Most science fiction readers aren’t even aware of science fiction critics, although they may check out the reviews at Amazon.com. Those involved in science fiction fandom will follow reviews, interviews and other features in Locus. And scholars or would-be scholars of the genre will be familiar with such highly regarded critics as Darko Suvin and John Clute, whose mission is to cherry pick the genre and winnow the wheat from the chaff.
But I’m not here to talk about them, at least not today, as I mark my 70th birthday by getting The Seventy Year Itch going in earnest. I’m here today to talk about one of my favorite writers, C.J. Cherryh. By way of introduction, here’s a recent review posted by Jo Walton at Tor.com on Cherryh’s Forty Thousand in Gehenna (1983):
Walton is herself an sf and fantasy author to be reckoned with. Her Tooth and Claw (2003) is a hoot: a send-up of the Victorian sentimental novel set on a world populated by dragons. Farthing (2006) is a marvelous country house mystery, set in an alternate history where England made peace with the Nazis, and leads into a trilogy about the rise and eventual fall of a fascist regime in England itself. But in her reviews and commentaries, she reads science fiction and fantasy the way I do – as a kind of literature that can be enjoyed as literature.
Critics tend to see a great divide between “serious” and “popular” fiction, between heavyweight and seemingly lightweight sf. When they think of literary sf, they tend to think of writers from outside the genre like Aldous Huxley, or anoint a select few from within the genre like Ursula K. Le Guin. But you can tell that Walton takes Cherryh seriously, and regards her work as having literary value. I agree, and without giving away any more essentials than she does about the plot and characters of Forty Thousand in Gehenna, her review dovetails with what I’d written for Odd Genre (1994), in a chapter about the generational saga in sf:
Forty Thousand in Gehenna, part of Cherryh’s Alliance-Union future history, also takes on elements of the science fictional robinsonade because the forty thousand of the title are castaways on an alien planet. But they are not the usual sort of castaways; virtually all are azis, products of the Brave New World-like birth labs of Union. Azis serve Union as loyal soldiers and workers; their loyalty is built into their psych-sets even as their capabilities are built into their genesets. Now a new task has been set for them, and none of them know any more about its true purpose than Jin 458-9998:
They had taken him into the white building on the farm and given him deepteach that told him the farm was no longer important, that he would be given a new and great purpose when he got where he was going, and that there would be other tapes to tell him so, very soon.
But if Jin is a slave, he and his kind are about to discover a strange sort of freedom on their own brave new world because Gehenna is a colony intended to fail, planted within Alliance space as part of a campaign to create problems for Union’s rival. The promised resupply ships will never come, and the azi, pawns in a cynical power game, are left to become masters of their own fates.
Although he has never been deeptaught anything about sex or reproduction, Jin looks forward to both; he even has his eye on Pia 89-687: “He and Pia would make born men together and the tape said this would be as good as the reward tapes, a reward anytime they liked as long as they were off duty.” And so it happens, but there are things for which the tapes have not prepared them: the abandonment of the colony, as well as the discovery of the ariels and calibans, which are a bit like dragons, but not like those legend or such mythologically based sf as Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. The ariels and calibans build mounds, and they may be intelligent, but little is known about them. Union’s research was so cursory it didn’t even get the number of species/varieties right. Jin and Pia carry out their deeptaught roles, as do the other azis – building homes and planting crops and having children – it is all they know how to do. But Gehenna does not conform to their programming; the calibans wreak havoc by tunneling under the settlement, and citizens as well as azis are killed (a new experience to Jin and his kind). There are no more tapes, and the other comforts of civilization are gradually lost as machines break down and supplies run out. As for the children, who are born men, they never have known and never will know tape; their makeup is a scrambling of the gene-sets of their parents.
The discomfort of parents over the rebelliousness of their children is an old and familiar one in family sagas; however, in Forty Thousand in Gehenna, it takes on a whole new dimension. In the third year of the colony, Jin finds his son, barely a year old, playing – or is it communicating? – with an ariel: “little Jin sat in the dirt taking leftover bits of stone and piling them. An ariel assisted, added pebbles to the lot.” A few years later, Little Jin ignores his father’s entreaties to return home; the elder Jin feels helpless for the first time. And this is only the beginning; a whole new generation is adapting to Gehenna in ways unfathomable to the parent generation. The children and grandchildren of Jin and Pia, who abandon the settlement to live and farm in the wild, are deaf and uncomprehending as the elder Jin tries to recall them to their “duty:”
“We have to keep this place,” Jin said, all the same. “They gave us orders.”
“The orders are there.”
“Why should we listen to dead people?”
“They were born men; they planned all this.”
“So are we,” said his eldest grandson.
But at least Jin 3 will talk to his grandfather; Green, last of the sons of Jin and Pia, has long since disappeared into the warrens of the calibans. He and those like him go native completely, learning the language of the dragons and ceasing to communicate in human terms at all.
