The Many-Coloured Land, Julian May (1981)
Review by Ian sales
Most of the books I’ve reviewed for SF Mistressworks over the past four years (yes, it really has been going that long) were new to me. Some, however, were books I’d read previously, and that’s not always a good thing to do. Of course, it does depend to some extent on when I’d read those books previously – five years ago, ten years ago, twenty, in my teens… Some writers, I’ve found, I admire just as much now as I did when I first read them, such as Ursula K LeGuin. Others, I admire more now than I did when I read them in my early twenties, like Joanna Russ. Some – most, in fact – I’ve found to be not as good as I remembered them. (Although, to be fair, while the novels by CJ Cherryh I’ve reread in recent years have not been as good as I remembered them, I have gained a new appreciation for her writing.)
Then there are those writers, you have to wonder why you loved their books all those years ago… I know people who count Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles – The Many-Coloured Land, The Golden Torc, The Non-Born King and The Adversary – among their favourite science fiction novels. I certainly had fond memories of them, although I’d last read them in the early-1980s, shortly after they first appeared in the UK. I had honestly expected The Many-Coloured Land to weather a reread reasonably well. Sadly, it didn’t.
In the early twenty-first century, Earth is invited to join the Galactic Milieu and by the middle of the century an intergalactic human civilisation is well-established. Many humans are “metapsychics”, as are many of the aliens in the Galactic Milieu. But there are also humans who don’t fit into this new peaceful metapsychic-administered galactic civilisation. Fortunately, a French professor invented time travel so these misfits have somewhere to go. Unfortunately, it can only take them six millions years into the past, the Pliocene era, and it’s one way. Nonetheless, plenty decide to take the trip, so much so that a small industry builds up around the Rhône valley cottage where the professor built his time machine.
The Many-Coloured Land concerns the adventures of one particular group of time-travellers, Group Green, and those they meet in the Pliocene. The book is divided into a prologue and three sections. The first section introduces the members of Group Green, and their reasons for choosing exile in the Pliocene. One is a widowed palaeontologist, another is an ex-metapsychic who lost her powers after a near-fatal accident; there’s also a xenophobic starship captain, a berserker miner, a young female ring-hockey player, an incorrigible rogue, an anthropologist chasing his love, and a nun looking for somewhere to be a hermit. Unfortunately, the Pliocene is not the untapped wilderness everyone expected. When Group Green arrive, they discover that it’s inhabited by a pair of humanoid alien races, the Tanu and the Firvulag, who have more or less enslaved the seventy thousand or so humans who have travelled there since the time machine was first used. The Tanu are tall and beautiful and powerful metapsychics thanks to torcs they wear about their necks. The Firvulag, on the other hand, who are actually the same race as the Tanu, are short and ugly and don’t require torcs for their metapsychic powers.
On arrival in the Pliocene, Group Green are taken to Castle Gateway by human guardians, where their possessions are taken from them and they are tested for latent metapsychic abilities (some do much better than others in this). For some reason never full explained, everyone travels through time in fancy dress, like it’s some sort of convention masquerade. The miner dresses like a Viking, for example, the starship captain like the Flying Dutchman, and the ring-hockey player wears the outfit she wears during a match (which is a sort of stylised hoplite armour).
After various incidents at Castle Gateway, during which the members of Group Green learn about the situation in the Pliocene, half of them travel south to the Tanu capital, Muriah, where they will join the Tanu as equals. The others, however, are sent north to Finiah, to become serfs for the Tanu. Except the latter group overcome their escort en route, escape into the wilderness, join up with a group of free humans, and hatch a plot to salvage the flying ships from where the Tanu/Firvulag intergalactic spaceship crashed on earth millennia before. These are covered in the second and third sections of the novel.
As mentioned earlier, I had fond memories of The Many-Coloured Land and its sequels. The high regard in which the books are generally held did little to dispel those memories. But actually rereading this novel for the first time in over thirty years… The central premise is appealing, true, even if the Galactic Milieu is one of those fictional universes in which everything depends on either paragons or pantomime villains. And the idea of the earth of six million years ago being populated by displaced aliens is pretty neat. And yet… The Many-Coloured Land reads just a bit too much like fanfic. Everyone is either too good or too bad or too nice or too incorrigible or too this or too that. The characters feel like Hollywood stage Oirish, reliant on broadbrush – and at times borderline offensive – characterisation.
There are also slips in rigour – when one character arrives in the Pliocene, for example, she is met by a guardian… but we are in her POV and she cannot know the person helping her is called a “guardian”. There are several mistakes like this as the story progresses – characters knowing background before they’ve been told it. Not to mention many instances where characters lecture one another, particularly on the history of the Tanu, Firvulag and the human time-travellers. Having a palaeontogist along also allows May to show off her Pliocene research, as every animal – although not every plant – which makes an appearance is named and taxonomically categorised.
What I hadn’t known when I first read the books in the early 1980s was that much of the Saga of the Exiles (or Saga of the Pliocene) was based on Irish mythology. The Tanu, for example, are the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Firvulag are the Fir Bolg… which certainly explains the Hollywood Irish atmosphere to the story. The Many-Coloured Land also has a slightly Heinleinian cast to the dialogue, that sort of mid-twentieth-century slightly patronising presentation common to a lot of American science fiction of the time. This is especially problematical when in the POV of some of the male characters, and the way they refer to the female characters is frequently offensive (particularly when discussing the ring-hockey player, who is young, attractive, arrogant, a powerful latent metapsychic, and queer).
On the evidence of The Many-Coloured Land, the Saga of the Exiles has not aged well. Despite being set six million years in the past, it is very much a novel of its day. And it had a very good day – it was extremely popular, sold well, and May went on to write a further four novels set in the Galactic Milieu. Her last novel was published in 2006, Sorceror’s Moon, the last book of the Boreal Moon trilogy. Given that her first appearance in print was in a short story in the December 1951 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, that’s an impressively long career. It’s a shame her best-known work proved so disappointing on reread.