Oct 5 2009 6:19pm

Treachery to species: C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur Trilogy

The Pride of Chanur is an introduction to the universe and a introduction to the characters. For the trilogy, which are all one non-stop story, you’re assumed to be confident with a hani point of view and happy to be thrown in at the deep end. Chanur’s Venture begins with Pyanfar Chanur, hani captain of a trading ship back at the stsho-held station Meetpoint, hopeful because she’s back at last. But things rapidly get out of control, until the whole Compact is at risk.

These three books (Chanur’s Venure, The Kif Strike Back, and Chanur’s Homecoming) are absorbing, exciting, intense and immersive. If they have a fault it’s that they’re too absorbing, exciting, intense and immersive. I’ve been known to put my head out of these books and talk in hani pidgin. (“What want, stupid human?”) The action is nonstop to the point where it gets hard to breathe. The plotting and counter-plotting is incredibly complex. These books are about the kif, who are thoroughly unpleasant aliens who you get to understand a whole lot better than you might want to. The Pride, all hani crew along with their one human, starts off at Meetpoint and gets deeper and deeper into kif territory, kif plots, kif psychology. I adore these books, but I need to be feeling fairly resilient to read them, because they leave me exhausted and shedding fur from too many Jumps strung too close together, too many course changes, too many negotiations with the kif and the mahendo’sat and not knowing who to trust. Don’t read them out of order, or unless you have all three of them right there, don’t read them when you might need to get your mind on something else in a hurry. Once you start Venture, you’re committed all the way.

It just occurred to me that these books are not only feminist, they’re subtly and amazingly feminist, but seldom hailed as such. Hani females are rational and in charge, men are supposed to be hair-triggered and stay at home. Pyanfar’s a female captain of an all-female crew, so far so good. But her experiences with aliens and in particular the human Tully cause her to question her prejudices and to consider that hani males might be good for something after all. Her husband Khym, defeated by their son and no longer titular lord of Mahn, is a crewman on The Pride, and over the course of the books he comes to be a useful member of the crew—along with Tully, the kif Skukkuk and for a while even the mahendo’sat Jik. The brilliant thing about Khym is that his story is about realising that biology isn’t destiny. I’ve seen alien races where the men are sentient and the women aren’t. Cherryh’s doing a much better thing that reversing that, she’s writing about alien women examining the radical notion that men are people. Oh, and she’s so far from strident that you barely notice that’s what she’s doing. Khym Mahn, the first man in space. Yay.

The major theme of the trilogy is treachery to species—there’s a character from every major species that betrays their own species for the good of everyone. Tully says he’s a hani and warns Pyanfar against humanity. This works best if you have read other things in the Alliance/Union universe and you’re not thinking by default that a human fleet arrival would be a good thing. (Even two seconds of thinking it might be the Mazianni is enough to squelch that one.) Pyanfar gets on the wrong side of the treaties the Han have made. Skukkuk learns a lot about how species other than kif thrive, and ends up taking over the kif for Pyanfar—and knowing alien words like “cooperation” and “sharing.” Jik also acts against mahen interests. Stle Stles Stlen—let’s not go there. Even the t’ca who goes to Kefk isn’t acting for the interests of the methane folk.

This is, of course, a theme you can only explore in SF. I mean you could write about humans betraying each other on Earth, but you can’t write about humans betraying their species until you have someone for them to betray it to. Even within SF it’s a rather unusual theme. It makes you wonder what she was thinking, to have all these very different species and have them co-operate for the greater good that way. If there’s a general tendency towards unconscious default racism with the way orcs and aliens are depicted, Cherryh’s going strongly against that with the Compact.

I remember thinking when I’d read The Pride of Chanur and bought the others how nice that the third one was called “Homecoming,” and how that was a title with promise of a happy ending. Of course, once Sikkukkut has threatened a high-C rock at Annurn, the idea of coming home to find one’s species and home planet wiped out seemed much less friendly. I wrote a post about Heavy Time and Hellburner called “a happy ending depends on where you stop.” Cherryh’s good at that trick. She does very well with it here, with a complex ending that comes over as more positive than not largely because of the epilogue.

I love these books with a kind of enthusiasm that’s rare with something I discovered as an adult. I don’t know quite how they managed to get under my skin the way they did. I re-read them every few years, and I give them my highest recommendation.

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.

j p
1. sps49
The books get under you skin because they are soooo gooood, and subtle and tense and all that.

The feminism is hard to miss, it just isn't strident.

I would rather have a Mazianni fleet (or one from Earth expanding that direction) than a Union fleet, though. Union has always creeped me out.
2. kjhass
I read these eons ago when the first three were out with the last of the trilogy and the stand-alone after it left to go. I went mad for more than a year waiting for Chanur's Homecoming to be released. Then again for Chanur's Legacy. Like you, I count these among the most enjoyable SF books I've ever read and keep going back to them. The little details in the epilogue to Chanur's Homecoming, like the Hani boy's rucksack still having creases in it from being new-bought, really make all of these stories seem so real and alive. You make me want to go reread them this instant!
Bridget Sullivan
3. Ellid
Is it ever made clear what "portion" of humanity Tully represents? Union? Alliance? Merchanter Fleet? The Mazianni renegades?

While we're at it, does Ms. Cherryh ever make clear about the humans who settle on the Ateva homeworld, either?
4. Confutus
Tully is from Earth and was proud of it, until
Earth's official representatives demonstrated their boneheadednesss and got themselves invited to leave Compact Space.

The Phoenix was from Earth, but otherwise there's no point of contact with Alliance-Union space. It found the atevi world either in a different universe or so far away that it might as well be one.
Bridget Sullivan
5. Ellid

Thanks - I actually just re-read The Pride of Chanur this weekend thanks to Ms. Walton, but I haven't read the rest in ages.

