C. J. Cherryh Reread

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.


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