Rimrunners, CJ Cherryh

rimrunnersRimrunners, CJ Cherryh (1989)
Review by Ian Sales

Bet Yeager is a vagrant on Thule Station, a decrepit space station off the main trade routes between Union and Alliance territories. She marooned herself there after escaping from Pell Station aboard a freighter. Each day, she visits the station office, hoping for a new berth to ship out on. But none is forthcoming. When a drunk surprises her in a public toilet – she had been sleeping there – and attempts to rape her, she kills him. Desperate for somewhere to lie low, she moves in with a sympathetic barman, but he soon turns abusive. And when he pushes her too far, she kills him too. So it’s a good job a suitable ship then turns up at Thule Station, Loki, and despite Yeager’s lack of official credentials, her captain takes her on as a machinist.

Loki, however, is not a merchant, but a “spook”, a ship with overly-powerful engines which can lurk ahead of warships and gather intelligence or provide early warning. Which means the regime aboard is tough, perhaps even tougher than on a military ship. Yeager is assigned to an off-shift, where she tries to fit in. But she’s not very good at keeping her head down, especially in a ship where the command crew seems to treat everyone like slaves, and feuding cliques have formed among the lower ranks. Her first move, for instance, is to defend a fellow member of her shift, Ramey, known as “NG” for “No Good”, even though he is treated with contempt by most of those aboard.

Ramey’s reputation is a result of a crewmember he was working with dying in an accident and, although it wasn’t Ramey’s fault, he was blamed. But sticking up for Ramey makes Yeager enemies among the crew, resulting in several fraught encounters in the mess and bunk-space the shifts share. It doesn’t help that Loki‘s operations are secret, its crew kept in the dark, and there seems to be some sort of battle for influence going on between two of the ship’s senior officers.

Fortunately, Yeager is more than she seems. She may have been hired on as a machinist, and have some experience in the role, but she is actually a marine. She was left on Pell Station when Mazian’s fleet was forced to withdraw (events described in Downbelow Station (1981)). She’s been trying to return to her original ship, but Mazian’s warships are renegades and wanted by both Union and Alliance. The captain of Loki has a plan to protect his ship in a forthcoming clash between other forces, and it involves Thule Station. It also involves Yeager, once the captain learns who she really is – he has two sets of salvaged marine powered armour. He needs Yeager to get them working…

Rimrunners is a prime example of Cherryh’s sf. It does exactly what she is very good at; and it’s flaws are those which are characteristic of Cherryh’s fiction. Yeager is a well-drawn character, and if she’s perhaps overcompetent at times, it fits with the story. The narrative, as in much of Cherryh’s oeuvre, is only the tip of the iceberg that is the novel’s plot. The reader follows Yeager as she interacts with Loki‘s crew and tries to figure out what the ship is up to, but what is going on outside the ship, and in Union-Alliance space, only comes into focus as the book approaches its end. (And, yes, it is, in part, a continuation of the events from Downbelow Station.)

The whole set-up aboard Loki, however, never quite rings true. Cherryh does an excellent job of depicting the technology and engineering, and if it’s a little dated that’s hardly unexpected (the treatment of computers, for example). But to treat a crew of seasoned professionals like galley-slaves, and to hand out orders that come across as dictatorial whim like some interstellar Captain Bligh… Well, it’s a miracle Loki has lasted as long as it has. After all, galley-slaves were never given shore leave when a ship reached port – although events in Union and Alliance space seem bad enough that no one would willingly strand themselves at a station. There’s always the example of Yeager, as detailed in the opening chapters, so show the likely consequences of such a decision. Nevertheless, life aboard Loki comes across as far too selfish and cutthroat for a vessel whose survival depends on the smooth working of those on board her.

It often seems as though science fiction sacrifices common sense for drama, even if Rimrunners, or indeed Cherryh’s entire Union-Alliance body of work, is set in interstellar space several centuries from now (albeit without any sort of rigorous extrapolation). Wars between planetary systems seem no more implausible than wars between nations either side of a great ocean, although the ability to prosecute such a conflict is entirely dependent on the technology of transport. Certainly such wars were fought in human history with much cruder technology than that on display in any science fiction novel – although in terms of journey time, the distance was effectively the same. A polished and professional crew, working smoothly in unison, much as you would find on a modern-day US Navy warship, plainly isn’t dramatic enough. (Nor, of course, would it hire on a random stranger at some out-of-the-way port, but never mind.) It’s possible life aboard Loki was inspired by life aboard eighteenth-century warships, and there is ample documentation, and no end of fiction, depicting how brutal such a life was. But that was a consequence of the society of the time, and the opening chapters of Rimrunners plainly show an egalitarian, if somewhat libertarian, space-going society. (I will never understand why libertarianism has proven so popular in American science fiction: it’s probably the least plausible, and least sustainable, political system for colonising other planets and running an interstellar polity.)

