Chanur’s Venture, CJ Cherryh

chanursventureChanur’s Venture, CJ Cherryh (1984)
Review by Ian Sales

The first novel in the Compact Space quintet, The Pride of Chanur, was shortlisted for the Hugo Award but lost out to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge. Chanur’s Venture, the second book of the series, did not even make the shortlist. Which is a shame, as it’s a better book than the first. It’s not a sequel per se to The Pride of Chanur – which likely was written as a standalone – but the start of a new story which picks up from that opening novel. The same characters appear, and the same backplot drives the story, but the narrative continues through three books to a fresh resolution. It’s almost as if The Pride of Chanur were the prototype for the three books which follow it: Chanur’s Venture, The Kif Strike Back and Chanur’s Homecoming. A fifth book, Chanur’s Legacy, appeared some six years later and features the offspring of the previous books’ protagonist.

Compact Space is a small region of the galaxy populated by seven races, four oxygen-breathing and three methane-breathing, which trade with each other. There are the leonine hani, the ape-like mahendo’sat, the rat-like kif and the avian shto on the oxygen side; and the wyrm-like tc’a, “yellow sticklike” chi, and the “black nests of hair-snarl with spider legs” knnn (I have to wonder if the knnn were a major inspiration for the Shadows in Babylon 5). In The Pride of Chanur, a strange alien sneaked aboard Pyanfar Chanur’s merchant ship, after escaping from the kif. The alien proved to be a human being called Tully, the surviving member of a human expedition into Compact Space that had been ambushed by the kif. Various shenanigans ensued, Pyanfar Chanur managed to save the day, and Tully, and a future trading with humans seemed both likely and desirable.

Chanur’s Venture opens, as did the first book, on Meetpoint Station, a sort of interstellar Checkpoint Charlie for all seven races. The Pride of Chanur is docked, and Chanur herself is still under a cloud after the adventures of the first book. And then a mahendo’sat contact, Goldtooth, tells her that he has a “package” for her. It’s Tully, of course. Again. And the kif are after him. Again. It seems that after he returned to human space, his superiors put together a flotilla to start trading in Compact Space, but it too was ambushed – either by the kif or the knnn. But now the mahendo’sat are involved, and they’ve given Tully some documentation which shows kif and shto collusion in the whole affair. The Pride of Chanur must take Tully from Meetpoint Station to Maing Tol in mahendo’sat space, but she has kif on her tail… and at Kshshti, one of the stops en route, they attack and spirit away Tully…

If Cherryh’s prose is typically brusque and muscular, then in Chanur’s Venture it reaches Schwarzenegger proportions. The story is told entirely from Pyanfar’s perspective, but for one scene where her niece, Hilfy, is the point of view. So, of course, the prose does not explain anything which Pyanfar might reasonably know. Cherryh has never been one for exposition or editorialising, her USP has always been her ability to tell stories from firmly within her characters’ point of view. It means a lot of Chanur’s Venture must be taken on trust. When The Pride of Chanur suffers damage as a result of a fast transit through a dust-filled planetary system, there’s no explanation of how, or to what part of the ship, the dust did its damage. The same is true of the politics which drive the story. A handy glossary provides background on the seven races (the entry on the hani is, of course, the longest), and is especially useful as so many of the behind-the-scenes drivers for the narrative are predicated on the political systems in use by each of the races. There is, for example, a power struggle going on among the kif, and Tully is a pawn in this struggle. The mahendo’sat are governed by “Personages”, whose positions are precarious at best, and it transpires that some of Pyanfar’s mahendo’sat friends are higher up in the race’s chain of command than she had suspected. The shto also make much more of an appearance. (In The Pride of Chanur, I had formed the impression they were tortoise-like, but in this book they’re clearly avian.)

After reading The Pride of Chanur, I had formed the impression it was middling Cherryh – an enjoyable enough novel, not one of her best and not one that had survived the test of time unscathed. But I found I enjoyed Chanur’s Venture a whole lot more. Yet it’s little different to that first book – indeed, it pretty much recapitulates the earlier book’s plot, only in a more complicated form. It’s a pacey science fiction novel, set in an invented universe in which humans are the real aliens but in which everything hovers on the edge of familiarity. And yet… Pyanfar is a very sympathetic protagonist, and the narrative is equal parts the consequence of her actions and her being pushed here and there by events. The universe itself hangs together, the various races – especially given the glossary – are much more interesting than they initially seemed, and the story throughout hints at greater jeopardy and greater rewards. I still think you need to read The Pride of Chanur first, but the series definitely improves. Now I just need to get hold of a copy of The Kif Strike Back



