Someone asked me, recently, what my all-time favorite sci-fi book was.
What a question!
As many of you know, I’m an avid reader and reviewer. Always have been, always will be. From the time I emptied the library of sci-fi novels – 6 books at a time – as a kid, right up into my old age. There are always new and exciting sci-fi authors out there who catch the eye, Derek Künsken, Xiran Jay Zhao, C. Robert Cargill, Jackson Ford, David Walton, Megan E. O’Keefe, Arkady Martine, to name a few.
But an all-time favorite?
I thought about it, and decided that perhaps the best way I could solve my dilemma was to ask myself. . .
Which sci-fi book/series did I read when I was younger that made such a profound impact that I’ve read the entire series repeatedly since then?
The answer was surprisingly easy:
Way back in 1981, I remember spending a glorious wet and windy afternoon in Hudson’s Bookshop, in Birmingham, UK, when I came across THIS!
Little did I know then, the relationship that I would subsequently build with the protagonists and antagonists of that story. A relationship that grew and deepened as the years went by and the series expanded, turning those years into decades.
We’ll, let me tell you a little bit about the story itself and its setting, and then I’ll explain certain details about the characters you’ll meet within this and subsequent books.
In the very near future, mankind is ‘contacted’ by beings from other planets. They’ve been watching us for centuries, and waiting for the time when humans, as a society, mature sufficiently to be invited into a cosmos-spanning Galactic Milieu. Part of that ‘maturation’ process involves people who are the vanguard of mankind’s next evolutionary step. Those possessing metapsychic gifts. (Telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, etc).
Obviously, this ‘intervention’ leads to a massive technological and educational boost. Society changes drastically, and the world becomes a place that, for some, is far too regulated and controlled for them to fit in.
With me so far?
Good. Because now we come to the book itself. And remember, by the time of the actual story, the “intervention” is something that took place decades ago:
The Many-Colored Land
In the early 22nd century, many humans are being born with psychic powers and are linked in a single galactic mind. Those without psychic powers – the misfits, undesirables, criminals, and radicals – have a choice: mental reprogramming or exile.
Oh yes. . . In the year 2034, Theo Quderian, a French physicist, made an incredible but impractical discovery: the means to use a one-way, fixed-focus time warp that opened into a place in the Rhone River valley during the idyllic Pliocene Epoch, six million years ago, (a time between the extinction of dinosaurs and the rise of Homo Sapiens).
Spotting a potential use for this anomaly, the regulators of this perfect society begin to allow the misfits and mavericks of the future—many of them brilliant people—to seek a way out, and, after submitting to a simple sterilization process to ensure they can’t produce children, they exit the Galactic Milieu and step into a mysterious past.
The Many Colored Land concentrates on the events of 2110, when a particularly strange and interesting group – Group Green – prepare to make that journey: a starship captain, a girl athlete, a paleontologist, a woman priest, and others who had reason to flee the technological perfection of twenty-second-century life. However, when they step through the portal, they find conditions to be vastly different to anything they could have ever imagined.
So begins an astonishing adventure that conjures comparisons with the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ursula Le Quin. And we don’t have to travel to far-flung galaxies to find it. Oh no! This adventure takes place here on Earth in our own distant past. You see, when Group Green passes through the time-portal, they find Pliocene Europe is the home of two warring factions from another planet: The knightly Tanu—handsome, conceited, and possessing a wide variety of psychic powers; and the outcast Firvulag—some having the appearance of dwarves, others as big as ogres, who are gifted with their own brand of supernatural skills.
Taken captive by the Tanu and transported through the primordial European landscape, one half of Group Green are discovered to possess latent psychic powers, and set out for the Tanu capital, while those ‘normals’ who are destined to become slaves, manage to break free and join an uneasy alliance with the forest-dwelling Firvulag.
So, what happen next?
Ah, to discover the answer to that question, you’ll have to read the book itself…
But my goodness, you’ll be glad you did, because myth and legend and science combine in a fantastically entertaining story that is as immersive as it is breathtaking. There’s action galore, and an underlying fuse that slow-burns its way through this and subsequent books until its explosive finale. It really is superb.
However, to understand why it’s so good, I have to tell you more about the exotic race that Group Green finds waiting for them on the other side of the gate, and how Julian May so skillfully weaves their existence into our already existing folk law and legends.
(And as you read through, yes, you will see names and references to incidents from multiple books, not just The Many Colored Land, so don’t get confused):
The Exotic surprise
The exotic races inhabiting the Pliocene Epoch, Tanu and the Firvulag are, in fact, a single dimorphic race from the planet Duat – coincidentally, in the Duat Galaxy) – who closely resemble the Tuatha Dé Danann and Firbolg of Celtic Mythology.
