C. J. Cherryh

The first book in the Foreigner SF series.

Publication year: 1994
Format: Print
Page count: 426
Publisher: DAW

Other people, including the back cover of this book, describe the Foreigner as anthropological SF and I have to agree. The main draw and attraction in this book is the alien race, the atevi and their culture, and the interaction between the humans and the atevi. This is not an adventure book.

At first glance, the book can be confusing as the first two “books” are just a prelude to the actual story which starts at “book 3” on page 65. Essentially, in book one a human spaceship is lost in hyperspace and after three dangerous years it makes its way to the atevi planet. They don’t contact the locals aliens whose tech level has just reached steam power. In book 2 we see the first contact between the atevi and humans where one atevi kidnaps a human but they’re able to communicate a little. The back cover summarizes the events better than the chapters. Apparently, the humans were able make an alliance with one atevi lord. The humans have far better tech than the atevi. Some atevi attacked the humans wanting their tech and also because the humans had insulted them. The war was ended with a truce in which the humans got a small section of land where their only city Mospheira is now. Also, one human at a time is accepted into the local atevi court, acting as a diplomat and a translator. He or she will slowly give atevi access to tech, so that it doesn’t hurt their planet or culture. However, the atevi way to think is so different from humans that even after generations of cautious contact, humans don’t really understand the aliens.

However, the real story starts on page 65, some 200 years after the treaty was signed. Bren Cameron is the current translator/diplomat (paidhi). By law, he’s not allowed to have any weapons. He’s attacked in the middle of the night. Luckily, the local lord Tabini has given him a firearm a few weeks previous. Bren shoots the assassin but they get away. Because of the attack, Tabini sends him to Tabini’s grandmother’s place in the countryside where they barely even have electricity. The grandmother, Ilisidi, is a strong-willed woman who isn’t happy that she lost the lord position first to her son and then to her grandson. She’s also a very traditional person who hasn’t had contact with humans. Bren has no idea if he can trust her or her staff.

Unfortunately, nothing much else happens. There are a couple of assassination attempts against Bren but he’s kept away from them and only hears about them. Nobody tells him anything. Ilisidi tests him a couple of times, but mostly Bren just sits and wonders what’s going on and thinks about the local politics. I’m afraid it’s not very exciting.

The atevi culture is in the middle of everything. It’s quite different from modern Western culture. They don’t have lands or nations. Instead, they have alliances to people. They also don’t have words for affection or trust. If they can still feel such emotiond, remains to be seen. Part of the legal system are licensed assassins. Most of them work as bodyguards and Bren’s primary protectors, Banichi and Jago, are both assassins. However, for assassination to be legal it must be declared and nobody has declared Bren a target. So, the situation is strange by atevi standards.

Also, they have very strict way in which they need to be seen to behave in public. The higher the rank, the more formal the person (male or female) must be. Personally, I also enjoyed Tabini’s attitude towards eating meat. He, and his household, eat only game:

“[Bren] preferred distance from his meal. Tabini called it a moral flaw. He called it civilization and Tabini called it delusion: You eat meat out of season, Tabini would say. Out of time with the earth, you sell flesh for profit. You eat that never runs free: you call that civilized?”

I enjoyed the atevi characters but I was frustrated by Bren who seemed to be doing noting but arguing with them and moping around. We did learn stuff about atevi history.

Cherryh’s dense style of writing here is similar to Chanur or Faded Suns on the surface. However, the repetitions and lack of action isn’t typical. I’m told that the series gets better. So far the only attraction in the series is atevi culture and characters. I’m hoping the second book will better.

A collection of science fiction short stories by very influential women writers. The oldest was written in 1933 and the newest 1989.

Publication year: 2016
Format: print
Page count: 267
Publisher: Baen

Lots of people are saying the women don’t write, and publish, science fiction. That’s simply not true. As Rusch shows us in her “Introduction: Invisible Women” women have been writing SF since the beginning of the genre attracting readers and winning awards. But readers and critics, both men and women, have many, many ways of marginalizing and outright forgetting women. They write in wrong subgenre, have wrong themes, the science is outdated etc. etc. ad nasaum. Well, Rusch and Baen are now bringing back some of the ignored women whom the younger generation of readers, and writers!, don’t know.

