1. Cherryh’s dialogue uses three distinct voices consistently throughout this novel.
—One voice is the Downers, or hisa, natives from the planet called Downbelow by those on space station Pell. They speak in a lilting, sing-songy voice that often skips “to be” verbs. For example:
You safe. Make you names: call you He-come-again; call you She-hold-out-hands. You spirit good. You safe here. Love you. Bennett-man, he teach we dream human dreams; now you come we teach you dream hisa dreams.This speech pattern helps show the hisa thought processes and priorities. They imply the “to be” verb, like English implies “that”: sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s assumed. In this way, it shows that the hisa do not yet have a philosophical question concerning being—an important difference between themselves and humans.
—Another voice is that of the stationers, the residents of Pell Station. Out of all the voices, the stationers are the closest to how we speak English today. Here is some of the dialogue:
Tom, if you get a gut feeling that something’s wrong in any of these cases, appeal it back to me regardless of procedures. We’re putting through too many condemnations too fast; mistakes are possible. I don’t want to find out after processing starts.This speech pattern reinforces that the reader is supposed to identify with the stationers. It provides a common ground between reader and characters that allows familiarity and reflects the familiarity the stationers have with their life on the station. They are pleased and satisfied with their stationary lives, so they talk normally.
—The last voice is that of the Mazianni, the originally Earth-based war fleet that constitutes the military forces of the Company in space. They speak in a clipped, military way that values efficiency and clear, dense communication over full sentences:
They ran us off the docks. Everyone’s aboard. Crew, troops, everyone’s aboard. Mainday to stations, alterday to backup. Flash battle stations. I’m pulling us out of here.As this quote shows, the Mazianni are efficient, quick, and precise—as befits the speed of space battles they’re often involved in.This shows their mental state—always ready and every little detail important.
—These three separate speech patterns help explain these three different cultures involved. Even the two other cultures in the book speak slightly differently, but mostly through word choices: the merchanters speak a lot like stationers do, while the Union forces speak a lot like the Mazianni, but word choices allow each to have distinct voices. This tactic of Cherryh’s brilliantly illuminates the cultures involved through showing rather than telling—and reinforces what telling is there. These significant differences also provide variety to the book, each portion’s dialogue reads differently and helps provide distinction between the different cultures. Cherryh does a great job with charactered voices. To reinforce these notes about her voicing: I simply opened the book to random places in order to get the above quotes—one really can open it up anywhere, read a bit of dialogue, and know what culture is being focused on in the chapter opened to.
2. My second note about her writing is Cherryh’s own voice—that of the omniscient narrator. The narrative voice uses a good mix of complex and simple sentences, mated to a fine mix of word choices. It’s engaging and unusual.
Russell’s had met disaster, and Mariner. Rumor ran through the station corridors, aboil with the confusion and anger of residents and companies that had been turned out with all their property. Volunteers and native workers aided evacuation; dock crews used the loading machinery to move personal belongings out of the area selected for quarantine, tagging items and trying not to confuse them or allow pilferage. Com echoed with announcements.Most authors I’ve read would not write their sentences this way. This almost stop-and-start pacing is actually quite interesting to me and excites me about Cherryh as a writer. She doesn’t try to make her prose flow too smoothly, but it also doesn’t come off like a rough draft. An analogy that explains this is music: after multiple listens, the slick, overproduced pop tune ends up being less interesting than a rougher, more inconsistent track that has some emotion to it. Yet Cherryh isn’t writing a rough, one-take, half-drunk, live punk song either. It’s tight writing, but there are still enough edges left in to make it amazing. It ain’t auto-tuned, nor is it live, it’s at a sweet spot in the middle. I can’t wait to read more of her writing!
3. Structurally, the story is told typically: chapters and portions alternating focus between areas where things are happening, between characters, but progressing the plot linearly. This isn’t a negative statement. There is so much going on in here that keeping everything straight must have been difficult for the author: Downbelow Station and the hisa place, the carrier Norway, the Union places which are all sort of the same Union place, the Finity’s End, the Hammer, a couple of places in space, Pell central, Pell Q, Pell Downers territory, and the other places on Pell Station. There are a lot of places involved here. She uses interstitial titles that name the place and date and time to keep everything straight in the reader’s mind, and they’re unobtrusive enough that they work well without distracting.
4. I appreciate that Cherryh doesn’t overburden the book with descriptions. She could—there are a lot of places in here where she could have spent pages describing things. Rather, she mentions a couple of details and moves on to the effect the places have on the characters or actions. For instance, when Satin first sees the sun, it’s in a spot on Pell that is described as nothing more than a large, darkened space with windows to the stars. The description is enough to outline the space, but she trusts the reader to fill in the blanks with their own imagination. And this works wonderfully. There are air-supported domes, but my conception of them is my conception of them, not a result of endless details or descriptors. She describes effectively and succinctly, just enough detail to get my mind running, but not too many descriptors to bog the story down.
