Cherryh’s Merchanter Novels

Merchanter’s Luck
CJ Cherryh

I appear to be reaching the mid-point of the Alliance-Union series, if there is such a thing. Most of the books are standalone, and she wrote them all out of order anyway, but I persist in trying to read them in chronological order. Some day I would like to know just how much of this remarkably comprehensive future history Cherryh planned out and how much she’s made up along the way, as entire novels spring out of throwaway lines in mostly unrelated books. The stories are constantly referencing events in each other, much the way real history does, but not in a way that demands strict sequencing. I suppose it all demands a reread, since there’s no way I’m getting all the little things the first time through.

Today’s subjects are both part of the Merchanter era, after events around Pell more or less settle the Company Wars. (Pell and environs are covered in the Hugo winning Downbelow Station, a very impressive book that people have been known to bounce off of.) Everyone is still feeling out the new peace, with Earth and the Alliance uncertain how to handle the Cyteen-led Union. Earth’s former fleet has turned pirate and remains a scourge of the fringes. Merchanter’s Luck takes a closer look at the merchant family ships on the Union side that are coming to dominate interstellar commerce, while Rimrunners examines the Alliance attempts to bring the pirates under control and slowly phase out a region of now obsolete space stations that have been bypassed by new interstellar trade routes. Both use a massive stage to tell smaller, more personal stories. In an odd juxtaposition, books like Cyteen and Downbelow Station seem to use smaller stages for bigger narratives, while the Merchanter books set more intimate plots against a vaster canvas.

Both of these are pretty typical Cherryh: messed up people, tightly wound plots, claustrophobic viewpoints, and a (comparatively) low tech universe. Either would be a good starting point for prospective Cherryh readers, since they both give a pretty good idea of what she’s about without the intimidation of a heftier book or series. Merchanter’s Luck is as breezy as she gets; the girl meets boy, scrabbling underdog story is straightforward and happy. Well, as happy as Alliance-Union ever is. I have seen Rimrunners described as possibly Cherryh’s best book, with all her powers of characterization in full flower. I wonder a bit if they might seem slight to those not already steeped in Alliance-Union lore, but one has to start somewhere.

At the same time, part of me wished for grander vistas. The sweep of history is visible in the background, but these are essentially small stories. Empires are rising, the course of humanity is flowing into new channels, and we are watching some nutjob kid drive his rickety freighter around a bad stellar neighborhood. On the other hand, these are intricately wrought miniatures. One could go on at length about Everyman and life away from the elites, the spotlights shown on the blue collar parts of a science fictional world, or the brilliant characterization. I won’t, but will admit to finding myself caught up in these books far more deeply than one would expect from a plot summary. Cherryh draws in readers with visceral storytelling, readers who only later realize that they just sweat their way through a routine maintenance shift or uneventful docking rather than a desperate battle. (I’m looking at you, Hellburner, basically just Top Gun if Tom Cruise had Asperger’s.)

A final bit about the vibe of Alliance-Union. These books all feel quintessentially 1980s to me. Things in space are cramped, cold, and rickety. The universe was clearly conceived before the computer revolution of the 1990s, but just as clearly in reaction to the gleaming futures of Star Trek and the Golden Age. There is no AI, computers are clunky, networks are primitive, and spaceflight seems just a step removed from B-52 bombers. It is a very analog existence. Beyond that, it’s clear that the interstellar economy is ratty at best. Other books give a view of more prosperous areas, but large swaths of human spaces look like nothing more than the Rust Belt moved out of orbit. When people call James S.A. Corey “throwback,” this is the sort of SF they are referring to. No nanotech, no Singularity, no post-humans, just the unforgiving, cold vacuum.

Pithy summations of the books escape me. Cherryh fans know what they are getting and have probably read these already. New readers can start with these and probably be alright, though I would recommend Heavy Time first. That isn’t too strong a recommendation though, since nothing in any of the books specifically demands prior knowledge. Certainly they are fine examples of how Alliance-Union works and won’t require serious time investments. My own feelings on Cherryh are well documented here; I will of course continue to read a couple of her books each year.

SF Desert Nomads

SF Desert Nomads

Each week, the excellent Fantasy Review Barn presents a bit from The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. These are always informative, but skew towards (obviously) the fantasy end of SFF. Once in awhile, I see one too tempting to pass up and have to write a science fiction version of it. My first concept, Dark Ladies Who Run Hidden Schools of Magic and the Savage Northern Elvish Henchmen Who Love Them, proved to be a bit much, but this week’s list of Desert Nomads practically demands and SF answer. (For maximum enjoyment, read Nathan’s post and background explanation first. We’ll wait here while you do.) My mind is blanking on a couple of things,in particular the details of certain Jack Vance books, but here is an assortment of desert related SF.

