Rimrunners, 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.