Much to my surprise this collection has only one writer I haven’t heard of before: Zenna Henderson. Actually, I’ve read only one story from these before: Bujold’s Aftermaths. So, I was delighted to read these stories and I dearly hope there will be more.

The stories are in a variety of styles and sub genres from horror to pulp fiction to time travel. I liked the introductions, too, because Rusch tells us the awards and honors these writers have won and the way they’ve influenced each other and the whole genre.

“The Indelible Kind” by Zenna Henderson (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 1968): Miss Murcher is a teacher in a small school and Vincent comes to her school. Vincent is eight but he can’t read much. Otherwise, he’s very bright boy and perhaps something more.
This is one of the quieter stories, with the Other as its theme.

“The Smallest Dragonboy” by Anne McCaffrey (Science Fiction Tales, 1973): Keevan is barely twelve and the smallest of the boys who want to be dragonriders. But the more he’s bullied and teased by the oldest boy, the more he’s determined to impress a dragon hatchling.
It’s been decades since I read Pern books but this story brought the setting right back and made me want to read some of the Pern books I haven’t read.

“Out of All Them Bright Stars” by Nancy Kress (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March, 1985): Sally works in a diner. The US government has contact with aliens but Sally and her friends have only seen them on TV. Until one walks into the diner.

“Angel” by Pat Cadigan (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, June 1987): Angel is the main character’s (MC) friend. He communicates with the MC without words and do all sorts of little tricks. Then Angel sees a strange woman he clearly fears.

“Cassandra” by C.J. Cherryh (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1978): One of my favorite authors but I don’t think I’ve read her short fiction before.
The people call her Crazy Alis because to her only she is a solid person. Other people are grey ghosts walking around in a town which is in flames and crumbling down. Medicines take away her nightmares and allow her to sleep, but they don’t take away the things she sees when she’s awake.

“Shambleau” by C.L. Moore (Weird Tales, November, 1933): The oldest story in the collection mixes pulp fiction and horror.
Northwest Smith is an intergalactic smuggler and not the most gallant of men. But when he sees a girl running from a murderous crowd, he rescues her and even gives her a place to sleep. However, the girl isn’t human and then his real troubles begin.

“The Last Days of Shandakor” by Leigh Brackett (Startling Stories, April 1952): Another pulp story but this time with the subject of lost city. Set in Mars in Brackett’s Eric John Stark universe where Mars, Venus, and some of the other planets are habitable and have their own humanlike people.
John Ross in a man from Earth but he lives on Mars. He studies the local peoples and places. Then he sees a man who doesn’t look like anyone else John has ever seen. He calls himself Corin and at first he refuses to take John to his city, which is apparently dying. But reluctantly he agrees and the two set into a desert on the road to Shandakor.

“All Cats Are Gray” by Andre Norton (Fantastic Universe, August/September 1953): Cliff Moran is a down-of-his-luck captain. Steena of the Spaceways, and her gray cat Bat, are a legend among the spacefarers. When she says that the legendary haunted luxury liner Empress of Mars is drifting close by, Cliff believes her and they head out to capture it.

“Aftermaths” by Lois McMaster Bujold (Far Frontiers: The Paperback Magazine of Science Fiction and Speculative Fact, Volume V, Spring 1986): Bujold is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read this little gem several times.

Falco Ferrell is a pilot and new to the Personnel Retrieval and Identification branch of the Escobaran space military. He and his new partner, MedTech Tersa Boni, have been assigned the rubble of space battle. Their task is to retrieve the bodies, identify them, and send them home. But soon, Falco starts to suspect that Tersa has been in the service for too long.

“The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” by James Tiptree, Jr. (Galaxy, March 1969): Doctor Ain travels around the world and everywhere he goes, people fall sick.

