Feb 16 2011 6:36pm

Who is alien? C.J. Cherryh’s Cuckoo’s Egg

Cuckoo’s Egg by C.J. CherryhCuckoo’s Egg (1985) is in many ways the quintessential Cherryh novel. There are terrific aliens and an alien society. There’s one human. It starts off slowly and gets faster and faster. And nobody tells you what’s going on until the very end, when you find out at whiplash speed. Cuckoo’s Egg starts off with Duun, whose race is shonun and whose rank is hatani. Duun is given what is clearly a human baby, amid alien complications. We don’t know why, or what’s going on. For the rest of the book the viewpoint alternates between Duun and his fosterling, Haras Thorn, as he grows up entirely baffled about who and what he is.

It’s a good book because the alien society is interesting and well done, and so is the part about growing up surrounded by aliens and wanting to belong and knowing you never really can. Cherryh is excellent at aliens, as always. If you don’t like it, it will be because you don’t enjoy being bewildered. I like it a lot more re-reading it, than I did the first time.

Duun gives Thorn a childhood as best he can contrive—his own childhood, in the countryside. He teaches him to be hatani, and we slowly learn what it means to be hatani, not just to fight but also to judge. I think Cherryh was somewhat influenced in making this society by reading about medieval Asia—the ghota are ninja-like, and there’s something of that feel to the castes, and the tiny details like raked sand on the floors and low tech bathing. The speeded up industrialisation in response to the initial human probe also has something about it of Meiji Japan. The shonun are themselves, but it’s interesting to see how she’s used Earth history to make them, especially in reference to the whole colonial thing considering the presence of more technologically advanced humans out there somewhere.

Thorn spends most of the book bewildered and trying to fit in. He wants there to be other people who look like him. somewhere in the world. He wants to be what Duun wants him to be—he loves Duun, who is all he has. Yet he knows hatani aren’t supposed to need anybody or anything, and Duun wants him to be hatani. He can never entirely trust Duun. It’s difficult for him. He’s between worlds—culturally hatani, physically human, and it gets more difficult when they start playing him tapes of humans and he starts to understand. And it’s difficult for Duun too, who sees wider complications than Thorn can.

This isn’t a favourite Cherryh for me—it’s on the cusp between the ones I like and the ones I find go too far into misery and incomprehensibility. There’s just enough safety here, just enough of a potential for things being all right that I can bear it—at least on re-reading. It also has a notably good cover—Michael Whelan is actually illustrating a scene from the book and getting everything right.

Bundling Cuckoo’s Egg with Serpent’s Reach (post) under the title “The Deep Beyond” seems to imply that this book takes place in the Alliance-Union universe. There’s no internal evidence one way or the other—there are tapes and a drug, and it may be deepstudy or it may not. (And if it is, then like in Serpent’s Reach (1979) or like in Cyteen (1988)?) There are humans who have FTL and that’s all we know, and we don’t even know that for sure. It may or may not take place on some undiscovered edge of the Alliance-Union universe, and at any time at all within that continuity, it honestly doesn’t matter. This is a stand alone book which could possibly have a sequel that would answer that question, though after twenty-five years it’s unlikely. For now, or unless Cherryh answers the question, I’m assuming this is set in our future but nothing else.

She has written books I like better, and books that are easier to read, but if you want one book that is pure essence of Cherryh, no explanations, no excuses, just aliens and difficult motivations, then this is it.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine 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
Algot Runeman
1. Algot Runeman
I am not sure which Cherryh books I've read, all of them long ago, but Cuckoo's Egg is the one I remember, and I remember liking it back when I read it. Alienness has never been written better, in my opinion, especially since the alien being is human.
j p
2. sps49
Well, see, Michael Whelan rocks. For a good stretch of time, over 90% of my book purchases had Del Rey on the spine and Whelan on the cover.

I don't remember the book, just that I did read it. I am sure it was over Jo's line for me, but maybe she is right about another read and I should go digging through the boxes.
Beth Mitcham
3. bethmitcham
This is one of my favorite Cherryh books; I like the way it addresses parenting.

