Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Earth's Children Series: Epilogue: What Could Auel Have Done Differently?

So here we are.  Where did it all go wrong?

A month or two after The Land of Painted Caves was released, when the cynicism had fully sunk in, I dashed off this fanfic, which detailed the plot for a proposed Book Seven.  I still wish that such a novel would be released, though I have little faith that it will be.  Jean Auel hinted in 2010 that she had more material and The Land of Painted Caves might not be her last, but that does not mean she is hard at work pounding out the story.  While Auel still seemed quite sharp in 2010 and 2011, the physical toll of writing -- at least at the pace she knew -- might be too much for her at this point.

Of course if Auel does produce a Book Seven, all bets are off.  It could be the best story that she's written since The Clan of the Cave Bear, enough to dissolve our cynicism and make us fall in love with the Earth's Children series all over again.  Or it could be drek that makes The Land of Painted Caves look like a feast of brilliant plotting and characterization.

If there is no Book Seven, though, we have to ask ourselves where the Earth's Children series went off the rails, or if it went off the rails.  Who is to say that Auel did not intend for things to unfold exactly as they did?

<Crazy Theory Time>

Maybe it was always just a big joke on us, that we believed Ayla's destiny was to do good instead of evil.  Maybe Auel always intended for her to be the proverbial Eve who eats the apple and gets humankind banished from the Garden of Eden.

Think about it: who better to start the shift from matriarchy to violent patriarchy than someone comfortable with the concept of male domination?  It couldn't be one of the other Cro-Magnons because they grew up in cultures that promoted an all-powerful Mother who gave women her blessings.  Men can make babies, too?  Why that's crazy talk!  Whereas Ayla never had that indoctrination because she was learning that men were stronger, better, and must always be obeyed.  She was ripe for cutting a swath through the Cro-Magnon Mother culture, even as she appeared to embrace the freedoms of Cro-Magnon women.

What better way to get Cro-Magnons used to the idea of male supremacy than to put them in greater contact with the Clan?  In all the time Ayla taught the Others that the Clan were human, she never condemned their gender practices.  So the Others learned that the Clan's ways were "human, just different from ours," and were taught to accept a society where men were dominant -- sometimes brutally so.  And gradually the Others' objections to male domination would fall away in their own society.

How insidious of Auel to make Ayla someone the Others admired and trusted, so that they did not think to question the "truths" she taught... right down to the Gift of Knowledge.  In the final novel, the Clan did not appear because they did not need to appear: by the end, there was a little Clan in everyone.            

</Crazy Theory Time>

Do I think that the Crazy Theory was what Auel intended?  No.  Though part of me wishes it were, because that would at least make the Earth's Children series far more clever and coherent than any of us imagined.  I do think that the series opens itself up to this interpretation, though by sidestepping a few issues and stretching others.

Instead, I see a more pedestrian explanation: Auel started off with one vision and got sidetracked.  Either she realized that her original vision was not going to work, or she became interested in a new vision.  Maybe it was a little of each.

We know that from early on, Auel was committed to presenting the prehistoric era as accurately as possible.  Due to the limitations imposed on her at the time -- a suburban wife taking her first stab at fiction writing -- she did not have access to the most cutting-edge papers.  So Auel took what she had and created as realistic a portrait as possible, but gave herself room to imagine the rest.  Then as her work became more renowned, she gained access to more privileged work.  Some point afterward, Auel's zeal for research and realism must have taken over.  Maybe she simply felt awed by the years of research contained in the scientific papers and felt it would be like spitting on their authors to present something that was never there.  So while Auel could not white out the "psychic Clan" from her series, she could at least prevent further inaccuracies.  When she wrote The Clan of the Cave Bear, Auel thought that the Clan lived near the Ninth Cave location, but more in-depth research proved this was not so.  Therefore, Auel changed her series outcome so that there was no final Clan-Others confrontation.    

