30 June, 2016

Hellburner by CJ Cherryh

1. A few months back, a friend and I lamented our agreeing perception of bad quality military science fiction today. We also reminisced on some of the big points in the genre: War of the Worlds, Starship Troopers, and The Forever War. This novel by CJ Cherryh is also military science fiction: four characters being trained in a program involving a specific spaceship that is difficult to fly, the program is failing, and political and fleet maneuvering try to save it from failing or hurry it on its way. Like Cherryh typically does, this is a novel based on interpersonal interactions first, political maneuvering second, and damaged people trying to find their way. So if you’re looking for military science fiction with depth, try here. There isn’t a stitch of combat until the end, but that ends up just being a test run. I do not think you need to read the prequel, Heavy Time, to understand this sequel or the characters, but Cherryh advises that you do.

2. There are five main characters in the novel: Meg, Sal, Ben, Dek, and Graff. And all of them change significantly throughout the novel.
—Graff sort of runs the show—that “sort of” taking up a bunch of the plot. He’s constantly uneasy at absentee management and that his direct superior in the program is not a part of his branch of the military. At the beginning he is sure of himself, but that’s quickly destroyed. By the end, as the scope of his influence spreads, and more importantly, as he realizes that it spreads in some ways and contracts in others, he is much more comfortable and effective in a wider variety of situations. For instance, the Graff at the beginning would not have been able to be so smooth in the press conferences at the end. He has changed throughout the novel to reflect the influences he comes under within the novel.
—Dek, recovering from an assassination attempt and heavily drugged up at the beginning, slowly gets his feet under him and learns to filter things out better. This is an ongoing process for him: coming to terms with the death of his team and their replacements, who are from an earlier point in his life he has cut off. By the end, he’s able to accept simple luxuries because he finally believes in himself.
—Ben begins by running away from hands-on work, believing he’ll be happier in some lab somewhere in Stockholm. But the fleet co-opts him and he finds uses for his skills that help his friends. He goes from an asshole who needs nobody to a man who comes to rely upon his friends deeply, and justifies their relying upon him as well.
—Sal is the one who doesn’t change much within this novel. She changes from the last novel to this one, but most of her change was in the prior novel, and this one helps solidify those changes in her. However, off-screen, between the novels, Sal’s greatest change occurs. At the end of Heavy Time she became a Shepherd, her goal. But eventually, between the novels, she realizes that Meg is more important to her by now, so she follows Meg into this novel. Coming to terms with this change in her is her story arc.
—Meg begins by being the egotistical, slighted political reformer and pilot. But through the training program, realizing her own age, the social situations on the station, and Sal’s kindness in coming with her—she eventually comes to a stable, happy place in her life. Some of that anger burns out, some she discards, the useful anger she keeps. And she becomes the first at something, proves herself to herself, echoing Dek’s journey but with specific points that are unique to Meg.
—These changing characters are the central focus of the novel. The plot supports their changing throughout.

3. And these changes are the theme here. By their changing and growing understanding of each other, the whole war effort is benefited through the program they save. In other words, improve yourself and many of those around you will also improve; find a place to fit in and don’t be surprised when you need to change to fit it too; and find a way to fit your situations without betraying your self. Tanzer’s method of leadership—anger and regulations—doesn’t fit who he has under him, and so he fails. Porey’s method of threats and grace in equal measures also don’t succeed. But this group of five people who ignore the chaff to learn to work with each other through understanding and kindness end up saving the whole program from ruin—and themselves in the process. This theme of communication leading to understanding leading to discussion leading to success is central and there are many, many smaller examples of this: Keu almost loses Graff’s efficacy through Keu’s lack of communication, but Saito and Demas pull him back; the first communication between Dek and his mother ends up averting a major political situation and more riots; Rob communicating a simple handshake to Dek helps diffuse a powderkeg; etc.

4. Again and again Cherryh changes her writing to fit the plot and characters of her novels, like she does here. This is a military training facility with military characters, and it reflects that. A lot less situations are gray areas while a lot more end up being black and white. Chain of command, word choices, training, regulations, gratuitous language—these all fundamentally change Cherryh’s writing. Meg and Sal, as they acclimate to the situation, are less flashy and more military by the end, and this change spread throughout helps set the tone of the novel. This tactic is incredibly effective at world building and drawing the reader into the novel.

