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Alliance Space by C. J. Cherryh

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Recently several publishers have begun reprinting older novels in omnibus editions, combining several related novels by a particular author. Generally this has been for economic considerations: while they were of respectable length in the time in which they were published, they are simply too short to work in the present market, so combining them into a volume of substantial size gives the potential buyer a tome of sufficient size and heft to feel worth the cover price, making it possible to introduce older works to a new generation of readers, not to mention allowing long-time readers to replace crumbling volumes of beloved works.

This volume combines two novels that deal with the Company Wars period of C.J. Cherryh's Alliance-Union Universe, the period in which Earth's colonies broke away from the mother world's control and formed two opposing camps, one based almost entirely upon space stations and the other centered around inhabitable worlds. Although 40,000 in Gehenna is a novel of respectable size even by today's standards, Merchanter's Luck is a slender volume, too small to have much of a chance on the bookstore shelves.

Merchanter's Luck is not a direct sequel to Downbelow Station, having only a single common character (Signy Mallory, who was a major character in that novel but is only a minor one in this novel). However, the situation facing the principal protagonist at the beginning of Merchanter's Luck is the direct result of the events in Downbelow Station, particularly Mazian's having turned pirate.

Sandor Kreja is the last survivor of the once prosperous Kreja family of merchanters. The merchanters of the Alliance-Union Universe are rather like the Free Spacers of Robert A Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, being entirely based upon their ships and making their living transporting cargo from one inhabited world to another. However, while the threat of piracy faced by the Sisu was always kept at arm's length, with the Chief Engineer's dead-man switch as a last defense against boarding being something Thorby knows about but which never actually has to be faced, Sandor has vivid memories of the family venting the children and other vulnerable members into space, reckoning that even the agonies of explosive decompression better than the horrors of being boarded by Mazianni forces.

There's another notable difference in the organization of the ship's officers. An Annapolis graduate, Heinlein followed the iron-clad Navy tradition that there can be only one captain aboard a ship. Cherryh's merchanters follow a very un-naval system by which there are four captains who rotate command on the four shifts, each of which becomes the captain during his or her shift. A reader brought up on a diet of military science fiction with starships commanded on the naval model may find this system straining on the suspension of disbelief, but Cherryh manages to make it sound workable (the four-captain system also shows up in Cherryh's Foreigner universe, which has led to suggestions that perhaps the Terrans in it came originally from the Alliance-Union universe and slipped through some kind of interdimensional rift or gateway).

In any case, at the beginning of the novel Sandor's running on the fraying remnant of a shoestring. But a chance encounter with the lovely Allison Reilly of the prosperous merchanter ship Dublin Again leads to a challenge to a race, and suddenly he is running hell for leather, pushing his aging and poorly maintained ship to its limits in hopes of proving that he can be worthy of their notice, even their investment that will get him out of the dead end he's slowly slipping deeper and deeper into. A race that leads him far too close to the Mazianni and their riderships.

The race story is in many ways an easy plot to write, but with the constraint that the outcome is necessarily binary: either the protagonist wins or loses. However, in this case it really forms a framework, and the real story is in Sandor's character, in what he has done to keep functioning when every social support has been torn away from him, when he has no one to rely upon but himself. The various ways in which he's jerry-rigged the ship so that he can run all the boards single-handed, the recorded voices of deceased family members by which he reminds himself of important tasks and sequences, not to mention stays sane and reasonably functional as a human being. And after all the grimness and horror, both remembered and nearly experienced, the way in which the novel ends with hope for a brighter and better future.

40,000 in Gehenna begins at the very close of the Company Wars period and carries the story of the Gehenna colony through three centuries, generation upon generation. It is the first one to actually show the Union capital world of Cyteen, although only glimpsed through the eyes of Jin the azi as he and his fellow azi are being prepared to board the starship that will take them to the new colony.

Azi are a form of unfree labor, yet they are not precisely slaves. There are no horrors of whips and chains in Jin's memory or experiences -- far from it, everything is exceedingly calm, every instruction he is given relentlessly positive and reassuring that his work has value, that it is important that he fulfill the expectations of the government which has bought his contract and thus win their approval. Yet the very gentleness and positiveness of the treatment he and the other azi receive throughout the process of being loaded into hideously overcrowded berthing compartments makes all the more shuddersome the casual way in which they are removed from their homes and work, reprogrammed with new directions like they were organic robots, and then shipped off like cattle to a world for which they're ill prepared.

Even so, Jin's relentlessly positive upbringing gives him the attitude and emotional grounding to handle the shift with aplomb, and immediately he is concentrating not upon what he lost, but on how he can learn about his new world in order to do the best possible job and win the approval of his supervisors. On the suggestion of the computer program that guides him, he agrees to mate with Pia, a female azi, so that they may start a family on the colony world and produce a new generation of colonists. As soon as they arrive, they both set to work with a will in helping to build their colony.