If that was not the reason for the detour away from Clan-Others clash to "Men make babies, m'kay?", then maybe the reason was because Auel attempted to plot out a Clan-Others clash and found that it did not work, that any clash was resolved in just a few chapters.  I find this hard to believe, as Auel could make one dinner feast last 10 chapters, but it's another possible explanation.  

Another problem may have been that Auel realized that any confrontation between the Clan and Others would be messy and morally complex, and as we all know by now, Auel is uncomfortable with untangling the moral messes that she creates.  Auel showed this discomfort as early as The Valley of Horses, so maybe the outcome of her series should not have been a surprise.

Understandable, yes, but no less frustrating.  What could Auel have done differently to make her series stronger?  Here are a few ideas:

1.  Have a Proof Reader Who Wasn't One of Her Kids.  From Auel's acknowledgements at the beginning, it appears that she relied frequently on her children as "beta readers" for the series.  In some ways, that is understandable: they would know how to keep a secret, and might not hold back on harsh feedback the way a stranger might.  At the same time, her children are not writers.  Furthermore, kids who love their mothers are going to be soft in their criticism, both because they are in awe of Mom's accomplishment and because they don't want to hurt her feelings.  Don't need any awkward Thanksgivings, after all.  Auel should have relied more on beta readers who had a lot of experience reading fiction and could discern the good from the bad.  That brings me to:  

2.  Be More In Touch With the Fan Base.  One brilliant move by George RR Martin of the A Song of Ice and Fire series was to have a devoted fan provide quality control.  The fan would alert Martin to inconsistencies and narrative problems as he was writing A Dance With Dragons and is currently doing the same for The Winds of Winter.  Having a fan provide quality control can create problems similar to the ones I mentioned above, but it can also get a writer in touch with someone who really knows the series well and can remind the writer of plots and characters that he or she might otherwise have neglected.  While I have some gripes about Martin's most recent installment, it is clear he still knows how to write a story, and fan input has likely kept him consistent.

But even if Auel refused to use a fan for quality control, she should have at least tended to her fan base over the years.  Auel may have liked delivering lectures on the research aspect of her novels, but she completely ignored the segment of fans (aka most of them) who just read her novels for the story and characters.  Had she attended a few conventions, say, or had a Q&A over chat on the Internet, or answered questions on a website, Auel might have been more aware of what fans wanted, and also of the criticisms.  That is not to say Auel should have written solely to please her fans, but she should have at least been conscious of our not-unreasonable desires, and it seemed like she never really was.

3.  Screw Accuracy and Write the Damn Story as Intended.  Once you create the theory that all Neanderthals have a psychic connection, you can't get much more out there.  So what if there wasn't much evidence of Neanderthals living near the Ninth Cave?  I doubt anyone would have held it against Auel if she inserted the Clan where they historically never were.  Even prehistoric purists would have given her a pass.

By the early 2000s, Auel was no longer the main storyteller in the prehistoric universe.  If she did not portray a certain place or time accurately, someone else would have.  That might have been her problem: maybe she felt too possessive of her groundbreaking research, too much like she had to "own" the prehistoric era and place her narrative stamp all over it, like a dog peeing to mark its territory.  If that was the case, her story suffered for it.


So yes, there is no question that the Earth's Children series gradually slides downhill, bottoming out with The Shelters of Stone and The Land of Painted Caves.  More is the pity if the latter is Auel's final novel of the series.

It is easy to let disappointment overwhelm after decades of build up.  However, what Jean Auel created overall is impressive, and the series as a whole has many good points.  Even if you roll your eyes at the series, there is always that novel you feel compelled to reread -- whether The Valley of Horses because you like seeing Ayla's survival, or The Mammoth Hunters to groan at the terrible love triangle.

Publishing a novel is an accomplishment.  Publishing a series of novels that are not only best sellers but are also constantly reread is a remarkable feat.  Auel deserves praise for hitting this rare literary sweet spot.   

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  1. I was about 12 when I read CCTCB in 1984. Hoo boy. In retrospect, I'm surprised my mom let me read it or VOTH, with all that basic paleolithic naughtiness. I absolutely loved the first couple of books, and then, like you, found them all to be downhill from there, especially the last. Your reviews had me laughing out loud. So funny!

