Cherryh’s Merchanter Novels

Merchanter’s Luck
Rimrunners
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.

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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 an 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.

Interlude

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.