Book Review: The Many-Colored Land by Julian May

The Many-Colored Land (Saga of the Pliocene Exile, #1)The Many-Colored Land by Julian May
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read for the 12 Awards in 12 Months Challenge, the LGBTQ Speculative Fiction Challenge, and the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge. This novel won the Locus Award and was nominated for a bunch of others.

My first acquaintance with the work of Julian May has come rather late. Just about every other sci-fi/fantasy fan I know read this years ago. Perhaps the concept of a science fictional universe being the basis for a myth was newer then and it was regarded as especially innovative, but it’s old hat now so that novelty didn’t make as strong an impression on me. But I still thought it was an excellent book, except that taken on its own and not as the beginning of the vast series that it is, it has some issues of continuity and loose ends.

The basic premise is excellent. In the world of the future a galactic civilization with multiple species discovers Earth and intervenes in preventing it from destroying itself (something previous reviewers didn’t seem inclined to mention, but I think it’s important because it goes to theme). The enforced peacefulness of the subsequent society has no room for a variety of misfits and ne’er-do-wells. However, a one-way time portal to the Pliocene Era has been discovered in France, and by happenstance it became a way out for said (human only) misfits. One can choose Exile or be sentenced to it, but a variety of weirdos end up there.

This sounds improbable on its surface, but the way it’s presented is perfectly logical. After the scientist who discovered it died, his wife intended to destroy it, but a poet came to her and begged to be allowed to go through it. Others followed. At first she denied them; eventually she recognized a business opportunity and charged them for the service, though she started enforcing certain rules, such as a mandatory survival course and mandatory sterilization for all women time-travelers. Near the end of her life she went through herself, leaving a note to ask that no more be sent. But the galactic civilization saw its usefulness and kept it open.

Some reviewers have criticized May for her subsequent introduction of a variety of said misfits, who end up being sent back to the ancient past in a group. I disagree. I think that understanding who each of these people are is absolutely essential for the credibility of the subsequent plot. Otherwise you would wonder how this group ended up being perfectly suited to the events that followed. But it’s the group’s unique combination of skill-sets that sparks the rest of the plot.

Imagine the surprise of these misfits when they step through the portal, expecting a primitive world without the technology they’re used to, only to find that the place is already inhabited by an alien species with psionic powers who are aware of the portal and wait for new arrivals so that they can be enslaved! They are the Tanu and the Firvulag, who eventually will be known in human legends as the Tuatha de Danann and the Fomori or the Firbolgs.

May follows the experiences and reactions of the group, which is divided in half. Those with psionic potential do better in this society than those without, and that plays a role in their experiences. One half of the group falls in with a rebel faction who were lucky enough to escape the psionic coersion of the Tanu, living like wild people in the woods, and their skills are perfect to launch a rebellion against the Tanu of their area.

An edge-of-my-seat plot thus far. Here’s where it starts to go wrong.

One half of the group – the half who did not escape – is entirely dropped about halfway through the book. I suppose that’s because another book about them is coming, but in that case, why not drop them right after they came through the portal? We don’t even get a hint of what happened to them by the end of the book and because the events should have had an effect on them, we really should have. No explanation is provided. It’s damn annoying, is what it is.

Also, one of the reasons I read this book was because it was on a list of recommended LGBTQ speculative fiction. The requirement to make the list is that it must feature a major LGBTQ character or deal with LGBTQ themes (to make the challenge I mentioned it can also be by an LGBTQ author). This novel does feature such a character, a young lesbian named Felice. In a way, she pleases me because she’s the toughest warrior type in the group (she was a pro athlete in a sport that sounds a lot like a cross between polo and hockey before her Exile) and she’s a girl. But mostly, she’s a walking stereotype. It’s implied that the reason she’s such a sports success (in a sport with no separate league for women) is that she’s a lesbian (like women of other orientations can’t be good at sports, and like the reason women who are good at sports are good is because they’re actually gay, and therefore “manlike;” and you can take both of those bullpucky stereotypes and shove them you-know-where). It’s also implied that she’s dangerously violent and that this also has something to do with being gay.

Also, every character seems to be trying to tell me how dangerous she is, even though I see little evidence of this. She’s supposed to be more dangerous than the budding psychopathic adolescent boy who feels no remorse for stealing from people or humiliating them or sparking others to mess with their minds; and more dangerous than a starship captain who abandoned a bunch of aliens making a distress call to the void because he was afraid of them. I despise it when authors try to tell me how to feel about a character and that cost May a lot of points with me. I don’t mind single unreliable narrators, but why would absolutely everyone in the story be afraid of her, unless being gay was bad and wrong? Which, I suppose, could be what May was trying to say, since it was published in 1981. But this read just as wrong as when every character tries to tell me how wonderful the protagonist is, and it grated on me. Also, the characters also treated her poorly as a result of their fear, and while that’s realistic and probably even to be expected, I would have hoped that it wasn’t normalized in the course of the story – which it was.

Also, a couple of characters fell in love with one another in the most awkward romances ever written prior to the second Star Wars prequel. I recognize that they weren’t really part of the plot and were actually background motivators, so why include them at all if you’re going to rush them to the point of ridiculousness like that?

One more criticism, and that’s the glaring plot hole. There’s a vulnerability that these aliens have that should have been something that any fool who noticed the parallels should have tried. Instead we have to wait for the anthropologist character to show up. Certainly any folklorist or English major should have been able to figure this out all on their own. May is sort-of aware of this, but she passes it off as “it just seemed too obvious so we assumed it wouldn’t work.” Why not? I would have tried it.

Be that as it may, aside from these flaws it was a well-written and fascinating book that was worth my time. I would have given it five stars if these factors weren’t present, and the length of time it took me to read it is no reflection on its quality, but I’m doing National Novel Writing Month right now and therefore am not reading as much as I otherwise would be.

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