Merchanter’s Luck, CJ Cherryh

Merchanter’s Luck, CJ Cherryh (1982)
Review by Joachim Boaz

CJ Cherryh’s Merchanter’s Luck is a heady brew of redemption, paranoia, fear, endless suspicion, and more paranoia. However, this work has markedly less of the seemingly endless (and often unjustified) political manipulation that bogs down Cherryh’s more famous novels Cyteen and Downbelow Station. Merchanter’s Luck does not snowball out with innumerable characters but rather stays focused, while still linked to the greater spectrum of events in her Alliance-Union Universe covered in other works.

Sandor Kreja (Ed Stevens – for most of the story) is the sole owner of a small cargo transport ship with faked papers etc. Most of his family was killed off by Mazianni pirates (renegade ships once/still nominally in alliance with earth sent to reduce Earths once colonies). Sandor falls in love with Allison, a member of the Reilley family who own a very wealthy merchant ship with a thousand plus people. Partially because Sandor wanted to see Allison again and partially because he wanted more lucrative trading opportunities “across the line” in Alliance space, he makes a voyage to the space station of Pell without a crew (illegal, and very dangerous). For readers unfamiliar with Cherryh, Pell is the focal point of many of Cherryh’s works. Sandor’s action arouses suspicion and the novel plunges into a rumination on Cherryh’s favorite themes — manipulation, paranoia, fear, and more paranoia. Allison and some of her crew eventually joins Sandor to repair her ship’s reputation (Dublin Again) and they enter into a deal with an ex-Mazianni who joined the Alliance…

These people are living on fragile space ships and space stations around uninhabitable planets and thus they must be very careful and extremely worried about others who might shift the careful balance between survival and death. Likewise loyalty to their people and families is paramount because they live in such close proximity with each other. These vital and realistic component of Allison’s fragile world justify a certain amount of the endless fear and suspicion present in the novel.

Because these people live so far from others they develop unique cultures. For example, Reilley’s Dublin Again merchantman is an entirely matrilineal society because the only way to introduce new blood into the ship is to have dalliances when you arrive at port. The ship’s children are those born on board and to those children the men on the ship act as fathers because they will never see the children they have fathered. Only a few people on the ship are actually unrelated (apparently marriage is not very prevalent in Cherryh’s universe).

Also this novel has dated well since Cherryh does not dwell so much on the exact technological details it feels modern and possible. Although the main political conflicts of her Universe are in the background of the plot they are interwoven adeptly into the views, worries, actions, and opinions of the main characters.

The world is complicated (this is a good thing) but to remedy the problem new readers to her Universe need an introduction like the one in her Hugo-winning Downbelow Station. This is simply a must!

I must admit, there’s too much unjustified paranoia. I know this is a a main part of Cherryh’s writings specialty perfected in her Hugo-winning work Cyteen but it often detracts from the more interesting and human aspects of the story.

All in all, a very worthwhile read full of interesting characters, interesting worlds, interesting human cultures, and some real bite.

This review first appeared on Science Fiction and Other Ruminations.

Shadow Man, Melissa Scott

Shadow Man, Melissa Scott (1995)
Review by Ian Sales

One way to consider Shadow Man is: Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness through a funhouse mirror. It is also a more political novel than the political The Left Hand of Darkness. Comparisons are inevitable, even though LeGuin’s novel takes place on a world with one gender and Shadow Man takes place in a universe with five genders. Both novels have placed the treatment of gender – culturally and legally – front and centre.

In the universe of Shadow Man, the use of a drug to offset “FTL shock” has resulted in a far greater than normal incidence of intersex and hermaphrodite births (miscarriages are also correspondingly higher). The Concord Worlds now recognise five genders – woman, man, fem, mem and herm; respectively, she, he, ðe, þe and 3e. (Unfortunately, I kept on reading the pronouns referring to herms as if they used the Arabic ﻉ (‘ayn) rather than the numeral 3.) These five genders have led, in turn, to nine sexual preferences; and this has bearing on the plot of the novel.

On the world of Hara, a colony planet re-contacted 100 years previously after several centuries of independent development, the law and society only recognise two genders – man and woman. So the herms, mems and fems must take on the role of one or the other – though there is apparently a facility for herms at least to legally change gender. The Traditionalist Harans feel that true humans have only two genders, and they do not want to join the Concord. The Modernists want the other three genders to be recognised in Haran law. It is the battle between these two groups which drives the plot of Shadow Man.

