The Surveillance, Julian May (Intervention #1)

Written by Natalie Luhrs

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

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January 7, 2013

The Surveillance, Julian May

The Surveillance, Julian May

It’s time for another installment in my Julian May re-read! Spoilers ahoy! (If it’s possible to spoil a book published in 1987.)

The Surveillance is the first half of Julian May’s Intervention, which she calls a vinculum between the Saga of Pliocene Exile and that Galactic Milieu trilogy. Intervention is now available as a single volume, however I own the two separate volumes and that’s how I’m going to review them.

Much like the Saga of Pliocene Exile, there is the use of multiple points of view and episodic chapters to propel the story forward. Set in an analogue of “now”, I find it interesting how un-dated this story is, considering. The Soviet Union persists into the 1990’s, but the technology in use isn’t laughably implausible and this story is firmly grounded in SF tradition–specifically Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John, explicitly referred to and summarized in the text (to the advantage of those who haven’t yet read it, ahem).

The heart of this book is the Remillard family, specifically Rogatien Remillard (Uncle Rogi) and his nephew, Denis. Prompted to write his memoirs by an entity he refers to as the Family Ghost, who is also known as Atoning Unifex (giant clue!), the story starts in his childhood and proceeds until his middle age and the point at which Denis and his fellow metapsychics come out of the closet, as it were.

While this is all very interesting, I have to admit on this reading that Denis Remillard’s precociousness really rubbed me the wrong way. He seems very Charles Wallace-esque, from his appearance to his amazing specialness that must be nurtured no matter the cost. One of the reasons May does this, of course, is to engender sympathy and horror at Denis’s eventual downfall in the Galactic Milieu trilogy. He’s presented as a quietly heroic figure–and one who is isolated from the wider population, partially by choice/inclination and partially by geography and culture–much is made of the fact that the family is a bunch of anti-assimilationist Francophones.

Something else I find interesting and somewhat implausible is the ease with which Denis establishes not only his academic career but also the careers of those surrounding him, his Coterie. Many of them were non-traditional students who were easily able to gain admittance to Dartmouth and who proceeded to do all their degrees at that institution at a relatively high rate of speed. I know this is science fiction, but that’s one disbelief I’m unable to suspend.

In between Uncle Rogi’s drunken reminiscences (I seriously love drunk Uncle Rogi), May intersperses short chapters told from different perspectives: from the Milieu ship that is performing the surveillance alluded to in the title, from the Lylmik ship which is freaky and awesome and hey, it’s the same kind of ship that the Tanu/Firvulag used when they left their homeland, and to the development of other metapsychic groups in other countries. I find it extremely interesting that the lawful good metapsychics tend to be the ones who are affiliated with academic or governmental institutions while the chaotic evil ones are basically mobsters. It’s an interesting dichotomy and while the metapsychics reveal themselves at the end in an appropriately dramatic fashion via international press conference, the text focuses on the military applications almost exclusively; there are some upset Swiss bankers, too–but that’s it by way of industrial espionage.

May continues to be an engaging storyteller and this is a pretty easy book to read. The episodic structure works really well and even if only a handful of characters are really developed well, it’s no matter because there are a lot of them. And there enough tantalizing hints dropped to, at least, make me want to keep reading to see what happens next. It must have been murder back in 1987 when this was published to have to wait just over a year to see what happened next–there’s that much narrative tension built up at the end.

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  1. Mris

    This was the first Julian May I read, and I read it in omnibus form. And Uncle Rogi: <3 <3 <3. But now that you mention it, I think I was fresh off Charles Wallace in the first place–I was 12–so the Charles Wallaceness did not strike me as remarkable at the time, and has gotten grandfathered in.

    • Natalie

      I just love Uncle Rogi. He is the bestestest. I was surprised at how Charles Wallace-y Denis came off–I certainly didn’t notice it the first time I read these.

      Another thing that impressed me about these books is how well they allude to things that happened in the Pliocene Exile books without spoiling them and foreshadow things from the Galactic Milieu books as well. And if you read these knowing the identity of the Family Ghost it adds a whole other layer to things.

  2. Jan the Alan Fan

    I read Intervention as one book (which I will probably replace when the reprints come out soon). I love Uncle Rogi, he’s one of my favourite characters. Male sibling rivalry in the Remillard family is a theme in this book – Rogi and Don, Denis and Victor, etc. I have to say I never warmed to Denis, though.

    Atoning Unifex – yes, that name is a big clue! Heh.

    • Natalie

      And there’s the rivalry between Marc and Jon, too.


  3. Jan the Alan Fan

    Marc and Jon… yes, we can’t forget that. 🙁

    It’s funny how you don’t see a lot of people saying, ‘Gee, I wonder what Atoning Unifex is atoning for? Something bad, huh?’.


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