The Pride of Chanur, CJ Cherryh

cherryh-pride_of_chanurThe Pride of Chanur, CJ Cherryh (1982)
Review by Martin Wisse

The Pride of Chanur is a trade ship run by Hani – a race of bipedal intelligent lions – of the Chanur house/clan, captained by Pyanfar Chanur. She’s doing the rounds of her ship, currently docked at Meetpoint, the big interspecies trading station run by the stsho, when something speeds past her into the ship. At first thinking it some kind of animal escaped from another ship, it turns out to be sapient, but “naked-hided, blunth-toothed and blunt-fingered” unlike any species she knows, something that after careful questioning calls itself human and turns out to have escaped Kif custody, the Kif being a particularly nasty race of black robed, grey skinned, long snouted pirates and thiefs. She refuses to hand it – him – over to them and the result is she and her ship have to flee Meetpoint, one step ahead of the murderous Kif, who in the process blow up and murder another Hani ship…

If the descriptions of the alien races here sound vaguely familiar, it might be because you’re an old skool Master of Orion player and are reminded of the alien races there. Either through sheer coincidence or a bit of influence, that game ended up with a lot of similar races to the novel. The background is also reminiscent of MOO. Several intelligent species discovering interstellar travel at the roughly the same time, both oxygen and methane breathers over time have managed to reach a Compact, through which peaceful trade and other contacts are possible. They may not understand each other that well, but enough to trade or at least leave each other alone. It reminded me of the trading/diplomacy aspects of Master of Orion. Is it any wonder that rereading The Pride of Chanur also made me want to play MOO again?

But the other thing that reading The Pride of Chanur reminded me off was this song: ‘Stress’, by French electronic group Justice, and what you feel watching the clip. Because if there’s anything that makes Cherryh stand out as a science fiction writer is how much stress she puts on her characters, even in a relatively lighthearted story like this. From the start, even before the story proper begins, Pyanfar is under pressure, having her young niece Hilfy on board for her first voyage. Once the human, Tully, is on board and they are being chased from the Meetpoint system by the Kif things get worse.

Pyanfar has to deal with seemingly untrustworthy allies, Mahendo’sat, a kind of evolved squirrels, not to mention inscrutable methane breathers, the knnnn, blundering around as well as having political troubles back home, as a perhaps Kif influenced coup is undertaken against her uncle’s mastery of the Chanur clan. This combined with the sheer physical stress of jumping between star systems, especially with consecutive jumps and it’s understandable almost every physical description of Pyanfar has her haggard and tired, not to mention having her hair fall out in clumps…

It doesn’t always make for easy reading. The same goes for Cherryh’s writing style. She wants you to pay attention, doesn’t often repeat herself and drops little clues in when you least expect them. Terse is the right word for it. Reading any of her novels therefore takes some effort, much more so than, eg, a Lois McMaster Bujold. Which can be a bit of a problem when reading one on a warm tram at the end of a long working day…

The Pride of Chanur is the first book in a series, but stands alone. If you’re new to Cherryh, it’s a good introduction to her strengths and style; if you know her already you’ve already read this, right?

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

Downbelow Station, CJ Cherryh

downbelowDownbelow Station, CJ Cherryh (1981)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

Cherryh’s future-history has humanity expanding out to the Beyond by way of the Earth Company, the dominant space-exploring power for some three hundred years. The space-born traders who haul cargo between stations are the Merchanters, each ship its own tribe or family confined by metal hull. The stationers live on the artificial satellites built like waystations, reaching ever on into the Beyond; several orbit “inhabitable” planets, of which Pell’s World and its native alien hisa was the first discovered. This delicate balance has existed for centuries: stationers need the flow of trade the merchanters provide, merchanters need a safe place to dock and resupply, and both need the cash-flow the Company brings in exchange for the flow of goods and ores sent back to Sol.

Now, the stationers furthest from Sol are in revolt, having formed Union; they have their own ships, their own goals, their own technology. Earth Company has lost touch, but wants control; its Earth Fleet conducts its own guerrilla delaying-action against Union for some time under the guidance of Conrad Mazian. The Fleet exists with waning backing from the Company and develops its own motives, a guard dog who’s since slipped its leash. Union victory is at hand; all the Beyonder stations are in Union control or destroyed. The surviving refugees from Viking and Mariner are packed into the orbital Pell station and abandoned by the Fleet; Pell shunts the lawless, frantic rabble into Q(uarantine) and struggles to keep order in a logistical nightmare.