“Sur” by Ursula K. Le Guin (The New Yorker, February 1, 1982): This story is alternate history without any SF elements.
Since she was a little girl, the main character has been fascinated by the reports and books by men who have gone to the South Pole. But the dream of going there herself has seen unattainable, until she gathers a group of determined women who share her dream.

“Fire Watch” by Connie Willis (Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, February 15, 1982): A story about the time traveling historians! I can’t believe I haven’t heard of this one.

Time traveling to the past is hard. But it’s even harder when you’ve been preparing to walk with Saint Paul himself – and are sent instead to St. Paul’s in the middle of air raids. The main character tries to prepare as well as possible, but it might not be enough.

Not all of these stories worked for me but most of them are strong and some of them are real gems.

Rusch has a related website: http://www.womeninsciencefiction.com/

By the way, some of Leigh Brackett’s work is available on Audible.com if you like audio books.

This is another stand-alone SF.

Publication year: 1980
Format: print
Page count: 250 (The Deep Beyond omnibus)
Publisher: Daw

In typical Cherryh style, the reader is thrown in with little explanation and is expected to deduce things on the fly.

Serpent’s Reach is set in an isolated region of space. The whole constellation is forbidden for outsider humans to settle and they’re only allowed to visit one planet. The reason is the local alien lifeform which is considered very unpredictable. The Majat, as they are called, are an insectoid hive mind species which at first can’t even understand the concept of individuality. Before the constellation was quarantined a group of humans settled there: humans and their genetically engineered slaves, the azi. By the time of this book, the humans have divided into two further groups: the House humans and what they call the Betas. The House humans (called Kontrin) are virtually immortal and possess limitless funds. They rule over everyone else and work with the Majat. They also sell azi to the Majat.

Raen is a young woman in the House of Meth-Maren, a high born human looking forward to a rigid life of duty. Then her entire House is slaughtered but other humans and Majat working together. She’s the only one to escape and she runs to the nearest Majat hive. The Blue Majat Queen agrees to help her and she wants revenge. She and the Blue hive warriors manage to attack Raen’s former home and kill all the invaders there. However, Raen is captured and the hive slaughtered.

Raen is brought before the Kontrin council. Many want to kill her too, but the two eldest Kontrin (Lian and Moth) protect her and just banish her. Raen still has her funds and is allowed to travel freely in Serpent’s Reach. She wanders seemly aimlessly for years, surviving assassination attempts and burning with the need for more revenge. When we see her again, she’s on transport to the corner planet Istra which is the only planet where outsiders are allowed to come. And she has a plan.

The book has several point-of-view characters and none of them are particularly sympathetic. Most of them are only interested in their plots and schemes; the rest are people caught up in them. Raen is driven but near the end she starts to have sympathy towards the people she’s trampling under – and even saves a large group of azi from a horrible fate. Jim is an azi dedicated to Raen. His viewpoint is interesting but also quite focused

The book doesn’t have a happy ending. In fact, it’s quite dark and melancholy in tone. Some of the scenes might even qualify for horror.

The Majat are the most interesting part of the book to me. They don’t have individuals but just units that know everything that the all other similar units know, except when one is given a message to deliver. If they are cut off from the hive mind, they go crazy and the others kill them.

A stand alone SF book. I have it as part of the Deep Beyond omnibus.

Publication year: 1985
Format: print
Page count: 208 in the omnibus
Publisher: Daw

The Cuckoo’s Egg is set in an alien world and the people who live there, the shonunin, look like lions. Duun is a shonun and belongs to a group called hatani; they seem to be a kind of jedi-like warriors and judges. However, they don’t own anything so they aren’t a ruling class.

In fact, Duun has been grievously hurt and his people can’t even bear to look at him. Still, he seems to have a very high status among them. He takes upon himself the task of raising and training an male alien almost from birth. He gives the hairless, clawless alien the name Thorn and trains him according to the best Hatani traditions. Essentially, he teaches the boy to become a warrior and not to ever trust anyone. We see glimpses of the political situation from time to time and more, of course, as Thorn grows.

