Sep 30 2009 11:58am

The best aliens ever: C.J. Cherryh’s The Pride of Chanur

The Pride of Chanur (1981) is a standalone novel followed by a trilogy (Chanur’s Venture, The Kif Strike Back and Chanur’s Homecoming) and then another standalone volume, Chanur’s Legacy. If you view the trilogy as one book, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend starting those books without having all three of them right there, you can see it the whole series as a trilogy. The present way of publishing them in two volumes constituting The Pride of Chanur with the first half of the trilogy and then Homecoming with Legacy makes no sense as far as the story is concerned, though there may be useful marketing and bookbinding reasons for doing it that way.

This falls squarely in the middle of my very favourite subgenre of SF, the kind with aliens and spaceships. There’s a fairly standard way of writing a science fiction story in which one human is stranded amidst aliens, and it’s from the human point of view as the human learns the aliens. What Cherryh does in The Pride of Chanur is to write this backwards. She tells it from the alien point of view, and she does it brilliantly. There’s a Compact of different aliens—the pacifist stsho; the inquisitive mahendo’sat; the leonine hani; the piratical kif; and then the methane breathers who are really weird: the t’ca, whose messages are six part and can be read in any direction; the mysterious chi; and the knnn, who wail into their communications units and whose actions are quite incomprehensible. Pyandar Chanur is a hani captain, a trader, and she isn’t expecting an alien escaping the kif to run into her ship, bringing chaos in his wake to disrupt the whole Compact. I’d have liked this book from the human point of view, but from Pyanfar’s point of view, alien and comprehensible viewing human and other aliens, comprehensible and incomprehensible, it’s unbeatable.

There had been something loose about the station dock all morning, skulking in amongst the gantries and the lines and the canisters which were waiting to be moved, lurking wherever shadows fell among the rampway accesses of the many ships at dock at Meetpoint. It was pale, naked, starved-looking in what fleeting glimpse anyone on The Pride of Chanur had had of it.  Evidently nobody had reported it to station authorities, nor did The Pride.

Cherryh always evokes rather than describes, and this first line is a really good example of that—it evokes the scene and draws you in. You want to know what the thing is—and of course it’s a human.

The thing people sometimes don’t like about these books is that they’re extremely complicated. The Pride of Chanur isn’t as bad as the trilogy for that. The Pride of Chanur is introducing the universe and the characters and the aliens and the spacestations, it moves fast and assumes you’re paying a lot of attention and never backs away from its point of view to explain what hani take for granted. I don’t find it hard to follow, but at this point I’ve read it a million times. It definitely is a book (and this goes double for the trilogy) where it makes more sense on a re-read where you understand what’s happening and know what’s coming. It’s definitely complicated, and it definitely makes no concessions, and it doesn’t give you time to catch your breath—but I remember loving it the first time I read it, and my son loved it when he was ten.

The Pride of Chanur is about the hani, mostly. The trilogy is about the kif, mostly—and kif really aren’t very nice. Legacy is mostly about stsho. The aliens are done very well, with all the complications and implications of what it would be really like to be like that. They’re definitely based on animal behaviour, and while this might make them less utterly imagined, it gets them into “stranger than you can imagine” territory. The hani ship crews are all female, because their males are pampered into being good for nothing but fighting each other. Pyanfar’s feelings on seeing her son and daughter overthrowing her husband and threatening her brother are not analogous to anything human. Cherryh has really thought through what it means to be an intelligent spacefaring lion, what it would feel like, and how you cope with things that are essentially intelligent spacefaring whales that breathe methane and have nothing in common with you at all.

This is a great story that begins a great voyage through alien territory.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. 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.

This article is part of C. J. Cherryh Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Angela T.
1. Angela T.
I don't know how many times I've read these books. They are excellent! Cherryh is a great writer.
Angela T.
2. DGLewis
This is what I love about Cherryh's work - she throws you into the story and the world-building (or universe-building, as the case may be) comes out through immersion. You have to pay attention, but by the end of the book, you're living in another universe. Unlike some authors who feel obligated to take a couple of dozen three-page digressions to explain the world-building to you (*cough*Drake*cough*).
Tony Zbaraschuk
3. tonyz
>it moves fast and assumes you’re paying a lot of attention and never backs away from its point of view to explain what hani take for granted

This is actually a more general statement about Cherryh's writing at all times ;)
Madeleine Lee
4. keita12686
I have the omnibus edition of the first three books, so I didn't really see the way that the arc spreads out the first time I read it. I see it now, though.

I love this series, it's so well done. Cherryh does manage to give each of her alien cultures a unique flavor without spending too much time intimately describing them. Besides, no one ever sees the methane breathers, so why describe them?

Though for some reason I have never actually read Chanur's Legacy...
Angela T.
5. OtterB
This is an example of my love-hate relationship with Cherryh. I really enjoyed Pride of Chanur; haven't reread for years but remember the viewpoint well, especially the scene where Pyanfar figures out that the human is intelligent. I have tried the trilogy a couple of times and can't get into it. Maybe I don't like the kif. Maybe it's just more complicated than I want to spare the mental energy to deal with. I seem to like Cherryh's stand-alones more than the great sweeping works. (Loved The Paladin, too.)
Peter Ahlstrom
6. PeterAhlstrom
It's a great opening line to a great series. I wish there were more Chanur books. I'd love to see Compact Space dealing with Alliance/Union (though they're on opposite sides of Earth).

I wouldn't say they're the best aliens ever, though. The Hani are honestly not very alien. Of course, the more alien cultures are a lot harder to relate to.
j p
7. sps49
Cherryh has always excelled at writing aliens and alien cultures. And Byzantine plots that resolve well. And creating and resolving tension. And...

aw, hell, she may be my favorite writer ever. Except that I haven't read any of the series she appears to be writing lately.