Star Wars – Any resident of Tatooine. We all know that the Sand People walk single file, that Mos Eisley is a hive of scum and villainy, and Jedi mind tricks don’t work on whatever it is owns Anakin. I guess the Sand People and Jawas are the only nomads, but one might make a case for anyone on that forlorn rock as it wanders through the universe.

The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi – The jinn and wildcode of the desert outside Sirr. Earth has been ravaged by centuries of runaway technology, leaving the deserts overrun with mutated code.

Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds – Skullboys, Carnivorgs, and other Outzone denizens. The Outzone might not be a desert in the sense of sand dunes and camels, but it’s close. It is also full of things like carnivorgs, which are awesome incarnate.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson – Terminator, the city on Mercury. Mercury has to be the Platonic form of desert, right? Hot, arid, lifeless, at the mercy of the sun, etc. The city itself is nomadic, migrating around the planet on rails that expand when hit by the sun and push the city onward.

Brass Man by Neal Asher – I could be wrong, but it seems like everyone ends up fighting each other on a vaguely desert planet, populated by horrifying wildlife. If this is not the case, nobody say anything.

Dune by Frank Herbert – Hard to make this list without Fremen.

Faded Sun by CJ Cherryh – (Late edit) How did I forget the Mri on my first run through? I even left them in a comment somewhere else. Argh. Not only are the Mri desert warriors, they have superhuman reflexes and bond with animals that I vaguely remember as looking like small triceratops. They are possibly the ultimate in desert nomads.

Anyone else think of some? I feel like I’m missing some obvious ones here.


Between writing something up for another site, working on a top secret post for SF Month, and collaborating with a good friend on a hilarious and philosophical project to be named later, I am out of time to make a post for this week. Instead, I’ll just share a quick look at stuff I’ve been reading and stuff I will be reading. It’ a pretty exciting list.

The last three books I finished are:

Robert Bennett – City of Stairs (Awesome in almost every way. Look for a big time post on this soon.)
Hannu Rajaniemi – The Causal Angel (The final book of a mind bending Hard SF trilogy. I’ve already got 1100+ words on paper about it.)
CJ Cherryh – Rimrunners (The token old book, but one of Cherryh’s best. Thinking of a review for this next week.)

I am currently reading:

Stephanie Saulter – Gemsigns (More heavy stuff. Definitely not light reading here.)

On hold at various libraries:

William Gibson – The Peripheral
Ann Leckie – Ancillary Sword
Greg Bear – War Dogs
Liu Cixin – The Three Body Problem

This plus a couple of good-looking ARCs from Tor; the balance of my reading year is a very exciting place to be. I mean, look at that list of new releases! This rivals 2012 for big names. Stay tuned for good stuff on Two Dudes in coming weeks.

Red Planet Blues

Red Planet Blues
Robert Sawyer

With my TBR piles, an increasing number of ARCs, projects and events, and attempts to stay current, I only rarely pick up a book at random any more. Something sneaks through once in awhile though, and this time it was Robert Sawyer. I’m not sure why I chose Sawyer, of all authors, since my only previous experience with him was passable at best. (I think it was Mindscan, but don’t remember for certain. I found it essentially plotless, though an interesting thought experiment.) Still, Red Planet Blues called to me from the featured paperback selections at the library and sucked me in with its promise of noir (a non-SF favorite) and Mars (an everything favorite).

The situation on Mars will be familiar to any Raymond Chandler fan. Our guide to the planet is a seedy detective who makes constant wisecracks at the expense of a police force that gamely tolerates his presence. He takes us through the usual societal underbelly, eschewing the boring middle class. There are many gorgeous dames and a single fedora. The plot is utterly convoluted and the number of twists may exceed the number of dames. Everything was complicated enough that I couldn’t easily spot the villains, which was nice. I would quibble that, despite the familiar plot beats, the story lacked some of the gray edginess that initially defined noir. The main character in particular is too nice for my tastes – he plays at having moral failings and a dark past, but mostly is just a nice dude who investigates mysteries. A bit more darkness would have given Blues more weight.

