Voyager in Night, CJ Cherryh (1984)
Review by Ian Sales
It takes real confidence to open a novel, even a science fiction novel, with the line, “Trishanamarandu-kepta was <>’s name, of shape subject to change and configurations of consciousness likewise mutable” – confidence in the writing and confidence in readers’ patience. Not to mention interspersing a timeline between sections on the first four pages. Carolyn Janice Cherry’s prose, of course, has always exuded confidence. From the start of her career, it has been notable for its terseness and muscularity; it was, if you will, her Unique Selling Point.
Sadly, Cherryh’s novels are not so popular now, but during the 1970s and 1980s they were almost ubiquitous in British book shops. And given that not all of her titles made it across the Atlantic, I should imagine the same held true in the US. She deserved that. She was very, very good at what she did. And if her popularity has waned in the past two decades, it’s not because she no longer is good, but because tastes have changed.
Cherryh’s other USP was the Alliance-Union universe in which she set a great many novels and stories – including her Hugo Award-winning novels Downbelow Station (1982) and Cyteen (1989). Though Cherryh did write some space opera, the Alliance-Union novels form a future history beginning around the mid-23rd century and ending millennia later. Most of the novels covering the earlier centuries are hard sf, and Voyager in Night, which takes place in 2355 CE, is a case in point.
A new planetary system has been settled and a new station, Endeavor Station, built there. In order to fully exploit the system’s riches, Endeavor Station has put out the call for prospectors and miners. The Lindy is one such ship. It is old and cobbled-together, and cost every penny possessed by its three owners/crew. They are Rafe Murray, his sister Jillan, and her husband Paul Gaines. They have been transported to Endeavor Station (their ship is not FTL-capable) to prospect for asteroids. However, several months after their arrival, while they are out prospecting, a huge alien ship arrives in the system and collides with them.
The three crew awake to find themselves aboard it. Except they’re not. They are simulations running inside the giant alien computer which operates the ship. Trishanamarandu-kepta, or <>, is the program in charge of it all. Unfortunately, at some point in the distant past – the alien ship is millennia old – it forked itself and one of those “children” is now threatening its control of the ship. “Kepta” needs the three human simulations to defeat its enemy, </>.
One of the humans, however, Rafe, survived the crash. So there are now four of them: VR versions of Rafe, Jillan and Paul, and the RL Rafe. At various points through the story, <> “backs up” the simulations to create “templates” which it can use to instantiate new simulations. Towards the end of the novel, these begin to multiply to such an extent it’s difficult to keep track of which is which – and it’s important to the plot at what time each individual back-up was taken.
The narrative switches between the viewpoints of the expanding human cast and that of <>. The sections featuring <> are peppered with symbols as it seems the alien ship contains “passengers”, which have names such as ==== and <*> and ((())) and . It is not easy to read.
To find such a cyberpunk-ish scenario in a hard sf novel is certainly unexpected, and you can’t help feeling that Cherryh had recently read Neuromancer and been so taken with the idea of cyberspace that she chose to write a book featuring it. In order to make it fit, however, she had to disguise its nature for much of the story. Unfortunately, the trope is now so well-known it’s obvious from the very first chapter, and the slowness of the characters in realising their situation and what it means soon begins to annoy. Further, the story of Voyager in Night is actually quite thin – not much happens during its 221 pages. There are repeated incidents of squabbling between the various instantiations of the human characters, there are half-hearted attempts to discover their situation, and there are passages such as the following:
“Destroy all of them,”  said, one of ten of kind, one of a chorus of voices, hundreds of outraged protests which <> ignored, occupied as <> was … <> could not keep </> from the controls loge. There would be distractions. <> knew.
“Aaaaiiiiiiii!” ((())) wailed, irreverent of boundaries, passed <> and hid, pathetic in ((()))’s disturbance (p 134)
There is much in Voyager in Night which is typical of Cherryh’s fiction, and its prose amply displays how strong her writing is. Sadly, it’s married to a story that is both past its sell-by date and stretched beyond its natural length. Yet Voyager in Night, not one of Cherryh’s best, still manages to demonstrate why Cherryh was so popular and so good.