Jan 7 2011 11:03am

Aliens, vengeance, complications: C.J. Cherryh’s Serpent’s Reach

Serpent's Reach is complicated and miserable even for a Cherryh book, and I like Cherryh a lot. I hadn't read it for a long time (see, complicated, miserable) and I picked it up again last week because people were talking about it on the Merchanter's Luck thread (great comment thread) and I didn't remember it well enough to say anything. I don't like it any more than I ever did, and it took me a long time to read because I kept finding myself not wanting to pick it up.

It's an early book (1980), so it doesn't have the lightness of touch of Cherryh's more mature work. It's set in the Alliance-Union universe but much later than most of the other books in that setting. There are some worlds that have aliens on them, the majat. Some humans have come from Alliance and settled with the majat, and helped the majat spread to other worlds. These majat worlds are quarantined from the rest of humanity, though there is some trade at an edge world, Istra, and the trade is essential to both sides. The humans consist of Kontrin, made essentially immortal by the majat; betas, humanity leading ordinary lives but whose first generation were psychsetted azi; and azi, produced by the betas, raised and programmed on deeptape, and dead reliably at forty. The majat are hive beings, sharing mind and memories. The Kontrin feud, the majat feud, the betas try to get on with their lives and not get in the way, and the azi have no choice, ever.

No spoilers yet.

Raen is a Kontrin, born to immense wealth and power. She's fifteen when her whole family is killed. She takes refuge with the hives, and tries to take vengeance. Jim is an azi she wins in a game. We spend most of the book with their points of view, but we also dive into the heads of enemies, aliens, and the ancient and ailing Moth, leader of Kontrin council.

Cherryh's worlds are always believable, she's very good at that. This is in some ways like Forty Thousand in Gehenna in a different key. One of her most persistent themes is how people and aliens shape each other, and here we have another isolated situation. I don't have any problem believing in any of what happens—I just have trouble reading it because I don't enjoy it. I don't know if it's actually more miserable than the books of hers I really like, but it certainly seems that way. What's good about this is the texture of society, the way it's all solidly thought through, the convincingness of it. What's bad is that I feel sorry for Raen and Jim, but I don't especially want to spend time with them. They are authentic products of a very strange world, and it's great that they really are that, but a pity they're not more likeable. Cherryh got much better later at having characters that I find sympathetic.

SPOILERS COMING UP, and there are likely to be spoilers in comments


It's odd that this is Alliance, using azi and engineering a society this way. That's a Union thing. OK, it was an extreme situation when they came in, but still... odd. This is an early book, though set late, maybe it was before she'd worked it all out. But maybe it's what an Alliance corporation would do, given azi. Or maybe it's after Alliance have become horrible. The dying at forty thing is also in Port Eternity. It may be something where she had a better idea later, or it may be a consequence of the situation in Cyteen where azi weren't routinely rejuved, and if not rejuved, why live? Ick. And the azi are totally slaves here, no gesture at anything else—and no Reseune to look out for them as much as it actually did. Those pits, my goodness.

I don't quite understand what happens with Jim getting Raen's mindset from her tapes. She isn't an azi... and even if she was, as per Cyteen the tapes are software to run on very specific biochemistry. Can anyone explain this to me?

The majat seem very tame aliens for Cherryh, very conventionally SF hive aliens. She got better at aliens later too.

I find the whole end quite nightmareish. Cherryh normally manages something that can be seen as a happy ending if you squint at it, but not here.

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.

This article is part of C. J. Cherryh Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Frankie Nameless
1. Frankie
I don't think the way tape works for Jim in Serpent's Reach can be exactly reconciled with the descriptions in Cyteen, but I also think I saw mindset as being quite different from the idea of personality. As I think of it, he hasn't become Rael, but he begins to think less like his own Azi-programming would require of him and more like a Kontrin.

The idea that tape-watching all of her entertainment and education en mass would start him down the path of thinking like a Kontrin is quite poetic, and I must admit to a soft spot for it even if it doesn't actually fit in well with the rest of the universe Cherryh later created. Though I dread to think how Byzantine and bloodily political the Kontrin's idea of educational entertainment would be...

Noticing the picture at the top -- have you ever written about Cuckoo's Egg here? I have a soft spot for that and Serpent's Reach, they must have been two of the first Cherryh I ever read. And I still think of Serpent's Reach with fond nostalgia and reread it fairly regularly, which probably says terrible things about my personality...
Tanja Wooten
2. TanjaW
"Serpent's Reach" is still my favorite Cherryh book, maybe because it was the first of her books that I read. I also re-read it periodically, as Frankie also mentioned; but it's that dark quality and near nightmare imagery that I appreciate about it.
j p
3. sps49
I only read it one. Jo said it all, better than I can.

The incomplete "tape"- it reminds me of Liell trying his one-body-too-many takeover of Chya Roh and how it turned out in Fires of Azeroth.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Frankie: I haven't written about Cuckoo's Egg, but I like it and will no doubt get to it sooner or later.
Sam Dodsworth
5. Sam Dodsworth
There's a bit more to the majat than just "conventional hive aliens", I think. Without going into spoilers, it's the gap between those "conventional" human assumptions and what they really are that drives the plot.