Pell‘s motivation to maintain neutrality is challenged by both Fleet and Union: it is the last orbital station in the Beyond, with only an array of abandoned stations between a defenseless Earth and Union’s fleet. Its location makes it an ideal resupply station or the jumping-off point for an Earth invasion.

The start of the novel collects the many characters on Pell, putting the point-of-view characters in one place at one time:

  • The Konstantin family, ruling patriarchs of Pell and its fledgling Downbelow Station on the planet itself. Angelo is the patriarch; Emilio is the younger son, in charge of Downbelow, while older son Damon is head of the station’s Legal Affairs department
  • Signy Mallory, cold and ruthless captain of the Earth Fleet carrier Norway
  • Joshua Talley, captured Union armscomper with a mind full of secrets weighing on him; he opts for Adjustment—mindwipe—to be rid of them
  • Jon Lukas, rival to the Konstantins and bitter of his family’s lesser role in the station. It’s his desire to overturn the Konstantin dynasty and make the Lukas name known that turns him into the main antagonist
  • Vassily Kressich, former councilman to a destroyed station, now figurehead to the police gang who runs Q
  • Segust Ayres, Earth Company representative who has come to negotiate peace with Union behind Mazian’s back
  • Satin and Bluetooth, two of the alien hisa from Pell’s World who come to the station as workers, in reverence to a deceased on-planet foreman well-loved by the hisa

The characters themselves are not so shades-of-gray as other character-rich novels rife with intrigue (e.g., Game of Thrones), instead having “good” and “bad” characters. This makes several of them a bit flat as characters, and a few (Kressich comes to mind) end up rather two-dimensional by the end. Though, none are “bad” without cause or motivation, and several of them (Mallory, Talley, and the hisa) are quite complex.

Downbelow Station follows these characters as the station descends into anarchy, slipping in and out of martial law as the Fleet wills it, struggling to maintain order amongst the chaos. Union operatives make contact with the bitter Jon Lukas; Ayres’ attempt at diplomacy is routinely stalled; the situation in Q continues to devolve, especially when Mazian and his entire fleet arrives and docks at Pell, throwing the situation into a shambles again. Cherryh puts the reader in the confined corridors of Pell, breathing its dank, stale air, the floors slick with the blood of rioting Q; we follow characters reacting to events on a scale so utterly out of their control, and watch how their decisions and actions have an impact.

With the background of war and political intrigue, it’s important to point out that the novel is, first, a book about people. There is war, but it’s a backdrop event to the novel’s actions; there are giant spaceship battles, but most of them happen off-screen; there’s intrigue and espionage, because of the characters and their motivations. The novel’s pacing is slow and methodical, something that can annoy readers expecting a thrills-a-minute read, and after the initial burst of tension the reader faces some 200 pages of character development and intricate political maneuvering before the next power play. Cherryh also favors a terse sentence structure that’s awkward, obtuse, and full of future-jargon lacking a glossary. It has its own grace, after you acclimatise to it, but it’s not the most accessible writing style: you can’t really pick up the book and just dive into the story.

That said, I found the novel overall gripping, tense, and ominous; Cherryh is adept at creating situations that demanded I keep reading to find a resolution – and the resolution is always just a chapter away. It’s a space opera less from epic battles and climactic duels, and more from its sweeping scope, grandiose scale, and cast of backstabbing thousands each with their own motivation. The first sections of the book work to establish a foundation, and when the plot has got up to speed, things begin a wild and bloody downward spiral.

My opinion is easily recognized from my failure at objectivity; I left the book having really liked it, I started the review having really liked it, and so here we are. Downbelow Station can be a frustrating read, slow and dense and littered with future jargon whose definition is left up to the reader. It’s a book that demands patience, a long attention span, and an eye for detail. Yet I found it very rewarding because of its complex, challenging nature: the Byzantine political dynamics, the multitude of characters each with ambitions and failures. That the novel is so tense and gripping – despite its lack of overt action scenes – is a testament to Cherryh’s character- and world-building skills, her deft pacing, and a simply epic plot. To me, Cherryh writes what SF should aspire to.

Gate of Ivrel, CJ Cherryh

CherryhGateIvrelCoverGate of Ivrel, CJ Cherryh (1976)
Review by Adam Roberts

I’ve tried reading Cherryh’s SF before and, to use the pinball idiom favoured of SF fandom, I “bounced off her, hard”. I think what put me off was an, as it seemed to me, old-fashioned trudginess about the whole: clogged, under-visualised and in some cases apparent interminability. I bogged down in Downbelow Station, said ciao! no to the myriad Chanur books, and having taken it out of the library I came to the conclusion that a lifetime was not sufficient time, and eternity barely long enough, to read the whole of Cyteen. This, I should add, is not merely a matter of length: I have read many books that were longer than hers. It was something to do with (what seemed to me) a painful slowness, indeed a drabness, about the telling.