Though fewer in number and somewhat regarded as an underclass, the Firvulag are metapsychically operant (The can access their abilities by use of will alone), albeit it, most of them – apart from their champions – are rather weak in telepathy and creativity, and are able to create horrific illusions. The Tanu, however, are metapsychically latent, and can only gain access to a wider variety of abilities through the use of a mind amplifying device called a torc. And once they do, their powers tend to be stronger.
There are other differences too. The Tanu are generally much longer lived than the Firvulag. The four books of the Saga of Pliocene Exile abound with Tanu who are more than a thousand years old, who were not born on Earth, and who are called first comers. These include King Thagdal, Celadeyr of Afaliah, and Dionket Lord-Healer. The Firvulag are not usually as long lived, although they have a few first-comers of their own (King Yeochee and Palloll One-Eye among them), but are physically hardier and more resistant to Earthly radiation than the Tanu, who suffer from an extremely low birth rate because of this. (See my further reference below).
This disparity allows for a rough-n’-ready balance between the two sides. Which is just as well, seeing as how the Tanu and Firvulag are sworn enemies, with each race habitually attacking the other. The only exceptions being in the month before and the month after the ritual Grand Combat, a gladiatorial extravaganza that pits Tanu against Firvulag. These two months are called The Truce and allow for trade between the two races and time to safely travel to and from the Tanu’s White Silver Plain or the Firvulag’s Field of Gold, depending on where the Grand Combat is hosted.
Firvulag babies are frequently born to Tanu mothers carrying recessive Firvulag genes. These babies are cared for until they can be handed safely over to the Firvulag. Of interest is the fact that Firvulag never produce Tanu babies. Regardless, both Tanu and Firvulag can be killed by objects made of iron, which they call “blood-metal.” Its use in weapons is forbidden by their battle code and all iron objects are confiscated from time travelers and destroyed, (without their knowledge). Since the exotics are otherwise extremely difficult to kill, lowlife humans take advantage of this weakness once it’s eventually discovered.
A major story arc within The Many Colored Land rests on the fact that in the forty years before the start of the book, the Tanu have claimed ascendancy. Their use of humans to augment their reproductive capacity—YES, they manage to revert the sterilization process conducted on every time traveler—means that their numbers are rising, albeit with Tanu/human hybrids rather than true Tanu. They also bolster their ranks with large numbers of grey-torc wearing humans, which gives them an advantage in the opening stages of the Grand Combat itself, which is usually a bloody free-for-all. As such, the Tanu have won the Combat without fail for the past forty years.
A point of interest also lies with the hybrid population. While generally accepted amongst the Tanu as equals, an underlying current of animosity exists. Hybrids tend to be hairier, darker, have coarser features and less of the ethereal beauty of the Tanu. They are also more muscular, and often have stronger metapsychic powers. A major point of contention is that, unlike the Firvulag and the Tanu, hybrids are not poisoned by iron and are not as affected by Earth radiation levels. Nor are they as likely to give birth to Firvulag or what is termed as a – black-torc baby – (Those children who react badly to the mental amplifiers and who gradually weaken and die because of this condition).
The Howlers are also worth mentioning, because they are a rogue Firvulag faction who broke away from the mainstream Firvulag society 800 years before the beginning of the first book, and who now inhabit the mountains of the Vosges. They are, essentially a peaceful people, and have long been spiritual, if not actual, allies of the Peace Faction that exists in secret amongst the Tanu.
However, the Howlers over-exposure to dangerous radiation found in the radium-rich mountains they have chosen to live in has mutated their DNA, so that they have become hideously deformed. The Howlers are filled with such a profound self-loathing that they attack anyone who strays into their territory.
Technically the Howlers are ruled by the King of the Firvulag. But that’s in name only, as they have their own king, Sugoll. And Sugoll is first among the Howlers in all things – mental power, physical ability, and, most of all, in hideous physical deformity.
The race from Lene
Very little is known about this race of people, but they are important to the entire multi-series story arc. (I won’t reveal anything here as it would ruin an absolutely wonderful twist-surprise-revelation). In any event, this mysterious race hails from the same galaxy as the Tanu and Firvulag, but they actually live on a different planet: Lene.
Thousands of years before the action of the novels, the inhabitants of Duat developed interstellar travel, and colonized other planets in their native galaxy. These other planets came to be called Daughter Worlds.
However, a terrible war and the passage of time led to Duat being cut off from these other colonies. Among the daughter worlds only Lene retained any form of space travel, and even then, only with very primitive reaction engines.
