The Golden Torc, Julian May

Written by Natalie Luhrs

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

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September 24, 2012

The Golden Torc, Julian May

The Golden Torc, Julian May

The second book in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile is The Golden Torc. Structured similarly to the first book, it has three sections. In this case, though, the first section is devoted completely to the trials and tribulations of the second group of Exiles, while the last two sections’ action is spread out among the entire cast of characters–which has gotten pretty darned big.

May still calls Aiken Drum a “golliwog”. It still does not mean what she thinks it means. Perhaps she means polliwog? I do not know! Moving on…

For me, the whole “we want to overthrow the FairyTanu overlords so we can be freeeeeee” plot is only marginally interesting. Feisty and independent humans rise up against malevolent alien beings blah blah blah–I’m way more interested in how the metapsychic abilities work and how the future everyone decided to flee works. I feel like May’s intricate plotting here is totally wasted on me. If the whole book were Elizabeth and Brede Shipspouse talking about metapsychic abilities and operancy with Brede trying to be tricksy and Elizabeth almost always pwning her, I would be happy. Could use some more allusions to the later books in the series, too.

Although! There are some parallels to Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy although from the other end of evolution: there is a strong implication here that humanity needs the Tanu genes in order to become metapsychically operant so maybe the forced breeding is okay, while in the Butler series the humans have to interbreed with the aliens of they want any vestige of humanity to continue on into the future what with the whole nuclear war crap that went down before the series started. There are also feisty independent humans in that one, but my recollection (which could be 100% wrong) is that they aren’t very sympathetic even though they are allowed to eventually form human-only communities.

Okay, back to the May book now. So one of the things going on in this series is the whole Celtic thing. Which is very much an artifact of the time and at this point it feels pretty overdone, although I do like the way she’s made them science fictional fairies.

So the whole way you become a operant metapsychic is through pain. Lots and lots of pain–done when the metapsychic is a small child. It is apparently less painful then? It seems vaguely creepy, even though the person guiding the child towards operancy also feels the same pain. And I guess metapsychic Unity is so totally awesome that it makes it worthwhile? We learn all this because Brede tricks Elizabeth into making her operant for…nefarious purposes that are never made completely clear to the reader. Something to do with Brede’s ability to see the future and Elizabeth not wanting anything to do with Brede’s plotting, et cetera. Elizabeth is very hands off and only wishes to be let alone (at this point I imagine her in a large hat and sunglasses).

There is a lot going on in this book. So much so that it sometimes becomes hard to figure out exactly what’s going on–Aiken Drum’s storyline is especially confusing in this regard. It’s obvious he’s primarily concerned with himself, but he shows flashes of giving a shit about other people, mostly Stein and Sukey. He is, like, quintuple crossing everyone and that makes it hard to track exactly how he’s going to accomplish his goal (which is to be the prettiestKing).

Then there’s a big battle and I sort of skimmed because I hate reading fight scenes. Really not a fan. See above, Brede and Elizabeth being metapsychic frenemies as my ideal in this book. So stuff happens and then Aiken manages to save Stein and Sukey’s bacon by way of Elizabeth and her red balloon and hey! Felice is in Elizabeth’s balloon, too! What’s she been up to?

Well, remember that bit about becoming an operant metapsychic through pain? Yeah. Felice gets tortured by the chief torture guy and he does such an awesome job of it that she becomes operant. And when she wakes up, she is pissed. And sort of insane.

I really hate what May has done with Felice. She is characterized as a sadomasochistic lesbian who is deeply screwed up because of…we’re never really told why, just that her parents didn’t love her very much and that is apparently enough to totally screw a person up (assuming that being a sadomasochistic lesbian is bad–in the world of this book it is, in the real world, I am not so sure about the truthiness of that). And then after she becomes operant? She’s not a lesbian anymore! She may have been raped straight! It’s not clear exactly how she’s tortured, just that she is in a way that doesn’t leave marks or externally damage her.

So Felice wakes up and she’s super-pissed off. And she manages to, well, make the strait of Gibraltar and flood the everliving shit out of the capital city of Muriah, where all the Tanu and Firvulag doing their big ritual battle and stuff. She has some help, but it’s not clear who she’s getting help from–that is a matter for the next book. Where we will finally meet the full of manpain and angst Marc Remillard–am I the only one who gets the feeling that the first 800 pages of this series are nothing but exposition for dark and tormented Marc Remillard?