5. And really, I don’t know what else to say. This novel is fantastic. There is no intro-info-dump, no last page reveal, no slow start, no wasted scene or word, no extraneous character, and no hint of deus ex machina. But of course it isn't just some list of how she writes: it's what she writes. This list just indicates which tactics she uses and which she avoids, indicates how much she respects the reader's intelligence rather than spoon feeding them, indicates the craft of her writing. The writing could pay a little more attention to description, but the payoff in world building with Cherryh’s tight voice is certainly worth that niggling lack. And the description of the ship from Meg’s eyes is wonderful. This is clearly one of her better works and, despite what she says, I think it does stand well on its own and can be read without first reading Heavy Time—though that’s not to say that Heavy Time is bad. This is a novel first, and a sequel second—which I couldn’t say about Regenesis. So far, I think it’s one of her best.
“The enemy of my enemy,” Demas said, and took the bottle up, “threatens both our livelihoods.”

25 June, 2016

Heavy Time by CJ Cherryh

1. The book begins with mining partners Bird and Ben stumbling across a distress signal in their Company assigned sector of the solar system’s asteroid belt. Obviously, because so much book comes after this first chapter, they don’t find something simple. Entering a ship identical to their standard, ubiquitous mining craft, they find a man named Dekker—not the only cyber-punk pun in here. Dekker’s physical state requires medical intervention and a quick trip back to home base, Refinery 2. While heading back, they realize Dekker is psychologically broken. Dekker has floated for 71 days with minimal life support after his partner and lover died on a space-walk. Dekker is convinced Cory was run down by another ship, a Driver who was trying to jump their claim. Ben responds to Dekker negatively, taking a typical Belter attitude towards something perceived as inefficient—insanity, in Dekker’s case—and trying to either stop it legally or dispose of it illegally. The inefficiency is what the problem is to Ben, and he sees Dekker's insanity as simply that. At the same time, he convinces himself Dekker’s ship will become his and Bird’s valuable salvage. Bird, being a blue-skyer, a human from earth, responds positively to Dekker, deciding to try and help this poor miner as much as he can. And this set-up, all in the first couple of chapters, introduces the central story elements that the rest of the novel revolves around. Dekker attempting to come back to reality and heal, Bird and Ben trying to get the salvage on his ship, Meg and Sal helping and attempting to secure the first place in line for leasing the potential new ship, and the political intrigue of this very messy situation with the Company, the proto-Mazianni military using the mined materials to build their carriers, the other freelance miners and Shepherds agitating for better conditions and pay, and the diverse political scene within the solar system. Throughout the novel, everybody is piecing together what happened to Dekker, even Dekker, and figuring out how to use his situation to get the Company to screw its employees less. Every chapter or so, Cherryh repeats Dekker’s basic situation and adds a little each time, expanding upon the basic personal trouble of the first couple of chapters to include the wider political context. And as strong as this tactic worked in Merchanter’s Luck, it works brilliantly here. I think it works better because of two reasons: the political context is much wider and more foundational to what the reader probably already knows from other novels, though it is still very much behind the scenes; and the addition of a honest-to-God earthman, Bird, gives the reader a familiar face, a point of reference to understand the rest from. Bird is extremely useful to the reader in this role, especially with Cherryh's tightly focused voice.