In the generations that follow, other descendants of Jin and Pia enter into symbiotic relationships with the dragons. The calibans begin to raise towers instead of the traditional serpentine mounds, and humans dwell in these towers with the ariels, calibans and grays (the type unrecognized by Union). Fields are interspersed among clusters of towers to provide food for the human inhabitants, who also do some fishing. Yet they are still flesh of their ancestors’ flesh, and remote descendants of Jin and Pia rule rival tower clusters on the Styx and Cloud rivers. But does “rule” mean what it would in a purely human society? Elai, ruler of the First Tower (and apparently recognized as paramount ruler of the other towers on the Cloud), owes her status at least as much to acceptance by her mother’s caliban Scar as to her descent from Pia 2 or “Ma Pia,” as she was known. Her distant cousin, Jin 12, who rules the Styx Cluster, is preparing to conquer Cloud Cluster as a research team from Alliance tries to make sense of it all. Just as the Kents were divided by the Civil War in John Jakes’ series, the ninth generation of the kin of Jin and Pia is divided by conflict. Some of the terms are familiar: Under the Jin dynasty, the Styx cluster has become patriarchal and aggressive; under Eliai’s branch of the family, the Clouds are more peaceful and decentralized. But human concepts—even human concepts of family—no longer really apply. What was familiar has become alien; even the conflict between the Styx and Cloud clusters is fought, and decided, on issues and in a manner, that remain elusive to Alliance observers.
Walton makes note of the connections between Forty Thousand in Gehenna, Cyteen (1988) and Downbelow Station (1981) in regards to the azi. The idea of creating specialized human beings in hatcheries and conditioning centers goes back to Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), but until Cherryh, nobody had really done anything further with the idea. Cyteen is the story of Ariane Emory (and her clone, after the original is murdered), the brains behind the azi program and a mover-and-shaker in Union politics. Not to give away any more of the plot, I can say that we learn therein that the promiscuous use of azis as a ready-made soldiery and working class has nothing to so with their true purpose: the conservation of humanity’s genetic diversity, which might otherwise be lost in the small population base of born men scattered among the far-flung colonies of Union. Of one genotype of azi, Emory remarks in a taped interview:
We do not create Thetas because we want cheap labor. We create Thetas because they are an essential and important part of human alternatives. TheThr-23 hand-eye coordination, for instance, is exceptional. Their psychset lets them operate very well in environments in which CIT geniuses would assuredly fail.
Ideally, only one generation of each type is needed; in interbreeding with other types, even with born men, each will contribute its characteristics to the wider gene pool. Azis themselves can become citizens; their offspring surely will. Emory has also been working on the problem of sociogenesis, which she considers vital to human survival as a species. If mankind is not to end in the universe as it began on Earth—‘scattered tribes of humans across an endless plain, in pointless conflict”—it must be educated, on a fundamental level, in all the wisdom gained from millennia of racial experience. As she puts it in one of her secret memos to her daughter to come, “Ultimately, only the wisdom is important, not the event which produced it.”
A cold-hearted view, but a chillingly plausible one. Yet in both Cyteen and Forty Thousand in Gehenna, we get inside the heads of the azis themselves – something Huxley never attempted to do with the products of his novel’s hatcheries. In Downbelow Station, we get into the head of Joshua Talley, a highly trained azi, whose mission is to sabotage remote Earth Company space stations (Alliance has yet to be born), to deny the Company fleet safe haven before the Union fleet arrives (hopefully) to finish it off.
Only he doesn’t know it, for he has been given false memories of an idyllic childhood on Cyteen as a born man, later recruited to serve as an armscomper for a Union ship. Captured or rescued (so it seems) by one of the Earth Company ships after the destruction of Mariner, the last station out, he is taken on by Signy Mallory, captain of the Norway, as a sexual convenience; when the retreating Company fleet arrives at Pell Station, she abandons him there as casually as she had embraced him. At Pell he undergoes partial mindwipe for the post traumatic stress of what befell at Mariner, having no idea of his own part in that. He is taken in by the family of Damon Konstantin, leader of Pell’s ruling council, treated with kindness and decency; he can feel as if he has finally begun to live again. And then a fellow Union agent, Gabriel, approaches him on the sly, and reveals the truth – which leaves him a broken man, but a man who desperately wants to be a true human, one who will not betray those who have sheltered and trusted him.
Cyteen was a lie. He was. Part of him functioned like the automaton he reckoned himself bred to be… he acknowledged instincts he had never trusted, not knowing why he had them — drew another breath, trying to think, while his body navigated its way across the corridor and sought cover.
Only when he had gotten back to his cold dinner on the back table in Ngo’s, when he sat in that familiar place with his back to the corner and the reality of Pell came and went at the bar in front of him, the numbness began to leave him. He thought of Damon, one life, one life he might have the power to save.
He killed. That was what he was created to do. That was why the like of himself and Gabriel existed at all. Joshua and Gabriel. He understood the wry humor in their names, swallowed at a knot in his throat. Labs. That was the white void he had lived in, the whiteness in his dreams. Carefully insulated from humanity. Tape-taught… given skills; given lies to tell — about being human.
Only there was a flaw in the lies… that they were fed into human flesh, with human instincts, and he had loved the lies.
And lived them in his dreams.