One of the things science fiction has been doing since its earliest days, and it’s slapdash even at the best of times, is forcing contemporary sensibilities onto an historical model, and then painting it all with a science-fictional gloss and sticking on a few techno-baubles. True rigour in world-building is rare. Having said that, the sort of immersiveness which requires such levels of rigour is a relatively recent phenomenon, so it seems a little churlish to complain of its lack in a twenty-eight-year-old novel. Rimrunners is Cherryh on top form, displays her muscular prose to good effect, showcases her ability to draw good characters, and demonstrates her skill at playing shell games with her plots. If sometimes the world-building creaks at the seams, or feels a little dated, then that’s a minor quibble.

Cyteen, CJ Cherryh

cyteenCyteen, CJ Cherryh (1988)
Review by Simon Petrie

C J Cherryh (the terminal ‘h’ is in fact pseudonymous, and also silent) is an American SF / fantasy writer with over sixty novels to her credit. Her awards include the John W Campbell Award, three Hugos, and a Locus (the subject of this review, Cyteen, accounts for the Locus and one of the Hugos); she also has an asteroid, 77185 Cherryh, named in her honour.

Ariane Emory is the Councillor for the Bureau of Science, one of the nine supreme political figures in the multiple-world Union; Ariane (‘Ari’) is also inextricably connected with Reseune, the dominant genetic-industrial research centre on the planet of Cyteen that is the centre of Union government. At the start of Cyteen, Ari – a sharp-as-nails centenarian, herself gifted in genetic research, and a persistently shrewd operator – has made an enemy in Jordan Warrick, a rival researcher at Reseune who has become concerned that Emory has been seeking to appropriate his research efforts for her own ends, a situation which is not helped when Ari initiates an ill-judged and psychologically-damaging dalliance with Warrick’s seventeen-year-old ‘son’ Justin (who is in fact Warrick senior’s personal replicant, or clone). Jordan has been agitating to be reassigned elsewhere, beyond the influence of Ariane Emory; as a result of the events precipitated by the revelation of Ari’s interference with Justin, Jordan gets his wish, but at terrible cost to himself and to a good many other people within Reseune. The majority of the book occupies itself with Ari and Justin striving to come to terms with who they are, and to understand the scope and the limitations of their abilities… as well as to figure out just where they stand in relation to one another.

(I am well aware that the capsule description of the book’s outline above leaves out a hell of a lot that is important, and that’s deliberate. I have a policy of treating as ‘fair game’ for disclosure in a review any plot point which is revealed less than a third of the way through the book; I’m breaking that rule with this review, because I think there are events within the book, even within the first third, that will have more impact if they’re not given away here.)

Cyteen is a massive book: the edition I read weighs in at 680 pages, and it’s fairly densely-spaced text. It would not surprise me to learn it’s somewhere in the vicinity of 300,000 words. I’m not a devotee of large novels, and I have to say I approached Cyteen with no little trepidation on this score. I finished the first novella-length chapter still without a clear idea of what I was dealing with: there is, I think it’s safe to say, a lot going on, and Cherryh, like Ari, is fully capable of throwing half a dozen seemingly-disparate things at you at once. By the end of the second chapter, though, I was hooked.

One of my deficiencies, I think (at least I have certain friends who tell me it is a deficiency) is that I seek to explain through comparison, which means that my natural inclination when looking to give an insight into the kind of book that is Cyteen is to say that it reads somewhat like a cross between Asimov’s Foundation series and Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. By which I mean that it combines something of the kind of interstellar-empire-politics that fuels Asimov’s work with the keenly attuned social awareness and personal depth that typifies Le Guin’s writing; and yet, though this comparison might be of some use (it does, I think, have some validity), it might also mislead. A less direct but more pertinent comparison, by virtue of the book’s monolithic claustrophobia (it’s set, almost exclusively, within the one large building), its attention to detail, its focus on generational and dynastic struggle, intrigue, and Machiavellian manoeuvering, might be made with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books: although where Peake’s concern is to capture, in words, the images needed for the reader to envision the story in as much detail as possible, Cherryh’s focus is on the thought processes, and she is remarkably good at laying bare the motivations that lead people into (and out of) various predicaments. The book hits high marks as a keenly-focused psychological novel.

