C. J. Cherryh

15 May 2000 14:39

Got three passports, coupla visas
Don't even know my real name
C. J. Cherryh is an American writer of science fiction and fantasy. She is remarkable for the quality of her world-building, and in particular for the politics; she is one of the most political writers I know of. Now, by this I don't mean that she spouts off her own political views, like, say, Jerry Pournelle (who isn't really fit to be mentioned in the same breath), but that political conflicts are central to her stories and are looked on with a gaze so flinty as to strike sparks. (We'll get back to the sparks.) This puzzled me for about half a dozen novels, because I knew I'd seen this sort of vision of politics before, but couldn't for the life of me place it: and then I realized she was thinking like an archaeologist. That is to say, she begins with very grubby questions about who makes the goodies everyone wants, and who has the power to get them, and what they do with them, how they squabble amongst each other and ally with one another, how they control those below them.

Lo and behold, Cherryh is a trained archaeologist; also a classicist, another discipline which can lead to looking on politics and the exercise of power with as little sentimentality or cant as the ancient historians.

(One consequence of this, as my good friend Jon Fetter has pointed out, is that none of her characters are both religious and intelligent.)

I mentioned sparks. The other side to Cherryh is that her characters have identity crises so flamboyant as to make what usually goes under that name seem like dithering over two pairs of socks --- not "Am I in the right job?" but "Am I in the right species?" They are, variously, completely without any idea of who they are, but recollect how to do things perfectly, in bursts, like Condillac's statue as re-wired by Plato; or they're clones being moulded into their originals; or they think they know who they are, but all their memories are completely false; or they can't quite remember if they killed the light of their life; or at the very least, they met the light of their live after said light drowned herself, or their whole past is completely unavowable. One of the advantages of writing such stories as science fiction is that of presenting otherwise absurd or surreal dilemmas in a realistic idiom --- as though Turgenev were to take up Kafka's plots. (The archaeological background adds a further air of versimilitude to otherwise surreal and unconvincing narratives.)

In fact, Cherryh's most common protagonist is a young man pitched head-first into an exceedingly murky, dangerous and consequential situation he has only the vaguest idea how to handle, proded and pulled by forces he doesn't understand, and with one of these real identity problems on top of it all. (One of the things I don't like about Cherryh is that her readers sometimes spend a lot of time being as confused as this character is, and going "damn" a lot; do any of her characters ever say "fuck"?) Her other recurring character is a cool, calculating, manipulative schemer, who doesn't so much jerk people around as give them massive yanks. Sometimes (e.g. Ari II, Bren Cameron) the two types actually combine in varying degrees, which comes off much better (in the case of Ari II, much, much better) than one would think possible. (She also has a number of female protagonists who are merely unflappable and tough as nails.)