Dec 9 2008 12:47pm

Space is wide and good friends are too few: Cherryh’s Merchanter novels

Merchanter’s Luck (1982), Rimrunners (1989), Tripoint (1992) and Finity’s End (1997) along with are all stories of individual spacers in the time immediately post-Downbelow Station. They’re all excellent books, and they are where I suggest people start with this universe, so that when they get to Downbelow Station they are already invested in the universe. The title of this post comes from “Sam Jones” a song that Cherryh wrote and Leslie Fish sings, badly transcribed at this link, and which I think of as another story in this set.

Imagine the universe of Traveler or Elite. Then imagine it made sense in depth and had up-close personal human stories happening in it. These books take place in merchant ships and space-stations. The very occasional living world glows like a jewel in the dark. The ships started off slower than light coming out from Earth building stations as they went, and built up a culture like that, but then pretty much at the same time they discovered other living planets, faster-than-light and rejuv—a drug that keeps people at about the biological age when they start taking it until they’re well over a hundred. Then came the War, between Earth and Union, with the merchanters caught in the middle, until the Treaty of Pell that ended the war and formed the Merchanter’s Alliance.

In these books we see ships and people of all kinds. There’s an independent whose family were killed in the War barely making it as a trading ship, and a thriving family ship where rejuv keeps so many generations alive that young people can’t hope to have useful work before they are themselves old. There are Union ships and Alliance ships that have been militarised. There’s a Mazianni supply ship and a beached Mazianni trooper who finds herself aboard an Alliance military ship with very mixed feelings. Most of all these are the stories of spacers, with their sleepovers on stations, their thin margins of profit, their shared experience of  the deep dark and going FTL through Jump.

They are also all about the very human need to belong, to have someone to love and somewhere to call home.

More than anybody else, Cherryh has thought about what it would mean to live in space. I don’t know whether it’s scientifically plausible, but it feels entirely real in its nested implications. They don’t have day and night, ships and stations work all the time, in shifts, they have mainday and alterday which overlap when morning for one is evening for the other. The ships are communities, families, villages, matrilineal with children concieved with partners off the ship but growing up aboard. They dock at the stations and because they don’t have the rotation they use in motion to create gravity, they have to sleep off the ship. This leads to romance in Merchanter’s Luck and to rape and revenge in Tripoint. The way Jump stretches age means there’s a crew member in Rimrunners who started off on sublight ships, and is very significant for the protagonist of Finity’s End, who got left at a station while the ship went on.

These books all stand alone, with very little overlap of characters with any of the others, though there’s considerable overlap of locations and history. They can be read in any order. And every single one of them has a happy ending, or stops at a point that could in any case plausibly be taken for a happy ending.

Dave Bush
1. davebush
"stops at a point that could in any case plausibly be taken for a happy ending."

Something that's probably true for any story, but CJ's very reality makes it stand out more.
Matthew Brown
2. morven
I think Rimrunners is the best of these, though they're all quite readable. All are intensely claustrophobic novels; people are in tight spaces literally and metaphorically, trying to make the best of poor options, to eke out a little more living in a universe that's cold and barren. All are stories of desperation, loneliness, and trying to find a place to call home.

This is what Cherryh does well. It doesn't always make for an easy read, and I can understand that some would find it not the kind of entertainment they're looking for out of their reading matter.
Declan Ryan
3. decco999
To my cost, perhaps, I didn't read this series in order of publication - no internet shopping in those days; you took what you got in the book stores. Tripoint and Finity's End, I enjoyed very much.

However, I remember finding Merchanter's Luck and moreso Rimrunners to be more difficult. Without doubt, these latter two convey a bleakness that perhaps got to me a little and tainted my enjoyment. Reading the previous post, though, I'm reminded of of that claustrophobic, cold, barren, desperate and lonely universe that CJ Cherryh created. A second read is on the cards, I think.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
I think it's possible to make a case that Rimrunners is Cherryh's best novel -- not her most significant one, but a stunning character study of someone who shouldn't be synmpathetic but is.
Janet Kegg
5. jmk
Rimrunners is the only one of the four that I haven't read. Must remedy that. It seems to be out of print--I'll have to look for a used copy.
Matthew Brown
6. morven
bluejo: indeed. Bet Yeager is hard to like. She's effectively a bum at the start - living on what welfare she can scrounge, starving, willing even as I recall to prostitute herself - anything rather than give up on the hope that she can find a place on a ship, any ship. She'd literally rather die than give up on that. She's stubborn, and she's at the point of desperation where it's taken over everything, she's stripped to the core survival personality and not all of it is pleasant.

And when you realize just what's in her past and why she can be so cold and so desperate, why she needed to be it to survive ...
J Dalziel
8. BunnyM
Re: morven @ #6:

Odd, I found Bet Yeager sympathetic in Rimrunners precisely *because* she had fallen to such a low spot, for such a long time, and still hadn't given up. Bet's not a nice person, but she is a very sympathetic character, I think.