Lately I’ve tried again: this time with her “Fantasy” series The Chronicles of Morgaine, and her first published novel, Gate of Ivrel. And to my surprise I very much enjoyed it. The story is simple: a High Fantasy world of horselords and peasants, mountains and plains has an in-effect supernatural layer of strange creatures, immortal wizards and amazing weaponry, courtesy of a network of high-tech “Gates”, set up in “the unimaginable past” as (we assume) teleportation of hyperspace portals, but now decayed into strange and dangerous loopholes into a mode of chaos. The story starts with young warrior Vanye in a tight spot: his father is king, but he is a bastard, and his two legitimate brothers have bullied and tormented them all his life. Finally they assault him with swords, and in defending himself, he kills one brother and maims the other. He is banished, disgraced, and declared “ilin”. According to the exacting code of honour of this world, “ilin” are…

… criminals, or clanless, or unclaimed bastards, and some religious men doing penance for some particular sin, bound in virtual slavery according to the soul-binding law of the ilin odes, to serve for a year at their Claiming. (p 23)

Vanye is claimed by Morgaine – the titular protagonist, a remnant from the ancient past. She was last seen on this world a century earlier. Since then she’s been hiding inside one of the gates (or something: it’s not entirely clear) after she led a disastrous military campaign against the northern kingdom of Hjemur. Her aim was to destroy the Gates, but she failed and thousands died. Now her name has positively witchy and indeed diabolic connotations: and though she calls herself human others class her as “qhal”, the race that built the Gates in the backward and abyss of time, and a word that now effectively means something like “dark elf”.

The High Fantasy tropes are laid out with respectful fidelity, which leads us perhaps into over-familiarity. Once Morgaine has claimed Vanye she binds him to a promise to help her destroy Hjemur, or if she dies to destroy it himself. Miserable, filled with superstitious terror in her presence, he is nonetheless bound so strictly by his honour code that he cannot deny her. Thereafter they go on a long quest, which entails trouble with monstrous creatures very much not referred to as orcs in the mountains, a sojourn in an Old English style horselord keep where the king is being secretly controlled by a weird mage behind his back, time in a monastery where their hurts are healed, treks past evil-haunted lakes, through dangerous forests, across great plains and to a final big showdown on the flanks of an evil mountain, the Ivrel, which is where the Boss Gate, that rules all the other gates, is to be found. The purpose of this quest is to destroy not a magic ring of power with charmed letters written upon it, but a completely different artefact: a magic sword of power with charmed letters written upon it. Bunging this sword through a gate will do the job, we’re told:

“I will tell thee,” [Morgaine] said softly, “if something befall me, it could be that thee would need to know. Thee does not need to read what is written on the blade. But it is the key. Chan wrote it upon the blade for fear that all of us would die, or that it would come to another generation of us – hoping that with that, Ivrel still might be sealed. It is to be used at Rahjemur, if thee must: its field directed at its own source of power would effect the ruin of all the Gates here. Or cast back within the Gate itself, the true Gate, it would be the same: unsheathe it and hurl it through.” (p 161)

Those rather Yorkshire-sounding ‘thees’ are how Cherryh marks Morgaine as coming from a past age of the world in which she moves. It took some getting used to, for me (Cherryh is an expert Latinist, and taught the language for many years, so she knows the difference between a ‘thee is’ and a ‘thou art’; but she insists on using the former idiom the whole way through her novel. Ah well). At the mountain they meet the Evil One, Liell – the evil counsellor they met earlier, who has been preserving himself ever-young by periodically glomming his spirit into younger bodies, with the help of the power of the Gates. He almost succeeds in doing this with Vanye, and finally does do it with another of their companions, Chya Roh, meaning that for the end of the book and, I assume, in its sequels he is the series’ Sauron. He escapes. “How?” I hear you ask: “does Roh row row his boat gently down the stream?” No. He hops through the Boss Gate. Morgaine goes after him. Determined to get back at Chya.