This is again a tight book. There aren’t much descriptions and the reader has to infer pretty much everything from context.

Thorn is clearly an outsider just from the way that he looks and he wonders often about it when he’s growing up, but Duun never explains anything until the very end. However, Duun also raised Thorn as an outsider from shonunin culture; Thorn grows up on an isolated mountain and doesn’t meet other (shounin) people until he’s almost grown. Duun himself seems to also be an outsider but perhaps more by choice than birth.

Many times I felt sorry for poor Thorn who is thrust into to situation which seems quite cold and harsh both emotionally and physically. Sometimes I wondered if Thorn was even physically capable of the feats Duun demanded of him and surely in a human society Duun would have been accused of child abuse. But Duun doesn’t do it to be cruel but to prepare Thorn for what is to come.

However, I wasn’t really happy with the ending. I don’t think Thorn should have been able to do what was demanded of him based on just his genes.

A stand alone SF book. Part of the Alliance Space omnibus.

Publication year: 1983
Page count: 388 in the omnibus
Format: print
Publisher: Daw

This book is anthropological SF about a colony on a planet which the human inhabitants call Gehenna. It’s written in short scenes and discussions and mission reports and memos. The reports and memos tell things which the characters either don’t know or don’t have to infodump in a conversation.

The story starts on Cyteen where the Union is launching a top secret mission to build a base and colony on Gehenna. Most of the people going are azi who aren’t even told where they’re going or why. Yet, they’re expected to be the workforce of the colony and start their own families, with which they don’t have any experience. The others seem to be mostly military and scientists who are either traveling with their families to get a new start or retiring, like the governor-to-be who has lost his wife and any interest in life.

Unfortunately, the colonists don’t know that they are set to fail. The Unionists are predicting that the Alliance will expand its reach to that part of space, so the colony is sent there are a complication to the Alliance. The loss of life is seen as unfortunate but required for the good of Union.

We follow the start of the colony through the eyes of the governor colonel James Conn, scientist Marco Gutierrez, and azi Jin. Gutierrez especially is excited about the alien life forms on the planet: the ariels and the calibans which are sort of lizard like. The ariels are small and fly around while the calibans are very large and the recommendation is to avoid them. The calibans build mounds but the scientists don’t know much about them. The previous survey decided that they aren’t intelligent. Of course, such a quick assessment leads into all kinds of trouble.

On the planet, things start to fall apart quickly. Conn decides not to do much research, to the frustration of the scientists, and the equipment breaks down. The colonists wait for a promised ship which should have more equipment and personnel but it never arrives.

The azi, and the others, start having kids but some of them behave in strange ways and the adults don’t really know how to deal with them. There’s a sad difference between the azi Jin and his born children who haven’t been been taught by tape but had to learn everything. The kids see Jin as limited and poor Jin picks up o that. Some of the children seek out the calibans and run away.

Alliance ship lands. At first they try to give humanitarian aid; helping people and even trying to educate them. This ends badly, though.

Then the story jumps ahead about a hundred years. The Gehenna people have broken into two different cultures: one is aggressive with strong class differences and gender roles. It has one male leader who is pretty much a tyrant. The other culture seems to work more with negotiations and while the most dominant leader is a woman, it has several lesser leaders, both male and female. Of course, the cultures are in conflict and the Alliance anthropologists get in involved, in both cultures.

I was really intrigued by the idea of the book. Unfortunately, the execution leaves a bit to be desired. There are a lot of people and a lot of years to cover, so the storyline tends to be choppy and jumps around. We don’t spend a lot of time with each character, so they aren’t terribly deep.

I was fascinated by the calibans and their alien ways. In some way, they reminded me of the way the mri bonded with their creatures (the dusei) in the Faded Sun trilogy, but calibans seemed to be far more independent and more alien. Yet, they were integral to the two societies in the latter half of the book.