Oddly though, the setting bears little resemblance to traditional noir. Instead of the usual urban landscape, especially the distinctive SoCal vibe of Los Angeles, Blues borrows more from Westerns. New Klondike, the scene of various crimes, is a faded boom town on the Mars frontier that bears more resemblance to Colorado or the Yukon that any typical detective haunt. The seams between SF, noir, and Western aren’t jarring or uncomfortable, just unexpected. It’s harder to disguise Mars though, when various plot points surround androids, uploaded consciousness, and people sucking hard vacuum. I will say, and this is a reference that Sawyer is probably unaware of, that I am most reminded of an early episode of Galaxy Express 999, a late seventies anime, wherein the characters spend 20 minutes plus commercial breaks in a Wild West-inspired Mars.

This was a fun read and a nice break from the heavier stuff I’ve been tackling lately. It’s not one for the ages, but Red Planet Blues is just complicated and just original enough to repay the small investment I made reading it. (“Original” might not be the best word, but is easier to type than “amusing jumble of tropes.”) I will give it this much: Sawyer has inspired my first soccer-related rating in several months. That deserves at least a fist bump.

Rating: Fulham, circa 2004. Or any year, really. Good enough to stay in the top rank, but never enough to overshadow the titans of English football, Fulham is about where Sawyer’s book lands.

The Blade Itself

The Blade Itself
Joe Abercrombie

At the world premier of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Parisians famously rioted in response to the dissonant music and avant garde ballet. Listening now with ears that know what the 20th Century holds in store for music, it’s difficult to imagine what might have shocked the concert goers. A determined act of imagination is required to push back through time and put oneself in the place of music fans used to Chopin or Rachmaninoff to see what all the mayhem was really about. No easy feat, that. Likewise, without a little time travel back to the mid-2000s, the opener of Abercrombie’s debut series doesn’t seem like the sort of thing to set off a firestorm. A good book to be sure, but I would not have imagined it to be a genre changer.

To research this post, I started reading up on the history of grimdark, soon disappearing down a rabbit hole of passionate defense and angry diatribe. As I understand things, George RR Martin is the father of grimdark, but it was Abercrombie who really pushed it into the fantasy mainstream. Now, the genre is trapped in an escalating battle of grimness and darkness, with each new publication grittier and more hopeless than the last. It is, apparently, the death of a genre, if not most of Western culture. When we are all scrabbling savages, living in dirty hovels and stewing our mothers to fend off starvation, Abercrombie and his crew of morally compromised characters will be to blame.

Going back to music, it’s very hard to get offended by Stravinsky when I spent high school listening to hilarity like this. Likewise, I enjoyed The Blade Itself, but if someone told me I should be shocked at its depravity, I wouldn’t know how to answer. It didn’t strike me as all that cutting edge. To be very clear, this is not because I have leveled up my grimdark and can out-grit a master like Abercrombie. In fact, I do poorly at the sight of blood, dislike killing bugs, and don’t swear. That’s how gritty I am. I also don’t read enough fantasy to speak authoritatively on the subject, so it’s not that I’ve grown coarse and moved on to even harsher books. We are forced to turn the clock back a bit to interrogate my feelings of being merely whelmed by the rampant darkness (though impressed by the quality).

Others more versed in fantasy will have to chime in here, but I’m very curious why it’s taken until the mid-2000s for this to become A Thing. A confession: I bounced off Game of Thrones several years ago and never tried Martin again, but I guess the death of a particular character is the most paradigm shifting event in fantasy since Tolkien. At least, that’s what several columns would have me believe. And yet, the whole dark and grim thing doesn’t seem to have exploded until the riotous bloodshed and cynicism of The First Law Trilogy did well. Glen Cook has been plenty dark for almost thirty years now, but nobody seems to have noticed. Likewise, Elric, Malazan, Thomas Covenent, and many others have come and gone without defining a sub-genre. It’s only now that epic whingefests about how Abercrombie & Co. are soiling – SOILING! – beloved fantasy tropes are popping up to amuse us with their butthurtedness. Why now?

I’m even more baffled when looking at other genres. SF came to terms with this back in the 1970s, with Hammer’s Slammers and other Vietnam-influenced books. Westerns had their own period of gritty revisionism that probably reached its peak with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Nobody batted an eye at James Elroy’s hallucinogenic noir. I even remember being angry at the hopelessness and lite-nihilism of Steinbeck’s The Pearl when forced to read it in 4th or 5th grade, having heated conversations with my friends that sounded an awful like grimdark’s detractors do now. So why is fantasy up in arms now? Were things really that innocent and heroic for lo these many years?

