Jack the Bodiless by Julian May

Jack the Bodiless book cover
Rating 8.4/10
The Operants ain't over until the pregnant lady sings

Like David Brin, Julian May is a science fiction author I managed to miss out on due to the sketchiness of audio availability, an oversight which my lady is thankfully now able to correct. Indeed, also like Brin’s Uplift Saga, May’s Galactic Milieu trilogy is one of my lady’s favourite series, so it was definitely something we’d enjoy exploring together.

I will admit that the book’s beginning is a little complicated. In 2113, Rogatien Remillard, virtually immortal psychic; operant as they’re called, and professional old grump is asked by the disembodied Lylmik Atoning Unifex to compile a memoir of his life, and how the human race took their place in the psychically fuelled interspecies civilization known as the galactic Milieu. Rogi complies (with a great deal of grumbling at cutting short his skiing holiday), deciding to begin with the events leading up to the birth of his own great grandnephew, John Remillard, a key figure in humanity’s evolution known to history as saint Jack the Bodiless.

The action then shuttles back in time to 2040, where the Remillard clan have gathered at the death bed of the infamous Operant criminal Victor Remillard, it is here that Rogi first encounters Fury, a dark and powerful being bent on preventing humanity joining the Galactic Milieu at all costs, a being who thrives on violence and murder.

With Victor’s death, the action then skips ahead another eleven years to 2051. Boy genius, Mark Remillard, is called back to earth by a psychic call across space. His mother Teresa is pregnant, and while most Operant women (including the wives of the Remillard dynasty), are encouraged to have as many children as they can to insure the spread of telepathic abilities, the Simbiari, the alien race currently overseeing earth until humanity is ready to join the Milieu as a full member have decreed that unlicensed pregnancies for anyone possessing fatal genes carry severe penalties. Teresa, having already had four children and a number of stillbirths has been put on the reproductive black list, yet she knows her baby, despite a seemingly fatal genetic inheritance, is special. He has already been communicating with her psychically from the womb, and when Mark realises that the call from four thousand light years away originated with his unborn brother Jack, and not with his mother, he agrees to help. Together with Rogi they concoct a complex plan to hide Teresa in the wild until her baby is born, and until the proctorship of the Simbiari finishes and humanity may act independently again. Fury however is not idle, and a series of murders of powerful Operants seems to link the Remillard clan to a mysterious and deadly entity known as Hydra, a being Fury is forging into an ever more dangerous weapon which he intends to use to break humanity’s ties to the Galactic Milieu.

As you will tell from the previous summary, Jack the Bodiless was not an easy book to get into. Though first of a trilogy, said trilogy definitely comes in the middle and across in time from other series written by Julian May, series which (annoyingly), are not available in audio. What was surprising therefore, was how quickly I became familiar with the ethos, politics and characters of this world, and just how engaging May’s writing is. Colourful, often dryly ironic with a deft use of language and an eye for characterisation, as well as an ability with scene setting and detail that both gave the impression of a vast and colourful world as complex in its politics of aliens and psychic’s as David Brin’s teaming galaxies, and yet one which still has anachronistically grumpy old book sellers reading science fiction, traffic jams and canoeing holidays. I particularly admired the way May was able to alter the way she wrote according to what was happening. Indeed, she ranges from a narrow, almost script like dialogue used to depict operant conversation, to a lean overview of politics and history, to an almost sitcom like family dynamic which frequently could be amusing or playful, to occasional moments of descriptions so personal it almost felt like May had been to the places she was describing, weather the icy New Hampshire wilderness, or the alien dwellings of the tentacled Krondoku.

Another reason that starting in the middle wasn’t as bad as it could be, was the way May wrote her characters. Uncle Rogi is the disreputable old coot who is as lovable as he is grumpy. Indeed, given that a set of lucky genetics makes him also functionally immortal, and that while he refuses any political position or high office he always has the ear of magnates and power brokers, he reminded me decidedly of a psychic version of David Edding’s Belgarath the Sorcerer, including his friendship with the long suffering Unifex. He also resembled Belgarath in that much of the story is told from the first person perspective of his journals, peppered with grumpy French epithets and dire warnings to his younger more excitable relatives, indeed the interplay between the at times arrogant and high handed Mark and his grouchy great grand uncle makes for some of the book’s more comical passages.

