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C. J. Cherryh

C. J. Cherryh


LibertyCon 14 Author Guest of Honor (2000)

C. J. Cherryh is the working name of US writer Carolyn Janice Cherry, who taught for some years (1965-1976) before becoming a full-time writer; she is the sister of David A Cherry. Since 1976 - when she won the John W Campbell Award for most promising writer - she has produced more novels than stories, publishing several before her first story, the Hugo-winning "Cassandra" (October 1978 F&SF). Eventually she accumulated enough short fiction to publish The Collected Short Fiction of C J Cherryh (omni 2004), comprising Sunfall (coll 1981) and Visible Light (coll 1986) plus 16 further stories, one - "MasKs (Venice)" - newly written for the collection. Her first novel was Gate of Ivrel (1976), initiating the Morgaine series - continued in Well of Shiuan (1978) and Fires of Azeroth (1979), the trilogy being assembled as The Book of Morgaine (omni 1979; vt The Chronicles of Morgaine 1985), and the much later Exile's Gate (1988) - a romantic Heroic-Fantasy quest epic whose interplanetary venue and underlying rationality prophetically underpin a hectic and perhaps rather florid imagination.

In all her work - which runs a gamut from Shared-World fantasies to Hard SF - an almost unfailingly creative tension can be sensed between argument and fantastication; and her underlying instinct for construction was confirmed in the late 1980s by a retroactive and ongoing coordination of more and more of her work - singletons and series both - under the aegis of her sf-grounded Alliance-Union Future History, which embraces most of the home Galaxy through the third and fourth millennia, during which period the Alliance, structured around the Merchanter cultures which operate the huge interstellar freighters necessary for trade, manages to survive at the heart of the more ruthless, expansionist Union. A third force whose influence is felt throughout human space is Earth itself, hugely populous, dominated by aggressive supra-planetary corporations, still the heartland of Homo sapiens, though under increasing stress as the expanding sphere of human endeavour inevitably passes beyond her sphere of influence. As Cherryh has herself stated, the various tales in the variously interconnected series are meant to be read separately, though each volume is intended to maintain a reasonable consistency with the overall history; in any case, her default narrative strategy - her narratives are usually non-omniscient, being restricted to the point-of-view of third-person protagonists - generates a continuing sense that there is always more untold in an Alliance-Union novel than that novel could possibly reveal.

Unusually, the sequence is not planet-based, much of the significant action of the central texts taking place in artificial environments, including a wide variety of spaceships, Merchanter freighters (each huge vessel housing an autonomous culture), satellites, waystations and self-sufficient habitats. The "Gehenna Doctrine", which prohibits the cultural contamination of newly discovered planets and therefore serves as a vital structuring device for the series, justifies the focus of those central texts while at the same time - for the Doctrine is often honoured in the breach - providing an enormously malleable frame: thus highly disparate tales may be fitted into the overarching sequence - almost to the point where singletons with no apparent connection to the sequence, including some Planetary Romances, might still be thought to belong within the whole because their isolation from any other book proves that the Gehenna Doctrine is working.

The Alliance-Union structure, though rough at the edges, serves primarily to hold and sort background material - a necessary aid for an author whose better work almost invariably offers too much material, too many Alien races intersecting too complexly for easy comprehension, a stricture true even of early novels like Hunter of Worlds (1977), in which three cultures express themselves in harrowing detail in too few pages; a sense of bustling, impatient cognition pervades the otherwise garish tale of an alien mercenary race fatally involved with Homo sapiens. But with her second series - The Faded Sun: Kesrith (February-May 1978 Galaxy; 1978), The Faded Sun: Shon'jir (1978) and The Faded Sun: Kutath (1979), all three assembled as The Faded Sun Trilogy (omni 1987) - the Alliance-Union dichotomy, here presented late in its history when the antipathetic Union has begun to seem more attractive, works to order the profusion of material. Unlike the great majority of sf writers, the most consistent complaint about her work must be that individual stories are too short, though the Merchanter novels, which are perhaps most central to the overall series, use their galactic space-based venues with considerable skill to articulate busy narrative lines. Along with Heavy Time (1991) and Hellburner (1992), a twenty-fourth-century pre-Alliance series that currently, in terms of internal chronology, kicks the entire sequence off, these novels - Downbelow Station (1981), which won the 1981 Hugo, Merchanter's Luck (1982), Cyteen (1988; vt 3vols as Cyteen: The Betrayal 1989, Cyteen: The Rebirth 1989 and Cyteen: The Vindication 1989), which won the 1988 Hugo, plus Tripoint (1994) and Finity's End (1997) - are perhaps her best and most central work, generating a remarkable sense of the living density of space-born life. Cyteen is a book of enormous girth set on the intricate Union home planet and dense with speculative plays on genetics (> Clones), identity, family and power; plus the claustrophobic but enthralling Rimrunners (1989).

Closely associated with these books in tone and hard-edged complexity are Alliance-Union novels like Serpent's Reach (1980), Wave without a Shore (1981), Port Eternity (1982), Forty Thousand in Gehenna (1983) and Voyager in Night (1984). The Chanur Saga, made up of The Pride of Chanur (1982; text restored 1987), Chanur's Venture (1984), The Kif Strike Back (1985), all three assembled as The Chanur Saga (omni 2000); plus Chanur's Homecoming (1986) and Chanur's Legacy (1992), another deft and crowded depiction of alien psyches in a complexly threatened interstellar venue, has also been fitted into the overall series. Late in order of publication but in effect a two-part prequel to the entire project, Heavy Time (1991) and Hellburner (1992), both assembled as Devil to the Belt (omni 2000), concisely and intensely compresses the early Merchanter years into a kind of closet drama set like Rimrunners (see above) in Cherryh's favourite setting: the interior of a ship. As the years have passed, individual stories within the structure have tended, very roughly, to shift their concern from honour (a focus typical of the "shame cultures" found in preliterate societies on Earth and endemic to much Space Opera) to the responsibilities of power (a problem central to literate "guilt cultures"Wink.

The lineaments of the Alliance-Union series remain unclear, but it seems increasingly the case that the novels incorporated within this loose mosaic - running from effective singletons to close argued subsequences - are Cherryh's central achievement. Even the later, polished Foreigner sequence - comprising Foreigner: A Novel of First Contact (1994) (> First Contact), Invader (1995), Inheritor (1996), Precursor (1999), Defender (2001), Explorer (2002), Destroyer (2005), Pretender (2006), Deliverer (2007), Conspirator (2008), Deceiver (2010) and Betrayer (2011) - owes any underlying security of worldview to the fact that it fits into the Alliance-Union remit; the same seems true of the weaker Gene Wars sequence comprising Hammerfall (2001) and Forge of Heaven (2004). The sense grows that for Cherryh the Universe, and everything imaginable within its particoloured quadrants, continues both evanescent and full of marvel; and that sentient species must revere whatever habitats remain to them after the terrible years of species growth and species destruction hinted at in those books set early in the Universe. It is a vision which, after so many busy books will take some time to settle, though within terms she has already cued us to anticipate.

There are several fantasy singletons and series, the most notable of the latter being the Rusalka books beginning with Rusalka (1989). [JC]

(From Ms. Cherryh's page at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction)