The Many-Colored Land, a classic (1981) science fantasy novel by Julian May, wasn’t too high on my TBR list until I noticed that Blackstone Audio released it last month and I remembered that Thomas Wagner recommended it. I like science fantasy, so I gave it shot, and I sure am glad I did. I loved every moment of The Many-Colored Land and my only disappointment is that the rest of The Saga of Pliocene Exile is not available on audio.
The story begins on Earth and the rest of the Galactic Milieu in our 22nd century. Professor Guderian has opened a time tunnel that goes back 6 million years to Earth’s Pliocene period. He can send objects or animals through the gate, but when he attempts to bring them back, they age 6 million years and decay during the journey. When Guderian dies, his wife discovers that she can pay her debts by selling passage through the tunnel to nice people who are unhappy with their lives and want to escape. It seems that there’s no law against sending people back in time, and there are lots of people who are willing to give Madame Guderian their money for a chance at a new and adventurous life.
As the history of the portal is explained to us, we meet eight men and women who we’ll follow through the tunnel: Bryan, a middle-aged anthropologist who’s in love with a woman who’s already gone through; Stein, who fantasizes about being a Viking; Richard, the black sheep of a rich family of spaceship captains who’d rather be a pirate; Aiken who, despite careful genetic engineering, became an incorrigible — yet charming and creative — sociopath who chooses “exile” over brain surgery or euthanasia; Claude, an elderly but “rejuvenated” paleontologist who just lost his wife; Sister Amerie, a medic and counselor who helped Claude during his wife’s long convalescence, and wants to become a religious hermit; Elizabeth, who was once a widely respected meta-psychic but lost her powers after a traumatic accident; Felice, a 17-year-old ring hockey player (gladiator) who has some coercive powers and a penchant for S & M; Each is a fascinating character but things get even more fun when they become “Group Green” as they get trained in survival skills and useful trades before they all go through the gate together.
Each of these characters is quickly and deeply developed, and I was fascinated by them and the anticipation of what they would find and who they’d become 6 million years in the past. All of the set-up and backstory, which is often the dullest part of a novel, moved quickly and was exciting as the tension built. What will it be like when they get to the other side? What’s happened to all the people (90,000 by this time) who’ve gone on before? Have they worked together to develop a new civilization? Or have they been eaten by beasts that may be waiting for them on the other side as if the portal is a big invisible Skinnerian food hopper? I couldn’t wait to find out, and when I did…. I was shocked. That’s all I’ll say: Shocked.
Besides the excellent characterization and the excitement of a story like this, the writing was excellent, too. The dialogue, in particular, felt so right for each of these diverse characters, and it was often humorous (“’Fuck You!’ said the nun.”) My audio version was read by Bernadette Dunn who I liked in Memoirs of a Geisha but didn’t like in Bujold’s Beguilement. Here she was perfect — her voices worked well with all of Julian May’s characters and the subtle humor.
I only have one complaint about Blackstone audio’s version of The Many-Colored Land, and that’s that I’m dying to read the rest of this story and it’s not available yet on audio (and I’m not sure if it will be). This is not a self-contained story and readers will definitely want to have the next volume, The Golden Torc in hand. I’ve ordered the print version.