Mark himself is that rare thing, a hyper intelligent, gifted adolescent who isn’t insufferable. Mostly this is because May (or possibly Rogi who’s telling the story), criticises Mark in the narration as much as she praises him, just as prepared to explore his fear of a sexuality he can’t control, his disdain for emotions and his downright arrogance, as to explain how brilliant he is, often at one and the same time.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of the Remillard clan are a little less easy to get a handle on, since with Rogi having 7 nieces and nephews, most of whom have spouses and children or grandchildren of their own, there are a lot of characters in the narrative, many of whom are not as well distinguished as they could be, and though we get a distinct idea of people like Paul, Mark’s cold and politically astute father, many others tended to blend into the background, particularly given that thanks to regen tanks, everybody, and not just the immortal Remillard is able to stay comparatively young and attractive. It is also with the Remillard family dynamics as a whole where (despite being written in the early nineties), the book feels a little dated in its portrayal of women, since while May does explain that the Remillard ladies all have promising careers in fields from genetics to education, all of them seem to put their careers on hold to support their men’s political aspirations and take time having large numbers of psychic children, something which made them less noticeable as characters, particularly since those rare Remillard women like the scholarly and acerbic Anne who choose not to increase earth’s Operant population were less in evidence.

The major exception here was Teresa herself, who goes from being quite literally a spoiled diva at the start of the book, having scaled back her star studded operatic career in favour of motherhood, to suddenly having to rush out into the wilderness with Rogi. Indeed, though on the one hand Teresa’s sudden talent for camp cookery which she exercised whilst Rogi was off chopping wood and hunting meat was slightly playing to gender expectations, on the other, seeing Teresa cope under adversity, even whilst experiencing an illegal pregnancy and the nasty realisation that she’s married to a political gigolo made her pretty awesome. I particularly admired the wonderfully organic description of Teresa competently managing Jack’s birth with Rogi’s help. Indeed, it is through Teresa, and later through Jack himself that May explores certain philosophical themes, such as suffering serving as a form of journey, the conflict between low and high selves and even some discussions of the nature of religious faith.

One other aspect in which May’s characterisation is perfect, is the way she deals with Hydra. Not only the mystery of who and what Hydra is (a mystery whose clues are evident throughout the book), but also the way May executes each of Hydra’s murders. Like the best horror writers, May gives us a little time to know and understand the victim, often given the victim a moment of happiness or completeness just before they’re murdered, a technique which in another author might come across as cheap, but with May’s gift for description and engaging characters seems just plain sadistic, making each corpse just that bit more personally tragic.

The one major problem I had with the book was its sense of power, entitlement and elitism. The Remillards are actually referred to as a dynasty, all placed to take up political office and pretty much guaranteed election. Worse still, they are the heirs to a company which gives them literally unlimited funds, as well as possessing psychic abilities which border on the magical.

In various background essays about the state of the world, Rogi details how pretty much all official positions are held by Operants, and how the Remillards as the first family of Operants are very much at the top of the tree. Though he does mention some degree of bad feeling against the Simbiari and other aliens, and hints at a few other political rivals accusing the Remillards (quite justifiably), of “nepotism”, nothing really comes of this. Still worse, non-Operants are barely mentioned and only usually appear as servants or the like. Indeed, both the book, and the society it depicts could definitely be called “Operantist,” and though May does justify this with the note that Milieu society is very much based around Operant abilities, looked at one way this could sound like just another justification for keeping the powerful in power.