It also works as first-rate science fiction, with an obvious focus on genetic research, cloning, and the sticking points of the nature versus nurture argument. (‘Soft’ science does not preclude ‘hard’ science fiction, and I would cite Cyteen as a case in point in this regard.) I found the book’s scientific content to be very well-drawn and overall highly credible; and its sense of both (a) the sometimes-glacial pace of scientific research (with innumerable dead ends and blind alleys, and progress that might, on occasion, be measured in decades) and (b) the overwhelming bitterness of academic bureaucracy definitely heighten its plausibility. (And I believe that I can see, in Cherryh’s extrapolated political system, having power over billions of people across scores of worlds, what is effectively a hyperelephantiased form of a typically dysfunctional University council).

There are probably some key examples of ‘future tech’ that I should mention, since they are central to the book’s evolution. The book makes the distinction between ‘born men’ (citizens, those conceived and born in the usual way, with chance playing a considerable part in their genotype) and ‘azis’ (with a precisely defined genotype, vat-grown, born into servitude and designed to perform particular functions within society, but able to attain citizenship under certain conditions). There is also a form of ‘automated learning’ involving ‘tape’, which is central to azi programming and which is also, on occasion, used on citizens. Described thus, these concepts probably sound dehumanising; but placed in the context of Cherryh’s imagined universe, with safeguards and oversight, they work. It is a society which is sympathetically visualised, and surprisingly immersive.

Ultimately, I suppose the focus of Cyteen is that of power versus vulnerability (and the opportunity for trust), and of nature versus nurture. There’s much made of the fact that Justin, Jordan’s clone, has a different personality, because of differences in his upbringing. And it’s fair to say, also, that Ari is not the same person at the end of the book as she was at the beginning…

I could say more, but I won’t. Other than that I found Cyteen to be a highly rewarding, intelligent, and deeply moving piece of SF.

This review originally appeared on Simon Petrie.

Cuckoo’s Egg, CJ Cherryh

cucckoos_eggCuckoo’s Egg, CJ Cherryh (1985)
Review by Megan AM

I was familiar with CJ Cherryh before I became familiar with the CJ Cherryh, thanks to the time, way back when, I googled something ubiquitous – though, I thought it was pretty unique – “female science fiction writer”. A strict fantasy reader at the time, I wasn’t interested in the harsh realities of space, but I was looking for something different because fantasy was starting to wear on me. I kept Cherryh’s name in mind and eventually stumbled across the first of her Foreigner series in a messy little secondhand bookstore near Rice University. I thought the diplomacy plot would appeal to my poli-sci sensibilities and it did. I liked it okay. And it felt exactly the way I expected space opera fiction to feel.

Nowadays, I’m a little more informed about the CJ Cherryh, and her place in sci-fi history, and since reading Foreigner, I’ve noticed that Cherry’s style is almost always described as cold, distant, and dry. Sometimes, mechanical. These descriptors are always loaded as a caveat, as if her writing should be warm, inviting, nurturing – just like all the other warm and fuzzy space opera authors clogging the bookshelves. Well, let’s just come out and say what those well-intentioned reviewers really mean: she is a woman, so where is her writerly womb?

So it’s interesting that I’ve come to a Cherryh book that is essentially about the nurturing of young life, of childhood and family. Will she remain firm in her portrayals of cold, enigmatic diplomacy, or will she breastfeed us directly from the page?

In Cuckoo’s Egg, Cherryh explores the development of a human boy, Thorn, raised by a warrior-judge, Duun, of the Shonunin race. Though Thorn’s differences and the reasons for his sheltered existence are never explained to him, the human boy becomes aware of them on his own. His strict hatani upbringing, however, prevents him from breaching cultural mores to inquire about his origins. He grows up isolated, resentful, and desperate for love and acceptance, while his hatani training adds to his physical and emotional burdens. When Thorn is finally ready to be accepted by the hatani community, he learns the truth of his origins and his ultimate purpose.

A standalone book, possibly built into Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe (although it didn’t feel similar in my limited experience), Cuckoo’s Egg is a coming-of-age tale of otherness and acceptance. Never mind the ill-fitting bird metaphor, it’s clear from the beginning that Duun, and his Shonunin peers, are fully aware that the baby Thorn is an outsider.

