Cuckoo’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.