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.

Chanur’s Legacy, CJ Cherryh

chanurslegacyChanur’s Legacy, CJ Cherryh (1992)
Review by Ian Sales

Six years after the end of her Chanur quartet, Cherryh returned to Compact Space to add a fifth book, Chanur’s Legacy, this time focusing on Hilfy Chanur, niece of the preceding books’ protagonist, Pyanfar Chanur. The novel’s title refers to both the ship Hilfy captains and the new Compact resulting from Pyanfar’s actions in the previous books. Pyanfar has been made president of the Compact, the elected ruler of the four oxygen races – hani, kif, mahendo’sat and stsho – and, one can only assume, the three methane races – tc’a, chi and knnn. Hilfy is head of the Chanur clan, but she’s not interested in clan administration and so has been given a new ship with which to trade. Chanur’s Legacy opens at Meetpoint Station, in much the same fashion as the first book of the series, The Pride of Chanur.

Hilfy has spent the years between the end of Chanur’s Homecoming and the start of Chanur’s Legacy learning about the other races of the Compact, including their languages. Because of this, and her connection to Pyanfar Chanur, she is offered a contract by the stsho administrator of Meetpoint Station, No’shto-shti-stlen, to deliver a small package to Urtur, a station just over the border in mahendo’sat space. The fee offered is enormous, enough to pay off the ship. The only stipulation is the package – an antique ceremonial vase called an oji – must be hand-delivered to a specific person, Atli-lyen-tlas, the stsho ambassador at Urtur. Oh, and there’s also a young hani male currently languishing in a jail cell after attacking a kif, and his ship has left without him, so will Hilfy take him off the Meetpoint administration’s hands?

And there you have it: the plot has been kicked off. Hilfy and her crew travel to Urtur, but Atli-lyen-tlas has fled after an attack on the stsho embassy, and is now at Kshshti. Except no, the stsho has now fled to Kefk, in kif space. Meanwhile, there’s a mahendo’sat following Chanur’s Legacy, demanding to know what the oji is and insisting on helping Hilfy navigate what appears to be a complex plot brewing between the mahendo’sat, stsho and kif. And the kif are in there too, as they always are. There’s a kif hakkikt (leader) called Vikktakkht, who also wants to help Hilfy. And that hani male, Hallan Meras, is complicating things aboard Chanur’s Legacy, through a combination of inexperience, clumsiness and, well, being male. Not to mention the stsho passenger into whose care the oji has been entrusted for the journey…

If the previous books were about the kif, and Cherryh used the plot to slowly and carefully reveal their nature, then Chanur’s Legacy is about the stsho. It’s assumed the reader already understands the psychologies of the hani, kif and mahendo’sat. Especially the latter, as it’s an ambitious mahendo’sat Personage who is behind all the events in the book. Hilfy must figure all this out herself – she cannot call on her aunt, Pyanfar – and this despite the fact hardly anyone thinks she is either experienced or clever enough to successfully sort it all out. But, of course, she does.

Those who have read the other Chanur novels should know what to expect in Chanur’s Legacy. The story is told mostly from Hilfy’s point of view, but often breaks to Hallan’s. There’s very little exposition and, interestingly, Cherryh uses the dreamlike state entered by the hani during hyperspace travel to comment on the plot, During these sections, Hilfy has imaginary conversations with Pyanfar, whose gnomic advice helps Hilfy figure out what is really going on. The prose is characteristically brusque, but it also feels a little clearer than in the other books. Cherryh hides the underlying plot for much of the novel’s length, but then drops in sufficient scattered clues to provide a foundation for the final revelations. Chanur’s Legacy is, in many respects, the exemplar of the series to which it belongs. True, the humans are not even mentioned, and the methane-breathers make only one or two brief appearances; but the plot of Chanur’s Legacy shines a light on the politics of one of the oxygen-breather races, which in turn illuminates that of the other races – much as the other four books did. Its protagonist is a clever and independent-minded hani captain, who must navigate these very different cultures and work out what is actually going on.

