The Kif Strike Back, CJ Cherryh (1985)
Review by Ian Sales
At the end of Chanur’s Venture, Pyanfar Chanur and her ship, The Pride of Chanur, had found themselves heading for Mkks, a station in the disputed zone between the kif and mahendo’sat, chasing after a kif leader who had kidnapped Pyanfar’s niece Hilfy and the human Tully. These events were precipitated by the return of humans to Compact Space, which in turn led to a bid for power between two kif leaders… And it’s one of these whom Pyanfar finds herself reluctantly allied to – the very same one, in fact, called Sikkukkut, who kidnapped Hilfy and Tully.
So The Pride of Chanur, Sikkukkut’s small fleet, the mahendo’sat hunter Jik, and even the hani ship Vigilance form an impromptu task force and descend on the kif station Kekf and seize control of it, cutting off Sikkukkut’s rival and causing him to badly lose face. (Kif politics operates on individuals’ clout, or sifk, and leaders can rise and fall in moments.) Somehow the enigmatic knnn are involved in all this, and the bird-like shsto have been making secret treaties with some of the hani in order to cut the mahendo’sat out of any future trade deals, and the House of Chanur back home is near-bankrupt and wanted for a number of violations of laws and treaties – which is why Vigilance is dogging The Pride of Chanur…
The Kif Strike Back reads like the middle book of a trilogy, which in effect it is. The first book of the quintet, The Pride of Chanur, felt like a one-off, and the second book, Chanur’s Venture, took the ending of the first book and ran with it. The fifth book, Chanur’s Legacy, takes place many years later. And like many middle books of trilogies, The Kif Strike Back seems to consist chiefly of getting the various players into place for the final showdown, which, I’m guessing, will take place at Meetpoint, where the quintet opened. There is also a great deal of explaining, by Pyanfar, of what is going on behind the scenes and the motivations of the various factions – all, that is, except for the methane-breathers, as no one ever really knows what they’re thinking. To make matters worse, Tully confesses that the human ships may have actually fired on knnn ships. And no one messes with the knnn. They are centuries ahead of everyone else technologically, and don’t appear to deal very well with other races.
But if The Kif Strike Back isn’t quite as engaging a read as Chanur’s Venture, there is still much to like in it. Cherryh reveals more about the kif, and they’re a lot more interesting than they had appeared in the earlier books. Pyanfar makes an excellent protagonist, although perhaps she’s praised a tad too much by other characters (leading the reader to suspect the rest of the hani are not much good at anything). There is also a pleasingly slightly old-fashioned feel to the universe of the series. The pidgin spoken by the mahendo’sat is perhaps less pleasing, and it’s unlikely any writer would do such a thing in a twenty-first century novel. But the technology of Compact Space, with its huge space stations, FTL drives but no artificial gravity, the clunky tech of 1970s visions of the future… It’s all a bit retro. And there’s an implausible level of commonality in the technology across the various races – which also feels somewhat retro. While the various races’ spaceships may look different, they all seem to operate exactly the same – although it’s hard to tell how much so, given that Cherryh is characteristically parsimonious with detail. Her prose has always been about the characters and their actions and thoughts, and she rarely spends more than the minimum number of words on setting.
The Kif Strike Back is followed by Chanur’s Homecoming and Chanur’s Legacy. This series is solid hard-ish space opera, perhaps a little past its sell-by date – but when did that ever stop a science fiction reader? The Compact Space quintet doesn’t pretend to offer relevance to a twenty-first century reader; it didn’t to a reader back in the 1980s. And back then, I suspect, it felt a little like one of those wind-up toys from an earlier generation, a bit clunky, no smoothly rounded corners or brightly-coloured moulded plastic… but it did something interesting and fun. And sometimes that’s all you want from a book.