Julian May's Saga of Pliocene Exile (The Many-Coloured Land, The Golden Torc, The Nonborn King, The Adversary) were extraordinary books. Imaginative, complex, rich and memorable, with a vivid setting in Pliocene Earth and a large cast of fascinating characters. Even those who were decidedly unpleasant were interesting to follow.
May's later Milieu Trilogy (Jack the Bodiless, Diamond Mask and Magnificat) along with the prequel Intervention, showed that she can also produce excellent SF set in the future, with starships and other familiar SF trappings. Again she displayed for the reader a host of interesting characters and incidents. Conversations sparkled, the story moved along smartly, and you cared.
Alas then, that her most recent series, The Rampart Worlds, has fallen well short of her previous excellent standards. Many of her readers were, like me, bitterly disappointed that it turned out to be nothing more than a bog-standard futuristic adventure, with little of the vividness and breadth of imagination we know May can produce.
The Rampart Worlds started well. In the beginning of the first book, Perseus Spur, our hero, Helly Frost, sees his house eaten by a giant fish. Unfortunately, that was the most memorable incident of both that and the next book, Orion Arm.
The series sees Helly Frost pull himself together from his beach-bum life as a 'throwaway' (disenfranchised person) on a distant world and re-enter his wealthy family's corporate life. He has to rescue his sister from being cloned and turned into an alien Haluk, warn humanity about the Haluk threat, and smash a plot against his family from a rival galactic corporation, led by a man in cahoots with the aliens.
It is probably not essential to have read the first two books before tackling the third and presumably last, Sagittarius Whorl, especially given my doubts about the quality and memorability of the series. However, like Perseus Spur, Sagitarrius Whorl also starts well. Helly wakes in a vat of goo to discover that he too, is being cloned by the Haluk and is being turned into one of them, complete with blue skin, wasp waist, and, as we find out later, two penises.
Helly's slow return to awareness, his terror, his escape and the Haluk chase are the most exciting and interesting parts of the book, sadly. Like the first two in the series, it suffers from a pedestrian pace, shortage of incident, dialogue that bats too and fro with all the variety of a first generation computer ping-pong game, and too much description of trivia.
Apart from a style that is frankly boring at times, the other major flaw, to my mind, is the lack of in-depth characters. Helly is the only person whose emotions and motivations we learn about first hand. Everything we know about other people we are told by Helly.
As a result, the reader experiences a frustrating lack of interest in other characters. They appear nothing more than bit parts, rolled out to say a sentence or two or make their small contribution to the plot, but they never take the stage as individuals in their own right. It is difficult to summon up much enthusiasm for any of them, even Helly.
However, Sagittarius Whorl is probably, overall, a better book than the first two in the series. May handles flash-back sequences very well, and is highly adept at ending chapters on a cliff-hanger. Unfortunately, what follows is often a bit of a let down.
Apart from the beginning, there are one or two other incidents which stand out: the hunt for a smuggler, and the final confrontation in the snow. Although the corporate nature of Earth's future is not original, the Haluk, with a genetic disadvantage and chronic overpopulation are well-imagined and described, along with other alien species.
At times, I wanted to know more about them rather than follow Helly on yet another long, boring conversation or more description of trivia.
Having said all this, it appears that I really disliked this book. I didn't. I think it is a perfectly acceptable SF adventure, certainly no worse than hundreds of others churned out every year. The problem is that I expected better from Julian May. Much better.
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© Meredith 15 September 2001