2. Kind of like Bet Yeager in Rimrunners, Bird, Ben, Sal, Meg, and Dekker are low-life freelancers, similar to gold miners during the gold rushes. They enjoy dark bars and dangerous living. They're skirting the law and trying to get rich. Where Bet was an ex-soldier, these are career miners. Sal, Dekker, Ben, and Cory want out, want a better life eventually, but while they are in, they embrace the low-lifestyle of the almost criminal underground.
—But the politics, mostly behind the scenes, keep poking influences into their lives. The Shepherds are using Dekker’s situation to try and strongarm the Company into making their employees’ lives better, and they're doing it through Sal, who wants to be a Shepherd. The military uses it as an excuse to take over the Company and restructure it to more efficiently give them the materials they need to build Mazian's fleet. The Company tries to keep it quiet and cover it all up to keep the status quo and their power. All of these influences drive the central five characters in the story, forcing them into situations and repercussions that are unforeseen by these people at the bottom of this chain of command.
—Like Cherryh typically does, the novel matches the story of these characters through word choices which embrace space mining shorthand, scenes which require the characters to respond in ways that only criminals and revolutionaries would, and their ignorance about the political currents which are driving their lives. This tactic of conforming the story and writing to the characters really works wonderfully to make a rigorous and interesting novel. But it also leaves big elements all-but-out of the novel: like the characters, the reader is confused about why certain things are happening until all is revealed in the final chapter.

3. Cherryh utilizes a variety of voices in this novel to define certain classes of people. Meg is a revolutionary and is always deprecating the Company. The miners are no friend of the Company, but they’re more understanding than Meg. Sal and Ben are scientists and end up being more cut-and-dry, talking statistics and logic. The doctors and orderlies have bedside manners that don’t quite communicate clearly. And each smaller group—military, security, traffic control, corp-rats, shepherds—has distinctive characteristics as well. The Corp-Rats speak in precise ways that utilize words from their operating manuals. But Cherryh’s typical tight third person voice also affects dialogue, spitting it at the reader without stopping to explain and leaving the reader to imagine the characters’ responses. This can be confusing at first, but it all eventually makes sense as the characters mull over their situations and explain things the reader may not have gathered at first. However, the variety of voices does help the reader define the speakers in the novel very quickly and efficiently.

4. Dekker’s chapters engage in some experimental writing utilizing fractured sentences and a deeply unreliable narrator to communicate both the story and Dekker’s state of mind. This writing effectively shows and tells simultaneously. The most impressive part is the balance she draws between information and the unreliability of Dekker as narrator. She manages to both communicate and obfuscate simultaneously. It’s fantastic and strange.

5. Because the reader and miners don’t really know what’s going on until the final chapter, the pacing ends up a little slow in the novel. The reader isn’t sure what’s going on for much of the novel, so it raises the question of whether all the scenes add to the characters or story or argument or world-building. That last-chapter reveal explains most of the scenes, but I’m still left with the impression of being lost for much of the novel. For such a short novel, this isn’t too much of a negative, but it does make it drag on a bit.

6. The theme here is Bird’s helpful nature versus Ben’s selfish one. Neither are perfect, but the combination is effective. It’s a microcosm of the political changes the solar system is undergoing at the time, within the story. But it’s applicable to the reader as well, as each of us needs to find our own balance between trying to help or protect oneself to the extent of the law, and allowing forgiveness and helpfulness to temper our actions and open us up to vulnerabilities or to an unrealistically optimistic and trusting way of life. It’s clear that understanding reality is important, but Ben is constantly unsure whether Bird has his head in the clouds or is acting in a safe way among the Belters. Bird’s natural helpfulness is not a problem only when it is tempered by reality, and Ben brings that tempering influence in order to make the whole partnership work well. Similarly, Ben relies too much on the laws and bureaucracy to be a well-liked member of society, but his association with the well-liked Bird helps him overcome this. Together, both will live longer in the Belt than either would being in a partnership with somebody who agrees with them.

7. There is no intro-info-dump here, but the last chapter reveal is moderately annoying—as it is in comic books. In order to avoid it, Cherryh could have spent a lot more words on this story, including characters from other stratas of this society to show the political influences more clearly and keep the reader tracking closer to the plot. But that would have demolished the meandering tone of the novel that, as slow and frustrating as it is, effectively communicates what the life of a space miner on three month shore-leave, known as Heavy Time for the influence of gravity, would be like. I haven’t really seen her try this meandering style of storytelling before, so it’s fun seeing her try something new. I like this novel, but it’s not her best. I think she found the breaking point for her voice where not enough is on-screen to really keep the plot moving. The novel stands on its own well, but by having read some of the others in this series that take place after this novel, this novel is also a fascinating look into a part of the story I hadn't come across yet. Good stuff, not great.