Now, emphasising the simplicity and (we can be honest) derivativeness of this story, as I am doing here, does not capture the flavour of reading the novel. It’s true there is something old-fashioned about the way she puts her story together: for good and ill, but the ‘good’ of it is not to be sniffed at. It feels slightly effortful, working one’s way through; but this effort correlates quite well to a world in which life is hard, travel slow and dangerous, and the (mark the scare quotes, I prithee) “reality” of pre-industrial-revolution life is scrupulously worked through and attended to. Cherryh observes this almost to a fault: Morgaine and Vanye are repeatedly waylaid, ambushed, tricked, imprisoned and so on; which kept un-suspending my disbelief – Morgaine, after all, carries with her not only the lightning-shooting by-the-power-of-grayskull Wonder Sword (She! Has! The Power!), but also a small handgun-sized laser or phaser or somesuch device. The former makes enemies disappear altogether; the latter slices through flesh like butter. It’s a little hard to see why she almost never uses them.

Cherryh’s style is brisk, almost terse. Her descriptions are nugatory and the backstory clots those portions when it is discussed with unexplained names and heritages and a welter of opaque references. Yet there are several things about this novel that work powerfully well. One has to do precisely with the style, actually: its very terseness stands in astringent and welcome contrast with the bloaty, weightless blather of so much contemporary Fantasy – padded like a stuffed mattress with pointless conversations and interminable descriptions of landscape, clothes, food served at table, military tactics and so on. There’s something pleasingly to-the-point about the way Cherryh writes; and if I sometimes found myself wrongfooted or baffled, well the upside there was the way that bafflement enhanced the estrangement of the built world. The exacting and sometimes counter-intuitive honour code of the world added to this; the kinship alliances and hostilities, the hierarchies and protocols. The drabness of her approach happens to suit a world defined by a kind of punishing drabness of climate and society.

But at the heart of the success of this novel is the central relationship: beautiful, ageless Morgaine – ruthless and unswerving, but in a noble aim; handsome, capable, muscular Vanye, sworn to serve her in everything. It is what my friend Justina Robson aptly calls “a fit bloke fantasy”, and Cherryh makes it work by with-holding most of the romantic satisfactions her readership might otherwise expecting. At any rate, when Morgaine releases Vanye from his oath at the end and rides into the Gate in pursuit of the evil Chya Roh – and, of course, Vanye turns his back on his world to follow her – it’s surprisingly affecting. The story continues in 1978’s Well of Shiuan, which I shall now read.

Forty Thousand in Gehenna, CJ Cherryh

gehennaForty Thousand in Gehenna, CJ Cherryh (1983)
Review by admiral ironbombs

Forty Thousand in Gehenna is set in Cherryh’s sprawling Alliance-Union universe, sometime after the events of Downbelow Station, so a little history first. Through the Earth Company, humanity explored space ever outward from Sol, first building stations and then finding habitable planets. After some centuries of exploration and trade, the farthest colony-planets formed Union and went to war with the Earth Company. Caught in the middle were the spacefaring traders and cargo-haulers, the merchanters. This Company War ended with the forming of the merchanter Alliance, a neutral third-power interested in freedom of movement and controlling trade, leaving Union to its space and abandoning the destitute Earth to its meager Sol system.

Now, Alliance and Union live in an uneasy peace; Union seeds colony worlds with its genetically engineered, psychologically conditioned clones known as azi, claiming ground for when Alliance pushes into Union space. The planet Gehenna II is one such colony planet: over forty thousand azi and a few hundred “born-man” humans are dispatched to form a colony, given the supplies needed to establish a foothold. The planet is primitive, but habitable; the most advanced native species are a range of mound-building reptilians that display limited intelligence – dinosaur-like behemoths called caliban, and graceful smaller lizards termed ariels.

The plan is that the colonists will have three years to establish their settlement, at which point ships will return to resupply and prepare for the installation of birth-labs, the cloning facilities that produce azi. For political reasons unknown to the inhabitants, the ships never return, leaving them to struggle along. As their equipment breaks down, their electronics are eroded by the weather, and the azi fail to undergo their conditioning tapes, the colony must learn to make do with what they have, the forty-thousand azi forming their own civilization and culture out of their own shared experiences. And it turns out the resident caliban are not as unintelligent as believed…

Cherryh does not write easy or simple books; her narratives are rich in characters with multiple points-of-view, with deep, twisting plots that demand a reader’s attention. Forty Thousand in Gehenna is even moreso than usual, because it follows the colony’s development across generations. It’s fascinating to see the colony begin with high hopes and lofty ideals, then see the civilization of Newport along the Forbes River break down into the anarchy of primitive Gehenna Base along the river Styx. The novel tells the story of numerous born-man and azi characters and their descendants, progressing along the major stages of the colony’s life as it evolves and adapts.