I don't think it's much use trying to read how tape (or azi, for that matter) works in the later novels back into an earlier one - the details change over time. But if you really need to fit it all into the same framework, then I'd say there's a clear distinction in the later books between entertainment tape (used at home, with some simple biomonitors), skill tape (used under supervision, with feedback built into the system), and deep-tape (with an endocrine component, used only on azi or under serious medical supervision). Jim gets an entertainment tape but absorbs it as deep-tape because azi only normally get deep-tape and are conditioned to respond to it.
Sam Dodsworth
6. Sam Dodsworth
Bad form to follow-up on my own post... but I just re-read the book. Azi were created as trade-goods, because food and workers were the only things the majat were interested in. There's no suggestion that azi exist anywhere in Alliance space - rather the opposite. And they're sterile and have a limited lifespan to allow continued trade. (And, perhaps, because the betas are making them and seeking to emulate the Kontrin. The human-majat interface corrupts.)
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Sam: Yes, the betas are seeking to emulate the Kontrin making them, and the first generation Kontrin making betas were presumably seeking to emulate Union? Or anyway, saw a problem (one ship) and a solution (uterine replicators, clone babies) in Union's practice.

Externally to the books, I think this is the first time she used the word "azi"? Or is Port Eternity earlier? And I don't think Serpent's Reach gains from supposedly being part of the continuity of Alliance-Union, because the questions it raises are not questions it has answers for. Cherryh was just thinking out things like azi and the impact of tape learning and programmed people on society, she did these things much better later.
Sam Dodsworth
8. Sam Dodsworth
Port Eternity is copyright 1982 and Serpent's Reach is 1980 so I think you're right about the azi. That makes sense to me, in terms of the way they're shown.

I don't think there's much point in bringing Union into the mix at this point in Cherryh's career. In her early work, Alliance is more like the interstellar culture in Andre Norton's juveniles - a vague common setting, but no timeline or details that might get in the way of whatever story she wants to tell.

Serpent's Reach is actually one of my favorite Cherryh novels, although it's hard for me to say why. Part of it is the majat, and part of it is the nightmareish quality you mention. And it's not like there's much to regret in the destruction at the end, really.
Sam Dodsworth
9. Kinksville
Reading this and other Cherryh re-read posts sparked me to go back and work through a fair portion of the Alliance-Union novels ...and leave my copy of the Chanur novels at a friends house :( .

Serpents Reach has always been a favorite book of mine, I actually went to the trouble of acquiring the edition with my favored covered art for it.

I think Jim's use of the Raen's tapes can be made to square quite easily with the use of tape in Cyteen or Reunion. Jim is a very intelligent, very skilled human being who has been given a particular set of attitudes, tendencies, habits etc, particularly towards authority in the form of whoever holds his contract.

None of those things are erased or removed by his use of Raen's tapes, however they are modified, his experienced broadened, complicated, and his view expanded to see many shades between black and white.

After his experience with the tapes he still has the original psych sets (which aren't magic, they're just conditioning, like avoiding conflict like the plague because you had an alcoholic parent and the way to avoid punishment was to try to make everything perfect so there was nothing to upset Mommy/Daddy when they were on the sauce). The difference is that even though they affect him on a very visceral physical level he is able to work around them.

From the description in the book, he is in the tape trance for days if a week or more before he is hauled out of it.

This isn't the clean surgical scalpel strokes of Ariane Emory working at the top of her craft, this is someone taking a fireaxe to his own psych sets in an act of desparation even as he acts out of the loyalty that those psych sets implanted in him, to Kontrin as a class, and his contract holder in specific.

Aside from the (presumeably genetic) time-bomb implanted in them by the betas, the azi of the Reach are pure humans, as much as the betas themselves are. It's implied in the text that the beta's came up with that particular refinement themselves as a way of guaranteeing obsolescence so they could continue marketing their product, and perhaps as a way of raising themselves above the azi, as the Kontrin have elevated themselves above the betas.

@Sam: The way in which the Outsiders (maybe Merchanter, maybe earth company?) try to infiltrate the Reach by posing as azi argues very strongly that they don't understand azi and are not familiar with them. If you pull in the things said in the Chanur novels regarding humanity, you get the picture of three main polities of humans, the Merchanter Alliance (centered on Pell) the Union (centered on Cyteen) and Earth. Physically the Merchanter Alliance is situated between Earth and Union, and Earth goes exploring in the other direction, getting caught with the kynn and stumbling into the neighborhood of the Compact worlds.

There's no indication that Cherryh was thinking this far ahead at the time, but it's logically consistent that the Reach lies on the far side of Earth from the Merchanter Alliance, and that some branch of the EC bought replicators (possibly on the sly?) and set themselves up in the Reach. Very consistent with the way the branches of Earth Company worked.
Sam Dodsworth
10. RustyM
@Kinksville: I'm going to guess you preferred the "tough Raen with a weapon slung over her shoulder" cover to the "pretty Raen fluffing her hair" cover? If so, you're not the only one...

Coming to the discussion late, but like @Sam Dodsworth, I've always figured this book took place in another universe from Cyteen, Downbelow Station and the rest --one with a lot in common with the "main" Alliance/Union universe, but some differences as well.
Jan Stinson
11. Laker56
I'd forgotten this re-read series was ongoing here...

Serpent's Reach had a Doubleday edition published in 1980, and Downbelow Station was (iirc) first published by DAW in 1981, and azi appear in both. It may not be a stretch to posit that they were written close together in time (late 1970s). At her website ( at the Universes link, SR is described as being far in Alliance's future, and that the settlers of Hydri Reach were considered a splinter group by the Alliance government/federation.

SR has long been my favorite of Cherryh's works, even more so than the Chanur or Faded Sun books. To be brief, it's one of the best revenge stories ever written. :) Raen a Sul hant Meth-Maren is driven by revenge alone, for herself and her family; in the process, she brings a greater understanding to the majat of their purpose and future.

Must stop now or I'll blab on...

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