I appreciate the comment that enjoying bewilderment is necessary to read Cherryh. I like to think of it as stumbling around in the dark, because she doesn't illuminate the room, only the flashlight direction her characters are pointing in.
Steven Halter
5. stevenhalter

This isn’t a favourite Cherryh for me—it’s on the cusp between the ones I like and the ones I find go too far into misery and incomprehensibility.

This is an intriguing statement to me. I read a number (4 or 5?) of C.J Cherry's books and didn't particularly like them. So, I decided to stop (20 or more years ago). It is quite possible that all of the ones I picked up were far into the "misery and incomprehensibility" category. Something about them certainly didn't agree with me. If you were to pick a single one of her books that is farthest from that category, what might that be?
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Shalter: The Paladin, which I reviewed here some time ago.
Wesley Parish
8. Aladdin_Sane
It sounds not too different from her Faded Sun Trilogy, which I've read more than once, about the human who winds up trying to be Mri ... she seems to have taken that theme to heart - it occurs in several other books of hers that I've read, though I can't at the moment think of any titles.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Aladdin_Sane: Yes, if Cherryh has one theme she explores more than any other it's treachery to species, people of one species who want to belong to another. This comes up in the Chanur books and the Atevi books as well.
Algot Runeman
10. Sam Dodsworth
"Treachery to species" is an odd way of putting it, to me. I'd say her most common theme was bridge-building between cultures - human or alien. Her protagonists are often stuck in the middle, but only a small subset want to belong to another culture. And when they do, they generally turn out to be wrong. (Like Thorn - whose importance is that he can never be shonun but can be a hatani.)
Algot Runeman
11. Dasein
I'm not sure that being able to enjoy bewilderment is a pre-requisite for enjoying Cherryh. Myself, I'm prepared to put with up with being bewildered (or not fully knowing WTF is going on) for quite a while so long as I'm engaged by the book, care about one or more of the major characters, want to find out what happens next, or have an expectation that the state of bewilderment won't last for much longer. Another possible way to maintain interest is to treat the situation as a puzzle to be solved (and not to let it 'beat' you!).

There are 'bewildering' Cherryh books where none of those conditions were true, and the books became a struggle, eg Hunter of Worlds (way too many alien words there too), Port Eternity, and Voyager in Night.

I loved Cuckoo's Egg first time, and every time since.
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
Sam: I put it that way because I first formulated it with the Chanur books, where it's literal.
Algot Runeman
13. Shakatany
"Cuckoo's Egg" is my favorite Cherryh novel. I would love a sequel one day detailing what happens after the other humans arrive but, in a way, the entire Foreigner series is a descendent of this work as Thorn could be considered to be an early version of the Paid'hi.
Yarrow Z
14. yarrow
Interesting! The two Cherryh books I keep re-reading are The Paladin and Cuckoo’s Egg. I'm not keen on misery and incomprehensibility either -- I think Cuckoo's Egg escapes misery, for me, because of Duun's love for Thorn, and escapes incomprehensibility because of Duun, again. He knows what's going on, and that in fact there is a something that's going on. He's not a fish who doesn't notice the water, impatient with the intruder human who doesn't understand the simplest things (which is what makes some of Cherryh's alien societies impenetrable for me): he's trying his best to make Thorn able to swim in those waters.

Serpent’s Reach is on the edge, for me, and most of the other Alliance-Union novels are on the too-miserable side, with the exception of the Chanur books.
Erick G
15. Erick G
I like the summary you gave of the story, enough to be interesting but not too much that you give the story completely away. However, I wish that you would explain more of the caste systems and the titles, just so those that haven't read it can look at it and know what you are talking about without being lost. You glossed over what shonun and hatani mean, and why being one was important for the development of the story. You hint at them throughout your post, but not enough to get a clear picture of the conflict that the characters are having, especially the one of a human child brought up in a different society. But overall, good post.

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