Failing to force Gehenna to accept Terran standards of civilization, the colonists adapt and remold themselves over the generations to fit their environment. The theme is clearest with the first generation of azi workers, attempting to understand events beyond their comprehension. While not stupid, they are simple-minded in their obedient programming, and move forward believing that their labour is serving a greater purpose they just can’t see. Meanwhile, the azi struggle at becoming authority figures themselves, and their undisciplined children run wild. Gehenna’s second generation moves away from the hard-working obedience of their parents, moving closer towards the caliban. Some even flee the failing base and live in the caliban burrows, and the azi line begins to evolve and grow.

The azi are fascinating characters to follow. Industrious but lacking free will, the novel shows the growth of azi self-determination, the evolution of vat-grown labour as it’s left to its own devices. I pity the elder azi who arrived at the colony’s founding, as they fail to comprehend that everything they’d ever been taught has come crashing down around them, as they fail to understand the thought-process of their children. The later generations regress into a neolithic society, around the time Alliance gains control of Gehenna and is forced to initiate first contact with its own species.

The novel uses an expansive sense of scale, following some twelve generations of azi-born and mixed human-azi ancestry. We follow some four or five major events in Gehenna’s history, from the founding up through the establishment of a dominant culture, seeing how the generations (and their actions) shape the planet’s later history, learning more about the strange caliban. The azi tend to name their descendants after those who have came before, leading to a dozen Jins and several variants on the same names (Elly/Ellai/Elai, Dean/Dain/Din); a realistic choice as the azi gain a sense of ancestry, but a minor reading annoyance. The progression of time is also bittersweet, in the sheer number of characters who grow old and die – hopefully in that order.

And it’s not just the use of time that gives the novel that sense of scale. Cherryh tells the story in traditional narrative, and bits and fragments from the characters’ world – journal entries, memos, notes, orders and directives. Things like maps, personnel lists, and genealogical lineages start each chapter, marking the dead and the newly born, tracking the growth (or decline, or re-growth) of the colony and its environs. There’s a lot of material here, but not a lot of wasted space; every piece is used with purpose, something that becomes clearer a generation or two later when we see how Gehenna’s civilization progresses.

Forty Thousand in Gehenna is an ambitious work from a writer who does not shy away from complex narratives. Most writers would take the concept – “the first 300 years of an abandoned colony world” – and make it into a 600+ page novel, a trilogy, a series. Cherryh did it in 440 pages, and aside from a few hiccups, succeeds with style. The major theme – following a group of programmed clones over the centuries, bereft of their programming and forced to create their own culture that adapts to their alien environment – continued to impress me with its brilliance. It’s one of the most expansive works in science fiction I’ve read, and highly recommended because of that.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.

Downbelow Station, CJ Cherryh

downbelowDownbelow Station, CJ Cherryh (1981)
Review by M Fenn

For some reason, I haven’t read much CJ Cherryh. In fact, before starting Downbelow Station, I can only remember reading one other of hers, and I don’t even remember what it was. It’s been a while.

Thanks to this Hugo-winning book, I’ll be amending that.

Downbelow Station is the first novel (not including the prequels) of Cherryh’s Company Wars series and takes part in her Union-Alliance universe. Published in 1981, it’s a complicated story, setting up a universe where a giant corporation (Earth Company) has become wealthy exploring the stars, building space stations around uninhabitable planets, all except for Pell’s World, a planet inhabited by the Hisa (called Downers by the humans who inhabit Pell Station, which orbits the planet).

When the novel begins, war has been raging between the Company and the Union, a group of colonists who have chosen to declare independence from Earth and the Company. The Union augments its military strength with clones. The Company has a fleet of warships commanded by Conrad Mazian. There is also a loose confederation of Merchanter ships involved in all this. Pell tries to maintain its neutrality and do business with all three groups: the Company, the Union, and the Merchanters. A crisis point starts the narrative of the novel, with one of the Company warships (led by Signy Mallory) unloading hundreds of refugees from another space station that’s been attacked by Union forces, causing the disruption of the people living on Pell.

There’s a lot more to the novel than that, but if I give you the whole synopsis, you’ll be reading for hours before even getting to my opinion of all that plot. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of political intrigue amongst all the groups and within them, except for the Hisa, who act more as observers than anything else. Or so it would seem.

I really enjoyed Downbelow Station. It took a while to get into as there is a lot of world-building/info-dumping in the first chapter or so, all of which is necessary to give the reader any idea of where they are. The book is a slow read, as well, because Cherryh’s prose is occasionally plodding and there’s just so much going on.

