As I said a couple of weeks ago, prehistoric settings were a hot commodity in the early ‘80s. Julian May sends her cast of characters to the Pliocene rather than the Pleistocene (a few extra million years in the past), but I was still hoping that she’d redeem the concept. I can’t say that I think she did, though Many Colored Land seems to fail in the exact opposite manner as No Enemy But Time. Bishop’s book was a simple narrative that tried to tackle ambitious and provocative themes; May’s novel uses an overly complicated setting and overloaded cast of characters to tell a very straightforward adventure story.
In the twenty-first century, a French scientist opens a window to the Pliocene epoch, but it turns out to be a one-way gate for living tissue. Still, people are attracted, especially those alienated from the world around them, and tens of thousands choose to go into exile in the ancient time period. This is an amazingly promising concept, and I looked forward to a tale of exploration full of fascinating factoids about a little-known era in geological history that could also explore some interesting, alienated characters.
May was not content to stop there, however. In the opening chapters we’re introduced to the characters in question, but we learn that they live in a space opera setting called the Galactic Milieu. That means we get lots of info dump on strange alien cultures, psychic powers, and even weird galactic sports – all of which is destined to be relatively unimportant in the novel’s latter sections (except for the psychic stuff). The characters themselves are mildly interesting, but a lot of them are pretty stereotypical – like the super tough girl athlete or the space-pilot scoundrel.
When we finally do get to the Pliocene, May continues to pile on extra concepts. I won’t spoil it too much, but suffice it to say that it’s more like a mythical quest in Narnia or Oz (both of which are name-checked) than prehistoric exploration and society-building. I just don’t understand why May wanted to smash all of these concepts together. Why not just write a fantasy novel? It seems that May had a fantasy concept and a sci-fi universe all fleshed out in her head, and she decided to throw it all into one novel.
As with No Enemy But Time, this could all be forgiven if it was a well-written novel, but it’s not. The prose is less offensively bad than Bishop’s, but it’s not particularly thrilling, and the dialog often tends toward the cheesy. This is part of a larger series, but I don’t feel the need to revisit the Pliocene Exile after this entry.