18 June, 2016

Rimrunners by CJ Cherryh

1. And the intro-info dump returns. It’s still not the best way for Cherryh’s writing, but at least this one is short, like three pages short. There is that. Alright, I’ve complained about this way too much, or not enough, so let’s move on.

2. This novel, unlike any of the other Cherryh novels I’ve read, focuses on one character, and that character isn’t at the top of a corporate or governmental body. Bet Yeager, the main character, begins the novel homeless and starving, in the midst of criminal activity caused by desperation, sleeping in a public restroom and washed up on a dying space station where she is the victim of sexual violence twice in the novel itself. She is a spacer and, as the novel progresses, the reader slowly finds out that she used to be a Marine on the Mazianni ship Africa—a low position on board, and she was just a sergeant, mostly because of time and experience. Then she gets a job on Loki, a mechanic position. Loki is a spook ship that sits around transfer points in space to gather information, then sells it—not exactly glamorous or trusted. The point is that where other Cherryh novels tell their story from a top-down perspective, showing the heights of society struggling to guide their society—even if it is just a washed-up captain who owns his own ship as in Merchanter’s Luck—this novel is about a low-life who was left behind by her ship during the events of Downbelow Station—expendable and expended. The every-woman focus fascinates and provides a picture of Cherryh’s world that I hadn’t yet seen and it really adds to the world-building of the whole. But in the specifics of this novel, it remains admirably rigorous to its focus. The characters of other novels are sometimes talked about by these plebeians, when their decision impact Bet, but they never show up. The captain of lowly-Loki only shows up twice in the novel, reinforcing this focus of Cherryh’s.

3. And Cherryh’s writing, as always, changes to fit her characters. Here the rougher dialogue helps illuminate the characters, the topics of conversation fit their desperation and ignorance, and the methods of interaction are more cut and dry, less polite and politically correct. The colloquialisms used by her and those around her reflect general shipboard colloquialisms, rather than the specific, esoteric colloquialisms of Reseune or Pell Station. Bet makes mistakes, big ones, and is punished immediately. That’s not to say there isn’t any politics—one of the points of the novel is that politics affect every strata of a culture. But Cherryh realizes her story and changes her writing to fit that, to support that, to reflect that. She doesn’t change everything, just modifies word choices and sentence structures to fit the people she is talking about. It’s a tactic that more writers need to adopt.

4. Instead of her typical third person, she loosens things up a bit and writes in second person quite often—a few times in each chapter. This helps the reader identify with the characters because there is a similarity there: advice and wisdom are often given, to oneself or others, in the second person, and most of the second person sentences are advice or wisdom. For instance:
But past is never past, man, past is, that’s all; all you can ever get at is what is now and will be.
This example of the writing shows how her voice and her writing changes in this novel to fit the characters who people her novel. This second person voice adds to her typical voice, not replacing it. As such, it strengthens her writing.

5. The theme here is about the past and how it comes back to haunt us in unexpected ways—a similar theme to Merchanter’s Luck, sure. But Cherryh doesn’t repeat her earlier book, she uses this theme and adds to it by saying that kindness can overcome a lot of the past’s repercussions. For instance, being an ex-Africa trooper, Bet doesn’t want to take a position on a ship heading towards Pell, where ex-Mazianni are reviled and actively hunted. So she stays on at Thule and ends up having to kill a couple of people to protect herself. In other words, she makes a decision attempting to protect herself from likely repercussions for her past, and ends up still being in danger. Later, on Loki, she befriends another social outcast and worries what he will do once he learns of her Mazianni past. But on Loki her kindness protects her from the worst of the ravages of her past. Oh, she gets beat up pretty badly, but she doesn’t die, she doesn’t have to kill, she ends up fixing some situations onboard through her direct actions. And what allows her to have that influence is the kindness she has sown throughout the preceding chapters.

