieu trilogy that it is made clear that it was a romantic relationship, as it becomes clear that [spoiler] is Marc Remillard.

      The idea of absolution is interesting here. Religiously speaking, Marc has been absolved of his sins by Father Anatoly (as you point out below, I’m answering these all out of order) and there is no further need for atonement. And yet he spends six million years being really really really sorry–as well he should because mass murderer but from a theological perspective, his slate has been wiped clean. Of course, there is that pesky immortality of his, too.

  2. Doug M.

    Two other quick thoughts on Marc. One, you’ll notice that not only does he only heel-turn after Elizabeth puts herself in his power, he first has to Win — he beats the clock, smacks down Aiken Drum, and has them pinned helpless before the time-gate. Because Marc Has Control Issues.

    Like a lot of people with control issues, he has found some co-dependents who really need to be controlled, most notably Patricia, who selflessly gives her life to rescue him from the void. In fact, come to think of it, “co-dependence” is really a recurring theme in these books.

    Anyway. Second thought: partway through the book, Father Anatoly absolves Marc. This is done in such a quick, offhand way that it’s easy to miss — May seems to realize this, and has another character (Elizabeth?) be appalled and comment on it. My question: does Marc do anything horrible after this? Because if not, then it’s a key (if understated) element of his slow turn away from evil.

    Doug M.

    • Natalie

      I’m pretty sure that after Father Anatoly absolves Marc that he doesn’t do anything more that’s awful–and I think that’s when he starts flitting about the planet helping people out.

      And I’m pretty sure that saying Marc has control issues is the understatement of the year. πŸ˜‰

      One thing that strikes me as kind of weird about these books is the way that the only religious people we see are Catholic (or Orthodox in the case of Father Anatoly)–where are all the other faiths? I think there’s a Muslim but there’s a shocking lack of Protestants, not to mention other faiths. ISTR that this is true throughout all these books.

    • Doug M.

      I don’t think Fr. Anatoly is Orthodox — he speaks Latin, which Orthodox priests almost never do. (They use High Church Slavonic instead.) I think he’s either Russian Catholic — there are a few of them — or Uniate.

      Good point about the missing Protestants.

      Doug M.

  3. Selki

    Just a yay in passing for Catspaw (and the sequel).

    • Natalie

      I love Joan D. Vinge’s books. Catspaw has long been a favorite; it’s one of the few books where I have my original paperback still.

  4. Jan the Alan Fan

    Both the Exiles and Milieu books are to be reprinted next year… Intervention year. πŸ™‚

    In the books I was hoping that somehow Elizabeth & Creyn would get together… it was only until the scene where she nearly hugged Marc that I thought, ‘hello chemistry… this can’t end well!’. I had got the impression that Marc wouldn’t have minded being hugged, even though he thought the physical nature of being human was something to ignore / subdue.

    Have you read The Pliocene Companion? There is a missing scene of sorts where Marc says how he feels towards Elizabeth. πŸ™‚

    Love the phrase ‘magnificent manpain of Marc Remillard’. Aha.

    • Natalie

      Oh, those new covers are GORGEOUS. I haven’t seen anything about them being republished in the US–I would love to have a matched set. I like my books to match.

      I was hoping to Elizabeth/Creyn, too–and yeah, May is so subtle about Elizabeth/Marc that it isn’t until she runs to hug him and then stops (perhaps there were also swelling violins?) that the shoe dropped for me, too. I think I missed it completely the first time I read the books and I only noticed it this time because I was paying attention.

      I haven’t been able to lay my hands on a copy of the companion–is it worth tracking down a copy?

      It wasn’t until I finished Magnificat for the first time that I realized that while there’s all this other stuff going on in these nine books that they’re really about Marc and how VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY SORRY he is for being a mass murderer. The idea of redemption after that kind of sin is really interesting to me and I do wish I knew more about Catholic theology to follow that thread more closely–it’s clearly important to May and I’m sure there’s a lot that I’m missing.

    • Jan the Alan Fan

      I think I will be tempted to get the new version of Intervention, as the one I have is looking a bit worn. πŸ™‚

      I do recommend tracking down a copy of the Pliocene Companion – it has 3 interviews with JM, a glossary of people/places and a list of classical music matched to people / events (mostly Wagner).

      I’m sure some other authors would have been tempted to kill Marc off at the end of the Exiles series, but with the way JM did it, he lives and has to do lots of penance, which was a plot twist to me at the time. After all, usually villains like Marc get their come-uppance! I wish there had been a book set post-Exiles in the Duat galaxy about Marc and Elizabeth… how would have the people there reacted to them at first? Would they have been put in quarantine for a while (since they were both aliens from another galaxy to the Duat people). Yeah, I think too much about this series. πŸ™‚


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