The Many-Colored Land, Julian May

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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September 17, 2012

The Many-Colored Land, Julian May

The Many-Colored Land, Julian May

About a decade ago, a friend recommended Julian May’s books to me as something he thought I’d enjoy. I got them piecemeal from my local library and tore through them as fast as I could–taking in the shape of the them, but not necessarily the finer details (which is how I read books for a long time–I drank them up as fast as I could; now, I prefer to take my time). Ever since, I’ve looked back upon them somewhat fondly and over the last few years I’ve been wanting to re-read them but as they had fallen out of print by the time I read them the first time around (I think), it seemed unlikely–until I remembered that you can buy used books online now (I am a bit slow on the take up some times).

So I went ahead and bought used copies–and after a bit of a kerfuffle involving my original shipment getting lost in a hurricane, I acquired a complete set of Julian May’s three interconnected series (serieses? serii?): The Saga of Pliocene Exile, Intervention, and the Galactic Milieu Trilogy. Or, as I like to call all nine books: The Magnificent Manpain of Marc Remillard. They’ve been sitting on a shelf waiting for me to get to them ever since.

The first book is The Many-Colored Land (this is a link to the Kindle edition; it seems to still be OOP in paper, alas) and I’ve been working my way through it over the last few days.

The very first thing I noticed was the deliberate and detailed pacing. The prologue involves aliens crash landing on Earth after they’ve fled their  home galaxy and then, over the next few chapters, we meet our human protagonists–citizens of the Galactic Milieu, a society composed of both human and non-human sentient beings. And not just any sentient beings, those who have developed metapsychic abilities and achieved a sort of mental singularity. It all seems rather utopian on its surface, but of course, there are misfits. And luckily, there is a handy temporal gate for those misfits to use to escape the utopia which isn’t. The way May describes the Galactic Milieu reminds me in some ways of the way Kage Baker describes the future world of her Company setting–of course, Baker was writing many years after May and the idea of the future utopia which isn’t really a utopia at all isn’t that new of an idea.

Our protagonists are a somewhat varied lot of people from different places across the galaxy–however, they’re all white and that’s not because there aren’t people of other ethnicities and races going through the gate, it’s just that May has set it up so, statistically, it’s the white people who are more likely to want to go through it (and one of our protagonists is virulently xenophobic against “exotics”–i.e., non-humans). Make of that what you will.

Anyhow, the whole first part is devoted to setting everything up just so. One thing that struck me on this re-read was how well-prepared the time travelers are for the past: they’re provided gear that will last a good number of years, they’re given access to survival training, and they are sent through the gate in small groups that spend some time together before heading through the time gate.

Of course, all this elaborate set up can only be for one reason: to knock it all down. Our eight protagonists, four men and four women, are neatly split into two groups, both of which will serve the Tanu, the exotics who live on the other side of the gate in the Pliocene. The women, unfortunately, will have their sterilizations reversed in order to bear Tanu children–whether they want to or not. One of the protagonists, Felice, is a lesbian; the text refers to her as “homophilic”, which is curiously clinical terminology, especially since no one seems to have an issue with it except for Richard, the xenophobe. One of the other women (Amerie) is a Roman Catholic nun. For both of them, the prospect of having to submit to being raped is horrifying (it’s horrifying for the other women, too, but their horror is most explicitly delineated).

Intractable or essential human personnel (doctors, skilled technicians) are given gray torcs which allow the Tanu to control them metapsychically, humans with latent metafaculties are given silver torcs, which bring them into operancy but which also allow the Tanu a degree of control over them. Silver torc humans can earn golden torcs, which are the same as the silver but without the control circuitry. These are also worn by the Tanu and are what bring their latent metafaculties into operancy.  There is another race of exotics on the planent–the Firvulag, who are from the same planet as the Tanu and who are low-level operant metapsychics. They are engaged in a religious and cultural war with the Tanu which comes to a head once a year for a two month period where there is a Truce with ritual combats.  Just think of them as the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, because that’s pretty much the road May’s gone down with their culture. They are aliens, but they’re also pretty much Faerie, too.

The way everything is so meticulously laid out in this book is a really lovely thing to see–it’s clear, concise, and easy to follow. It is very old-fashioned in its own way.

