Oct 7 2009 1:30pm

No Pitching of the Preciousness: C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur’s Legacy

So, after the introductory volume and the incredibly tense trilogy, Chanur’s Legacy is a funny bouncy novel about Hilfy Chanur and the stsho. Oh, it has the occasional tense moment, and even the occasional battle, but it’s much more lighthearted than the other books. I sometimes read it on its own, and I sometimes don’t read it when I read the others. I don’t know how well it would stand alone if you hadn’t read the others, but it might be worth trying.

It’s set several years after the end of Chanur’s Homecoming, and Hilfy Chanur, who we first met as juniormost on the Pride, is captain of her own ship. Tully, the lone human of the series, is still on the Pride, and doesn’t appear in this volume except in dreams, making it, unusually, a book without any humans at all. The settings are the same, but there are only two continuing characters, and you don’t find out that one of them even is the same person until the end.

Hilfy is given a mission by the stsho stationmaster of Meetpoint, to take a ceremonial object to Urtur, for a huge fee. Of course it’s more complicated than it seems, especially when she picks up a male hani crewmember. Hallan Meras was the bright-eyed young male last seen in the epilogue to Chanur’s Homecoming. There were several years between Homecoming and Legacy, and I re-read the trilogy several times, so when I discovered Hallan Meras in a Meetpoint jail having conversations with the kif jailors, I was staggered. He was supposed to be our hope of a better future! But he still is, and there’s one way in which this novel can be read as a romantic comedy.

In comments to my last Chanur post, Other Alias said:

I think my favorite thing about it was how the kif transformed from purely evil to simply alien over the course of the series. Once understood, they are not the villains one originally thought them to be.

This is one of the things these books do brilliantly. The various sets of aliens are all quite simple and easy to understand when you first see them, but the more you find out about them the more interesting and complex they are and the more your first impressions seem naive—and all without ever contradicting anything said before. The Pride of Chanur does this with the hani, the trilogy with the kif, and Legacy with the stsho.

The stsho are a vegetarian prey race, the kif call them “grasseaters.” They’re duplicitous, conniving, too close with the methane breathers, the really alien aliens. They’re physically fragile, white-skinned extreme aesthetes who (like humans) need drugs to survive Jump. They have three sexes and Phase under stress to reassemble themselves as another personality. In Legacy we find out a lot more about their physiology and psychology—I can’t really think of any other intelligent aliens developed from herd animals. The Phasing under stress seemed like a cheap evasion in the earlier books, but here we see it as complete personality disintegration and reintegration. Even the white-on-white aesthetics and odd attitude to art comes to make a lot of sense. The part where they panic on the docks when the exploding rock detonates and they all flee in the same direction really rings true, and makes a lot of sense of the double-dealing we have seen in them before.

A lot of the humour of this book comes from Hallan trying his best to do the right thing and messing up. More of it comes from the enormous contract Hilfy signs to take the “preciousness” to Urtur and the long chase it leads them on. There’s the running joke of the exploding rocks, which incidentally opens up the actual economics of trade in the Compact in a fascinating way. I have a very definite picture of the bridge of the Pride, and of Legacy, which is totally based on the wire frame graphics of the ancient computer game Elite. I’d always imagined the trade worked the same kind of way—and it does, but Cherryh has really thought about it and how it could be an actual economy. All too often the economy of space in SF makes no sense at all, so I think Cherryh deserves a lot of credit for thinking about it, making it seem reasonable, and writing about it in a way that’s actually funny. It’s really hard to write about economics and logisticss without being boring.

This is likely to be the last book ever in Compact space. Cherryh’s early books are all set in the Alliance/Union universe, in a timeline that extends in detail from when she started writing them into the very far future. I’m sure this helped her in numerous ways, but it means that with the Chanur books she’d painted herself into a corner—there isn’t any contact with the Compact in books written earlier and set later, and so human contact with the Compact can’t continue, and that makes it hard for her to write more books about them. I hoped for years that she might do a book illuminating the mahendo’sat, or even the methane breathers, but at this point I don’t think she will. She can only really fill in the corners of Alliance/Union, and she has moved on to more open projects. I’m almost reconciled to this, except on days when I’ve just finished Legacy.

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 ›
Peter Rabbit
1. Peter Rabbit
I've always loved these books, and always been intrigued to find out Cherryh would integrate them into the wider Alliance-Union universe, but I suspect I agree with Jo that they can't really be taken any further given the absence of references to the Compact in books set later in her invented timeline. There's always hope, though, given her return to Cyteen with Regenesis.
I was also never entirely certain whether, for example, the Chronicles of Moiraine fit into the same "future history."
On another topic, I'd suggest Larry Niven's Puppeteers as another alien race descended from herd animals.
Sean Fagan
2. sef
The other famous herd-species is, of course, Niven's Puppeteers.
Ken Walton
3. carandol
I was going to say the puppeteers too. There are also the K'kree in the Traveller RPG universe -- a herd species of militant vegetarians, who sweep across the galaxy wiping out meat-eating civilisations.
Bryan Schenk
4. Damplander
Ah!, sef beat me to it yep other intelligent herd-species is the Puppeteers! I absolutely love this series and find Serpent's Reach enjoyable if unfufilling. But I've never really liked any of Cherryh's other works that I've read.

Really sad that there is little chance of more Compact books:( but we can only hope for more!
5. joelfinkle
Another herd-alien is another Niven (with Pournelle): The Fithp from Footfall, elephantine with hand-like trunks.

It's also interesting that Card spends a lot of time talking about the levels of possible communication with aliens in the Ender Sequels, but spends little time actually communicating with them except for in Speaker for the Dead. Cherryh gets it a lot better.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
The Chronicles of Morgaine are stated to be in the continuity -- and in the Cherryh-approved graphic novel it's a version of Ariane Emory that sends Morgaine out.
7. goshawk
I actually read this book first, and loved it to pieces despite how intense it was. I've always kind of enjoyed being thrown in the deep end with worldbuilding and having to sort of work backwards to the reasons for things from what the author mentions through the plot.

I found it in my community's library as a 14-year-old and despaired of ever finding the other books (which were pictured inside the front cover). I found the omnibus editions online a few years ago and ordered them, swallowed them whole in about a day and a half, and now it makes me grumpy that there aren't more.

Luckily, I'm still only halfway through the Foreigner series...
Matthew Brown
8. morven
As I recall, pretty much the first thing in Gate of Ivrel is a paragraph from the Union Science Bureau. They're in the continuity, though tenuously, and the time-and-space-spanning and -mangling nature of the Gates means they don't have to have any further connection.

Morgaine is something that used to be common and is now less so — fantasy within sci-fi justification. It's written like fantasy and has a lot of fantasy themes, but everything has a pseudo-scientific justification and all the magic is technology far outside Vanye's understanding.

A few authors and works still do this, but there was a time when a huge amount of fantasy was done this way. In some ways it's among Cherryh's most derivative works -- the Andre Norton and Elric influences are obvious -- but even with her first published novel, she was wonderful.

Oh, and the graphic novels weren't just Cherryh-approved — she worked on them alongside Jane Fancher, and some of the detail artwork is hers ("Scum and villainy by C.J. Cherryh" is what it says in the credits; she drew a lot of the villainous hangers-on).
Mary Aileen Buss
9. maryaileen
One of the intelligent races in The Sparrow is also developed from herd animals.
10. Yaz
As someone who has loved CJ Cherryh's work for years, and raved about them to my feminist friends (to no avail) for years, I just wanted to say what a pleasure it has been to come across this collection of mini-essays about them all.
Such a shame never to have been able to talk about them, but this is partial compensation.

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