If Chanur’s Legacy has a fault, it’s that by compressing the plot into a single novel, it seems, perversely, a lighter read than the other books. However, it does have the advantage of more or less standing alone, and can be read without reference to the previous four books (although, obviously, knowledge of them will help). It’s a solid “realistic” space opera set among entirely alien races, and it’s a shame Cherryh never revisited Compact Space as it’s one of the more interesting parts of her universe.

Chanur’s Homecoming, CJ Cherryh

chanurshomecomingChanur’s Homecoming, CJ Cherryh (1986)
Review by Ian Sales

And so the four books of the Compact Space series comes to a violent and confrontational end – although a fifth book, Chanur’s Legacy, appeared six years later. But the jacket flap of Chanur’s Homecoming describes the book as the last of the series, and the story arc was begun in the second book, Chanur’s Venture, which in turn was catapulted from the first (and, I suspect, initially written as a standalone) book, The Pride of Chanur.

Humans have returned to Compact Space, this time in force. And it seems they have may have shot at a knnn ship, the knnn who are the most technologically advanced, the most alien and the most enigmatic. But there is also a battle for supremacy going on between two kif hakkikt, the mahendo’sat have been playing a long game in order to keep their own borders safe, and the ground-based hani are trying to arrest Pyanfar Chanur for various crimes she is alleged to have committed. In the preceding book, The Kif Strike Back, Pyanfar found herself allied with one of the rival hakkikt, Sikkukkut – or rather, a vassal of him – and part of the force which attacked and seized Kefk Station. But Sikkukkut’s enemy, Akkhtimakt, holds Meetpoint Station, which is where the humans may be heading for – or so Pyanfar’s mahendo’sat friend, Jik, believes.

Pyanfar leads another force on an assault on Meetpoint Station, even though she knows victory will force Akkhtimakt toward hani space. But she has no choice, as Sikkukkut has threatened the hani homeworld, Anuurn, if she double-crosses him. And after Pyanfar’s ship successfully take Meetpoint, they have to leave immediately to chase down Akkhtimakt before he reaches Anuurn… and get there before Sikkukkut does. The journey, a series of hyperspace jumps with little time to recover in between is hard on the crew – although, fortunately, they have another hani ship’s crew acting as relief (as that crew’s ship was too slow for Pyanfar’s taskforce).

The closer she gets to Anuurn, the more Pyanfar realises what has been going on. She learns more about the kif – partly from the kif “slave”, Skkukuk, given to her by Sikkukut, and partly by observation and inferences. She also figures out what the mahendo’sat have really been up to. And when it comes to the final battle for Anuurn and Gaohn Station (echoing the battle which ended The Pride of Chanur), Pyanfar manages to defeat Akkhtimakt and then turn on Sikkukut… and she ends the single representative of the hani to all the other races of the Compact.

The plot of Chanur’s Homecoming is predicated on the psychology of the alien races in the Compact. While told from the point of view of the hani, and so making them the most understandable, Pyanfar also has to be able to predict what the kif and mahendo’sat are planning, and so she must also understand how they think. And then there are the humans, who, despite the presence of Tully aboard The Pride of Chanur, are the real aliens in this series. Even for Cherryh, it’s a lot to get across, and her typically brusque prose frequently isn’t quite up to the job. It’s not just the details of the space battles, which work well, but the many scenes of Pyanfar trying to work out who is doing what and how each of the major players think do more to confuse than elucidate the plot. This is not to say that the details Cherryh reveals are not interesting – the kif, who are the main villains of the piece, actually turn out to be the most original of all the Compact races, for example.

All the information Cherryh throws in, the plots and counter-plots, the strategies and conspiracies, serve only to convince Pyanfar there is a single course of action open to her, and which she promptly takes when all the various parties are gathered together after the battle on Gaohn Station to sort everything out. There then follows a nakedly sentimental epilogue, which demonstrates how much the events of the four books have changed the hani.

The four Compact Space novels are good solid science fiction of a sort that doesn’t really seem to be written any more. While the fourth book is somewhat densely packed, and that sometimes gets in the way of its action-packed plot, it’s nonetheless cleverly done. Rereading Cherryh – or, in this case, reading one of her books for the first time – reminds why I was a fan of her fiction back in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps not everything she wrote then has survived the test of time, but the Compact Space novels appear to have weathered the decades pretty well. They’re not twenty-first science fiction by any means, but they’re still readable and enjoyable sf, and probably better than a lot of science fiction published today.