The second section alternates between the two groups. The first group, composed of Felice, Amerie, Richard, and an old paleontologist named Claude, is being sent north to the city of Finiah where they’ll be put to work serving the Tanu. Felice hatches a plan to escape and with the help of the rest of the time-travelers, they are able to overpower their Tanu and gray torc human escorts and escape–where they fall in with the Lowlives, a group of free humans working to undermine the Tanu alongside the Firvulag.

The second group is made up of Bryan, a lovesick anthropologist; Stein, a Viking; Elizabeth, a metapsychic who lost her mental powers in a terrible accident; and Aiken Drum, a non-born recidivist from the planet of the Scottish people. They are sent to the capital city, Muriah, in the south where they will be fêted and integrated into Tanu society. Bryan has been commissioned to study the impact of humanity on the Tanu, Stein will be a combatant in their ritual combat, Elizabeth’s mental abilities have returned and she is to be equal to the Tanu, and Aiken Drum is given a silver torc and no one seems to know what to do with him because he’s kind of troublemaking jerk.

Now the structure of this book is a bit weird–the first two sections are well-developed and balanced, but the third is all out of whack: it focuses solely on the first group and the second group drops completely out of the book. Their story is picked up in the second book in the series, but I can only imagine that when The Many-Colored Land was first published, it felt incomplete and unfinished.

There is one thing I want to discuss before I go any further with this reread and that’s May’s persistent use of a racial slur to describe Aiken Drum. In this book, she describes his smile as a “golliwog grin” a couple of times and in The Golden Torc, she refers to him straight up as a “golliwog”. Aiken Drum is of Scottish descent from the planet of the Scottish people–it is made very clear that he has pale skin, dark eyes, and red hair. I do not understand at all why May is using this word to describe him. I did a little bit of research into the history of the word (the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University is a wonderful resource for this kind of research) and all I can come up with is that May misunderstood what it means. It’s not a common term in the United States and all I can think is that she perhaps thought it referred to a kind of mischievous trickster figure (as some of Enid Blyton’s characters are). I don’t know. It’s jarring and upsetting and I twitch every time I see it in the books because it’s offensive and it doesn’t make sense. Another thing that doesn’t make sense is Richard’s total hatred of the alien races in the future society but he seems to have no problems at all with either the Tanu or the Firvulag and, in fact, this xenophobia of his seems to completely disappear from his character and he is redeemed by the Love of a Good Woman towards the end. Bleah.

Despite this, I am finding the book to still be quite readable. May’s clearly done a lot of research into the flora, fauna, and geological formations of the time period and she is clearly going somewhere with her overarching plot. Marc Remillard doesn’t appear in this book at all, but he’s mentioned in passing once–people unfamiliar with the later books wouldn’t necessarily notice this but it was a nice little surprise while I was reading it through this time around.

Finally, this is what my copy looks like (I took this picture while waiting in line at the DMV, no cars were in motion at the time and my car was in park: safety first!). This may be the best cover of any book I own. The hair! The surprised look on the face of the woman on the right! The mustachioed guy in a nun’s habit on a horse-like animal! AMAZINGNESS.

The Many-Colored Land, Julian May

The Many-Colored Land, Julian May

Note: I bought this book with my own money.

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  1. dichroic

    My set of those books, a gift in 1984 or so, have a pretty rainbowy cover

    I always figured Aiken Drum had a big head and small body, hence looked like a tadpole – a polliwog. (I’m pretty sure his name is from Scottish mythology.)

    • Natalie

      I’m pretty sure his name is, too, but I can’t place it off the top of my head and I don’t care enough about his character to look it up (I find him to be a pain in the ass and I know he’s supposed to be but that doesn’t make me like him any better). I know the name he takes later in the series is definitely from Celtic mythology.

      I suspect there was confusion about polliwog vs. golliwog–it’s persistent through three books now, each of which is from a different edition. I felt it was important to mention the racist nature of the word that is used because, well, I know I’d be upset if I picked up a book that had slurs in it and no one warned me.

  2. matt rossi

    Wasn’t me, was it? Cause I have a ton of her books.

    • Natalie

      It wasn’t–it was someone I went to high school with and who, afaik, doesn’t have an online presence.

  3. Doug M.

    I strongly suspect May didn’t know what the word meant. The Golliwog never made it to these shores. I didn’t recognize it when I read it, FWTW.