But I think the story makes up for those problems, and it eventually becomes an exciting read. Cherryh does a fine job establishing her universe and the conflicts therein. She also succeeds when working on the smaller scale of Pell Station and Downbelow (as the stationers call Pell’s World), translating the bigger conflicts to a more personal level, with stationers fighting for control of Pell against Union and the Mazianni (the Earth warships) alike. Her characters are decently drawn and she made me care about them.

The Hisa definitely fall into the “noble savage” trope of so much fiction. They’re sentient primate-like folks, assumed to be childlike by the humans that deal with them, but then surprisingly deep when they need to be. While reading, I went back and forth in liking them and not. Ended up settling into the liking them box, mainly because of Satin (Sky-sees-her) and her journey up to Pell to meet “the Dreamer” and see her planet’s sun, something the Hisa on-planet can’t do, because their skies are always overcast.

Another thing I liked about the book was that both men and women were in positions of authority without any sexist weirdness. I loved Elene Quen, a former Merchanter married to Damon Konstantin, one of the leaders of Pell. She finds herself back in space aboard another Merchanter ship (hers was destroyed by the Union) and ends up doing significant work to bring about peace talks. This announcement of hers made me bust out crying, because I’m just a dork that way.

This is Quen of Estelle. We’re coming in.

Signy Mallory, the commander of the warship Norway, is also incredibly bad-ass and I would love to see Sigourney Weaver play her, if a movie was ever made of Downbelow Station. It would be a fun film, for a lot of reasons. I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t happened yet.

This review originally appeared on Skinnier than it is Wide.

Foreigner, CJ Cherryh

foreignerForeigner, CJ Cherryh (1994)
Review by Stefan Raets

Foreigner is the opening volume of what has turned out to be CJ Cherryh’s longest series. When I first read it, some time in the early 2000s when the series only consisted of six books, I had no idea that this story would turn out to be five arcs of three books each, with the fifteenth novel due out in 2014 and the first book of a sixth arc reportedly in the works. That’s fifteen books going on sixteen, in case anyone else is in the mood for a nice meaty SF series.

My history with this series is a bit confused. I’ve read about three dozen of Cherryh’s novels. For some reason, it’s been a few years since I picked up one of Cherryh’s books. I read the first six books in the Foreigner universe practically back to back, then for some reason completely lost track of the series for over a decade.

When I decided to indulge and pick up one of her older books (“indulge” because there were about twenty new books I should have been reading instead), I was tempted to go for book seven of the Foreigner series, but quickly realized that I just didn’t remember enough detail from the earlier books. So I decided to treat myself to a reread of those first six books.

Foreigner is essentially a first contact story about aliens landing on a planet and having to learn to deal with its inhabitants. The big twist is that we’re the aliens. A human colony ship got lost in space after a bad hyperspace jump. The first two sections of Foreigner fast-forward through their journey, their arrival in the new system, the horrific challenges they face as they realize there is no way home. These two sections only account for about one seventh of the novel (about 60 of my paperback’s 420 or so pages) and should probably be considered something like a prologue to the entire series, because it’s only afterwards that the real story gets started.

As the third section of Foreigner begins, we meet Bren, the human paidhi who lives with the alien atevi. A combination of translator, observer, and diplomat, the paidhi position is an essential link between the two cultures and the only human allowed to leave the island where humanity has settled. About two hundred years have passed since the human/atevi war that created this delicate balance.

This third section starts, quite literally, with a bang, as Bren is forced to defend himself against an unknown assassin, using a gun he just received as a gift from Tabini, an important atevi leader whose association has benefited the most from contact and trade with the human colony. The assassination attempt sets off a confusing and complex set of events: who would dare to attack the paidhi, an important but essentially harmless human who lives under the roof and protection of probably the most powerful atevi?

It’s at this point that we should look at CJ Cherryh’s writing style, in case you’re not familiar with her works, because Foreigner is one of its finest examples and almost impossible to understand and appreciate without considering it in that light.

Cherryh usually writes in an incredibly tight third person limited perspective. In Foreigner’s case (once the “Prologue” is over) we see everything from the point of view of Bren. Even though the prose is written in the third person and fairly structured, it’s essentially a “stream of consciousness” narration that shows Bren’s thought patterns as they occur and as they are affected by events around him. That has two immediate effects: Bren’s (and so our) knowledge is limited by his often incomplete understanding of the situation, but, importantly in the context of this series, it also benefits from his unique cultural awareness.

