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.


4 thoughts on “Cherryh’s Merchanter Novels

  1. Hi hi, I just discovered you all from a link in one of File770’s Sad Puppies roundups.
    Cherryh is one of my favorite authors and I love reading other people’s takes on her. Having said that I’m wondering whether you could talk more about your reaction to Rimrunners, and Bet? This is a horribly/wonderfully violent book, and Bet is such an antithesis of the damsel in distress … and yet, she really is *in* distress as the book opens.
    Are you going to be writing up Heavy Time and Hellburner? Hellburner is by far my favorite Cherryh.

    • Sorry to be so late. I hope you have on notifications and see this.
      In answer to your first questions, I don’t have deep thoughts, but think this must be what inevitably happens when Cherryh tries to write a damsel in distress. Said damsel beats people up, lashes out at authority, and befriends people even more messed up than she is. I didn’t think about it at the time, but Bet stomps all over gender conventions. I suppose it was probably intentional, though Cherryh isn’t really loud and proud or anything with feminism. (Or at least I have never noticed her to be.)
      For the second, I read them so long ago, I don’t think I could adequately write about the first Alliance-Union books. Heavy Time is a favorite to be sure, and I remember thinking that Hellburner was Top Gun with more mental illness and cynicism.

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