6. Cherryh writes political intrigue at a rigorous psychological depth. When talking about Reseune, she told the psychology and showed it. But here, with a plebeian as a main character, the psychological depth resembles pop psychology through the colloquial language used instead of scientifically specific language. She shows the psychology here, rather than telling it. This works well and allows the reader to interpret the story in terms of their own experiences and similar experiences they’ve heard from others.

7. I like this book a lot. Yeah, there are uncomfortable instances of sexual and physical violence, but those are used to build the character that the whole book is focused on. This focus on one character allows Cherryh to get to a depth in building Bet that really works. The story, being focused on her, excludes the greater political picture except in how it affects Bet directly. Even in Merchanter’s Luck, a book about a loner, the greater political picture bleeds into the story some. Here however, it all but doesn’t: this is a snapshot of the life of a normal citizen in the Alliance—well, as normal as we've seen. Bet has a past, but in this post-war situation, who doesn’t? It’s a great story and good, good book.

14 June, 2016

Merchanter's Luck by CJ Cherryh

1. This short, 208 page novel resembles none of the other three Cherryh novels that I have read so far—Downbelow Station, Cyteen, and Regenesis—but it also sort of does resemble them.
—This is an adventure novel. It’s a straightforward narrative with rising tension and a resolution after the crisis. It’s almost pulp fiction and can certainly be read and enjoyed as such. However, being Cherryh, it still delves deeply into the psychology of Sandor and Allison. They’re both merchanters, the smallest and biggest sort, respectively. Sandor has lost his family and is alone on his ship, going crazy in the blackness of space from: the stress of no job prospects, mounting debt, less and less friendly places being open to him, the constant threat of pirates or Mazianni, his past haunting him, and, most of all, simple loneliness and paranoia—some of which is justified throughout the novel. Allison is under different stresses: overcrowding, lack of advancement opportunities, self-doubt through knowing she is untested, and routine boredom. Cherryh focuses on the most applicable psychological stresses: loneliness and self-doubt. That psychological focus and discussion matches the amount of adventure in here, making the whole as literary as it is all tied into that pulp plot and pacing.
—No intro-info-dump accosts the reader’s first lines. And this absence makes me really happy because I was worried that all of Cherryh’s books would feature that oh so awkward of openings. But here, she fills in the backstories of the main and minor characters skillfully throughout the novel—taking moments when they are alone with their thoughts to reflect on how their situation now differs from their past lives. For instance, the whole story of Sandor/Ed’s dead family is not fully revealed until the last chapter, but most of it is revealed early and revisited throughout with additions to the story every time it comes up. It’s a great tactic to show Sandor as a character really well: he keeps reliving the horror of his past, and as it comes up again and again, with more detail each time, the reader is shocked and sympathetic to this character who is actually quite unlikable. He’s understandable, and his reactions are logical from his screwed up base, but I wouldn’t want to hang out with him—until maybe the end, that is.
—In these two ways, and others like them, I see Cherryh as both writing to her strengths and trying new things in this book. It adheres to Cherryh’s typical storytelling, but also deviates from it in a way that provides an appreciable variety. The new things she tries are done well, and the old things too.

2. This is a book of contrasts. Wealth and poverty are paired together in Sandor who owns his own merchantship outright and alone, but has no money to speak of. Skill and inexperience pair in Allison who is trained and practiced in simulations, but untested in reality. The main characters cross the Line between Union and Alliance, and then Alliance and Mazianni. Through these contrasting points, the novel is able to show how some contrasts strengthen the whole, some weaken them, and most do both. This theme feels complex enough to support a longer story than Cherryh chose to tell, but even in this short length she creates some interesting conclusions that got my mind working.

3. The writing here is great. I’ve already praised the storytelling tactic of revisiting Sandor’s family’s death—a tactic engrossing to both Sandor and the reader. But I think it works so well because the writing is a retelling where each retelling adds details and wrinkles the repetition to make the whole story more and more horrifying. It echoes itself throughout the novel and it’s a relief when the resolution hints that Sandor can start a new family. I like repetition in poetry—Yeats does it so well—and this is repetition in prose done right. It’s not a direct repetition, but a re-explanation, like when a teacher restates something the students don’t understand at first. I fully intend to steal this writing.

