Tuesday, 30 June 1998

Julian May: The Many-Coloured Land (1982)

Edition: Pan, 1983
Review number: 77

The Many Coloured Land is the first of Julian May's Exiles series set in the Pleistocene, and was one of my favourite speculative fiction books in my teenage years. I've been putting off re-reading it for two reasons: firstly, I was waiting until I had copies of my own of the four books in the series, and secondly, I was rather apprehensive that I wouldn't think it so good this time round.

The book still seems original even fifteen years on. The plot reveloves around time travel. While the book is set at a time when time travel is not understood in general, one working application is sure. In the wilds of Provence, a portal has been successfully set up, allowing one way travel to the Pleistocene era six million years before the present day. (Attempting the return journey causes passed material to age six million years almost instantaneously.)

The portal becomes used by people who don't fit in in the human polity, the commonwealth of human-colonised worlds, to escape to some kind of different world. Since recording equipment is destroyed before it returns to the future, conditions in the past are unknown; prospective exiles need to be desperate enough to consider anything better than their current lives.

The book tells the story of one particular group of exiles - one which will become significant in the history of the time to which they travel. May gives the background to each member's reasons for taking the journey, and the ideas they have for what they might do in the past.

Once they arrive in the Pleistocene, they discover a situation completely different from any they could have imagined. The world is run by two alien races, the Tanu and the Firvulag, who are in conflict though tied together as a single dimorphic species. (Humans are yet to evolve; until the exiles began coming through the portal, the aliens had used the semi-intelligent ramapithecines as servants, controlled through the power of their minds amplified by metal torcs.)

The remainder of the book concerns the different adaptations made by the travellers to this condition.

Why is the book so good? It takes several of the most important themes of science fiction (time travel, alien invasion, psionic powers, first contact) and weaves them together in a new and surprising way. This is complemented by a well-thought-out set of characters, presented in easily readable prose.

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