As fresh and original as any book in the field, The Many-Colored Land, the deservedly acclaimed first novel in a series of series, takes readers on an amazing journey from the distant future to the distant past, using unexpected routes all along the way. In The Saga of Pliocene Exile, the human race has been discovered by benevolent aliens who have invited us to join a galaxy-spanning federation of sorts known as the Galactic Milieu, offering us interstellar travel, countless worlds for the colonizing, and the ability for certain gifted humans to discover and develop various "metapsychic" skills. The catch is, of course, that we must adhere to the strict, more or less socialist rules and agenda of the Milieu itself, which, while pretty much completely benevolent, still don't encourage anyone to be much of a free spirit.
Enter the startling discovery, on Earth (in France yet; how quaint!), of a one-way time portal leading back six million years to the Pliocene Era. Remarkable, but impractical — there really seems nothing to use it for — the portal soon becomes a way out for Milieu misfits and malcontents, or simply displaced souls who feel they'd be happier somewhere else. And so, in the years between the portal's discovery and the onset of this story, over a hundred thousand people have made the non-returnable voyage into the past, to build — hopefully — a new, happier and freer life.
As The Many-Colored Land opens, we are introduced to an ensemble cast of incipient time travellers, each of whom has his or her own reason for fleeing the Milieu and seeking a new start. A convicted felon spaceship captain, a guilt-ridden and faith-challenged nun, a loose-cannon prankster, a widower, a lovelorn anthropologist, a temperamental athlete unable to accept her fame, a metapsychic who has lost her talents in a crippling accident — these people and more converge upon the French estate housing the portal, receive whatever briefing there is on what they can probably expect on the other side, and, finally, are escorted through. However, though they all were expecting that they would emerge in an only vaguely familiar world, with little but their wits to guide them (regardless of the fact that the previous travellers must have formed a society of sorts in the Pliocene)...what they actually discover waiting for them on the other side is a shock none of them are quite prepared to handle...
For the few of you who still have not discovered this series after all these years, I simply cannot do the disservice of spoiling any surprises from here on out. Briefly, May's triumphs here include a tremendously original premise; fast-paced storytelling that defies predictability; and a sympathetic and well-rendered cast of characters who hold your attention throughout this whole high adventure. Now as the book nears its end, it probably isn't surprising that May kind of lets it get away from her. Sometimes, it seems as if she has things moving just too fast; there's quite a lot to take in here, and May doesn't go easy on the lazy reader, who could feel bulldozed by it all.
There are a few other problems. Often the story is too self-satisfied and glib. Certain scenes, particularly those late in the book dealing with the Firvulag, meant to provide comic relief, come off as simply cheesy, full of overly-broad campiness bordering on kitsch. But apart from these sequences, I must say that I really enjoyed reading a first novel in yet another multi-book saga that — for a change — doesn't drag its feet, and drag us as well, through interminable exposition and set-up, nor the same old cliché-ridden boring story. This novel, and this saga, are rightfully held to be among the more noteworthy SF achievements of the '80's. If you haven't passed through Julian May's time portal yet, well, hop in. There's always room for one more.