5. This lack of description indicates that she focuses on characters and actions, not her set of science fiction ideas about faster than light travel, or war technology in space, or terraforming an inhabited planet, etc. In general, what seems to sell in science fiction is a well-told story with at least one interesting character surrounded by ruminations on future technology. That rumination often bores me, like when Isaac Asimov goes off about his robots in story after story, or Cixin Liu describes the physics problem his book is named after about eighteen times in the book. These ideas are somewhat interesting to me, but not as much as authors often seem to think they should be. Here Cherryh focuses on telling a story about many interesting characters, rather than about space travel, or the economy of Pell Station, etc. Through doing this, she actually delves into the psychology of the cultures involved, and ends up discussing the effects of interesting ideas about the future on humans more so than the ideas themselves. I love this psychological focus of hers.
6. The characters are engaging: Elene, Damon, Josh, Jon and his subordinates, Emilio, Miliko, Jessad, Kressich and his minions, Coledy, Ayres, Jacoby, Azov, Mallory, Mazian, Satin, Bluetooth, Bounder, Lily, the Old One, and the Dreamer all play major parts in the story. As I said above, she focuses on characters, and there are quite a few of them. She does a good job keeping characters distinct: each is unique in their desires, most are unique in their actions, and the voices spoken of above also help to keep each distinct. As a backup, she often names them, just to ensure legibility—there are enough things going on so quickly throughout the book that naming the characters often is a help to the reader. But the characters are not separate—like me, these characters exist in the world, surrounded by other people. This close affiliation really helps drive the novel’s theme and focus home.
7. The theme here is kindness. The central relationships in the novels—Josh and Damon and Elene, Emilio and the Downers, Kressich and Coledy, Mazian and Mallory, Azov and Ayres and Jacoby, Jon and his minions—are all based around kindness or a lack thereof. The relationships that are kind, like Josh and Damon and Elene, are largely successful in achieving their goals through kindness paying unexpected dividends down the line. Those unkind relationships, like Mazian and Mallory, end up breaking down disastrously. In this way, Cherryh admonishes her readers to be kind, even when it appears no benefit could occur, because benefit will always come from kindness, and selfishness will always bring ruin. In a story where so much action occurs, this is about as deep as she gets into her applicable theme, but it’s not the only theme: she’s also talking about human psychology during and right after space expansion. This is less applicable than the kindness theme, because space expansion hasn’t yet occurred, but it’s interesting and in depth to a satisfying degree. She examines this theme primarily through her voice and her characters. It’s an interesting metaphor for trying to understand what the Westward expansion must have been like in America—or, perhaps more appropriately due to the Union and Alliance, the American and Australian expansions from Britain. Through reading this book, I do feel like I understand that period of history better.
8. Cherryh does something here that I consistently rag on: the intro-info-dump. But, unlike Asimov’s when-will-it-end example in Foundation, this one isn’t painful. It may be appropriate because there is so much action in the novel, that to stop long enough to backfill details about the world could have easily felt awkward. But during the intro-info-dump, I wasn’t as annoyed as I typically am. How did she do it well?
—She doesn’t ramble or burden the reader with details. This is concise, need-to-know stuff. I get the feeling like she has pared this down again and again until it’s a tight, quick, efficient nine pages. She doesn’t lose interesting details, but doesn’t keep too many details in there. Like the balance her writing strikes between slick over-production and early-draft edges, this intro-info-dump manages to give me just enough details to get my mind racing, and not enough to make it difficult to follow or remember. This is how you intro-info-dump: write a wikipedia style and length article for your intro, then make it sound awesome and cut half the stuff out, that half that nobody cares about.
—Also, many authors will use the intro-info dump to trot out hints of stories or characters that never come up again. Cherryh, by sticking to details and only those that will influence the coming novel, avoids this pitfall. I think the problem with this pitfall is that it divides the reader’s attention, sending it towards something that is not the novel.
—That said, I still wish there wasn’t an intro-info-dump here. The Dreamer, if given more screen-time, could’ve easily and naturally backfilled details to Satin or Lily or some other Downer. And that could have gotten her on-scene more, helping to make the Downers’ actions around her more important when they occur. So yes, she intro-info-dumps, and even though she does it well, I still think a different strategy would’ve served the story better. One day I’ll find that perfect intro-info-dump. This one was good, but not yet there.
9. I enjoy this novel immensely. Though it’s a little short on depth of the applicable theme, it is not pulp fiction because the science fiction theme of expansion is deeply explored and interesting. The whole thing is told so well that I have a hard time stopping—many nights reading too late with this one. She is both a fantastic storyteller and a wonderful writer. I was very impressed with the writing and characterizations—which all become one sort of thing here. In short, I have already started another of her novels, that’s how good this one was.