It waved its hands. He, Duun reminded himself. (p 19)

Instead, Cuckoo’s Egg is more about the human sapling growing up in an overprotective Shonunin household, while coming to terms with perceived secrets about his alienness within his beloved culture.

… Dunn was suddenly aware of a silence within the child, a secrecy which had grown all unawares, that small walled-off place which was an independent mind. Thorn had arrived at selfhood… (p 28)

Surely it’s not too soon to coin the phrase human gaze, (and someone probably already has), which is what Cherryh challenges by depicting the human as alien and other among the (normal) Shonunin people, where “the awful, demon face, to the slitted [sic] eyes with their centers like stormcloud” (p 18) disturbs medical personnel, and where holding the child “would have chilled the blood of any countryfolk…” (p 18). Thorn’s hairless skin repulses everyone (“I’m all in patches, Duun!”), and even a potential lover is revealed as a spy after she recoils at his advances. The Shonunin, with their fur, claws, and teeth, their restrictive caste-like society, and their severe reticence, are so different from the reader that when moments of humanity shine through, it’s clear that this book not only serves as an allegory of personal acceptance, but also a cultural metaphor that avoids the trappings of the imperialist and privileged gaze that usually comes with most alien fiction.

If large print and wide spacing (and pacing) is an indicator of a book’s intended age group, Cuckoo’s Egg ranks as one of the youngest novels I’ve read this year, notwithstanding the similarly named Cuckoo Song (2014) by Francis Hardinge. And like Cuckoo Song, Cuckoo’s Egg employs quite a lot of darling lesson moments, designed for developing minds: “Some day you’ll be wise enough to solve problems. Until then, don’t create them” (p 136), and “You’re different… and you want to make sure they respect you” (p 134). This is a perfect book for a young reader who might be struggling with real or perceived differences.

But if we’re going to compare Cuckoo kids’ books, I prefer Cherryh’s for its more penetrating treatment of otherness and growing up, along with her knack for conveying complex interpersonal relationships.

Okay, so maybe cold Cherryh is a tad warmer in this book.

But more than Cuckoo Song, I see more in common with its 1985 Hugo-nominated (and eventually –winning) peer, Ender’s Game. Much of Thorn’s rearing is strict physical and mental conditioning, Karate Kid-style, (another ‘80s peer… is KK the impetus for these books?), to become part of the hatani, a warrior-judge class within the Shonunin culture. Duun is often a distant, unsympathetic, and challenging parent, his training often strays to abuse and neglect. Like Ender with his games, Thorn meets every challenge, endures the depression of failure and isolation, and is surrounded by trusted adults who lie and mislead (for his own good, they say). Both Ender and Thorn are victorious in matters far beyond what they expect, with Ender fated to become a war criminal, and Thorn… well, with Thorn, it isn’t quite clear at the end of the book whether his fate is similar to that of Ender’s:

That’s what you are. A solution. A helper of the world. (p 135)

For Thorn’s sake, let’s hope so.

Warmer and slighter than Foreigner and Downbelow Station. More insightful, and better crafted than Ender’s Game. This kid-focused story might satisfy the critics who dislike her “cold” style, though fans of Cherryh’s will recognize her trademark touch of interpersonal maneuvering and stoic characters. Cuckoo’s Egg is a departure from her usual space opera designs, but mostly because it’s geared toward a younger crowd, though it makes for a satisfying snack for mature readers.

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

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.

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.

Downbelow Station, CJ Cherryh

Downbelow StationDownbelow Station, CJ Cherryh (1981)
Review by Adam Whitehead

AD 2352. Humanity is divided into two factions, the Company which rules over Earth and the Sol system, and the Union, which rules over the outer colonies and worlds. In between are a narrow band of independent stations, nominally loyal to the Company but open to all traders and merchants. For years the Company and Union have been at war, but Earth’s appetite for conflict is dwindling. In the end they have withdrawn practical support for their offensive fleet under Captain Mazian, leaving him a rogue agent whose goals and loyalties are suspect.

Caught in the middle of these turbulent times is Pell Station, circling the planet Downbelow in the Tau Ceti system. The closest independent station to Earth, it is a logical place for refugees from the warzone to flee to, straining resources to the limit. The Konstantin family which controls Pell Station struggles against the competing demands of Mazian’s fleet, the refugees, the station’s existing complement and the Company, and must also guard against infiltration from the Union, whose vast resources are finally gaining the upper hand in the conflict.