The Union and Alliance are shown in very different light in this book. The Union’s actions are contemptible: they send thousands of people in a situation they aren’t expected to survive. Poor azi. The Alliance is ready to give humanitarian aid but their efforts aren’t a success. We see the results of their aid through the eyes of Dean who at first didn’t even know anything about planets. When the Alliance people have educated him, he doesn’t fit in with his fellow colonists but neither is he one of the Alliance people. Yet, if I understood things correctly, he was one of the people building the more moderate society.

Some of the wildlings, the people who run away and live with the calibans in the mounds, kidnap people and gang rape them. Yet, nothing is done about it. In the two cultures which evolve, the wildlings seem to be like priests. I really didn’t like that.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book but I would have like to know more about calibans and how the two different cultures formed.

A stand alone SF book. Part of the Alliance Space omnibus.

Publication year: 1982
Page count: 214 in the omnibus
Format: print
Publisher: Daw

Sandor Kreja is the owner and the sole crew of the small merchant space ship Le Cygne. Unfortunately, his family was killed in an attack by one of the Mazian fleet warships. Since then, he has lived in fear and isolation. However, he needs other crew members to run the ship safely. He tries to hire people whom he judges to be harmless: people who won’t cut his throat in the middle of the night or sell him out to pirates. Because the Mazian fleet are technically military, Sandro has forged papers with a different name for himself and his ship. He is also afraid that the forgery will someday be found out but he loves his ship and he can’t give it up.

Then one day he sees a gorgeous woman in a bar and has one night with her. His lonely life has driven him almost crazy and he decided to follow her ship to Pell which is at the intersection of Union and Alliance space. Sandor also thinks that Pell might have better contracts for him. She’s Allison Reilly and she’s part of one of the biggest merchant ships and families around. Sandor knows that he doesn’t have a chance with her but he jumps after her ship anyway. And become something of a celebrity. In the end, Reilly’s ship offers him a contract which looks way too good to be true.

The book starts in a way that at first fools the reader to think that it could be a romance. But it’s not. Sandor (Ed Stevens is his assumed name) has lived his paranoia too long and Allison is level headed enough to know that she can’t trust a stranger. It might develop later into a romance, though, but not in this book.

Even though Sandor and Allison are both space merchants, they come from the opposite ends of the spectrum. Sandor is alone and paranoid and on the edge of legality because of his situation. Allison was born to the ship Dublin Again which has over 1,800 crew, most of them her kind. She works with her cousins and can rely on them to watch her back every time. Her biggest problem is that because of the rejuvenation treatment which allows people to live longer and in far better physical and mental health, her career is unlikely to advance. Ever. But she’s ambitious and willing to take risks. It’s also very hard for her to really understand Sandor’s life and past.

The setting seem to be sometime after the events in Downbelow Station. Union and Alliance have made a tentative peace and Union merchanters are now allowed to trade in Alliance space. The merchanters don’t seem to like either government. Sandor and Allison are Union merchants but they both seem to fear their government. Sandor is terrified that if his forged papers are noticed, he will be brainwashed into a happy citizen.

Allison reminded me of the Chanur traders: Dublin Again is a family ship and her closest crew are her cousins. However, while this book is a fun roller coaster ride, I didn’t click with the characters as well as did with the crew of Pride of Chanur.

A stand-alone SF book which is part of the Alliance-Union universe.

Publication year: 1981
Format: print
Page count: 477
Publisher: Daw

Downbelow Station focuses on political machinations and the misery it brings to people. It has over ten point-of-view characters and unfortunately that makes it somewhat chaotic and fragmented. Several different sides are actively scheming and there are also several people who are just caught up in the changing times. Most of the book is set on Pell Station with quick scenes on Downbelow and various ships.

Pell station orbits the planet Downbelow. The planet has an advanced ecosystem and an intelligent native species, the hisa, also called the Downers. The hisa are a peaceful race but sometimes difficult to understand. The planet has several stations which the humans have built to grow crops and work. The humans have also recruited the hisa to work for them.