The regul/ mri are in the Alliance/ Union locale, also, right? I need a timeline....
Angela T.
8. warriorofworry
My favorite books in the entire universe. Bar none. Cherryh slyly takes on sex, gender, culture, first contact, money, and power, among other issues, all in a rollicking good adventure story.
Nathan Macey
9. nafhan
I'm reading the Chanur books for the first time right now. Cherryh does a great job making the aliens "alien", but still understandable (except for the methane breathers, of course). I agree with, Peter, it'd be great to see a book where the Alliance-Union and Compact space both get more than mentioned in passing in the same book.

Favorite Cherryh book that I've read was definitely Cyteen. I loved the complex, strange culture developed around the azi.
David Spiller
10. scifidavid
I believe what I have is the same omnibus of the first 3 books that another reader mentioned. I bought it years ago after seeing it referenced in a review of another book. Somehow it drifted to the back of a shelf. I'll have track it down. (I moved in July and a lot of my books are still boxed). Once again, Ms. Walton has added to my "to be read list" w/o costing me a dime. I love when that happens.
Angela T.
11. Spearmint
Those books are so great, and the packaging of the two editions is so terrible.

It's nice to see a society composed entirely of aliens, in which all the races made first contact with each other instead of with humans. What I especially like about the series is that everyone in the Compact takes the existence of a pluralistic society as a given. All the species are out for their own self-interest, but even the kif interpret that self-interest to lie in finding a way to work with everyone else. (Which in the kifish case involves a lot of guns, but still.) In a genre so populated with imperialism and genocide, it's a refreshing shift in ethical framework.

And people get sued for blowing things up in their space operatic battles with the bad guys. Cherryh actually cares about the damages inflicted on NPCs in pursuit of the plot! It's incredible.

The Chanur books have the best Cherryh space battles, too.
James Goetsch
12. Jedikalos
"Downbelow Station" is my all time favorite scifi book (hey, I guess that meand Cherryh is my favorite scifi author:), and these books come in close to that one. Her books just totally immerse me in her worlds and let me lose myself in them.

Nice review.
Stefan Raets
13. Stefan
These books are very high on my to-be-reread list. A perfect example of intelligent and fun SF.
Matthew Brown
14. morven
The version of the middle trilogy books I read has an explicit note in it from Cherryh that the three should be viewed as one book, split into three because of the economics of the publishing trade only.

Yes, the Hani are not too alien in terms of their everyday; they're close enough that we can get in their heads, yet still strange enough that things can surprise.

The Chanur books are Cherryh progressing from the earlier Alliance/Union books and taking the ideas of Downbelow Station and making them better. There's less padding in these, no characters you don't care for or slow parts away from the action. There's no pause in these; one domino falls and the rest topple, unstoppably.

The Kif are hard to deal with in some ways, yes; they're deeply unpleasant, with such cold, cruel logic.

And pretty much all of Cherryh's works are shoehorned into Alliance/Union in one way or another. Yes, the Regul and Mri are, in quite the far future granted. "Angel With The Sword" is. The Morgaine books are; the very first paragraph is from the Union Science Bureau, and the graphic novel adaptation, with Cherryh's full approval, has Ariane Emory being the one sending Morgaine on her endless mission. I don't *think* the "Foreigner" books are in the same universe, but I may be wrong even in that, and of course the true fantasy isn't. I think.
Maiane Bakroeva
15. Isilel
Yes, Cherryh is one of the very few sf authors who actually manage to write aliens who aren't humans in rubber suits or conveniently unknowable, but well, alien.

I love this series, it is among my favorites. OTOH, I feel that the pinnacle of alien psychology in Cherryh's work and actually in sf in general are azi in Cyteen.

The one thing that I could never wholly wrap my head around is this - how can hani males make a transition between living in the wilderness and managing an estate? What is their life in the wilderness actually like? How can a pretender secure support? Etc.

Also, the whole situation with offspring is also quite complicated and un-lion-like, because IIRC children belong to the father's clan and are raised by paternal aunts, etc.
Angela T.
16. Jim Henry III
It's been a long time since I've read this one; I'll just say briefly that it is the only one of C.J. Cherryh's books I've read that I really enjoyed. A long time ago I concluded that Cherryh was not for me, after reading this one and enjoying it, then bouncing off or slogging through several of her other books that came well-recommended.
Angela T.
17. Mritanga
I haven't read too many of Cherryh's Chanur books - two, I think - but I enjoyed them immensely. I've read the Mri-Regul trilogy, which I thought at the time was the hottest book of hers since sliced bread ... :)

I used to think that Larry Niven had the best aliens in Space Opera. I think thought, that Cherryh beats him by a handy megaparsec - his ones tend to be quite one-dimensional.

Of course, as far as believable aliens go, I have yet to find any alien portrayals that quite match 2001's aliens - and I've read a good bit of the source material for that book/movie. (And then we meet the aliens in Earth Girls Are Easy ... and Alf ... :)
Angela T.
18. Chrysostom
Alan Dean Foster's Nor Crystal Tears was a pretty decent "first contact from the alien point of view" novel, as well.
Angela T.
19. ghotiwife
I rather like 'Cookoo's Egg' for alien/human interaction--but her Chanur series is great for believable alien viewpoint, as well as a rip-roarin' good read. Honestly, though, I think Vernor Vinge has my favorite/most believably alien aliens in 'Fire upon the Deep'. 'Nor Crystal Tears' is good as well; Alan Dean Foster has sortof grown on me.
Angela T.
20. SonySnow
I read this book as a teenager. It was not complicated at all.
But, I agree with the reviewer, it is a really good book. I hope I can find this on Amazon.

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