Foreigner, CJ Cherryh

foreignerForeigner, CJ Cherryh (1994)
Review by Martin Wisse

Foreigner is the first novel in one of CJ Cherryh’s popular series, yet until now I had never read any of them. She is such a prolific writer that it’s easy to miss a series or two. She also has such a wide range, writing anything from fantasy to space opera, that not everything she writes appeals to every one of her fans. The number of people I’ve known who hated her breakthrough novel Downbelow Station for example…

Yet, once you’ve read a few of her novels, you discover that there is one narrative trick all her stories have in common, no matter what the setting or the plot is. What she likes to do is to take her protagonists out of their comfort zone, get them at their most vulnerable and then put the pressure on. Every one of her novels I’ve read has the same structure. The protagonist is a young man (rarely a young woman) put in a position of responsibility but without power. Usually he’s an outsider in an alien culture, cut off from his own people, in the middle of some sort of political crisis he barely understands let alone can influence. She then let’s this crisis heats up, makes sure her hero gets little to eat and less sleep and is as far removed from the centre of the crisis as possible, yet still has a vital role to play in resolving it, even if he not necessarily knows it. To make sure the reader is as much in the dark as the hero, she usually makes sure they’re only looking at the story through his eyes.

In Foreigner‘s case the eyes we’re looking through are Bren Cameron’s. Bren is the paidhi, the human interpretor appointed by treaty to the court of the aiji of the Western Association. The paidhi is the person the most responsible for keeping the peace between human and atevi ever since the war two hundred years earlier. It been an accident that had put humans on the atevi’s planet and many of the latter were still not happy about it, but at least they were now confined to only one island and forced to share their technological and scientific knowledge. It’s this that is the humans’ greatest advantage and it’s Bren’s job to share them in the most advantageous way possible, striking a balance between being useful to the atevi, not forcing their technological development too soon and keeping at least some bargaining chips off the table for as long as possible.

Not an easy job, but things get worse for Bren quick. His story starts with an assassin in his room and Bren driving him off with an illegal gun. In response Tabini-aiji order’s Bren’s bodyguards to bring him to his grandmother’s castle – the one who twice tried to be aiji instead of her son and grandson and who might have been involved in the tragic death of her own son, but who in any case doesn’t like humans very much.

Alone, isolated and confused, cut off from the modern world in a castle that was old when humans first went into space and only barely upgraded to include modern amenities like indoor plumbing and electricity, Bren is not happy. His existential dilemma is that his instinct is to trust and like those atevi like Jago and Banichi, his two bodyguards, he has known and worked with for years, yet these are human emotions not mirrored by the atevi. Their language can only think about “like” in the sense that you can like a breakfast fruit, but does have fourteen different words for betrayal. Instead atevi are ruled by man’chi, the sense of duty and obligation owned to an association or leader, which can get very complicated indeed. It’s the conflict between Bren’s instincts and feelings and his imperfect understanding of man’chi that drives most of the stress he’s under. Literally kept in the dark at times, he has no idea what’s going on, what his own role in it is or how to get out from the hole he is in.

Foreigner is one of those Cherryh novels that was difficult to read for me, because I could see the pain that was coming for Bren all the time and was wincing in advance. I’d figured out Cherryh’s trick it took me some effort to get back to the story. I also had some problems with the setting. The atevi with their sense of man’chi and lack of emotions and complex web of aristocratic power relations come across as “space Japanese”, with the human settlement standing in for the Dutch at Dejima during the Shogunate. It took some time for me to get over this.

What I also had problems with was the central conceit in the story, that it would be possible to trade scientific and technological information for two hundred years without the atevi catching up and surpassing humans. Cherryh does play some lip service to the idea that the atevi do innovate on their own as well, but it does seem humans are the main driver of scientific progress, which I just don’t buy. Science doesn’t work that way, you cannot just keep parcelling out little nuggets of information like that without sparking off a scientific revolution. Especially on a planet with a few million humans and a billion or more atevi.