As a result, Bren is both the best and worst possible narrator for this story if, as a neutral observer, you want to understand exactly why the atevi are in such an uproar. Worst because he just doesn’t know what set off the chain of events depicted in this book, until someone bothers to tell him towards the very end. He is clueless when it comes to the main driver of the plot of this novel. Partly because of this, he lacks any sort of agency until late in the book. He has no power to steer the narrative. He is physically weaker than the atevi. He is lost, off the grid, unable to contact any other human. And, to cap it all off, he just has no idea about what happened.

On the other hand, he’s also the best narrator possible for this story, because as paidhi, he has a more complete understanding of atevi psychology and society than any other human (and, obviously, vice versa). He’s devoted his life to understanding the atevi, who may look humanoid (though much taller and stronger) but have a completely alien mindset. Their emotions don’t work the same way. The way they perceive relationships and loyalty is entirely different.

Foreigner is essentially the story of a man who has devoted his life to trying to make sense of an alien culture and who now continues to do so during a pivotal time and under highly stressful circumstances. The crisis between the two cultures that is beginning to brew is mirrored in Bren’s own mind, as his mainly intellectual fascination suddenly turns into a life-or-death situation, forcing him to re-evaluate certain assumptions and habits that allowed him to function but also led to potentially costly misunderstandings.

There are only a few authors who could pull off a book like Foreigner. The level of nuance and detail in Cherryh’s prose is what makes it work, creating a slow, deliberate, multifaceted look at the thought processes of a character who doesn’t have the full picture but is trying to reason his way to it. There are paragraphs, pages even, of Bren trying to process recent events in light of the historical situation on the planet, his personal and professional relationships, and his own observations.

This creates a reading experience that’s the literary equivalent of shaky handheld camera footage accompanied by an internal monologue voice-over: yes, it’s sometimes slow, confusing, and obviously focusing on things that are less than important in the big picture. You’re forced to process raw footage, just like the point of view character. At the same time it makes for a uniquely immersive experience.

Steven Brust recently wrote a blog post entitled “Making the Reader Work”, including a quote from David Wohlreich: “When a fish explains what water is, I’m unhappy”. CJ Cherryh is the kind of author who should make readers like this happy: in her fiction, not only does the fish rarely explain what water is, but often the reader isn’t even aware that there are such things as fish and water, or that there’s anything but water to consider.

In Foreigner, Bren is (if you’ll pardon the pun) a fish out of water. The end result is a slow, often confusing but extremely rewarding novel. The limited perspective is sometimes difficult, yes, but it also allows Cherryh to introduce the many other aspects of this novel and series in a piecemeal fashion: culture shock, multiculturalism, colonial and post-colonial relations. The Foreigner series offers a broad socio-political tapestry, from the various factions on the human side to the complex structure and history of the atevi.

Unwrapping that “post-colonial relations” bit somewhat: the humans are in a unique position here, having more or less crash-landed in the middle of a Steam Age level-culture while carrying the knowledge of thousands of years of human science. They allow their advanced knowledge to trickle into atevi culture, constantly trying to balance progress (and profit) with preservation. One of the long term goals is steering the alien culture towards a space program. Some atevi are strongly opposed to any human influence on their society, while others are impatient for more advanced science. Humanity itself has all kinds of factions, including one that feels they shouldn’t have landed on the planet in the first place. There are many sides tugging in different directions, and again, the reader has to figure all of this out based on one character’s perspective.

If the book has one weakness, it’s that there isn’t any kind of resolution. If anything, you end up with more questions than answers. It’s best to consider Foreigner as part one of a three part novel and be ready to get to the next volume in the series. Cherryh does provide some closure at the end of each three book arc (or at least of the two arcs I’ve read so far), but that’s not really the point of this novel and series anyway.

Foreigner is one of the most in-depth, uncompromising examinations of the way cultures interact in science fiction. Rereading it after all this time and with the added benefit of having read some of the later books in the series, I discovered a whole new level of complexity that’s probably almost impossible to appreciate on a first reading—complexity on almost every level, from Bren’s personal life and the subtle interactions of the atevi characters on the micro-level to the incredible socio-political depth on the macro-level.

Rereading Foreigner was a pleasure. I’d forgotten that CJ Cherryh is simply one of the most unique minds working in SFF right now. I’m actually a bit annoyed that I let myself lose track of this author and series for so long, but fortunately, as I just learned, these books lend themselves to a second reading really well. I’m looking forward to reading through the next five books again and then treating myself to the other eight.

This review originally appeared on Far Beyond Reality.