    Everyone is white: this gets corrected, a little, in the later books. One thing to keep in mind is that May started writing these books long, long before their actual publication dates. The first two books in particular. I’m not sure how far back the writing went but she started at least a decade before the cover date of the first one (1982 IMS). If you think of it as a book written piecemeal over the course of the 1970s and then given a quick edit to go out into the world, it looks a lot better. And, hey, by the standards of 1977 (or whenever it was) the book is really quite progressive — lots of female characters, lots of female POV characters, several gay characters. Both the book and the rest of the series blow right past the Bechdel Test. So there’s that.

    Seelie and Unseelie Courts: by this point we’re all pretty weary of elves, SFnalized and otherwise. And the “woo Celts! Celts are awesome!” stuff is going to get very very very tiresome by the end of the longer series. But okay — the elven stuff is not bad here, and the Celty stuff is no more than an occasional nose-wrinkler.

    Disjointedness: this book was always supposed to be the first part of a bigger work, and IMS was pretty clearly labelled as such. So that didn’t strike me as a problem.

    Richard: I have the strong impression that, once Richard had served his narrative purpose, May lost interest in him altogether.

    Cover: I’ve seen at least four different covers for this book: the two shown above, an abstract one, and the Michael Whelan. The two above are very nice, but the Whelan is terrific; look it up and see for yourself.

    Doug M.

    • Natalie

      Doug, thanks for the nice meaty comment!

      I’m about halfway into the third book at this point and yes, it is very clear to me now that the first two books are really nothing more than almost 800 pages of set-up for the main event: Marc Remillard. The narrative is interested in him in a way that it really isn’t in anyone else–of course, I’m also coming at this read-through having read the whole thing and knowing the general shape of the story, too, so that is likely influencing my perspective like whoa. I wish I were slightly more knowledgeable about Catholic theology, too.

      Excellent point about the books totally passing the Bechdel Test and being progressive for their time. I am trying very hard to keep that in mind as I watch what May does to Felice. I was but a wee lass when these books were first published, so it’s hard for me to necessarily see how out there they may very well have been in 1981. And I am seeing more characters of color showing up, which is nice.

      I think Richard gets mentioned once in the second book and that’s it. It would have been nice if May had made him more than a plot device–I never really bought that he didn’t have a problem with the Tanu and Firvulag, you know?

      I’ll have to look up the Whelan cover–I’m a big fan of his work, especially his covers for Joan D. Vinge’s The Snow Queen and The Summer Queen.

    • Doug M.

      Here’s the Whelan cover:

      you’ll notice that he seems to have done his homework on the chalicotheres. Those bright colors are eye-grabbing, and then it’s definitely a “What is happening here?” kind of illustration.

      I’m going to disagree about the first books being setup. I think rather that Remillard hijacks the books once he shows up. May is clearly interested in at least some of the characters from Group Green, especially Aiken Drum and Felice. And a lot of the minor characters are delightful too; Tony Wayland and Dougal, most obviously, but others as well. The scene where Basil meets Marc on top of the mountain is very brief but just perfect.

      A word on Tony Wayland: he’s an SFnalization of Wayland Smith, a figure of Saxon / Old English legend; he’s a blacksmith who sins, and who then must wander under a curse until he finds true love. May has a lot of fun with hard-luck Tony Wayland, but to be fair it’s there in the original:

      Welund tasted misery among snakes.
      The stout-hearted hero endured troubles
      had sorrow and longing as his companions
      cruelty cold as winter – he often found woe

      Dougal is of course a character May would have met many times among fans. (She was an active fan herself for many years from the 1950s onwards.)

      What she does to Felice: Mark Remillard gets fire-flayed; Aiken Drum nearly dies from the psychic aftereffects of mental cannibalism; any number of appealing minor characters get killed off or tormented in various ways. What happens to Felice is extreme but not inconsistent.

      One last thought: there’s a big Marion Zimmer Bradley influence here, especially in the first two books. I don’t know if May knew Bradley personally, but you can definitely tell she was reading her stuff.

      Doug M.

    • Natalie

      Oh, that is a lovely cover! And very clearly Early Michael Whelan, too. My copy of The Golden Torc is the Whelan cover and it’s probably my favorite of the four books in the series. Well, except I do love Felice’s hair on my copy of The Many-Colored Land. And Richard dressed up like Amerie.

      Marc might just be one of those characters that has what Jo Walton calls “protagonismos”–much like Miles Vorkosigan, he’s just going to take over the narrative.

