No. 18 – 2013Jun02 – C.J. Cherryh, The Faded Sun, and a World Building Ethos.
The next time you look into the night sky, try finding the asteroid, 77185 Cherryh. Admittedly, it’s not an easy task. But it’s up there and named after Carolyn Janice Cherry, aka C.J. Cherryh. The discoverers believed Cherryh had “… challenged them to be worthy of the stars …”
That’s an interesting remark: being “…worthy of the stars.” I have to wonder if Flash Gordon, reviewed by the same judges, would be worthy of the stars. Cherryh loved watching episodes of Flash Gordon, but as so often happens, the show got cancelled. So at the age of ten, she decided to do something about it and began writing her own stories.
I always think it a bit odd that someone would get a B.A. in a dead language, but Latin, at least, can be useful for people who study archaeology, mythology, and history. She got her Master’s in the Classics, taught Latin, Ancient Greek, history, ancient culture, and led expeditions of students into the ruins of the past throughout England, France, Spain, and Italy.
Cherryh’s first published works were novels, Gate of Ivrel and Brothers of Earth (1976), winning the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, 1977, finishing out the decade with publishing another six novels. Her short story, “Cassandra” (1979), won a Best Short Story Hugo. Perhaps winning this award pushed her past the point of no return because she started writing fulltime after that. She won the Hugo Award for Best Novel for both Down Below Station (1982) and Cyteen (1989)–which also picked up a Locus Award in 1988.
You may discover that Cherryh’s writing style is hard to pin down. It’s part stream of consciousness and part third person. You may enter the mind of one narrator and think you know what’s going on. But then you are suddenly traveling along with another character who knows things the first character doesn’t. Some readers will relish this kind of plot revelation, others will find it jarring.
Cherryh’s works comprise several series. The Alliance-Union series alone has nearly thirty volumes, some of which are anthologies of short stories edited by her. The major sub-series are The Company Wars, The Chanur Novels, The Mri Wars, The Merovigen Nights, The Age of Exploration, The Hanan Rebellion, and The Morgaine Cycle.
The Company Wars explores the relationship of Earth with break-away colonies at a distance from her, and with the companies that run them. The politics involves more than just distance and economics. There are compelling reasons for making ethical judgments about where science and technology should, and shouldn’t, be allowed to go. The unchecked use of genetic manipulation, and the resultant life forms, creates new social strata and human relationships. Earth’s misguided policies and poorly executed attempts to control distant colonies eventually results in colonial rebellion.
The Chanur novels sub-series explore several alien species. The Hani, Stsho, Mahendo’sat, and Kif are all oxygen breathers. The Tca, Chi, and Knnn are methane breathers. The meeting grounds are the space stations that accommodate this space-faring community.
Cherryh’s space opera doesn’t principally rely on weapons fire and battle tactics. That technique of flash/bang recedes behind a tapestry of inter-species politics and economics, on the miscommunications inherent in language and psychological barriers.
Aliens, in these works, aren’t cutouts or stereotypes. She brings you into their world and you come to know their natures, even if you think they aren’t your cup of blue-green algae juice.
The Pride of Chanur begins when Tully, a human survivor of a captured terran ship, escapes from the non-human Kif ship. A Hani ship provides Tully with sanctuary, but the angry Kif declares war on the Hani. Tully, with the help of the Mahen, is eventually reunited with a human ship.
As the series continues, we find that the Kif and Stsho don’t want humans in the inter-species compact, fearing a loss of place in this alien community.
The Mri Wars sub-series novels are my favorites. Mostly, I suppose, because they were the first of her books I read. I “discovered” Cherryh, all on my own, you see. This is a different experience than being enlightened through a fellow book lover; it’s like having an epiphany.
These Mri books will appeal to lovers of military SF as the Mri are fierce, honorable warriors who abide by the specifics, and the spirit, of their contracts. Unfortunately for them, and their employers–the regul may not fully grok the consequences– the recently concluded forty-year war with humans was lost and they are about to be deprived of their desert home world of Kesrith.
This betrayal comes on the tail end of two millennia of wars that have decimated the Mri. The devious regul are hoping this betrayal will finish off the Mri, so fearful are they that these dangerous people might contract with their enemies.
The Mri, however, are a hardy race; they embark on a quest of renewal. Sten Duncan, the aide to the human governor-in-waiting, joins them in returning back to their ancient homeland; but it becomes painfully evident, after investigating one destroyed world after another, that their history is one continuous chain of betrayals by former employers.
The regul and humans track the Mri across space, through every waypoint in their star journey, and arrive at the Mri ancestral home. The regul, with an evil intent flickering in their eyes, are still committed to the genocidal destruction of the Mri. But I should let you unearth the rest, shouldn’t I?
I remember, as I read The Faded Sun trilogy, that Lawrence of Arabia kept leaping into my thoughts. I wondered if Cherryh had transformed the Bedouin into the Mri. Were the Mri born out of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom? Sten Duncan seemed to become another Lawrence of Arabia, bonding with a desert people.
I once overheard a discussion in a bookstore where two people were psychoanalyzing a character in one of her stories. I couldn’t help grinning at the way these two people went after one of her characters. ‘How could the character have acted that way?’ asked one. ‘Well, given her social standing, what choice did she have?’ responded the other. You can’t psychoanalyze a character unless you believe in the world the author has constructed.
Many of her works do have a common element: intellectual depth. It’s obvious to most readers that she worked very hard at the folk mythos and world building. The sociology in her works is full and robust. The characters fit in her worlds like a custom cut glove. High marks for Cherryh for her world building skills.
The Foreigner Universe, a separate series, is another excellent world building exercise. It comprises five sets of trilogies: Foreigner, Invader, Inheritor; Precursor, Defender, Explorer; Destroyer, Pretender, Deliverer; Conspirator, Deceiver, Betrayer; Intruder, Protector (just published), and Peacemaker (currently in progress).
The Finsiterre series and The Gene War series rounds out her science fiction series, but wait … there’s more. There’s the fantasy series. There’s The Russian, The Fortress, and Ealdwood series … well … you get the idea.
Cherryh also tackles difficult story ideas. Humans confronting aliens so physically, intellectually, and technologically robust that humans simply can’t compete—what we do really doesn’t matter. It’s challenging to keep a premise like this entertaining.
In The Hunter of Worlds, the Iduve are all that; way up there on the evolutionary scale. Humans don’t even ping their radar. Contact with us is managed by other less capable species. They show up, they demand, and you’re happy that’s all they want.
A non-human protagonist, told to report aboard an Iduve ship, has his identity erased as he’s packing. As the story concludes, humans not only ping the Iduve radar, their presence disrupts an entire sector. The Iduve discover that even one human slave can remake their own social order.
The use of several alien languages plays a key element in developing the story and Cherryh uses three–employing a glossary at the back of the book to help the reader along.
Reviewing all of Cherryh’s works in fifteen hundred words is … unjust and/or just plain silly. Many of her works are engrossing, whether you’re a science fiction fan or fantasy buff.
Cherryh derided the tendency to differentiate between speculative fiction genres:
“… don’t like this specialization in which one side sniffs at the other as if they were some other species. No, no, no. We started out one creature. I don’t care if ‘they’ have spots. We’re still the same breed of cat.”
I’m one of those genre “splitters” she’d likely look at and then roll her eyes. I would agree in one area, however, about being the “… same breed of cat.” World building is essential in both genres if you want to have a good tale.
And I’d imagine that most every cat would be ecstatic about having a good tale.