I’m trying to figure out why exactly Blade generated the heat that it did. Running through the grimdark playbook, is it because of frequent use of an f-word that is not “forsooth?” I thought that the internet and premium cable networks had put an end to that sort of worry. Is it the violence? Abercrombie spills plenty of blood and guts here, but that hardly seems unique to grimdark. In fact, one of the most gleefully and gratuitously violent fantasy novels I can remember is the first Elminster book, from the ever subversive Forgotten Realms tie-in universe. Is it the cynicism? First, I’m not sure how anyone can be aware of current events and not be cynical. Second, did nobody read Glen Cook all these years? Utopian he is not, but nobody attacks The Black Company. (As well they shouldn’t.) Is it the lack of a white-skinned farm boy of destiny, clad in shimmering, prophetic light as he smites the unredeemably wicked and restores some past age of glory? I, er, well, there isn’t much of that in Abercrombie. On the other hand, isn’t that the sort of thing we left behind in, oh, maybe 9th grade? I realize that many of us read to escape the grubbier parts of our own existence, but morally shallow, Disney-esque narratives not only ruin my suspension of disbelief, but insult my sense of reality. Maybe I’m weird.

I couldn’t write grimdark, I’ll be the first to admit, but I enjoy the respect it shows for my intelligence and grasp of the real world. (Or at least good grimdark. Grit won’t save crap.) I am not yet on the Abercrombie-as-fantasy-author-diety bandwagon, but I will finish The First Law. I’m even looking forward to it.

Is SF the Hardest Genre to Write?

Is SF the Hardest Genre to Write?

Periodically, as I am out playing music, people ask what the hardest instrument is. “Oh, well, it’s all about the same,” is my usual answer. I say this partly because it’s true; past a certain level of competence, it’s all hard. There is a touch of defensive apology involved however, as those in the know widely agree that the sax, my chosen horn, is one of the easiest to figure out. (Among the hardest are violin, piano, and organ.) I wonder if writing is similar. Writing novels is hard; I understand this well. That said, are certain kinds of novels more difficult to write than others? Science fiction seems like it might be starting from a disadvantage. My claim is bolstered a bit by a Skiffy and Fanty podcast that features Two Dudes favorite Kim Stanley Robinson. He brings up a few points to consider and gives hints why SF might just be the hardest genre to write.

Let’s start with genre differences. Speaking in broad generalizations, and knowing that exceptions and blurred lines exist, I would offer the following as the central point of a genre. At the core, science fiction focuses on extrapolation above all else, spinning out an entire universe based on a small number of “What If?” questions. Fantasy largely depends on imagined geography, with maps, empires, and journeys frequently overshadowing what are often stock plots and characters. For most of the remaining genres, verisimilitude is the order of the day. Stories are set in one or another real, researchable place. (Magical realism bridges the gap somewhat, but my experience suggests that the realism generally eclipses the magic.)

If I want to write a mainstream story, I get to select some pre-existing location and bang away at the keyboard. Choosing something other than suburban America probably requires a glance at a few books, or maybe even a trip, but it’s all there for the taking. Fantasy is a bit more of a stretch, requiring me to create my world, the political divisions and cultures, a few select special locations, and probably some grab bag of real world cultures scrambled around to spice things up. For science fiction though, I need to peek into the future a bit, speculate as to how one or another development will alter said future, create the whole future society, churn out something between one and one thousand worlds, sort out whatever tech is being used, deal with questions of The Singularity/FTL/post-humanism/Earth’s environment/empire and colonialism/etc., and, if I’m feeling really nutty, do it all again with aliens who are probably nothing like us humans. Egad. I realize I’m being flippant about the writing process, but just looking at this list makes my brain hurt.

Digging deeper into this verisimilitude thing, what about issues of realism in writing? Non-SFF is, obviously, tied to the Real. It’s not too difficult to stay in these boundaries, since Real is pretty much agreed upon by everyone. There are boundaries in fantasy of course, a complete lack results simply in chaos, but we’re pretty forgiving. There is a trend towards well thought out magic systems, rational economies, and so on, but there are also wizards, lizardmen, demons, and the like. As long as things are internally consistent and more or less explainable, imagination is the limit. Science fiction, though, is a rather more picky animal. We’re not all dour, Mundane SF apparatchiks, but certain formalities must be followed. Crap can’t just happen, there has to be a reason; we demand our fig leaves! Even Star Wars tries to explain itself now. Hard SF is naturally the main offender here, but almost all SF stripped of its rationality is a strange beast.