That’s as moving a literary passage as you’ll find anywhere. Another literary gem is a crucial scene involving Mallory. She is but one of many captains under Conrad Mazian, commander of the Company Fleet. Reeling from defeat, its collective morale is breaking down; its troopers are already turning to brigandage – in Merchanter’s Luck (1982) and other novels set later in the Alliance-Union series, we learn that they have indeed taken to piracy after having been sold out to Union by envoys from Earth itself. As has been said, Mallory is but one captain among many. We have no particular reason to believe that she will behave any differently from the rest, and yet she has become familiar to us – we have an emotional stake the choice she must make. Which way will she jump? We find out in a deliciously dry, just-the-facts, man, report she makes to Mazian and the other captains after she and her troopers intervene in a nasty incident on the station:
“On 11/28/52 at 2314 hours I entered number 0878 blue of this station, a residential number in a restricted section, acting on a rumor which had reached my desk, having in company my troop commander, Maj. Dison Janz, and twenty armed troops from my command. I there discovered Trooper Lt. Benjamin Goforth, Trooper Sgt. Bila Mysos, both of Europe, and fourteen other individuals of the troops in occupancy of this four-room apartment. There were drugs in evidence, and liquor. The troops and officers in the apartment verbally protested our entry and our intervention, but privates Mila Erton and Tomas Centia were intoxicated to such an extent that they were incapable of recognizing authority. I ordered a search of the premises, during which were discovered four other individuals, male aged twenty-four; male aged thirty-one; male aged twenty-nine; female aged nineteen, civilians; in a state of undress and showing marks of burns and other abuses, locked in a room. In a second room were crates which contained liquor and medicines taken from the station pharmacy and so labeled; along with a box containing a hundred thirteen items of jewelry, and another containing one hundred fifty-eight sets of Pell civilian ids and credit cards. There was also a written record which I have appended to the report listing items of value and fifty-two crew and troops of the Fleet other than those present on the premises with certain items of value by the names. I confronted Lt. Benjamin Goforth with these findings and asked for his explanation of the circumstances. His words were: If you want a cut, there’s no need for this commotion. What share will it take to satisfy you? Myself: Mr. Goforth, you’re under arrest; you and your associates will be turned over to your captains for punishment; a tape is being made and will be used in prosecution. Lt. Goforth: Bloody bitch. Bloody bastard bitch. Name your share. At this point I ceased argument with Lt. Goforth and shot him in the belly.”
In Merchanter’s Luck. Cherryh tells the story of a down-on-his-luck independent trader, in desperate search of a crewman, who strikes up a relationship in a space station bar with the proud daughter of a wealthy merchanter clan – eager for a chance to pursue the kind of work denied her on her own ship because there are so many ahead of her in line for helm postings. Here’s how Cherryh sets up the first encounter between the seemingly mismatched Sandor Kreja and Allison Reilly:
Their names were Sandor and Allison. Kreja and Reilly respectively. Reilly meant something in the offices and bars of Viking Station: it meant the merchanters of the great ship Dublin Again, based at Fargone, respectable haulers on a loop that included all the circle of Union stars, Mariner and Russell's, Esperance and Paradise, Wyatt's and Cyteen, Fargone and Voyager and back to Viking. It was a Name among merchanters, and a power to be considered, wherever it went.
Kreja meant nothing at Viking, having flourished only at distant Pan-paris and Esperance in its day: at Mariner, under an alias, it meant a bad debt, and the same at Russell's.
Sandor has had bad luck nearly all his life; his entire family was wiped out by Mazianni pirates, but the ghostly voice of his brother Ross still haunts his shipboard computer, offering recorded advice when needed on how to deal with trouble. Yet we sense from the get-go that his luck is about to change; as we gradually learn more about his life and Allison’s and their contrasting yet complementary backgrounds, we come to understand that they’re actually a perfect match. We can see them for who they are and we can see what they see in each other, and that’s essential to any love story.
Science fiction writers, and their readers, think differently, Cherryh argued in a 2010 appearance at Condor XVII, an sf convention in San Diego.
We can see that kind of thinking, the thinking of a science fiction mind at work, throughout her sf, including the Allliance-Union history. Future histories are part of the fabric of the genre, and writers as varied as Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson and Ursula K. Le Guin have all had their own interpretations of history, their own ideas of history. In histories of the future, as in all things, science fiction can and should be a literature of ideas. But it should never forget to be a literature of ideas, with all the sensibility that implies. Only thus can it hope to capture the experience of history – its trials and tribulations, its triumphs and tragedies and, yes, its consolations.
Cherryh shows that she understands that in an epilogue to Forty Thousand in Gehenna, set nearly a century after the culmination of the story itself, after all the sufferings of the settlers and the strange adaptation of their progeny. The Gehennans have gone through hell, as the very name of their world implies; yet something new and good and even wondrous has come of it. Union has given legal status as humans to the calibans. And at Fargone Station, it has found a use for Marik, a remote descendant of the original settlers, and his caliban partner Walker.
There was a problem, they said, a world that they had found. There was life on it, and it made no sense to them.
A Gehennan sees things a different way, they said. Just go and look—you and Walker.
So they would go and see.
But that is one of the foundations of science fiction: seeing things a different way.