Warreven is a herm, but legally male, and works as an advocate in the Haran legal system. Years before, 3e almost married the son of the Most Important Man – the de facto ruler of Hara – but 3e refused to change legal gender. Now, 3e fights for gender rights in the courts. Mhyre Tatian is the manager of a middle-sized Concord pharmaceutical company’s operations on Hara. The world’s biggest export is its drugs, all derived from the local flora. Also important is “trade”, which is prostitution, mostly involving the three genders not recognised on Hara.

Warreven is involved in a court case which looks set to play a major role in the fight for gender equality. But the Most Important Man doesn’t want that to happen, because as long as things muddle along as they presently are doing, a delicate balance between the Traditionalists and the Modernists is maintained. But his son, Tendlathe, is a staunch Traditionalist – a blinkered, chauvinist and conservative Traditionalist of the worst kind. In an effort to keep Warreven from the courts, the Most Important Man has him elected as his clan’s seeraliste, the person responsible for selling off the clan’s surplus crops. Meanwhile, the Interstellar Disease Control Agency, the organisation responsible for preventing the spread of diseases – a variety of HIVs were also created by the FTL drug – also wants to prevent that case from going to court for their own reasons. Tatian is caught in the middle as one of his employees is a key witness. When Warreven offers Tatian the entire clan surplus in return for the employee’s testimony, it kicks off a series of Traditonalist attacks on the Modernists and the “odd-bodied”.

Scott makes no concessions when introducing the world of Shadow Man. It’s straight in at the deep end. There are one or two info-dumps streamlined into the narrative, but they provide little more than local colour. The story is told from the points of view – alternating – of Warreven and Tatian. From Warreven, we see what it’s like to be a herm in a society that does not recognise it as a gender, and we get the politics which affects that. Tatian provides an outsider’s view of Hara and its culture. Though both mention at various points some physical attraction between them, it never amounts to anything.

As a science fiction novel set in a strange and interesting world, with a pair of likeable protagonists, Shadow Man succeeds. There’s an air of exploration to the story, as it spends a great deal of time savouring the culture of Hara before the somewhat abrupt final confrontation. Yet the action never moves outside the capital city, though places elsewhere on the world are often mentioned. It makes for a languid read, a story in which the politics of the climax seems to page by page subsume the story of Warreven and Tatian – in fact, for at least half of the book, they’re barely acquaintances.

But it is the gender politics for which Shadow Man is known, and I found them a little problematical in places. For a start, the thing driving the gender politics in the story is “trade”. It’s almost as if the odd-bodied genders are defined by the roles they play in prostitution. There’s a level of prurience implicit in the Traditionalist response to herms, mems and fems, and given the focus on trade it’s not hard to understand why they might hold such an opinion. Perhaps Shadow Man needed to show a Concord world’s society as contrast, because all the reader has with which to compare it is the situation in the real world. It’s also worth noting that the genders in Shadow Man are defined by biology – it’s the secondary sexual characteristics and equipment which determine which gender a person is. And while the book’s glossaries helpfully explain the nine sexual preferences – there is a glossary of Concord terms and one of Haran words – those sexual preferences make only a few appearances in the story. Haran society is dual-sexed, and the story treats all interactions as such, acknowledging the existence of sexual preferences beyond woman-man but not really exploring them. And this is in a novel whose story describes the start of a sexual revolution comparable to the fight for gay rights in the real world. In fact, Shadow Man‘s penultimate chapter is very much an analogue of Stonewall.

Literalising a metaphor is not uncommon in fiction, and is an excellent tool for commentary. I’m not entirely convinced that literalising sexual preferences as biological gender necessarily helps discussion, though in Shadow Man it has resulted in an interesting universe. It’s a pity Shadow Man doesn’t explore more of it. Which is not to say it’s a bad novel by any means. I enjoyed it and thought it good. I’d happily recommend it. I am somewhat surprised it has never been published in the UK. It seems to me it would fit in quite happily with a number of sf novels which have been available here over the years – not just the aforementioned LeGuin, but also books by Storm Constantine, Samantha Lee, Mary Gentle, or even Gwyneth Jones’ Aleutian trilogy…

This review originally appeared on It Doesn’t Have To Be Right…