As an example, I offer up dwarves. Dwarves in mainstream fiction are not a race, they are people who have a genetic reason for being very small. Dwarves in fantasy are, naturally, bearded mountain dwellers who wield axes and forge things. We care little why dwarves are like this, or what it means about them and their world, they simply are. They probably serve some purpose in the plot, but their existence lies mostly unexamined. In SF though, small bearded men (and women) would have a history, a reason or purpose for being that way, an environment that created and encouraged those traits, and probably their own way of traveling faster than light and/or some puzzle for little, bearded engineers to solve. At each step, the demands escalate.

The real killer, though, isn’t the science or world building. After all, that’s what attracts both readers and authors to SF in the first place. What puts SF over the top is our demands as contemporary readers. Long gone are the days when clunky dialogue, cardboard characters, questionable race and gender presentations, and stock plots are acceptable. We want more! There are still books out there about competent white men solving engineering problems, but they are generally scorned as relics of a faded era. Literary sensibilities have subtly invaded the genre and undermined many tenets of the past. I am just as guilty of the next reader, of course, seeking out books with engaging characters and a modern awareness in addition to exploding spaceships. I read Hard SF from the past and give it a pass as a product of its time, but expect more of people writing now. The sense of wonder remains a formal necessity, but it must now be accompanied by most of what we regularly lionize in mainstream literature.

I think we are in a golden age of science fiction, with the synergy between literary values and SF tradition producing an unending stream of future classics. This is fabulous as a reader, but must be death as a writer. Considering the requirements for scientific and futuristic literacy, world building creativity and rationality, and literary qualities of craft, character, and theme, I’m amazed that so many authors clear the bar. As a passable scribbler of non-fiction and overall dunce with fiction, I give today’s SF authors my highest regard.

Series Continuations

Series Continuations

Offered as a counterpoint to last week’s post, I will now congratulate myself for striding boldly through a few of my to-complete series. Not as many as I would like, but I am slowly checking off a small selection of reading goals.

Starship (Mike Resnick) – All five volumes of this one done! It was alright. I think the series peaks in book two or three; after that, both the author and the main character realize that they have painted themselves into corners and things go downhill a bit. There are hilarious moments, a few bits of worthwhile SF insight, and some good characters. The narration is breezy and fun, though very rarely does anything actually challenge the hero. It would be nice if there was some way to take all of the good parts of this series and pair them with a story that isn’t outlandish, since the continuing pointlessness of the hero’s quest cuts this one off at the knees. These should probably be read after an extended period of grimdark, in case an antidote is needed.

The Third Lynx (Timothy Zahn) – Volume Two of the Quadrail books picks up right after the first ends. I like the world that Zahn creates, with the FTL train system and cool aliens. Lynx is very much a middle book though. With the Bad Guy revealed, the mystery loses some of its fun, and the absence of pace found in a final book means that this one somewhat lukewarm. Most of the plot beats are crime fic staples – “Yer off the case, Compton!” – leaving things almost wholly reliant on the setting for any sort of variety. I’ll keep reading for now and hope Zahn puts enough surprises in later books to keep me engaged.

Deepsix, Chindi (Jack McDevitt) – McDevitt is the Honda Accord of science fiction – sturdy, reliable, and never getting the attention of flashier models. I’m now three books into the Academy series, one of his two essential sequences. (The other is Alex Benedict.) Neither of these books really carries on the main arc from the first book, instead spending time with the central character and exploring McDevitt’s universe. I preferred Chindi, with the galactic gallivanting and escalating sense of wonder, but both books are typically solid McDevitt. I suppose he’s technically Hard SF, though there is a sympathetic, human core in each of his novels that make them warmer than much of the usual “white engineers solving problems” stereotype. I will say that I’m looking forward to book four, when the galactic menace from Engines of God returns.

The Neutronium Alchemist (Peter Hamilton) – One might wonder how much over the top Hamilton can get with this series. After all, the first book involved marauding Satanists, the dead coming back to possess living bodies, galactic empires on the brink, mass murderers, and gargantuan, sentient habitats. I expected the author to hold the line, but not to escalate. Then Al Capone returned with a fireball-shooting tommy gun. Don’t get me wrong, The Night’s Dawn trilogy is rampant fun. It’s not at all what I expected, completely subverts the invading alien menace trope, and kicks out a steady stream of memorable scenes and characters. It also out-pulps the pulps, just barely staying on this side of absurdity. Hamilton is also one of the few authors I know that says, “Here we are on page 2000 of a series; it’s time to add some new plot lines!” Utterly fearless, and he’s never met a background detail he didn’t like. I’ll have to wrap this up sooner rather than later, since there’s no way to keep everything straight in my brain with a long layoff.