Downbelow Station was originally published in 1981, winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel the following year. It seems to be regarded as the best entry-point for Cherryh’s Alliance-Union setting, a vast future history spanning centuries of mankind’s expansion into space and its division between different factions, and the various conflicts it faces. The setting encompasses several dozen novels published out of chronological order and divided into confusing sub-series, making it perhaps the serious SF counterpart to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld work in being slightly daunting for newcomers. Luckily, Downbelow Station makes a solid starting point for those interested in exploring the setting.

The novel’s setting is classic space opera. An opening prologue sets out the history of humanity’s expansion into space and the background of the Company Wars before we are dropped straight into the action, with the personnel of Pell Station, the mining settlement on Downbelow and the carrier Norway all struggling to handle the refugee crisis. Cherryh successfully gives the impression that this is an ongoing story and history, where we are simply dropping in to observe a crucial moment and are then pulled out again at the end. This process works quite well.

Overall, the book is solid, with some interesting characters who are drawn with depth, but where what is left unsaid about them (particularly Mazian, Mallory and Josh) is as important as what is. There’s also a nice inversion of cliché, with an initial figure who appears to be the typical bureaucratic buffoon is later revealed as a more intelligent and interesting character. There is also a fair amount of ruthlessness in the book, with major characters disposed of with little forewarning, but also a reasonable amount of humanity and warmth. Cherryh has a reputation for creating interesting alien races, and whilst the native ‘Downers’ of Downbelow are initially simplistic, they rapidly become better-drawn as the story proceeds as their full potential emerges, even if they’re not really all that ‘alien’.

On the minus side, after the initial burst of action accompanying the refugee fleet’s arrival, the novel takes a good 200 pages or so to fully work up to speed. During this period the book becomes bogged down in Cherryh’s sometimes odd prose and dialogue structures (terse, short sentences short on description are favoured throughout). The lack of description extends to the worldbuilding and even space combat. We are given very little information on what weapons the ships use in battles (mentions of chaff suggest missiles, but we are never told that for sure), whilst the economic structure of the merchant ships and the independent stations appears under-developed. Those used to the immense, Tolkien-in-space-style SF worldbuilding of modern SF authors like Peter F Hamilton and, to a lesser extent, Alastair Reynolds, may find the thinness of the setting somewhat unconvincing (at least at this early stage). In addition, Cherryh’s use of technology is somewhat inconsistent. None of the humans use implants, there are no AIs or robots, and everyone taps commands manually into computer consoles, yet at the same time there are also sophisticated memory-altering techniques and FTL drives.

Downbelow Station is ultimately a good novel and an intriguing introduction into what could be an interesting SF setting. However, it suffers from occasionally obtuse writing and some unconvincing worldbuilding, and it certainly isn’t better than The Claw of the Conciliator, The Many-Coloured Land and Little, Big – the books it trounced to win the Hugo.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

Angel with the Sword, CJ Cherryh

Angel with the Sword, CJ Cherryh (1985)
Review by Ian Sales

In a career so far spanning five decades, Carolyn Janice Cherry has managed to maintain both an enviable productivity with little or no loss of quality, and a future history comprising to date twenty-seven novels, seven anthologies, and a number of short stories. Angel with the Sword, however, is actually peripheral to the main history of Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe.

Altair Jones is a “canaler” in the city of Merovingen on the world of Merovin. She is seventeen, an orphan, and very much the mistress of her own fate. Like all the canalers, she is dirt-poor, living a hand-to-mouth existence as she picks up work ferrying cargo around the canals of the city. When she witnesses a man being thrown from a bridge, she rescues him before he drowns and finds herself embroiled in a political struggle among the religions, political parties and plutocrats of Merovin.

There’s not much in Angel with the Sword itself which makes the story science fiction. Merovingen, a city which has been flooded so often and to such an extent that it has now become like Venice could just as easily be, well, Venice. And the politico-religious factions which drive the plot of the novel, while unique to it and connected to the Alliance and Union of Cherryh’s future history, aren’t actually necessary in that form for the story to work. But Cherryh chose to write Angel with the Sword as sf, and it’s proven a popular book in her oeuvre – perhaps as much for its setting as for its protagonist. I’ll freely admit it’s my favourite of her novels, and rereading it for review only reminded me how much charm it possesses.

