Feb 10 2011 5:03pm

Small wars and bigger wars: C.J. Cherryh’s Rimrunners

Rimrunners (1989) is a book that you can only read with your heart in your mouth. It’s the book that got the Locus review that encapsulates the experience of reading Cherryh “never a dull moment and rarely a safe one.” Yet after having read it a number of times it has become a comfort book for me, and it’s not entirely easy to explain why.

Rimrunners is set in Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe, directly after Downbelow Station. I’m pretty sure it stands alone, but it gains from having the knowledge of the history and geography of the other books. And that’s one of the reasons why I love it, of course, I love that universe. It feels like real history, but it’s real history with spaceships and space stations and factions. All Cherryh’s places are real, she’s very good at places, but because she wrote about this universe for so long and from so many angles it seems to have real shadows. Most of the other books in that universe (post) are about merchanters, politicians, and scientists. This one is different.

Bet Yeagar walks onto the first page of the book and we see her from outside, just for a couple of pages, before we spend the rest of the novel from very close inside her head. From outside she’s a little bit scary—the stationer who wants to help her suddenly wonders how safe it is to be around her. And it isn’t safe at all, either to be her or to be her friend. She’s desperate on Thule docks, desperate for a ship to take her out, desperate for food, for shelter, but she’s not desperate enough to take a job on the station. She’s a spacer, that’s the first thing we learn about her. It takes a little longer to find out where she came from and what she’ll do to survive.

I’m going to talk about stuff in the book that you don’t want to know if you want to be completely unspoiled, but I’m not assuming familiarity so this ought to make sense if you haven’t read it and don’t mind.

Thule is itself down and out, one of the reopened Hinder Star stations that has been bypassed by progress, that is due to be shut down again and this time permanently. Before she leaves Thule, Bet has killed two men. Both of them were horrible people who wanted to hurt her, but... she’s very violent. And we have learned that she’s a Mazianni marine, or she was. Her shipname’s Africa, and she wants nothing more than to get back to the Fleet and her friends and causing mayhem. She hasn’t seen them since Pell, and she’s been disguising herself as a refugee ever since. “Spacer, machinist, temp” her papers say. So she uses the card of one of the men she killed to bring herself back from starvation, eating sandwiches and cheese puffs out of the machines, and staying in his apartment.

Where she goes is onto Loki, a spookship, a rimrummer, on the Alliance side and therefore opposed to all her old friends. She’s glad enough to get there because they get her out of the station brig, and once she’s there she tries to figure everything out as fast as she can — but she has all the wrong reflexes. She’s very practical, she’s cool under pressure, she knows how to deal with orders, she’s spent the last twenty years on the lower decks of a carrier in a war. She was sixteen the last time she was a civilian. Loki confuses her because it is both the same and different. She’s trying to work it out, and trying to make friends—so she ends up being friends with all the wrong people, and in a kind of war with one of the officers, Fitch. And once she has friends she wants to protect, everything gets more complicated.

Rimrunners keeps changing scale, there’s the people of the lowerdecks and then there are also the officers. There’s the war between the officers, with Bet and the others caught up in that, and then suddenly the wider war between the stars comes back to bite. It’s as tense and nail-biting as anything possibly could be.

When all is said and done, this is a character book. All the characters are great, and the best of them is Bet, going on doggedly trying. She herself is a rimrunner, taking her chances out on the rim, and so is NG, the engineer she befriends, and so of course is the Loki. It’s the story of someone who belongs nowhere finding a place to fit in, and someone who knows how to kill finding something worth protecting. I’ve said before about Cherryh that she only does happy endings by stopping at judicious places, and this book ends as happily as possible under the circumstances. Bet hasn’t found peace (and she honestly wouldn’t know what to do with it) but she is connected again.

I think this is one of Cherryh’s best novels—it’s complete, it connects to its universe, it’s unputdownable and it’s a terrific character study. One of the reasons I can always read it is that I am always absorbed into it, and when I come out of it my own problems seem trivial.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently 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 ›
Tony Zbaraschuk
1. tonyz
And it's tense all the way through; you can never know what's going to happen next (well, unless you're re-reading, and even then the tension is frighteningly high, more so than most of Cherryh's novels).
2. zabieru
Rimrunners is one of my favorites as well, thanks for writing this up!

For me, the bit that connects most strongly if you've read other books (specifically Downbelow Station) is that Bet is ex-Africa. She wasn't just any Mazianni marine (though that's bad enough), she came off the Big Bad, served under the executioner, and seems to miss it. So beyond all the tensions Bet has with her world, there's this little extra tension the reader has with Bet: she seems decent, and certainly Cherryh is capable of putting a decent person in that situation, but we can't be completely sure whether she killed those men because they were awful and she had to, or because it was convenient and they were in the way.
Carrie Vaughn
3. Carrie_Vaughn
I also love Cherryh's Merchanter/Alliance universe. I know I read Finity's End first, but can't remember what order I read the others since I pretty much read them all within just a few months.