To go with this political entitlement, rich lifestyle, unlimited money, the Remillard clan also are not shy about the use of their psychic abilities. Need to get home fast? Well speed limits are for people who don’t have PK to hoodwink the speed cameras, trouble with the police? Well there’s always memory modification. Need to get a flight in a hurry? Well hijacking a ship is so much easier when you can hijack the crew’s minds along with it. Indeed, the rather cavalier way the Remillards freely use compulsion on anyone, including each other is quite worrying. While May does have certain family members (especially the brashly adolescent Mark), given a kick in their complacency occasionally thanks to the world weary Unifex (really I’ve never seen ultimately powerful beings this sardonic), at the same time, many of the Remillards seemed a little too entitled, both physically and otherwise with no consequence, though it’s possible that is waiting in future books.

What saves the story from being the tale of how this bunch of rich, privileged powerful people bend everything to their desire, is the fact that May is such a good character writer that she’s more than able to show the makeup flaking and how fallible many of the Remillards are. Several of the Remillards, from the unpleasant though politically astute Paul to the domineering Lucille are less than likable, and that’s not counting those involved with Hydra. still, it would’ve been nice to get some alternative perspectives from people not at the top of the pyramid, and perhaps some indications that none Operants weren’t just happy to serve.

Another issue with Jack the Bodiless, is that there is no denying the plot moves slowly. Sometimes this doesn’t matter, indeed Teresa And Rogi’s adventures in the wilderness are quite fun to read about, as are Mark’s visits to aliens, or the Lylmik’s rye observation of the strange human festival known as Christmas. However, in some cases this is due to detailing the histories of alternative characters, such as a group of Operant rebels against the Milieu who I suspect will become important in the next book, but whose appearance here did feel a bit like digressions. Likewise, May’s politics could get slightly draggy on occasion, particularly since it mostly involved the less pleasant Remillards discussing how sure they were to win positions of power. I do also wish we’d seen a little more of the five Milieu alien races in detail, especially since many of the hints we got about them were quite tantalising.

With the slow pace, Jack himself did not put in an appearance until the 13th hour of a 17 hour novel, which was rather a shame since Jack was a fascinating character. A psychically aware, hyper intelligent baby, who had to experience matters such as the fearful prospect of being conscious for his own birth, and the disparity between an infantile body and a very aware brain with innocence and intellect in equal measure, indeed after seeing the flaws in Mark’s personality, the friendship between him and his little brother was a lovely one, though I wish Teresa had remained a significant character after she’d actually given birth to her son, since unfortunately at that point she largely faded into the background with the other Remillard mothers.

The book’s ending was fascinating, though a little off-beat in coming, since given the book’s ambling pace and only the sudden appearance of Jack towards the end, the final conflict involving jack did not have quite the punch it might have done otherwise, mostly because May chose to detail much of the grim circumstances leading to this conflict via a long journal entry from Rogi rather than letting us see it directly. Of course, May being the stylist she is, we definitely got enough context to the conflict for it to be effective, though I suspect it might have been more so had Jack appeared sooner and the conflicts surrounding him been given more time to grow.

On the other hand, Hydra’s final destination, the mystery of Hydra’s identity and the ways Hydra’s story intersected with Jack’s came to a head (pun definitely intended), very well, both finishing off the existing mystery, yet leaving the question of Fury’s true identity and motives as a hanging thread for the rest of the trilogy, giving rumblings of the storm to come.

Over all, Jack the Bodiless was like a long walk in the country with your grandpa. Don’t expect to go fast or even straight, you might get a little lost at first in all those winding country lanes, and while you might run into a few unpleasant sights, you’ll come across many more pleasant ones. You’ll take time to bend down and look at things in detail, maybe get the life story of a particular bird, tree or flower, and probably you’ll ramble off the path for a quick run through the woods, while listening to gramp’s grumps about how terrible this modern world is and how things would be much better if people just did what he thought they should.

So, despite its slow pace, dated, if not quite sexist use of its female characters, and an uncomfortably sympathetic depiction of an Operantist oligarchy, Jack the Bodiless was still a huge amount of fun, surprisingly likable characters, some unexpectedly lovely asides and a bright and vibrant world picked out in often exacting detail make this a stroll that’s definitely worth taking.

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from New Zealand

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Wonderful first book in a great sci-fi trilogy.

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