Rimrunners is my favourite of her Alliance/Union and Chanur books, although I love them all. I really should re-read it sometime soonish.
Matthew Brown
9. morven
BunnyM @ 8:

Bet's not a nice person because it was impossible to survive what she's survived and remain one. The need to survive is ultimately not all that nice.

There are, however, things she won't compromise on, and that strength of personality is admirable.

She's also (another Cherryh trope) a character who is temporarily somewhat other than sane, at times, and situationally. People in crazy-making tight places can go a little crazy, and Cherryh believably has them go a little nuts. A lot of her characters are psychologically walking wounded, one way or another.
J Dalziel
10. BunnyM
Bet's not a nice person because it was impossible to survive what she's survived and remain one. The need to survive is ultimately not all that nice.

There are, however, things she won't compromise on, and that strength of personality is admirable.

I agree totally. I guess my mistake was confusing your comment that Bet is hard to like with meaning that she was hard to sympathise with. Bet, most especially at the beginning of Rimrunners, is a very hard, dangerous and scary individual, but none of that stops her from being very sympathetic, even at the start of the novel. And, as you say, as we move further into the book, and learn more about her and her history, she mores from merely sympathetic to outright admirable.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
She's admirable and sympathetic even though we know she is a Mazianni and from Africa, which, if we've read any other books, we're predisposed not to like. And she has done terrible things by her own admission, but we like her, we're in her head, we understand.

I think it's an amazing achievement.
brightening glance
12. brightglance
I agree that Rimrunnersis perhaps her best book, considered as a novel. (I love the Chanur books most, though.)

As Jo says, the difference between ship-time and station time is a huge problem in Finity's End, where there seems to be no method to allow for the actual differing effects.

(Fletcher is) “ 'a junior-junior, but' … 'the body physiologically isn’t'”.

(JR) “He was just emerging from that psychological cocktail himself, and while at physical and mental seventeen-to-eighteen and chronological and educational twenty six he was just getting his own nerves to a calm, sensible state.”

It seems however that in Tripoint, which I gather is some 20 years station-time later, that ship-folk don't use station-time in calculating ages.

“He’d been six on that outing, not ten – body and mind, a staggering difference, but station officers always wanted your universal dates on the customs papers you had to fill out. To ship-dwellers, body-years mattered, and you knew those from Medical; computers calculated it by where your ship had been, what it hauled, and kept careful track all your life”.

Seems to be a big culture-change in a fairly short timespan, unless there were differences in various merchanter sub-cultures. Or perhaps the author had a Better Idea.
Julian Hall
13. Jules
Imagine the universe of Traveler or Elite. Then imagine it made sense in depth and had up-close personal human stories happening in it.

I always pictured Elite that way anyway. My copy of it (and I'm aware that not all did) came with a novella entitled "The Dark Wheel", which certainly helped the game come alive in a way that it wouldn't have done if it only had the action to make it seem real.

I've often wondered why more games didn't do this.

There's also a whole load of Elite fanfic out there, if you look for it.

(I've also often suspected Elite as being an influence on Babylon 5, although I don't think JMS has ever officially commented on the subject. Ian Bell doesn't think they're particularly similar, though.)
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
Jules: I was reading the Chanur books once and there was a battle and ships suddenly appearing on scan and I realised I was seeing it in green and at the bottom of the screen and that my visualisation of the cabin was just totally Elite.

The other things I see that way are the stories set in George R.R. Martin's Dying of the Light universe -- not the novel, which is all set on a planet, but the short stories.
Matthew Brown
15. morven
bluejo: I don't think I ever consciously realized I was visualizing longscan like Elite's scanner, but it's so true. Except that it's not just points, it's clouds of probability and lines of computer-and-human best guess as to likely path and course and location.

I doubt Cherryh was the first to write space-opera space battles with a consciousness of communication and sensor lag, but she got it and communicated it so well. That you don't know where the hell your opponents really are or what they're doing. That all you can see is clues about what they DID do, minutes or hours ago. That skills like an intelligence analyst's would be needed to try and keep track of things and work out what might really be going on. The insight that in an strong-AI-less future there would continue to be human judgment in there, not just computer algorithms.
scott palter
16. agingcow2345
What Rimrunner and Tripoint do is flip your POV into the enemy/Fleet camp and make it work. The power and strength of Cherryh's writing is that she can make sympathetic POV characters beyond both their alignments and sanity. Bet is an especially tricky one to write as she is less intelligent than both the writer and most of the readers.
Stefan Raets
17. Stefan
I like your reference to Elite in this article --- a great way to explain to people who aren't familiar with these novels what part of their attraction is.

@Jules (13) --- YES! I remember that novella very well.
18. Dullspork
Even though my comment is coming late to the party I just wanted to thank you for the recommendation.

Somehow these books had constantly skipped past my buy list over the years. I picked up some used library copies via Amazon (apparently the first few recommended titles are not in print at the moment) and just got finished with Rimrunners.

It's pretty cool to come into something late like this and realize that you've just opened yourself up to a new universe to explore.

Thanks again!
Janet Kegg
19. jmk
Thanks from me too for writing about these books I borrowed a copy of Rimrunners from the library and enjoyed it muchly.

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