      A clarification on what I mean about Felice: I am generally okay with authors doing terrible things to characters. I am not particularly okay with certain things about Felice’s characterization. I do not believe that people who are sadomasochists are fundamentally broken, although I am aware that this was not an uncommon belief at the time this book was written (on the other hand, 50 Shades of Grey makes it abundantly clear that there are still a lot of people out there who still think that). Then again, Felice is intended to be the Morrigan, so the violence and possible lack of sanity on her part makes sense in terms of the Celtic (woo!) thing that May has happening.

      The only MZB I’ve read is The Mists of Avalon, so any influence on these books is flying right over my head and into the other room. I do like–quite a bit–how it is very clear in these books that the forced impregnation scheme of the Tanu is wrong wrong wrong and that the physical and emotional effects are shown quite clearly (Martha). And how the women have agency and positions of power that are not dependent on their relationships with men.

    • Doug M.

      the Milieu is Utopian, but it’s a rather bourgeois utopia that doesn’t have room for all types. it’s a society that can’t help Stein or Felice and that has no room for Aiken Drum. knowing that May was a fan, I’m tempted to note that Milieu could be seen as the mundane world, with at least some of of the characters being standins for fan types. that’s obvious in the case of Dougal, but you can make the case for several others as well. there’s definitely a WorldCon Meets The Elves vibe there sometimes, complete with cosplay.

      one of the things that makes Marc so powerful is that he’s so obviously coming from *outside* — physically outside the M-C Land, and outside the world of the first two books, but also outside the narrative altogether. his motivations are utterly orthogonal to the Tanu-Firvulag fight or any of the other conflicts in the books. his physical appearance and conversational style are different too. he’s a relatively gritty, realistic, and very SFnal interpolation into a book that (up to this point) has been science-fantasy, and increasingly elf-y and fantastical as the the first three books have progressed. he’s got nothing to do with WorldCon. and this is good!

      The fact that May is able to bring all these things together for the grand finale at the end of the fourth book is a real triumph of storytelling. I don’t think she ever did anything nearly as good afterwards, but that can’t dim this really impressive accomplishment.

      on another point, Elizabeth’s healing of Felice is v. interesting. on one hand, Elizabeth is clearly either naive or excessively idealistic — as Aiken Drum correctly points out, a sane Felice is not necessarily a peaceful, safe, or “good” Felice. it’s deliberately left unclear whether Elizabeth rejects this, or knows it and proceeds anyway because of some kind of metapsychic Hippocratic Oath. I like that. OTOH, the fact that Felice pretty promptly reverts to form suggests that, yes, May did think that sadomasochistic people were broken beyond fixing — or anyway that at least this one was. I would enter a partial plea of “context, M’lud”; again, most of the first two books were written well before 1980, when this view would have been standard thinking.

      Finally, as to agency: picking apart the feminist threads in the first tetralogy would be fun and interesting work. As you point out, the Tanu breeding program is clearly depicted as wrong and horrible. (IMS, in addition to the bits with Martha, there’s at least one depiction of a half-breed kid being rather conflicted about the whole thing.) And there are a bunch of strong female characters, of varying degrees of likability and effectiveness, demonstrating all sorts of agency. all good so far.

      OTOH, there are some chin-rubbers. we’ve already discussed Felice. Madame and Sister Amelie get noble deaths, one for renunciation, the other for the benefit of the world. Elizabeth’s choice in the final book is straight from a romance novel. Sukey is a dim little thing who thinks the world is hollow. Mercy, yikes. on one hand, she’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci. on the other, she ends up getting literally fucked to death. ummm,

      other-other hand, the male characters don’t come off much better.

      MZB, I’d say you’re not missing much, but she was hugely influential at the time.


      Doug M.

  4. Poobah

    All three of the LGBT characters I’ve found in these books thus far are walking stereotypes, mentally ill, or conveniently dead before we got to know them. I was into genre fiction back in the 1980s, and I tend to be forgiving of writing that’s reflecting the era it was written in. These books almost hit you over the head with their ass-backwardness on this stuff.

    “Polliwog” doesn’t make sense in the context, “golliwog” does. She drops the word almost every time Aiken is mentioned. She does seem rather fond of $5 words, a fair number of times I had to use my reader’s dictionary function to discern the meaning of some of them. Suggests to me that she knows what “golliwog” means, what it implies, and that she should’ve known better. Unless she just went nuts with a thesaurus?

    The term carries enough racist baggage with it that her editors should’ve talked her into some edits. Not nearly as much as the abbreviated derogation that’s been used in the UK, but come on.


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