C. J. Cherryh Reread

A girl on a haunted spaceship: C.J. Cherryh’s Merchanter’s Luck

In the comments on my post on Family Trees of Fantasy, Ben JB and I were talking about Gothics, and Ben JB asked if you could have a Gothic on a spaceship. My immediate response was Merchanter’s Luck, a 1982 novel by C.J. Cherryh. It has a girl and a haunted spaceship and a mysterious man with lots of secrets in his past. But on re-reading it, I have to admit that it doesn’t quite work as a Gothic. The book is about equally divided in point of view between Sandor, the man with a spaceship and a past, and Allison. But Allison is far from a gothic heroine—she’s empowered, and most of the time in the novel she is the one in the position of power. She goes onto the spaceship and goes into abandoned cabins, full of the possessions of the dead, but she doesn’t go alone. She’s not virginal, not isolated, and never helpless. And the antagonists are outside the spaceship. But it was an interesting angle to take to the book, a new way of thinking about an old favourite.

No spoilers beyond what you could get from the cover.

This is the Alliance-Union universe, and Merchanter’s Luck was the second novel written in it, after Downbelow Station (post) (1981). (Maybe next time I’ll read these in publication order, rather than internal chronology.) Downbelow Station is a book about the end of a war that has stretched between and the stars and lasted as long as Troy. This is a post-war book, about people whose lives have been scarred by the war that has shaped the universe they live in. The powers in the Beyond are Union, the star systems who rebelled from Earth, and Alliance, the merchants and space-station who made a side rather than get ground between two sides who cared nothing for them. Earth is still there of course, but far away. Earth’s old fleet are very definitely there, they have become pirates preying on the ships they used to claim to protect. Alliance and Union are working together to fill in the holes where the pirates and marginers operate, and Sandor Kreja is running out of places to hide.

This is a close up book about people who live with their complex history and the complex history of their societies, just like us. It’s not a book about anything that makes history or changes society, it’s a book about a boy and a girl and a spaceship.

This is Sandy’s book much more than it is Allison’s. The spaceship and the ghosts are Sandy’s—the ghosts are his family, killed by pirates in the war. Closest of them is Ross, who programmed himself into the computer—so Sandy thinks it wasn’t so much that he died as that he went invisible. So Sandy is fabulously wealthy, he owns a starship, and on the other hand he’s flat broke, he has no money, and his papers are false. He’s skimming, living close to the edge in all senses. And then he meets this girl—he falls in love with Allison before he knows her, and he thinks of her as a Princess. And she sees him and his spaceship as her route to command. And that’s why it isn’t a Gothic, despite what I was thinking. She knows what she wants and she goes for it.

Like most Cherryh, this can be claustrophobic but feels absolutely real, and again typically it speeds up a lot near the end. I talked about the appeal of these books before. I’m extremely fond of them, and I recommend them highly.

SPOILERS—minute spoilers, not really for this so much as for the Chanur books, plus it won’t be interesting unless you know what I’m talking about:

There was speculation as to what it was to be strung out in the between, and speculation about what the human mind might start doing once the drugs wore off and there was no way back. There were tales of ships which wafted in and out of jump like ghosts, with eerie wails on the receiving com, damned souls that never came down and never died and never made port in time that never ended…

Merchanter’s Luck, p.14, Sandy POV.

You know what those “ghost ships” wailing on com and coming in and out of jump weirdly are? Not just atmospheric writing. And not people lost in jump either. They’re knnn. Knnn, the wailing aliens from the Chanur books, who we know share a border with humanity! Just thought you might like to know.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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