Setting aside those objections, once I did immerse myself in the story, it was just as gripping as any other Cherryh one. This isn’t her best novel perhaps, but like most Cherryh novels it’s still very much worth reading.

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

The Kif Strike Back, CJ Cherryh

kifstrikebackThe Kif Strike Back, CJ Cherryh (1985)
Review by Ian Sales

At the end of Chanur’s Venture, Pyanfar Chanur and her ship, The Pride of Chanur, had found themselves heading for Mkks, a station in the disputed zone between the kif and mahendo’sat, chasing after a kif leader who had kidnapped Pyanfar’s niece Hilfy and the human Tully. These events were precipitated by the return of humans to Compact Space, which in turn led to a bid for power between two kif leaders… And it’s one of these whom Pyanfar finds herself reluctantly allied to – the very same one, in fact, called Sikkukkut, who kidnapped Hilfy and Tully.

So The Pride of Chanur, Sikkukkut’s small fleet, the mahendo’sat hunter Jik, and even the hani ship Vigilance form an impromptu task force and descend on the kif station Kekf and seize control of it, cutting off Sikkukkut’s rival and causing him to badly lose face. (Kif politics operates on individuals’ clout, or sifk, and leaders can rise and fall in moments.) Somehow the enigmatic knnn are involved in all this, and the bird-like shsto have been making secret treaties with some of the hani in order to cut the mahendo’sat out of any future trade deals, and the House of Chanur back home is near-bankrupt and wanted for a number of violations of laws and treaties – which is why Vigilance is dogging The Pride of Chanur

The Kif Strike Back reads like the middle book of a trilogy, which in effect it is. The first book of the quintet, The Pride of Chanur, felt like a one-off, and the second book, Chanur’s Venture, took the ending of the first book and ran with it. The fifth book, Chanur’s Legacy, takes place many years later. And like many middle books of trilogies, The Kif Strike Back seems to consist chiefly of getting the various players into place for the final showdown, which, I’m guessing, will take place at Meetpoint, where the quintet opened. There is also a great deal of explaining, by Pyanfar, of what is going on behind the scenes and the motivations of the various factions – all, that is, except for the methane-breathers, as no one ever really knows what they’re thinking. To make matters worse, Tully confesses that the human ships may have actually fired on knnn ships. And no one messes with the knnn. They are centuries ahead of everyone else technologically, and don’t appear to deal very well with other races.

But if The Kif Strike Back isn’t quite as engaging a read as Chanur’s Venture, there is still much to like in it. Cherryh reveals more about the kif, and they’re a lot more interesting than they had appeared in the earlier books. Pyanfar makes an excellent protagonist, although perhaps she’s praised a tad too much by other characters (leading the reader to suspect the rest of the hani are not much good at anything). There is also a pleasingly slightly old-fashioned feel to the universe of the series. The pidgin spoken by the mahendo’sat is perhaps less pleasing, and it’s unlikely any writer would do such a thing in a twenty-first century novel. But the technology of Compact Space, with its huge space stations, FTL drives but no artificial gravity, the clunky tech of 1970s visions of the future… It’s all a bit retro. And there’s an implausible level of commonality in the technology across the various races – which also feels somewhat retro. While the various races’ spaceships may look different, they all seem to operate exactly the same – although it’s hard to tell how much so, given that Cherryh is characteristically parsimonious with detail. Her prose has always been about the characters and their actions and thoughts, and she rarely spends more than the minimum number of words on setting.

The Kif Strike Back is followed by Chanur’s Homecoming and Chanur’s Legacy. This series is solid hard-ish space opera, perhaps a little past its sell-by date – but when did that ever stop a science fiction reader? The Compact Space quintet doesn’t pretend to offer relevance to a twenty-first century reader; it didn’t to a reader back in the 1980s. And back then, I suspect, it felt a little like one of those wind-up toys from an earlier generation, a bit clunky, no smoothly rounded corners or brightly-coloured moulded plastic… but it did something interesting and fun. And sometimes that’s all you want from a book.