As to the Phoenix and the Atevaverse; is there anything in that series (which, holy schmokes, is up to what, eleven books now?) that makes it impossible for that to have occured in the Alliance-Union universe? I recall something to do with jump-space... the humans in the Foreigner series doen't need to be drugged senseless in jump, but back in the A-U books, they have to. Am I making that up?

Ugh - the wikipedia entries for Cherryh are useless!!
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Ellid: Jump works differently. In the Atevi universe, Jump for humans and Atevi goes on and on and makes you feel stupid. In the A/U universe humans have to be drugged for Jump and it seems to take no subjective time. So this could be different tech, but it looks like different universes. And exterior to the story, Cherryh has said they're different universes.
Bridget Sullivan
7. Ellid
bluejo -

danke schoen. That's the bit I was thinking of, plus the quote from the author herself settles it ;)
8. Other Alias
Loved this series - it was my introduction to Cherryh. Smashingly brilliant, and so innovative to take the humans almost entirely out of the picture.

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.
9. Spearmint
I read Chanur before the other Alliance/Union books, and thought Pyanfar was being really xenophobic. Then I read Downbelow Station. Ha ha.

What I've always found fascinating about the trilogy is that despite all the ammonia and blood the kif are the only oxy-breathers in the entire Compact who actually deal honestly with their allies.

The mahendo'sat plot against everyone from the kif to Pyanfar, the shsto make covert, treaty breaking alliances behind the other races' backs, the han do the same thing (plus Ehrran is a creep), Tahar betrays everyone at some point, and of course Pyanfar was planning to betray Sikkukkut from the instant she heard about Operation C-speed Rock.

And even sweet little Tully was spectacularly dishonest with friend Pyanfar, given what we know of human military capabilities vs. what he told her. No ship in Compact has riders; the humans can wipe them out in five minutes, and somehow this never came up in conversation.

Whereas the two kif are absolutely sincere in their offers of alliance (and Skkukuk's loyalty never even wavers). They're the least xenophobic race, too; the best linguists, and the only ones who really seem interested in learning about the other species or treat outsiders as they treat their own. Like anti-mri, in a way.
10. sunna
I love-love-love this series. I never get tired of it. What amazes me about it is how complex and layered the worldbuilding is, and yet the plot never falls off full-sprint and the characters are so well drawn I identify with two different species easier than I do the one character that's human.

Her exploration of the influence instinct has on inter-species negotiations was just fascinating to me. Cherryh is one of my favorite authors, and I'm reminded why every time I re-read these books.

Which, having waxed fangirl about them, I now must do this weekend. :-)
Bradley Beek
11. beeker73
Alright Cherryhfiles, I've never read anything Cherryh. What should I start with?
j p
12. sps49
Cherryhphile reporting in!

Where to start depends on what you like. The Gate of Ivrel series reads like sword-and-sorcery except that the sorcery is really SF-tech; this is where I started after reading a "Giants in the Earth" article in Dragon magazine. The cultures are mostly human or near-human.

The Faded Sun is an SF trilogy with ritual swordplay set in the aftermath of a tough interstellar war. The protagonist is immersed in a near-human alien culture, there is also a very alien race involved.

The 2 books collected as Devil to the Belt are good, solid space SF books. Jo's link to her earlier writeup is better than anything I could write; I will note that I remember nothing in Heavy Time that linked it to the Alliance/ Union universe (Hellburner does this, almost like post-retcon).

The Pride of Chanur is a good single book to try. If it is too much for you or you didn't like it, you can stop. Otherwise, continue to the trilogy (which isn't packaged right, grr).

Try her Wikipedia entry for more (for instance, I have read none of her Foreigner books).
Maiane Bakroeva
13. Isilel
Beeker 73:

I suggest "Pride of Chanur" or "Merchanter's Luck" - which gives an accessible look at the human space and various cultures in it. Both are excellent IMHO and a good introduction to Cherryh's work.

"The Faded Sun" trilogy, I like the least among Cherryh's SF series - it is basically Lawrence of Arabia in space (with some tweaks, to be sure), complete with adoration of the noble wild eh... person.
14. Alfvaen
sps49: Wow, I got into Cherryh exactly the same way. Same "Giants In The Earth" column, same book. Then I read "Wave Without A Shore", which confused the heck out of me.

beeker73: I have read all the atevi books, so I think that "Foreigner" would make an equally good entry point to Cherryh's writing, with the caveat that it only links to the rest of the atevi series. With most of the Alliance/Union series, it doesn't really matter where you start, but "Downbelow Station" introduces most of the main concepts... She has a lot of good standalones, too--I like "Serpent's Reach", "Cuckoo's Egg", and "Voyager In Night" a lot.

I just reread the Chanur series in the last year or so, but I need to get back in and reread the rest of her stuff, too.
Bradley Beek
15. beeker73
Thanks sps49, Isilel, and Alfvaen.
And thanks Jo for your reviews, which I always enjoy.
16. davebush
Thanks Jo for another great review.

The trilogy is my personal favourite in all of SF, I think I might understand how a culture based of sfik can flourish.
Matthew Brown
17. morven
The kif seem so nasty until you realize their biggest saving graces -- that they lack xenophobia completely, and treat everyone exactly the same. They just don't understand the rules everyone else works under; they're completely logical and sensible once you understand the kif mental ruleset. And they're adaptable. The rules are tough because they come from a tough place; they're survivors. They also hold no grudges.
j p
18. sps49
Alfvaen- I knew I couldn't be the only one!

beeker73- You're welcome!
19. dancing crow
I love these books and I adore you rdescription of how you feel reading them (like a hani through jump) because that is precisely the feeling I get.

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