Pell belongs to Earth Company but it’s a long way from Earth so in reality it operates independently. Now, Union, which is in war with Earth, has taken over Mariner station and Russell’s Star which are stations very close to Pell, and so war has come to Pell. Mazian Fleet is bringing thousands of refugees to Pell from Mariner and Russell’s. Because of humanitarian reasons, Pell has to take them on but in order to do that, several sections of Pell has to be evacuated and turned into Quarantine zone. Most of the refugees have come without papers and are desperate, so the situation is chaotic. Angelo Konstantin and his sons Damon and Emilio are in effect running Pell, and they try to minimize the chaos.

Meanwhile, Angelo’s rival and brother-in-law Jon Lukas has been running the Downbelow dome for four years. Now, he’s unceremoniously called back and Emilio is sent down. Jon is convinced that this is yet another way to undermine his accomplishments. When he hears about the situation on Pell, he tries to take advantage of it.

Norway is the first warship out of the Mazian Fleet to arrive to Pell. In addition to the refugees, Captain Signy Mallory leaves a prisoner of war to Pell. Josh Talley is a Union operative who was caught in Russell’s and Mallory rescued him, sort of. Josh had been tortured by Russell’s security and then been at the mercy of the disciplined but cruel Norway crew and her captain. He doesn’t remember much of his past and requests Adjustment which would wipe his memory but allow him to continue with his life.

One of the point-of-view characters is Kressich who was a councilor at Mariner before Union invaded it. He’s lost his wife and child. A gang of thugs recruits him as their front man. On the face of it, they keep order on the Quarantine Zone, called Q, but also blackmail people and set up a black market. Kressich justifies this to himself that things would be worse without the gang.

These are about half of the point-of-view characters. Then we have a delegation from Earth who has arrived at a very unfortunate time to Pell and some people who deal with the Union side. I’m not entirely convinced all of these POVs were needed. In fact, until near the end I had no idea what Josh was supposed to do. He didn’t remember much of his past so he was a poor choice if the reason would have been giving the Union a human face.

The writing style is somewhat choppy with short sentences and sometimes a little hard to follow. For once, I would have wanted more details and more descriptions.

There’s an interesting difference in culture between the stationers and the merchanters. The merchanters identify themselves with their family name and the ship. When the ship comes to a station the crew can sleep with whomever they want without jealousy but the stationers don’t understand that. The merchanter ships seem to be somewhat reluctant to abandon Pell when the war escalates but they will do it, if needed. The stationers seem to want to grow roots to one place, a station, while the merchanters are happy to fly from one place to another. Damon Konstantin’s wife Elene is a merchanter who is trying out a life on a station. Unfortunately, we don’t hear much about how it would have worked because of the constant crisis situation.

Then there are the Mazianni, as the people in Mazian’s Fleet are called. The fleet doesn’t have much support from Earth anymore so it seems that they’ve started to raid the merchanters to get supplies. They forcibly take on people, too, whom they think are useful, much like Admiral Cain in the new Galactica (it would be interesting to know if the Galactica writers have read this). The warships are named after Earth countires and continents: Europe, Atlantic, Norway, Africa, Australia… The warships also have four raiders which aren’t capable of FTL jumps (again, like Raptors in Galactica). The warships are used to operating independently from each other, too.

The hisa are an interesting alien species. Apparently, they don’t have the concept of violence until humans came to their planet. They still don’t use violence themselves. We are told that they have strange religious practices but aren’t shown them. They don’t really have technology and they seem to worship the Sun. One of the hisa, Satin, is a point-of-view character but we don’t see much of their culture through her, either. They also don’t speak English very well. In fact, it’s very hard to understand them sometimes. I’m also rather surprised that they don’t have the concept of wife (and presumably husband) but they seem to be pair-bonders. (At least there’s no indication that Satin has more than one mate and there’s even non-violent rivalry between two males over her.)

The mood of the book is quite somber. It’s not a light read. Still, I think that the people trying to take advantage of the situation are very realistic. That’s what you do, when your whole life is threatened.

It was interesting to read Downbelow Station after reading Cyteen because here the Union is seen as the bogeyman who must be fought at any cost. Or if you deal with the Union, it’s the deal with the devil.

Next Page »