    I have to say, I loved your fanfic for book 7. It actually made me feel some closure for the series, definitely a sense of "yeah, that could happen, and that would be reasonable."

    1. Thanks for the comments! It's good to know that people are still reading that fanfic. :) If Auel ever wrote a seventh novel, it wouldn't have to go that way -- I would just want something that moved and actually came close to providing closure. Regrettably, I don't think Book 7 will ever materialize. Or maybe that's for the best...?

  2. Hi Wild Blogger,

    I must commend you for your very interesting blog-series about "Earth's Children". I stumbled upon it by accident, but it was a really good and entertaining read all the way.

    I read the first five books in the series long ago, and although I don't remember much of it these days, I somehow still remember it in a positive light. Judging by your blogs, however, it seems plausible that I may just have blocked out most of the flawed plot-line completely. More specifically, I don't remember ANYTHING from the fourth and fifth book in the series.

    I just recently started all over again. I absolutely adored “The Clan of the Cave Bear” and finished it within a couple of days. I acknowledge your notion that Ayla's representation in that book has left me – the reader – very sympathetic toward the character, and that obviously plays a big part in my decision to carry on. But I must admit that I have already come across some silly and immersion-breaking moments in “The Valley of Horses”; it's something that slowly sparks bad memories of the first time I traveled through Auel's world. Still, I'm determined to go all the way this time, if ultimately only to hail my grandmother, who loved the series, but died before the last book came out. Whether or not my overall positive view of the series will be intact after I'm done reading all six books remains to be seen...

    1. Thanks! I'm glad you liked the blogs.

      I think if the sixth book had concluded things on a strong note, I would have been willing to overlook the weaknesses in books four and five. They were okay books with some good moments, but nothing great. However, since the final book was so unsatisfying (in my opinion), that makes the series as a whole seem as though it's on a slide downward into mediocrity. You might feel otherwise during your reread, and I hope my reviews haven't colored your view too much.

  3. At some point Auel or someone should write the story of Ayla's origin. Her parents' backstory complete with who they were what tribe they belonged to, etc. It would make a very good prequel.

  4. Hi,

    I just finished the last book, and was wondering where i could find the fanfiction of the seventh book, the link is no longer working.

    1. Thanks for your interest! Here is the updated link, and I will fix it above.

  5. I see I'm not alone in my disappointment of the Earth's Children series. I loved the first three. In the beginning of "The Mammoth Hunters", when the character of Rydag was introduced, I had a little of Ayla's hope in my heart...That she would become Mamutoi and then go find her son. But I could accept the unfolding​ as it was because Rydag was so badly picked on, Auel gave a plausible reason why Ayla opted to leave him with the Clan. But the decision to let him stay with the Clan in the first place is a little out of character for Ayla in the first place. This is the same Ayla who defied even her beloved Creb by taking her baby up into her little mountain cave, despite being so weak from his birthing, to ensure that he would have life. That kind of devotion to her son would've seen her snatching her son away to take with her instead of being haunted by Durc screaming "Mama" after her. And what kind of man is Jondalar? He knows she has a son. He supposedly loves her but never considers helping her get him back? Sorry. But Jondalar was such a snob...Ayla could've done better. He cheats on her, has a problem with jealousy, control and insecurity. I think I would've liked to have seen a different spin--let her find someone in her travels who seems a better fit. If Brukavel hadn't been so bitter about his heritage, he might've been a better choice. I would also have liked to have seen her adopt and raise Tremeda's children herself. It seems we had a nice little beginning of her bonding with Lanoga & co. Then they all fall by the wayside.

  6. I love the series, and have listened to it on audible more times than I can count. However, my favorite books are CotCB and VoH. After that, they seem to get raunchy and uninteresting. The backstory segments drone on and are littered with inconsistencies. The "banter" as you put it is little more than a tedious info-drop. The story itself is honestly not why I reread this series, the survival and crafting information is.