The Many-Colored Land, Julian May

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. And I give absolutely no fucks.

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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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Highly recommended.


Words of Wisdom

"It's chaos, be kind."
Michelle McNamara