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.