But the colony's hardly more than landed before things begin going wrong. The environment proves harsher than anticipated, and the equipment begins to break. The plans were to continue to use the deepteach tape systems to adjust the skillsets of the azi as things developed, but the tape machines are among the first things to break, leaving them with no quick way to do mass retraining. Everyone in administration becomes focused upon holding on until the followup ships arrive with more equipment and the birth labs that will begin mass production of azi to expand their society rapidly. And as the scheduled arrival date for the ships comes and goes, it becomes increasingly obvious that they aren't going to be coming.

It's interesting to see how the supposedly more psychologically resilient citizens quickly give in to despair and give up. For the older ones in the top leadership cadre it's the exhaustion of their supply of rejuv drugs, which they cannot reproduce locally so that they were depending upon new supplies on the followup ships. When the drugs run out, rejuv failure rapidly sets in with all the debilities of age that the drugs had been staving off. Some of them die as a direct result of those infirmities, but more than a few decide to take their lives before enfeeblement sets in. And even the younger generation of citizens who wouldn't be on rejuv therapies still prove unequal to the task of assuming the mantle of leadership over the colony, and soon the citizen colony fragments, leaving it to the azi and their descendants to maintain a human presence.

Thus the rest of the story is really that of Jin and his descendants. Although he clearly cares about his children, even if as an azi he is not as demonstrative of his love as a naturally born father might be, he is also intensely frustrated as his children fail to absorb his value system, particularly the love of order and proper procedure that is deeply embedded into his psyche. All of them seem to be more interested in adapting to their new world than adapting it to Union models of society. Worst of all, at least one of them seems to identify far more intensely with the native calibans than Jin and Pia consider healthy or safe. It becomes increasingly clear that continual contact with ariels and calibans is somehow causing the children's minds to become wired differently such that they can read the patterns by which the calibans communicate.

Jin manages to live all the way until the Alliance forces discover the colony in the fifty-eighth year after the colony's establishment, although as a result of the harsh environment and lack of health care he is old and weary. Readers of Cyteen will recognize this recontact as the one that was causing so much political turmoil and led the second Ariane Emory to do extensive research on the shifts and mutations undergone by azi psych-sets and value-sets over multiple generations in isolation.

From this point on the narrative progresses in an interesting double form -- straight third-person narrative, mostly from the point of view of the various descendants of the azi, and documents made by the various Alliance personnel as they interact with the colonists. The latter results in the establishment of a certain narrative distance from the Alliance personnel, such that we do not get to see their thought processes directly but instead only see what they document and are forced to form our own theories of the mental operations behind those words.

This visitation by Alliance ends as a result of a disastrous provocation -- a brown caliban, one of the actual brains behind the brawny grays, is shot and killed. The calibans respond with such extreme force that Alliance personnel flee, and for the next century Gehenna is left strictly alone.

When Alliance returns, they find two settlements at odds with each other. One hunts the gray calibans for meat, while the other has formed a partnership with the brown calibans by which certain calibans partner with leading humans. Since calibans are much longer-lived than humans, a caliban whose human has passed on will usually suicide, but sometimes it will instead transfer its partnership to a younger member of their former partner's family. In fact, the very first scene of this section deals with just such a partnership shift, as the old leader's caliban skips a generation to partner with her granddaughter. There is something quite touching about the gentleness with which this gigantic reptiloid treats the tiny girl, helping her learn to recognize the Patterns through which calibans think and communicate.

Once again Alliance scientists return to investigate the society, and among them is Dr. Elizabeth McGee, who meets young Elai and seeks to learn from her the nature of their society. We see this exploration partly through Elai's eyes, unsophisticated in the outside world (she barely understands the concept that her world even is a planet and it orbits their sun, let alone the concept of two vast star nations beyond it), and partly through Dr. McGee's written reports to her superiors at the base, reports that become increasingly rare as she lives more close to the settlement of Cloud Towers and comes to increasingly appreciate the culture she is studying and the partnership it represents between two vastly different species. In her final breakthrough there is something reminiscent of the moment in The Faded Sun in which the humans play Shon'ai, the passing game, with the mri and not only learn the rules of play, but actually learn the concepts that underly it, that nothing is to be held onto forever, but must be passed again when the next beat comes, and thus avert the disaster that befell every previous race that hired the mri.

40,000 in Gehenna is a book that rewards re-reading, particularly in tandem with Cyteen. In fact, both of them reveal deeper complexities when they are read together, and things that seem trivial in isolation turn out to be profoundly significant.

Review posted September 2, 2010.

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