Thursday, 13 August 2009

A Literary Crush: C. J. Cherryh and the Other

Okay, let me first off start by saying this; I have a literary crush on C. J. Cherryh. Well, actually, I honestly think it's moved beyond the stage of a crush and into some serious, long term loving. And a healthy case of it indeed.

Cherryh's books caught my eye ages ago, though it took me a while longer to reach the point where I bought myself one of them and then a little longer still until I took that book off the shelf and read it (at least I assume the latter, since there is normally a bit of shelf time between my getting a book and reading it). At any rate, the first book I read was Foreigner (the first in Cherryh's series of the same name), and it was in the spring of 2004. I remember this as the book travelled with me to the Netherlands, where I participated at a conference on Identities and Alterities (fittingly enough).

Now, I wouldn't say that I immediately fell in love with Foreigner. The book is divided into three "books," where the first two (which takes up less than the first 100 pages of the novel) merely provide an historical background to the rest of the novel (and in fact the whole series). Those first two, short story-esque "books," however, didn't really grab me. Don't get me wrong. It wasn't bad. It just wasn't something that grabbed me that strongly. Then the third "book" opened and I was hooked. As soon as Cherryh focalised her story through paidhi Bren Cameron, lone human representative and simplistically put translator among the atevi (the indigenous species on a planet where lost space travelling humans have been stranded), she had me.

Everything after that point, the internal politics of the atevi world, the politics of the human colony and the paidhi's continual struggle to understand the situation he is in and mediate the cultural divide, is pure narrative gravy. But certainly not without some proper sustenance. Cherryh is absolutely amazing at depicting intercultural and interspecies meetings, or perhaps more theoretically put, the encounter with the Other.

In the Foreigner series (of which I just recently finished reading the seventh book, Destroyer (see review), and am currently halfway through the eighth, Pretender), one of the main points throughout is that humans and atevi are differently hard-wired, genetically speaking. Atevi do not have human emotions, nor can humans ever feel man'chi, which governs not only atevi (emotionally speaking) but more or less all species of the atevi world in some fashion. Despite this, however, humans are extremely good at being anthropocentric and, Cherryh argues through her fiction, tend to ascribe human emotional content to situations as they see them. Something which in the Foreigner universe has been the very cause for developing the paidhi's office in the first place and for the humans having an island community isolated from mainland atevi society.

Now, the Foreigner series (and I would like to stress that it is a series and not a serial) just had its tenth instalment, Conspirator, released earlier this year. This is the first book in the fourth trilogy of the series (though even these trilogies are more strictly series than serial in nature), the previous three sets being, first, Foreigner, Invader and Inheritor; secondly, Precursor, Defender and Explorer; thirdly, Destroyer, Pretender and Deliverer. Currently reading Pretender (as stated above), I can honestly say that Cherryh hasn't lost a beat in the development of this universe and the characters with which she's inhabited it.

Still, one obvious question would be, how is Cherryh's writing outside of this particular series? Is the style, good as it is, something which is repeated throughout? Well, looking at the back covers of her other books (many of which sits on my shelf waiting to be read, I'll admit), a certain focus upon intercultural meetings and encounters with the Other seems to be a running thread through her authorship to be sure. Now, this would be enough to at least give pause for caution, but having also read her novel The Pride of Chanur (the first novel of five in her Chanur series, and the first one in The Chanur Saga omnibus collecting the first three), I would like to take some edge out of that argument. The theme is clearly at the focus here as well, but it is treated in a very different manner. First of all, by focalising this novel through the catlike hani (specifically captain Pyanfar Chanur and her crew on the spaceship The Pride of Chanur), Cherryh to some degree (at the very least) bypasses certain amounts of anthropocentrism. When the ship picks up an unwanted stowaway (who turn out to be a human named Tully, hopelessly lost in this sector of space), this sets off enormous political conflicts on interspecies levels, as a previously unknown species hints at a new, unclaimed market for the various species of Compact Space. This set up radically differs from anything I've read so far in the Foreigner series, yet still allows Cherryh to play to her strengths, i.e. political intrigue and the question of otherness.

Perhaps needless to say, I cannot recommend Cherryh enough. And I'm sure there will be plenty of opportunity to revisit her authorship in future posts, what with the remaining Foreigner and Chanur books sitting on my shelves, not to mention The Faded Sun Trilogy or Hammerfall and Forge of Heaven (both in her Gene Wars series), Downbelow Station (which won the Hugo in 1982) or The Collected Short Fiction of C. J. Cherryh.

And that's just what's on my shelves as we speak. For a man in love that hardly constitutes an absolute limit, right?

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