The Pride of Chanur, CJ Cherryh (1982)
Review by Ian Sales
Cherryh is no longer as popular as she once was. Her books have not been published in the UK for over a decade, and she does not even have a title in the SF Masterworks series – though Downbelow Station (1981) and Cyteen (1988), both Hugo Award winners, are possible contenders. Reading The Pride of Chanur, which was shortlisted for the Hugo Award in 1983, and which is the first book in a five-book series, a possible reason for Cherryh’s fade from favour suggested itself.
The title of the book is the name of a spaceship, a trader operated by the Chanur family and captained by Pyanfar Chanur. She is hani, as are all the crew. The hani are leonine aliens, one of the four oxygen-breathing and three methane-breathing races which form the Compact. While docked at Meetpoint Station, a strange alien creature sneaks aboard The Pride of Chanur, and though its return is demanded by another alien race, the kif, Pyanfar refuses. The creature is not property but sapient. It also has plainly run away from mistreatment – perhaps even torture – by the kif.
The alien creature is, of course, a human. And it is the potential market suggested by the appearance of humans in Compact space which causes near-war between the hani and the kif. And in the middle of which stands Pyanfar Chanur. So it’s just as well that she manages to resolve it. In her favour, of course.
Like all Cherryh novels, the prose in The Pride of Chanur is brusque and effective. She makes no concessions towards her readers, and her novels are typically light on exposition. But everything the reader needs to know is in there and skillfully revealed. Pyanfar is a strong lead character, well-drawn and engaging. As are her crew. The hani are all female – the males stay at home, indolent and nominally in charge, while the females do all the work and actually run things. The world-building, however, is uncharacteristically sparse. Technologically, the races of the Compact appear to have FTL – some form of jump drive – but no artificial gravity, and communications and sensors are limited by the speed of light. Most of the action in the novel takes place in space stations, which very much resemble the one described in Downbelow Station. It is only in the final third of the story that it moves to the surface of Anuurn, the hani homeworld. And even then, Cherryh does her usual trick of filing the serial numbers off a human culture.
In fact, reading The Pride of Chanur it becomes apparent that everything in the book hovers on the edge of familiarity. The hani are lions, the kif are jackals, the mahendo’sat (another alien race) are apes, the shto… Well, the shto only make a handful of appearances in this first novel in the series so it’s a little difficult to make out their inspiration. Throughout the story, the oxygen-breathing aliens operate more like human cultures than they do real aliens. The mahendo’sat, for example, talk in a sort of pidgin English that would not be acceptable in a twenty-first century novel.
The methane-breathers, on the other hand, are more mysterious than they are alien. There doesn’t appear to be any sort of real communication or relationship between the two groups. Cherryh tells us they trade, and the knnn do prove useful in the final scenes of the book… But then The Pride of Chanur is the first in a series, so it’s possible the methane-breathers will become better integrated into the setting in later books.
All this is not to say that The Pride of Chanur is not a fun read. It’s pacey, has more than its share of thrills, and possesses a likable and sympathetic cast of protagonists. But it is a little hard to understand why it made the Hugo shortlist in 1983 – though, to be fair, the rest of the list that year was mostly poor (for example, Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge actually won the award). Cherryh’s novels are very much products of their time, and while they’re certainly well-crafted, their time has passed. Fans of her work – and I count myself one – will continue to treasure them, but their appeal is six parts nostalgia to four parts admiration.
I never did get around to reading the rest of the Chanur Saga. Having now reread The Pride of Chanur (decades after I last read it), I think I will make an effort to track down copies of the sequels – Chanur’s Venture (1984), The Kif Strike Back (1985), Chanur’s Homecoming (1986) and Chanur’s Legacy (1992). All five novels were also published in two omnibus volumes in 2000 and 2007.