Meanwhile, the war left Duat with a wildly varying climate. Because of this, the Duat race began to diverge, and over thousands of years, gradually evolved into the Tanu and the Firvulag. The Tanu lived in the open, overcast lowlands and grew tall and lithe. They were metapsychically latent and developed and employed torcs to raise them to a limited form of metapsychic operancy. The Firvulag, who dwelt in the cold, high mountains close to the mines they worked for gems, grew small and hardy and were naturally operant, but most were much more weakly powered and often limited to Creativity and Farsensing.
As was their nature, the divergent races continued to be hostile toward each other, and developed a highly ritualized battle-religion to formalize their differences. Something that continued for many generations.
Time passed, and when science advanced enough to allow the daughter worlds to travel interstellar space again, Duat was re-discovered. It was also ascertained that the torc technology was compatible with most of the daughter world races. As such, a limited form of psychic federation was established. However, those daughter worlds were fearful of another war that might send everyone back to the Stone Age. As such, they demanded that the Tanu and Firvulag abandon their ancient battle-religion and rejoin the rest of the civilized worlds. A small number of rebels refused, and chose instead to give the proverbial ‘finger’ by fighting a final apocalyptic war to the end.
And indeed, it did look as if it was the end of everything, until Brede, a Shipspouse, intervenes.
(A Shipspouse is a female member of the planet Lene who is able to develop a symbiotic relationship with the enormous, sentient interstellar organisms known as Ships which were capable of superluminal travel).
Note: Ships were gigantic, self-aware and powerfully psychic crystalline organisms, which inhabit interstellar space in the Duat Galaxy. Ships were capable of superluminal travel through mental generation of an aperture into hyperspace. Ships were entirely benevolent and many of them undertook a symbiotic mind-marriage-union with humanoid females of the Duat daughter-worlds. Ships routinely carried the Duat citizenry on interstellar voyages of considerable distances, the passengers traveling within a vessel embedded within the Ship’s crystalline body.
Only one member of the race which inhabits Lene appears in the Saga of Pliocene Exile: Brede.
From the little that is revealed, it is apparent that Brede is much longer lived than either the Tanu or Firvulag. She also has a couple of additional ‘primary’ psychic powers, which seem to be a legacy as her time as a Shipspouse: the ability to teleport (D-jump), and the “mitigator” program which greatly reduces the pain experienced when traveling through the gray limbo of hyperspace. (E.g. The further the jump, the greater the pain).
So, when those daughter races I mentioned demand that the Tanu and Firvulag discard their ancient battle-religion, Brede and her spouse/ship intervene, and agree to take them to a faraway world in a distant galaxy so they can fight their Nightfall War to the end.
You guessed it! They end up on Earth, decades before humans start coming through the time-gate. And unfortunately for Brede, her spouse gives so much of him/itself, that it dies upon impacting the earth in the area of what would later be known as Nördlinger Ries, in Bavaria.
Now, it’s not until you begin to look into all these different facets in their entirety that you begin to appreciate the genius and the scope of Julian May’s story arc. It’s vast, weaving myth and legend and folk law about ancient gods, elves, ogres, druids, and supernatural healers into the archeological and geophysical history of the planet we live on. Very clever. And a superb anchor to the “what if” aspect of storytelling, making this gloriously ambitious project appealing to an extremely broad reader base.
Think about it. We’re presented with an astonishing opportunity to explore the wonders of Pliocene Europe, as seen through the eyes of our time travelers. Those travelers are a pleasure to be with, and come from such a wide variety of backgrounds that there’ll be characters you love and characters you’ll certainly come to hate. And they’re all forced to overcome their differences and work together in order to try and defeat the exotic menace. A menace we can all relate to, because many of the dark legends threaded into this story still exist today.
And better still. . .
Julian May has constructed her story arc so well, that she’s created a Möbius strip of a never-ending delight. You can read the ‘sets’ in the order she released them:
The Saga of the Pliocene Exiles: The Many Colored Land; The Golden Torc; The Nonborn King; The Adversary
Intervention: Intervention (Prequel) Divided into three parts – The Surveillance – The Disclosure – The Intervention
Galactic Milieu: Jack the Bodiless; Diamond Mask; Magnificat.
Or, you can begin with Intervention-Galactic Milieu-Pliocene Exiles. I even tried starting at The Galactic Milieu trilogy once, and worked my way through the Pliocene Exiles and back to Intervention. . . And it still worked!
And THAT, my friends, is masterclass planning and genius execution.
Perhaps now you begin to understand why I love this mega series so much, and why it is I’ve read them/it all so many times over the decades.
But please, don’t take my word for it. Why not step through the time gate and discover for yourselves the complex, galaxy-spanning richness that is Julian May. . .
And be amazed.