I found Rimrunners really difficult -- not because it wasn't well-written, it was just *difficult.* The other books all seem to operate with a shred of hope, where the characters can at least see some place better, and see where they're going. But not here. It's the only one I haven't reread.
4. boquaz
I totally get the "difficult" comment. Rimrunners is a great book, and following a nobody Maziani marine around like this is a great idea. It's just that Bet is really struggling simply to survive. It is a bit stressful when the protagonast's great accomplishment is simply finding food. Not only does Bet doubt she'll ever actually be happy again, but she begins to wonder if she ever was... and you really buy into that as a reader. Bet is in a bad place. That's difficult.
Jessica Reisman
5. jwynne
It's a comfort read for me, after many reads, for precisely this reason you mention:

It’s the story of someone who belongs nowhere finding a place to fit in...

Plus, of course, it's an exciting, intimate story with a touch, flawed woman as the protagonist, set in a grand, and as you say, very real world of spaceships, space stations, and cosmic scale.
Bob Blough
6. Bob
I love Cherryh's Merchanter/Alliance universe, but I find all of them to be difficult reads. Not bad - but I have to prepare myself for Cherry's intense, character driven stories before I can plunge into another one. (It's much the way I feel about Gene Wolfe - I have to be "in the zone" to get the most out of writer's like this.) That is probably why I haven't re-read too many of them. My favorite is still Forty Thousand in Gehenna but this one is great, as well.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Jwynne: I'm glad I'm not the only one.

Bet is a survivor.
Steve Taylor
8. teapot7
So glad to see this one - Rimrunners is prety much my favourite Cherryh book, and Bett Yeager certainly my favourite character.

I'm sucker for the downbeat grumpy style of heroism - never do something dangerous or difficult unless you've run out of options, but if so...
Matthew Brown
9. morven
@zabieru: and isn't that part of the point? Most of the world's atrocities have been committed by fundamentally decent human beings, certainly at the grunt level. Ideology, desperation, and the process of becoming steadily more numb to horror — that's all you need.

The history books in Cherryh's future will equate the Mazianni, and Africa in particular, with the Waffen-SS and other such. Especially the histories written by the Alliance, whose citizens were caught in the middle between Earth and Union, whose homes were the battleground between those mighty forces. Whose population first saw the Mazianni as their defenders, their saviors, and saw that ideal ground down by the long defeat until all they were, by the end, were the Mazianni's victims, their source of live bodies and stores, and expendable.

Bet's story should be familiar, because it's an old one.

Rimrunners is, for me, the best of Cherryh's space books. Cyteen is better, by a hair, and mostly in that its scope and ambitions are much greater, but that's a book about people who live on planets and ride subways and aircraft and get dirt on their shoes. It's how tight, self-contained, and frightfully claustrophobia-inducing Rimrunners is that gets to me.
Steve Taylor
10. teapot7
Morven writes:

> The history books in Cherryh's future will equate the Mazianni, and Africa in particular, with the Waffen-SS and other such.

One of the thing I like about Bujold's Vorkosigan books is my slow realisation that Barrayarans, as seen from the outside, are not necessarily the nicest neighbours.

> It's how tight, self-contained, and frightfully claustrophobia-inducing Rimrunners is that gets to me.

And cultureless too. An impressive but horrible creation.
11. Kinksville
I just finished re-reading a streak of Merchanter Alliance books starting with Rimrunners and most recently reading (maybe re-reading?) 40,000 in Gehenna.

Rimrunners was, (I think) my 2nd book in the Merchanter Alliance Universe. I like it because it shifts your view point.

You have Hellburner and Heavytime (the 1st chronologically) with the ramping up of the Fleet and Mazian's first moves to consolidate power in the Fleet. You meet Porey for the first time and realize how utter devoid of morality he is.

Then you have a book like Merchanter's Luck where the principal characters are merchanters yes...but from the Union side of the line. To them Mallory and Norway are the big bad wolf, they don't have any trust for them.

They would have even less trust for Bet, a skut from the bowels of Africa, who opted onto Africa because she was going to get taken anyway and she might as well make the best of a bad deal. Africa is the very devil for merchanters, even worse than Europe probably.

Bet is a survivor. Always. From coming onto Africa at 16 (with the implied initiation including rape, possibly gang rape) to building her own place within Africa, to the hardscrabble year plus on the station, she does what she has to do. Makes the best of the bad deal.

So Bet gives you a little view into what Fleet was like during the war, what it meant to be part of the carrier's marine complement, just like Hellburner gives you a glimpse into the specialized crews of the rider ships.

I love that change in view point, that complements Tripoint's transformation for Thomas Hawkins-Bowe on the Corinthian, into what the crew on Loki would call a Mazianni.

There's the sides in the War, and there's the politics of Earth, Union, and the merchanters, and then there's the nitty gritty, day to day survival on these little ships out there skipping from station to station.

And you get sucked down into the viewpoint of the character that Cherryh is working with, even if it conflicts with those of previous characters. Thats part of why I like it.

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