There’s enough in the plot of Angel with the Sword to make sense of it, but Cherryh adds thirty-four pages of appendices and maps. These place the events in Merovingen in a planetary context, and the world of Merovin itself in a galactic context, as well as detailing flora, fauna, customs, dress, etc. Some six hundred years prior to the events of the story, Merovin was settled illegally by colonists from Union. All went well for a couple of decades, then the world’s former inhabitants, the sharrh, turned up and demanded the removal of the human colonists. Most left, but some ran to the hills – for reasons which probably owe more to a romanticised US pioneer spirit than any convincing in-universe rationale. The sharrh destroyed every human city on the planet and then left. The stay-behinds resettled the ruins, gradually rediscovered civilisation, and now operate the sort of low-tech libertarian paradise beloved by certain US sf authors, in which a fabulously wealthy upper class control everything and live the life of Riley on the backs of a much larger powerless and poor populace.

The man who falls from the bridge, Mondragon, is a member of the upper class from another city, and he used to be a member of a powerful politico-religious organisation. But he left them. And now he knows too many secrets. Factions in Merovingen, as well as his home city of Nev Hettek, are after him. Jones falls in love with him, and goes against all her instincts in helping him. When he is then kidnapped by one faction, she leads the canalers on a rescue mission.

There are problems with Angel with the Sword. There’s the society on Merovin, for a start. Six hundred years after the survivalists came down from the hills, you’d expect something a little more civilised than pure unregulated capitalism. It’s not as if the world suffers any kind of scarcity – the only thing that appears to be in short supply among the canalers is, well, money. In Merovingen, the strata of society are as much physical as they are social – the canalers live among the pilings of the buildings, down on the water. The rich live on the upper stories – and when Jones visits one such, a member of one of the city’s most powerful families, she is astonished at the luxury on display. The story also makes the repeated point that the various public institutions are corrupt and controlled by the richest and most powerful families.

And then there’s Altair Jones herself. She’s seventeen, tough, independent, resourceful… and a virgin when the story opens. It’s not stated how old Mondragon is, but he’s no teenager. Within a day of the rescue, they’ve had sex – and yet neither of their motives for doing so are really plausible. It’s almost as if it’s an expected consequence of the rescue. There’s also a disturbing lack of gender equality in the novel, despite it being supposedly set in the thirty-third century. According to one of the appendices, clothing on Merovin has “no particular gender distinction”, and it’s true that Jones wears trousers and sweater throughout the book… but it’s still very much a male-controlled society, and Jones is the only female character in the story with agency.

And yet, despite this romanticised Wild-West-in-Venice setting, Angel with the Sword continues to appeal. Jones is an engaging heroine, despite being exceptional within the world of the story. Merovingen is a fascinating place, despite being horribly unegalitarian and far from civilised. Angel with the Sword is a fun sf read, despite only being science fiction because Cherryh says in an appendix that it’s set in the thirty-third century. There’s much to dislike about the world Cherryh has created in this twenty-seven-year-old novel – though that doesn’t mean such worlds are not created in twenty-first century sf novels (and some of them even get shortlisted for major genre awards). In some respects, Angel with the Sword feels like a product of a decade earlier than its 1985 publication year, but it remains readable because of the quality of Cherryh’s prose, because it is tautly and relentlessly plotted and because it embodies the remorseless appeal of a romance novel.

And those anthologies mentioned at the beginning of this review? Angel with the Sword inspired a seven-book series, Merovingen Nights, containing stories by Cherryh herself, Lynn Abbey, Mercedes Lackey, Janet Morris, Robert Lynn Asprin, and others, all set in the titular city.

Voyager in Night, CJ Cherryh

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.

The Faded Sun Trilogy, CJ Cherryh

The Faded Sun Trilogy: Kesrith, Shon’jir and Kutath, CJ Cherryh (1978 – 1979)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

In the ’70s, Donald Wollheim left Ace Books to create a new imprint, DAW, devoted to the fantasy and science fiction genres. In his search for new authors, Wollheim contracted a number of good newcomers, of whom the most important was CJ Cherryh. She hit the scene with a number of impressive award-winners, many of which share the unified Alliance-Union universe as a backdrop. Such as this one, The Faded Sun Trilogy; first a serial in Galaxy (‘The Faded Sun: Kesrith’), then three books, now published as one volume.

Note that there are a number of spoilers in this review for the second two books, if only in that they reveal the cliffhangers or developments of the previous books. I did try not to reveal anything that wasn’t included in the books’ cover blurbs.

