The Many Colored Land by Julian May
The Many Colored Land by Julian May
9,842 Reviews | 4.07/5 Rating
I love sci-fi.
I was raised on Star Wars, Star Trek, and Babylon 5. As a child I played endless imaginary space-games with myself, and quipped Star Trek jokes in class—repeatedly—even though the rest of third grade clearly didn’t share my interest.
For some reason, though, this love of sci-fi never made the jump from screen to page. I’d mainline two-to-three fantasy books a week, yet never make it to the end of a sci-fi novel.
I think it’s largely because I enjoy how a futuristic milieu affects the trajectory of the story more than the specifics of technology or the hierarchies of alien civilizations. On screen, we’re never going to hang out with O'brien in engineering for any significant time.
There's a reason for that:
Unfortunately, I feel like a lot of sci-fi novels have, essentially, whole chapters of O'brien at work, because it's easier to add pages to a novel than it is minutes to a tv show or movie.
The Many Colored Land by Julian May doesn’t fall into these traps. Which is probably why, unlike every other sci-fi novel I've tried, I actually finished it. What's more, I loved it.
Let’s start with the back-cover copy:
When a one-way time tunnel to Earth's distant past, specifically six million B.C., was discovered by folks on the Galactic Milieu, every misfit for light-years around hurried to pass through it. Each sought his own brand of happiness. But none could have guessed what awaited them. Not even in a million years.
The actual story summarized in the paragraph comprises a good third or more of the novel, and even though it’s all set-up, I found it brilliant. There’s a steady pace to these chapters that seems to heighten the unknown chaos of the upcoming time tunnel. As we meet our candidates for this Exile and they calmly prepare for what—to them—seems like a dream come true, the tension grows so thick I wanted to scream. How could anyone march so calmly into the unknown?
I speculated endlessly on what awaited them. More than that, though, I found the solid, inscrutable mystery of what would happen when they transferred through the portal not unlike the mystery of what happens after death.
Clearly I knew they’d survive—there’s no novel to be had in them being vaporized—but the finality of the decision paired with the unknown on the other side spurred some rather existential thoughts.
For example, there’s a tertiary character—a poet—who wants to go back in time to focus on his poetry. I must be utterly lacking in zen, because I found myself slightly panicked by the realization that his poetry wouldn’t survive and be remembered by future generations. Hell, there might not even be people for him to share his poetry with! Is art made entirely for the self? Is the purpose of art to communicate with others—or is it all a vain attempt to be remembered by the future? I was no longer sure.
And yet all of our misfits—some lovable, some significantly less-so—didn’t seem to think twice about any of this. They were just excited to be free of their stuffy Utopian society.
I’m disinclined to talk about almost anything after they go through the portal, as I think that feeling of unknown is one of the most compelling, most masterfully-managed parts of the book. I’d go so far as to suggest you read almost nothing about The Many Colored Land and instead head straight for the book; I’ve seen far too many reviews that think not mentioning the final ending of the book is a spoiler-free review.
If, however, you need a little bit more to decide to give it a go, let me try to paint a scene without giving anything away.
The story is big: there are seven main characters whose POVs we regularly inhabit. Though all are white, otherwise they really cross the board from old to young, gay to straight, kind-hearted to psychotic, methodical to romantic.
I was especially impressed with the representation of gay folk in The Many Colored Land. Though only one of our seven isn’t straight, the world in which they inhabit seems to accept her proclivity without second thought. Considering that as late as 1985 the Supreme Court of the United States was upholding state laws criminalizing gay sex, and this book was written in the 1960s … well, it’s impressive that this aspect of the book made it to print.
Anyway, back on point.
Once through the time-portal, our characters dream to do the impossible, against unreasonable odds. Even if they succeed, it’ll only be the beginning of their struggles. And yet there’s hope, and the resilience of people who have no choice but to succeed. There's uneasy alliances that have to stand until, of course, the moment they crumble. There's the unpredictability of human nature, and, with it, disloyalty and duplicity.
Many times as I was reading The Many Colored Land, I likened it to Game of Thrones—the books—though I don’t think it’s nearly as dense. It’s more the intensity of the quest(s), and a story-telling style that can occasionally spin off and dig into something small but important.
Though I adored the book, and tore through it at a pretty rapid rate despite its length, it’s not perfect. My biggest complaint is that while May pays close attention to most of her characters, there’s one in particular that she’s too flexible with. The changes that occur don’t fit with the character’s, well, character, and it feels a bit hollow.
My second biggest complaint is that after the big mysteries are revealed—and there are at least two that had me in their grips—I lost a bit of my feeling of wonder, and I didn’t feel like anything picked up that slack. It’s not like the book went from good to bad, it’s more like an amazing band losing an instrument. It can still be fantastic, but you note the instruments absence.
Any more, and I'll undermine the book. I'm done. But this is one of the best books I've read in years, and I am utterly baffled that The Many Colored Land didn't really survive in the collective memory, despite being nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards.
You might like this book if you like:
books that are epic as fuck
books with multiple POVs
sci-fi fantasy hybrids
strong female characters
As a nook ebook
As an out-of-print physical copy from any of many used book stores. Seriously, though, this book shouldn't be out of print.
[Edited to add: I hate to say this, but I feel the need to warn you. I don't think the series keeps up this high standard. I'm very disappointed in the third book, and may not finish the series at all. I'm still glad I read the first few books, but, you know, fair warning and all.]
Cover art by Michael Whelan: