Who is CJ Cherryh?
CJ Cherryh is a key influencer of my style of writing. CJ Cherryh was born Caroline Janice Cherry. Her first editor felt that “Cherry” sounded too much like a romance writer. She also used her first two initials to disguise the fact that she was a woman when Science Fiction was nearly all written by males. Thankfully, many female sci fi writers have followed in her footsteps no longer need to hide their gender (although I agree with the editor on her name). Cherryh was a teacher of the classic languages and ancient history prior to becoming a writer. The power of history is prevalent in the two book series I will be discussing. We do not come to be in a vacuum. We are products of the events that passed before us and our actions now create new events that shape the future. Cherryh is one of the few authors whose writing crosses genre boundaries. She writes in the fantasy realm as well as “hard sci fi”. The two series that I will be reviewing as examples are steeped heavily in political intrigue. Others that I have read by her also rely heavily on the politics of the moment to drive the events of the book. She spends time and considerable effort crafting the geopolitical relationships and personal dynamics that use this element like no other author.
Key reads from her
The first series that I read by her was the “Fortress” series which begins with “The Fortress in the Eye of Time”. Tristen is a boy being raised by an old man in a rather scary castle. But Tristen doesn’t know about his past and the old man seems disappointed in him. Then something terrible happens in the castle. The old man is killed and Tristen must flee. Circumstances and fate bring him into contact with Prince Cefwyn. Prince Cefwyn is heir to the throne and must navigate the political minefields of royalty. He too seems to be a disappointment to his father. The two become friends as they grow and age. Cefwyn’s success rides on Tristen’s abilities. Tristen finds meaning and humanity in his relationship with Cefwyn. At one level, each story is a battle of good and evil. But it is also a discussion of what innocence means and what it brings. Cherryh sense of history comes clear in her descriptions of the clothing, the culture, the food and the politics of a feudal society.
The second series that I have read and I am continuing to read is the “Foreigner” series. The story begins with humanity reaching out into the stars for new places to live. A colony ship jumps into hyper drive on their way to a known destination when something goes wrong. They become lost in space. Low on supplies and severely damaged they limp into a star system with a habitable planet only to find that it is occupied. It is occupied by the Ateva. The Ateva are humanoid in nature and adapted well to their world. The humans mistake similarity in looks for similarity in culture. The Ateva have a markedly different the universe. Their society is best described as feudal on steroids. Members do not have friends. They have associations which define their being and actions. The Ateva cannot even understand the concept of “like” in the context of a sentient being. How could someone switch association or define their being based on preferences? This story is ALL political intrigue. There is political conflict between the Ateva and the Humans. There is conflict between the colonists and the ship crew. There is conflict within the Ateva over the influence of humans. There is conflict within the humans over how to deal with Ateva. Cherryh builds a world, cultures and language to support this story with astonishing detail. The wordiness and lack of action makes this a challenging series for some, but I have found it excellent writing and fascinating to see how one “constructs a universe”. I find the questions she raises about how we interact with one another fascinating. What is love? How does one resolve resentments and conflict? The Alien/Human boundary she establishes becomes a proxy for the cultural divides we face in our world today. Do we need a pahdi to explain those who are different from us?
Why I like her writing and how it influences me
From Wikipedia –Cherryh uses a writing technique she has variously labeled “very tight limitd third person”, “intense third person”, and “intense internal” voice. Each chapter is written from the point of view of one person. You know what that person is thinking and feeling. But you only know what that person sees directly. Any emotion or feelings of another needs to be expressed in some fashion throw words or action. The speaker may not see everything (even details that might be interesting to the reader). My chapters are always from the point of view of one character. That gives me the freedom to get into the mind of that character, but it means that the character can only surmise which he or she is seeing in others. My chapters have to move from one point in time to another – no jumping around.
The complexity of Cherryh’s Ateva world and universe has been a key influencer as well. I keep a record of characters and their motivations, fears, descriptions. I am also building a complex set of interactions between the Finders and Earth, Finders and each other, Finders and their contractors. Like the “Foreigner” series, more will come to light in later books. I am dealing only with the current crisis right now.
Cherryh’s writing is complex and she is incredibly detailed in her narratives. The same Wikipedia entry has her describe her writing process in which she blocks out the biology, culture, knowledge, methods of communication and so on for each book or series. I slight her in saying it is low on action. Her books have action as a climax. Like a Michael Criton book, one you hit the last 100 pages you pretty much can’t go to sleep until you finish.