The Faded Sun books take place just after a forty-year interstellar war between the Terrans and the stunted alien Regul; since the Regul used another alien species, the mercenary Mri, to comprise their standing army, it was dubbed the Mri Wars. Humanity has been battered and embittered by conflict with the brutal Mri; after several planets were wiped out by Mri forces, the humans learned their enemies’ weaknesses. The Mri have a strict caste and honor-based systems steeped in ancient culture and tradition, which rendered them unable – sluggish, at best – to cope with changes in human tactics, such as preferring firearms and planetary bombardment to traditional, honorable solo combat.

Meanwhile, the mercantile Regul have an even different type of caste system, where elders of the race are valued far more than younglings; they cannot understand how humans will allow younglings to lead, contradict orders set by elders, and so forth. Thus, three totally alien races; the Mri and Regul are just as intelligent as humans, but none of the three can truly understand the others’ thought processes.

So, after forty years of war and bloodshed, the humans have forced the mercantile empires of the Regul into an uneasy peace, having obliterated most of the Mri. The decimated Mri are told to stand down, and for the first time in their ancient memory, they have no employer and no master. Then again, there’s only around 400 of them, plus a handful at the last Mri enclave on Kesrith; their inability to adapt to Terran tactics has left them a dying but still much-feared race on the political chessboard.

The Faded Sun: Kesrith
The profitable planet Kesrith is a bounty world, turned over to the Terrans as part of the peace process; it’s home to the last Mri enclave in the galaxy. The Regul are hoping to minimize its profitability by stripping of it materials, unhappy that the humans have acquired it, but are unwilling to put up much of a fight for a blasted desert world; the Regul are in the process of dismantling everything of value when the Mri survivors arrive at Kesrith, days after the human ambassador/overseer and his assistant, Sten Duncan, arrives. Awkward.

The Mri enclave is where the young Niun and his sister Melein are still in training. Niun is the last young Mri of the warrior caste; Melein, the last in the priestly caste. Together, they are the last gasp of a dying race. And when the Regul destroy the ship harboring the other Mri survivors, they’re the only survivors. They form an uneasy alliance with Sten Duncan; Sten’s fearful and bitter at the Mri, having seen first-hand their fighting capabilities and remorseless carnage on the front-lines, and the Mri are understandably distrustful of the first human they’ve ever encountered. It’s an uneasy peace, but trust begins to grow, and Sten starts to feel less hostility towards the Mri and more towards the Regul who just massacred their former warriors.

The novel starts laying out the pieces that will dominate the trilogy, and wraps a multi-layered game of intrigue around the narrative: the uneasy relations and apprehension between Human, Regul, and Mri. There is some, but not a whole lot of action, but there is a bucketful of fascinating world-building, cultural analysis, and strong character development. It works as an introduction to the three disparate cultures, their immediate history, and the varying main characters. Kesrith is a strange and hostile environment, reminding me of Arrakis from its harsh deserts and deadly fauna. It’s not a planet humans are really meant to survive on; I get the feeling it was chosen based on Regul profit statistics, sight unseen.

The Faded Sun: Shon’Jir
Following the last book’s cliffhanger, the only way to save Niun and Melein was for Duncan to take them to the human occupation force, where they face an uncertain fate; sedated, they’re kept alive by medicine they’d otherwise deny. The human commanders have a plan that might thwart the Regul’s genocide of the Mri: found in the holy relics of the Mri is a navigation tape that may lead to the Mri homeworld. Centuries ago, the Mri engaged in what they considered a journey of discovery, which put them as the warrior-mercenaries employed by a long line of alien species, and this homeworld might harbor Mri who did not undertake the exploration quest. Putting Niun and Melein aboard a ship, with Duncan as navigator and doctor, they’re sent off to return home.

But things may not be as they appear to be, as one Regul battlecraft and two powerful human warships follow along behind. The amount of distrust is immense, given the history between these three races; the Regul attempt to assume what the humans would do, while the humans try to figure out what the Regul are up to, and Duncan is worried that the humans and Regul are convinced the Mri are a threat and have teamed up to finish off the few remaining Mri once and for all. And Melein decrees that no non-Mri can set foot on the Mri homeworld, so Duncan must learn the stern rules of the Mri warrior-caste.

