Julian May’s 19811 The Many-Colored Land 2 is the first volume in May’s four-volume Saga of Pliocene Exile.
Earth has been absorbed into the Galactic Milieu. Planetary society has been rationalized, humans have been provided with an abundance of worlds to settle, and peace reigns. Utopia all round (provided one was not too attached to the languages and religions that the Milieu suppressed as superfluous to need).
In the early 2030s, Theo Guderian made a fascinating discovery. Various factors unique to the French city of Lyon make it possible to send objects six million years into the past. However, retrieving objects from the past to the present day ages them almost instantly by six million years. While robust materials like amber could survive a round trip, living plants and animals could not. His time portal thus appeared to have few practical applications.
It fell to Theo’s widow to arrive at a use for the portal: not everyone is happy with the world as it is in the 21st century. For them, a one-way trip into the past is the only escape possible from the Galactic Milieu. At first covertly, and then officially sanctioned, exiles set off for what they expect will be a pristine and empty Earth3.
One of the minor mysteries of the Exile is that while there seems to be no reason the exiles cannot send messages inscribed in suitably durable materials to the future reporting on conditions in the past, no such messages have been received. All the logical methods of examining the past via the portal have been tried. All have failed. Eventually, Madame Guderian made the trip to the past herself … but of course she could not report what she found.
Group Green, composed of a diverse assortment of people for whom their present day is unsatisfactory, prepare themselves for the pristine world they believe waits for them. On arriving six million years in the past, they discover that the Pliocene differs from the world they expected in one crucial detail: rather than the untouched wilderness the Exile expect, they find an Earth very firmly under the control of an alien civilization.
Like the humans, the Tanu and the Firvulag fled from a galactic civilization displeasing to them. Unlike the humans, they did not cross time; they covered millions of light-years of space to a world their living ship had selected as the most compatible (for them). Their ship was destroyed on reaching Earth. Since that time, the two closely related aliens have done their best with the resources available to them. While psychically enslaving Ramapithecus4solved the servant problem, Tanu and Firvulag’s infertility remained a worrisome challenge.
The exiles provided a solution. For reasons unexplained, hominids are compatible enough with the off-worlders to provide host mothers. Humans are actually interfertile with the aliens. The Tanu seized the opportunity, requiring human women to produce child after child, willingly or otherwise. Human men were assigned positions ranging from “richly rewarded quisling” to “slave,” depending on their utility and level of cooperation.
Some members of Group Green (like habitual ne’er-do well Aiken Drum and Elizabeth Orme, whose psychic powers are restored by her transit through the portal) find their new status pleasing. Others (like Stein Oleson) are given no choice about cooperation. Still others (like the extremely athletic, off-handedly homicidal Felice) not only escape the Tanu but resolve to bring the Tanu rule down.
A handful of ill-equipped humans versus the might of the Tanu seems like a one-sided match. It is. But not in favour of the Tanu.
Interesting historical note: May was the first woman to chair a Worldcon: 1952’s ChiCon II. She would have been twenty-one or twenty-two at the time.
Julian May’s first published story was 1951’s “Dune Roller.” Perusing her ISFDB entry may leave one with the impression that she is yet another SF writer who shows a wide gap in their CV, gaps extending from the 1950s to the 1970s (or in this case, 1980s): see also Dean Ing and Donald Kingsbury. While it is true that May wasn’t writing SF, it’s not that she wasn’t writing: she wrote hundreds of books in genres not tracked by the ISFDB.
May reconnected with fandom in the 1970s. This book (and the SF career that followed) were the consequences.
Readers may have questions regarding the implausible compatibility between aliens and hominids. If it were not for the fact that the Tanu used Ramapithecus host mothers, one might explain Tanu-human interfertility by supposing that the Tanu are our ancestors. However, it seems the Tanu ship did a good job of selecting a compatible world from the options available.
May takes a leisurely approach to her plot, investing a good 100 pages of the roughly 400 pages available introducing the characters and their setting: the Galactic Milieu, and Earth’s place in it. The action only begins once Group Green goes back in time.
The novel maintains that leisurely pace. The volume in hand gets the characters as far as a victory over the Tanu, but it’s pretty clear that the greater story is nowhere near resolved. One might compare this volume to Lord of the Ring’s The Fellowship of the Ring .
As was the quaint custom of those distant times, this book can be read as a stand-alone. The ending suffices, while hinting at future developments. That’s a good thing, because I don’t know when or if I will get back to this series.
Back in 1981, a book like this was not really my thing: the psychic powers angle seemed dubious and outdated, as did aliens who happen to map very closely onto later mythology5. I never got past volume 2, so I still don’t know how all this works out. (Well, I could look it up online, but that’s cheating.)
In 2022 this book is still not my thing, but it is now interesting from a historical perspective. While perhaps a bit overlong, the novel is perfectly serviceable. It was written in a moment in the history of SFF in which rambling series were becoming more popular, but there was still pressure to make each volume readable as a stand-alone.
As you might have guessed, I much prefer that series model to the never-ending series.
Other readers liked the book a lot more than I did. It won Best Novel for the Locus, came in a very respectable third for Best Novel Hugo (losing to Downbelow Station ), and was nominated for a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, a Nebula, and for the Prometheus Award for Best Libertarian SF Novel (losing to Little, Big , The Claw of the Conciliator, and Voyage from Yesteryear , respectively). Not bad at all, and sufficient to kick off a successful career as a prominent author of the 1980s and 1990s.
1: This was published in March 1981, thus very barely qualifying for Tears. Thanks to a university prof whose name I have forgotten, I read this hot off the press.
2: “Many-Coloured” in at least one edition, which makes me wonder how often American books are quietly tweaked to better suit the UK market, as is often done in the other direction. Extra u’s added, presidents becoming prime ministers, Halloween replaced by luring policemen to town (there to be burned in giant wicker men), that sort of thing.
3: Not being deranged, Madame Guderian insisted on sterilizing the exiles to ensure that the exiles could not rewrite pre-history and inadvertently prevent humans from evolving. Utterly unnecessary (history is fixed) and also futile (the Tanu easily reversed the sterilization). Still, points for trying.
4: Paleoanthropological classification was revamped soon after The Many-Colored Land saw print. Ramapithecus was subsumed into Sivapithecus. At one time these primates were believed to be a possible human ancestor. They are now seen as more likely to be related to modern-day orangutans. Science marches on!
The consensus view regarding the timing of the early primate species has been extensively rewritten over the last half century, but I am not sure Sivapithecus was ever thought to be as recent as six million years ago. Still, arguing about details like that while accepting psychic alien [KL1] elves is a bit silly.
5: The fact that the Tanu and Firvulag map so closely onto recorded human myths suggests either that they won’t die out any time soon, or that there’s some means by which their existence left an imprint on human culture.