Julian May’s THE MANY COLORED LAND is an exceptional adventure that takes place in Pliocene Europe, think Tolkien meets Jules Verne. This is the first story in a trilogy, involving time travel and aliens. The world created by May is so imaginative, while being true to fossil record and prehistoric science. It’s like taking a course in geology, mammalian evolution and ancient flora all in one.
Three Reasons to Read this Great Book
- Superior world building and vibrant descriptive passages that will delight most scifi lovers.
- A humanoid alien race with a distinctive culture, a compelling ally or enemy?
- A complicated conflict between humans and aliens that drives the narrative
- A female author with mad writing skills. Julian May was unknown to many of my scifi-reading friends until a woman in my scifi book group introduced us to THE MANY COLORED LAND.
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The Longer Review…With a Few Spoilers
The novel opens with a prologue, three essential scenes that set the adventure in motion. I needed to go back and re-read the first two to realize their relevance because there’s no context at that point for the reader to get them. Therefore, I promptly forget them. (Maybe in my younger years I would have recalled them at the right moment, much later in the story…or maybe not!)
The third scene remains memorable. It introduces the reader to a time travel machine and the human scientist who created it. A broader picture of current human existence becomes evident in this scene as scientists from many planets and many species gather to see the machine in operation. Earth’s children have become a part of a larger galactic cooperative, called the Galactic Milieu. The time machine is tested and its limitations are explained. The machine can only send beings back in history, only into Pliocene Europe. No messages can be sent back the other way, none of the beings who travel back in time will be able to return.
The scientist dies, his wife, Madame Guderian, contemplates what to do with the time machine. She begins to hear from various members of her species. Many feel a desire to leave their current situations. They want adventure or purity, something other than what they are experiencing. Many are lost souls, but others desire a simpler existence. She begins sending groups of people back to the Pliocene as a money-making scheme. There are rules, of course, to avoid messing up human evolution, so all females are sterilized before departing. The assumption is that the great ice age and the inability to procreate will bring an ultimate end to whatever societies form in this prehistoric exile. There are also limits to the kind of technology they bring.
The story proceeds to describe a number of human individuals currently living in the Galactic Milieu, all of whom find themselves dissatisfied with their lives in various ways and make the decision to go back in time. Each person has about a chapter of backstory before they come together. They are the characters the reader follows into the Pliocene, landing in the past about 1/4 of the way into the novel.
What follows is an experience in pre-history Europa, with a few good twists. This is scifi, yet fantasy-like, in that the world of the past is a place not unlike medieval Europe, given the absence of technology and another twist…aliens…who have crash-landed on Pliocene Earth. I really cannot say more without giving too much away.
However, here is a taste of May’s lovely writing, a descriptive passage of the Pliocene Black Forest
“The understorey of this evergreen expanse received very little sun. Its plants–only saprophytes nourished by the detritus of the great trees. Some of the things that battened on decomposition were degenerate flowering plants, pale stalks with nodding ghostly blooms of livid white, maroon, or speckled yellow; but paramount among the eaters of the dead were the myxomycetes and the fungi. To the five humans traveling through the Pliocene Black Forest it seemed that these, and not the towering conifers, were the dominant form of life.
They were quivering sheets of orange or white or dusty translucent jelly that crept slowly over the duff of needles and decaying wood like giant amebae. There were bracket fungi–from delicate pink ones resembling baby ears to stiff jumbos that jutted from the trunks like stair treads and were capable of bearing a man’s weight. There were spongy masses of mottled black and white that enveloped several square meters of forest floor as though veiling some unspeakable atrocity. There were airy filaments, pale blue and ivory and scarlet, that hung from rotting limbs like tattered lacework. The forest harbored puffball globes two and a half meters in diameter, and others as small as pearls from a broken string. One variety of fungus cloaked decaying shapes in brittle husks resembling colored popcorn. There were obscene things resembling cancerous organs; graceful ranks of upright fans; counterfeit slabs of raw meat; handsome polished shapes like ebony stars; oozing diseased purple phalluses; faerie parasols blown inside out; furry sausages; and mushrooms and toadstools in varieties the seemed to be without number. At night, they were phosphorescent.”
Another aspect of this novel that I want to write about another time (because this post is getting exceedingly long!) is the way May turns Tolkien ideals on their head. Elves, Humans, Goblins and Orcs? Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? May’s novel upends the notions set forth in the Tolkien universe and I appreciate how she does it. Julian May died about one year ago, October 17, 2017. I think it’s time to bring this book back into the scifi mainstream and celebrate her for being an imaginative storyteller.