All told, this one was a lot slower than the first one; more introspective and analytical, as we see Duncan learning the ways of the Mri, becoming accepted despite his many mistakes. The voyage to Kutath is long, so the entire book is more or less Duncan’s cultural indoctrination. The Mri, like the Regul, fascinate me because of how foreign they are: they are smart, clever, logical beings, yet operate in ways incompatible with human logic. They are bound by their strict tradition, hierarchy, and culture; they refuse to perform any kind of manual labor, since it erodes their warrior mentality. Yet Niun and Melein are still sympathetic, fascinating characters; in part because they straddle the line between the dying old ways and the concepts they’ll have to adapt, and use, to survive in a universe of Regul and Terrans.

The Faded Sun: Kutath
The plot reaches crisis point as the various threads begin to unravel. The Regul arrived at Kutath before the Terran warships, blew up Duncan’s ship and his long-distance message of peace, and begin a planetary bombardment before the Terrans can stopped them. Angered, the Mri tribes march against those who brought this attack—Niun, who’s helped Melein establish herself with the Mri tribe living near the planet’s ancient computer system. A computer system that’s tied to the planet’s self-defense system, and could take out the offending ships, unless Duncan convinces Melein that peace is a valid option.

Niun must keep the remnants of the Mri held together, despite their distrust of him, Melein, and most of all the foreign creature Duncan. Meanwhile, Duncan has to trek back across the ruined deserts from his meeting with the Terrans, in order to preserve the fragile peace between the three races that’s already eroding. Heck, he has to get back before the Mri themselves collapse from infighting, either from the allied Mri tribes, or someone else challenging Niun/Melein’s right to rule their newly-acquired tribe. The action begins to ramp up; a new Regul elder is born to lead, filling the gap of the previous leader, but he’s not acting in a coherent manner. Distrust between the humans and Regul comes to a breaking point after learning of the attempted Mri genocide, and the destruction of Duncan’s ship.

After the first book’s promises, and the second book’s slow, slow buildup, I was wondering how the third book would fare: a slow burn like the first one, more sluggish development, a flare out, or what. I shouldn’t have worried; it was the promised rewards of the plotlines established and developed through the last two books. Tensions flare, conflicts come to a head, and with the development of a new Regul leader, things start spinning out of control. The first two books are buildup for the crashing crescendos of the third book’s finale, where the great game sees its final moves. With so much distrust, and everyone on-edge, the novel shapes into a climactic three-way struggle; the intrigues start as a slow-burn, and then makes a rapid descent into conflict that can only end with the destruction of (at least) one faction.

Cherryh is a master of world-building, and the first novel is an excellent example of this: the textured world, the foreign species which are as smart as humans, yet unable to think like them. The second book is much slower, as Duncan is indoctrinated into the Mri culture. It’s something of a slog, but it opens up a lot of cultural nuances with the Mri while Duncan goes native. The third book brings it all home; the uneasy truce finally shatters, new developments throw everything into a spin, and a cat and mouse game of intrigue erupts into all-out war on the fringe of a galaxy, with an entire species’ future in the balance.

I do have a few complaints. There’s a number of fidgety little details that irked me: crossing the listless void of space to find the ancient Mri homeworld speaks the same language as their long-lost descendants, for example. And if you haven’t picked up on this by now, The Faded Sun Trilogy is slow. There’s a lot of build up, and a lot of wandering around, and a lot of cultural/anthropological discourse; not a whole lot of action or tension. The final book is loaded with powerful dramatic scenes, and there are some great tense moments scattered across the first and last volumes, but these are not thrill-a-minute reads. They’re more an exercise in world-building and alien cultures.

While the trilogy has its Hard SF and Military SF edges, the core is a Soft SF approach, more of a sociological and anthropological track than anything else, which can make it dry and monotonous. I didn’t find it as problematic as others might—I thought it was stunning to see the detailed alien races up close – but I wouldn’t mind if some more tension showed up earlier in the novel, and ended skipping some of the dryer sections in the second volume.

The Faded Sun Trilogy has everything: well-defined alien cultures that are actually alien, some intriguing philosophical questions, a Soft SF look at cultural integration and extinction, a fluid struggle of political intrigue, developed planetary ecology, and a proper epic backdrop of intergalactic war for this amazing space opera. Cherryh does all this with masterful vision and passionate intensity, a terse sense of focus that keeps the book short, yet nuanced and flowing. In a nutshell, it’s my ideal science fiction novel. While sluggish, it builds steam near the end for a fantastic conclusion that’s more than worth the price of admission. Every SF fan should give this series a try. I promise – at least I really hope – it won’t disappoint. Highly recommended; I found it a breathtaking, immersive read, and despite numerous flaws, I loved this series.

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