Thursday, 25 October 2001

Julian May: Sagittarius Whorl (2001)

Edition: Voyager, 2001
Review number: 974

Though the Rampart Worlds series was not announced in advance as a trilogy, it has turned out to be one. The second novel, Orion Arm, didn't read like a typical mid-part of a trilogy, but as a member of a longer series, in my opinion a good thing; now, though, Sagittarius Whorl seems to be a longer narrative squeezed into a single volume, which is less good.

A large part of the story is told as flashback, which reduces the suspense, until the point when this catches up, from where it is a rapid rollercoaster ride to the end. The beginning comes two years after the end of Orion Arm, at the end of a legal battle with Rampart's rival Concern Galapharma masterminded by trilogy central character Asahel Frost. He then sets off alone on a trip to verify his suspicions that the Haluk aliens are not keeping to the terms of their treaty with humanity - something which works only too well when he is kidnapped and an illegal clone takes his place.

While May's aims in this series clearly include writing something simpler than her Galactic Milieu novels, something which will be a series of science fiction thrillers, this novel in particular contains undertones relating to the history of the genre, particularly in the US. During the fifties and sixties, a lot of xenophobic literature was produced, and the idea of an alien invasion (especially when there was a human fifth column) was frequently used as a metaphor for McCarthyite fears of a Communist takeover. The plot of Sagittarius Whorl is very close to these ideas, so that May ends up working quite hard to make it seem less so, with frequent hints that not all the Haluk are evil and dangerous while some humans are. The best that can be said for much of this older science fiction is that it produced exciting stories, and the Rampart Worlds trilogy is obviously a successful attempt to reproduce this. The main way that May makes things palatable to modern sensibilities is by putting much of the blame for the way that the human-Haluk situation develops on greedy human capitalists. (Other ways to re-work the ideas have been appearing recently, an example being the scenario of the Roswell High books and TV series.)

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