An Alien-Colored Land
**Contains massive spoilers for both An Alien Light and The Saga of Pliocene Exile series**
I just finished reading An Alien Light and in so many ways, it reminded me of Julian May’s epic series The Saga of Pliocene Exile.
The premise is somewhat similar: human misfits (for one reason or another) leave the world as they know it for the chance of something extraordinary and unknown. In both books, these misfits have no way of knowing what to expect, and yet what they find is unexpected and upsets the natural order of their lives. In both books, humans are subject to the rule of aliens with unfathomable knowledge and powers who will grant some of these powers to humans—for a price. In both books, species’ loyalty is tested, pretty much to the breaking point, and strange alliances—and even friendships—are made.
Both books also start off with about six POV characters, and some of the characters even smack of each other.
In An Alien Light, Ayrys is exiled from her home, losing her child in the process. Cut off from the world she knew and the one person she clearly loved, she drifts disconnected and goalless into the walls of F’Row.
Elizabeth from The Many-Colored Land loses her husband—and her telekinesis—in an accident. Disconnected from everything she loves, Elizabeth exiles herself to the Pliocene era, with her only goal to literally drift around the world in a balloon.
In The Many-Colored Land, Felice is an outcast, even among the rest of the outcasts. She’s small, almost child-like, yet surprisingly strong. Haunted by (psychological) demons, she’s constantly both on edge and in danger of losing her thread of humanity. Yet she’s a sympathetic character deeply in need of validation that she will never receive on account of her inability to open up to anyone. Her grasp on humanity—and even reality—slips over the course of the series.
In An Alien Light, Susu is a whore. Born into the caste, her life has been nothing but hardship and violence. She’s small, almost child-like, and despite a world constantly beating her down, surprisingly strong. Though she escapes her life of sexualized violence, she’s never able to escape her demons. She craves the validation and protection of others while simultaneously being absolutely terrified of most people. Even when she finds compassionate helpers, she cannot connect to them and lives her life right on the precipice of a gulf that grows throughout the novel and might swallow her at any second.
In The Many-Colored Land and subsequent books, Felice was by far the most interesting character and the reason I’d say “just one more chapter.”
In An Alien Light, Susu was by far the most interesting character and the reason I’d say “just one more chapter.”
I, at least initially, loved The Saga of Pliocene Exile. I loved An Alien Light.
That is where the books—and my experiences with them—start to diverge.
In The Many-Colored Land—once they finally go back in time—it takes almost no time to realize the aliens are duplicitous at best. In An Alien Light, it’s a growing, creeping realization. Like, sure, they’re studying humans to figure out how humans keep beating them in battles, but they don’t seem bad. Unless, oh, shit. Yeah, kidnapping the humans and testing deadly psychoactive drugs on them is rather hard to put a positive spin on.
This dramatically affects the story-telling. In The Many-Colored Land, almost as soon as they step through the portal the mystery of what exists beyond the portal can no longer be the plot. Sure, there are still plenty of mysteries, but they expand the story rather than further define an existing part of the story.
This makes the initial promise of The Many-Colored Land—the exploration of the unknown—feel like an introduction more than anything else. As the real plot takes hold—race relations, political posturing, civil war—the cast and scope of the story grow dramatically. We spend less time in the specific moments of the characters lives and more time looking at patterns of the world.
An Alien Light takes the initial promise of the book—the exploration of the unknown—and digs in. The mystery is more than simply what lays on the other side of the doorway into F’Row. So when Ayrys wakes up inside and starts to explore and some questions are answered, the scope of the novel starts to hone in on the ones that remain unanswered.
Sure, there are six POV characters, which by convention is considered quite busy, but these POV characters aren’t marching off and introducing more characters and more plot points and more settings. They’re all looking at the same mystery—F’Row—from different vantage points.
I don’t think either story handles the scope of the plot perfectly.
In The Saga of Pliocene Exile, I began to feel like Julian May had stepped back so far and opened the story up to so many characters that I could no longer truly appreciate each of the pieces—like looking at a beautiful valley from an airplane. It’s fine, I guess, but it’d be better if I were actually standing in it.
In An Alien Light, as the intensity grew and the scope tightened, months passed in a blink. Interesting world and character-building elements were stuffed off-screen in favor of a pounding narrative leading to the final conclusion. I’ve read many reviews stating that An Alien Light should have been a series, and I understand their argument.
In the end, though, I closed An Alien Light satisfied. My expectations and initial excitement were met with a matching story arc. Any additions to the story—the growing race-war within F’Row, the political posturing of the leaders—was contained within the greater plot and relevant to the stories of characters I cared about. The primary mystery—F’Row—was wrapped up. Enough mystery remained to keep it from feeling unrealistically-neat. I felt satisfied in the journeys of our POV characters.
I cannot say the same about The Saga of Pliocene Exile. By the end of book three all of the characters I was initially invested in are dead. Replacing them are about twice as many less-developed characters that I never get a chance to love. The mystery of what would happen in Pliocene epoch is replaced with a plot of war and political posturing.
This absolutely has something to do with me as a person. I never want to read a story driven by war and political posturing. If characters I’m invested in exist in an interesting world that happens to go to war and political posturing is necessary—so be it. I’m in. But I do not care about the war or the political posturing itself, only the effect is has on characters and a world I care about.
I also think it has something to do with the implied promises of the two stories. If I hadn’t thought that The Saga of Pliocene Exile were a character-driven series, I wouldn’t have been so surprised and disappointed when it spun off in a different direction.
Anyway, that’s it. These thoughts were coursing through my head as I finished An Alien Light and I really wanted to articulate them. Uh, thanks for reading?