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  1. Victoria Janssen

    I remember few details of the series, but I do remember liking the armor. Doesn’t Felice get armor at some point? Or was all that the Tanu and Firvulag? I also remember wanting more prehistoric animals, which I did not get.

    I didn’t love any of the characters, which may be why I remember less relevant things about the books.

    • Natalie

      There is some seriously awesome glass armor worn by the Tanu. Felice scavenges some from Finiah in the aftermath of the attack on that city.

      I sometimes feel like the prehistoric description bits served as the inspiration for Jean Auel’s endless descriptions in her books–except May likes rocks a lot more than she likes plants or animals. The geologic stuff is interesting if sometimes a bit much. I do like the way May makes it clear how powerful Felice becomes in the aftermath of Culluket’s non-specific yet terrifically painful torture.

      I really like Elizabeth and there is, so far, not nearly enough Elizabeth to make me happy. If I did Yuletide, I’d totally ask for Elizabeth/Brede.

  2. Doug M.

    Some odds and ends.

    I’m pretty sure that pain is not *the* way to become operant — it’s just *one* way. There’s nothing in the books to suggest that it’s the typical or standard way, either. Elizabeth knows about it, and how to manage it, but then Elizabeth was a specialist.

    Felice hasn’t been raped straight, for goodness’ sake. The whole rape-torture business is squicky, yes, but it’s not that particular sort of squicky. She ends up obsessed with her torturer, but also (still) with Sister Amelie — she’s as gay (or bi or whatever) as she ever was. It’s not even clear that the obsession with Culluket is sexual, particularly. (May sets up a somewhat clunky good/evil duality there, then doesn’t do a great job of playing it out.)

    The big battle scene was rather well done, I thought. May sets up the Tanu and Firvulag as the sports fans from hell, complete with “just wait ’til next year!” I thought that was rather funny. Also, she does a good job cutting back and forth from the Tournament to the other plot threads — for instance, Bryan and the Finnish guy in the Great Retort.

    Aiken not being willing to screw over Stein is his final test for being King. Presumably loyalty / not being a completely self-centered snake is one of the qualifications.

    The cast has grown huge at this point, but now May gets to kill off a bunch of them all at once. (And we won’t see much of Stein or Sukey after this, either.)

    I agree that May’s whole imaginary system of metapsychic abilities is fascinating. There are five clearly defined sorts of “powers” you can have, and the way they’re distributed seems half-random: you might be great at one, okay at another, and lack the others entirely. And May is fairly rigorous about working out the details: since these are psychic powers with a neurological basis, they can be affected by things that affect the brain — fatigue, emotional state, brain damage, what have you. I actually think she handles them better here than in the later Intervention / Milieu books.

    Note May’s idiosyncratic terminology: aliens are “exotics”, psychic powers are “metapsychic”, and so forth. Sometimes this gets a bit silly. OTOH, sometimes it works; “farsensing” is better than clairvoyance or what have you. Other-other hand “redaction” is actually a bit sinister if you look at it closely — it means “editing”, but with the implication of combining texts and/or cutting large pieces out. As with “golliwog”, this makes me wonder if May actually knew what the word meant.

    There are some nice grace notes here. Like the King (who is a pretty bad character) and his wife (who is worse) holding hands just before the Flood hits. Or the stubborn old Craftsmaster trying to write a warning, which everyone ignores. Or the meeting, in the aftermath, between Aiken and Mercy — the combination of attraction and revulsion between them is a nice foreshadowing of how things are going to work out a book from now.

    • Natalie

      I would that if Elizabeth were a specialist who did that kind of work then she would know of other ways–and yet that’s the only way she mentions to Brede. The neuroplasticity of children probably makes it less painful for them (and for Elizabeth).

      And I know that Felice really hasn’t been raped straight–but she has certainly been raped (and later, we find out that Culluket’s not the first one, depending on how you read the bits that come out about her parents in the next book) and one thing I’ve noticed that May sort of elides this sort of stuff–she writes about it but in an oblique and sideways sort of way, if that makes sense. That, I’m sure, is an artifact of when these books were initially published.

      I really do like how May works out the little details of how the psychic stuff works–the physical risks entailed are an especially nice touch. And I agree, redaction does seem sinister, especially when you look at Felice’s reaction to the prospect of it. And it’s interesting that the Milieu doesn’t force what amounts to psychiatric treatment on their citizens, too.


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