The Many-Colored Land

by Julian May

Cover image

Series: Pliocene Exile #1
Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 1981
Printing: July 1983
ISBN: 0-345-30989-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 433

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The Many-Colored Land is a book in three parts, with a very firm plot and narrative break between the first and second parts. The reader gets some hints from the prologue, but the characters move from the first to second part completely blind to what they're getting into. I discuss some aspects of the second and third parts of the book below, after a line indicating possible spoilers. I don't think this spoils the book badly, since one can draw many of these conclusions from the cover and the prologue, but if you want your reading experience to duplicate the experience of the characters, watch for the spoiler markers and don't read the paragraphs between.

In the far future of the Galactic Milieu, an Intervention by alien races both reversed environmental problems on Earth and drew humanity into a consortium of friendly alien races. The galaxy is settled, well-ordered, and mostly peaceful. Humans have found and developed a rare but growing talent for psychic powers. Those who have them join in a galaxy-wide shared network of psychics, and are able to use their powers to smooth out and correct many of the psychological problems that humans have suffered from. It's all very civilized, which for some is exactly the problem.

One human scientist invented a form of time travel, a machine that could send people and objects several million years back to the Pliocene Epoch. It's primarily a curiosity, since there's apparently no way to return; anything staying in the field ages millions of years in the return journey and falls into dust. It's also, due to a hand-waving confluence of various geological factors, impossible to build anywhere else than in France where the machine sits. He demonstrates it a few times before his death, but little comes of it — that is, until a traveler arrives at his widow's home and convinces her to send him through in return for significant payment. Over the next seventy years, availability of this one-way journey spreads through word of mouth, becoming a refuge and exile for those who find the Galactic Milieu stifling, unsuitable, or unbearable for whatever reason.

The Many-Colored Land, as one might predict from that introduction, tells the story of eight travelers from the Galactic Milieu who go through the time portal to the pre-human world of the Pliocene. I admit I was prepared not to like this novel (which I read because it's a Locus SF award winner). Time travel into the distant past has been done before and since, and too often it turns into a wilderness survival story, and I find those survival stories almost always uninteresting. There are only so many ways to rewrite Robinson Crusoe, and I've read the original. Thankfully, that's not where May goes; as hinted by a prologue, untouched wilderness is not exactly what the time travelers find.

The first part of this book is character setup, introduction, and the preparation for time travel. Each character is introduced in their own chapter, along with their reasons for traveling into exile. This could have been a bit tedious, but surprisingly it isn't. May does a wonderful job with these short character sketches and subsequent interactions, providing the book with a fascinating array of drop-outs and misfits. Some of these people are nasty and some of them are kind and gentle, but I ended up liking almost all of them in their own ways. I was surprised at how touching this section was for what's only preparation for the main story. A few of the characters won me over completely in just a few pages of background material and had me rooting for them for the rest of the book.

Possible spoilers below.

Once they get through the portal, the real action begins, and ties in with the crash-landing aliens from the prologue. Rather than finding themselves in untamed wilderness (which seemed unlikely anyway, given seventy years of travelers preceding them), our protagonists find themselves in the middle of an established and nasty civilization of sorts. This is also where the book leaves a hard SF mode and starts adding technology-backed fantasy, specifically in the form of European mythology made real via alien races and psychic powers. The Many-Colored Land falls into the long tradition of SF used to provide the underpinnings of what otherwise looks like fantasy, but May takes that a step further and pulls in a lot of European myth and uses it to craft many of the conflicts and tensions. The travelers find themselves in the middle of a three-cornered war, and part of that bears a remarkable resemblence to the fight between seelie and unseelie fey.

I'm saying that openly in this review since, while it becomes obvious from the epilogue, I wish I'd known earlier in the book what parallels to look for. They're obvious in retrospect, and someone slightly faster on the uptake than I would have seen them earlier, but it took me until late in the book to fully catch on. May does a great job with the transition from pure SF into something more tinged with mythology, and the book is readable as pure SF (with the psychic powers and time travel escape clauses, of course) throughout. It just happens to also resonate with mythology.

Possible spoilers end.

The last two-thirds of this book are an extended adventure story as the protagonists think on their feet, come to understand their new world, and support each other through what they find. One of the signs of how well May handles the character introductions is that I had no trouble rooting for the characters against all comers after their time travel, even the ones who were the more despicable and least likeable of the lot. Felice Landry deserves special mention: a half-psychotic eighteen-year-old misandrist, dressed in the fake hoplite armor of a type of hockey played on the back of dangerous animals, with an instinct for animal taming and a natural tendency to take command of whatever situation she's in is not the normal SF protagonist. May doesn't pull punches with her either; she's clearly unbalanced and clearly dangerous. She's also canny and nearly amoral, which turns out to be invaluable in a few places. I think she's my favorite character of the book, but she has strong competition.

There is a reasonable conclusion in this book, but it's also clearly the first of a series. Most of the tail end of the book only follows half the now-divided protagonists, leaving the other half for the next book, and the conclusion is the first stage of a larger war. It didn't leave me wanting the other book immediately on-hand, but if you want the complete story, you'll need at least the sequel. (This book says the story concludes in the next volume, but I see from other sources that the whole series had four novels.)

I think the strongest part of this book is the characterization. Even with a lot of protagonists, May makes each one memorable; I never had trouble telling them apart, and I cared about all of them in different ways. The world background of the Pliocene was more interesting than I had expected, but I'm now tempted by May's other novels set directly in the Galactic Milieu. The SF-based fantasy world is okay, and certainly provides lots of opportunities for action and suspense, but I liked the glimpses of the Milieu that I got from the first part and think I want to read more.

Overall, not a bad book; the plot is not going to bowl you over, but the strength of the characterization and the balance between fantasy and SF (if you can forgive a now somewhat dated SF admittance of psychic abilities) lifts it a bit above the pack. I can see why it won the Locus SF award; I can also see why it lost the Hugo to Downbelow Station.

Followed by The Golden Torc.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-05-06

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