4. One thing I didn’t enjoy is the stupendous achievement Sandor makes in time from Viking to Pell. After it’s done, Cherryh explains how impressive a feat it is. But before that, I didn’t understand how impressive. Cherryh could have done more to explain during the journey what is so unusual about the action: but with the worldbuilding not setting the stage appropriately and her voice, that tight third person narrative (explained in point three of my notes on Regenesis), she is backed into a corner here because Sandor is tranquilized during the speed run, so he isn’t quite able to make sense to the reader. We also have not yet seen a normal journey of this length, so it’s unclear what makes this one unusual until it's over. I thought maybe this was how all journeys went when a ship had a solo crewmember. She does a good job of explaining it later, especially with the journalists' and Reillys' responses, but some more foreshadowing would’ve helped here.

5. However, Cherryh's use of her voice is not a mistake in the rest of the novel. For instance, when Sandor is on the dock at the start, there isn't that much description given because he isn't thinking about it—at least not until he chases Allison into an unfamiliar, expensive bar the likes of which he has never seen. But then, when he gets back on his ship, the intricate way that Sandor is shown thinking about his ship both describes it and communicates his utter love for it. Sandor's ship is a big part of the whole novel's plot: Allison wants it, Mallory wants it, Australia wants it, Sandor wants to keep it, Viking dock wants to detain it, Pell wants to shoot it out of the sky, etc. And Cherryh has foreshadowed the importance of the ship itself through this contrast in description at the very start. By the time Allison gets her idea, I've well understood the importance of the ship and Cherryh doesn't need to explain it to me. Wonderful stuff.

6. I enjoy this novel a lot. It’s a quick read, an exciting adventure, but there’s still some political backstabbing, interesting psychological discussion, and enough intrigue to prove that this is a Cherryh novel. It’s solid and engaging. It taught me that repetition in prose can be a really strong tactic to build characters and stories around.

12 June, 2016

Regenesis by CJ Cherryh

1. This sequel to Cyteen starts near where Cyteen left off and discusses another year in the life of these characters. However, Regenesis assumes that the reader has already read Cyteen to the point where it doesn’t stand on its own very well. In a sense, this novel is a character study of Ari. This character study is driven by two things: Denys Nye dying provided the opportunity for Ari and the kids to take control of Resuene and organize differently than Ari I had; secondly, Ari II is different from Ari I—how different can she be without straying too far from Ari I while still retaining the benefits of her predecessor? These two are intrinsically linked: without being different, Ari II wouldn’t want to change things; and without things being changed around her, Ari II wouldn’t be different. These intertwined twins of conflicts propel the novel from being simply a chronicle of Ari to being an engrossing story in its own right. Also, Union’s post-war economy and politics have changed, and that rapid and unexpected external change is what these characters are dealing with. By the end, one realizes that it takes hard work, long study, and a lot of stress to retain the power of the parent in the younger child, no matter the privilege. This theme gets satisfyingly in depth. Ari reaps both benefits and detriments from her predecessor/parent: her predecessor was powerful, but not well liked. Ari has to deal with that while she is coming of age. It’s a satisfyingly complex and diverse theme and story that remains interesting and applicable throughout.

2. The structure here perfectly matches and tells the story.
—By slowing down the novel for the action—spending more time and words on the violent or complex days—Cherryh inherently signposts that those portions are important: the extra description of them, and reading time spent on them, communicates this. But she reinforces their importance through the chapter titles that tell the day and time of the chapter’s beginning—down to the minute. This labeling is a reference point, a landmark for the reader: even though the novel is chronological, pointing out the gap or lack of gap between documented portions of the story helps the reader keep track of the story. Again, like in Cyteen, this is a structural tactic that I rarely see used well, but Cherryh does by using it to cut out scene-setting in a novel that has a lot of scenes over its 592 pages.
—Simultaneously, she does not ignore the down-time. Cherryh uses it to allow a natural place for rumination, for the characters and the reader to reflect. She even summarizes actions of the last few chapters at times, in the characters’ minds, ending with a sort of, “What a day” conclusion. This helps explain the importance of the important bits, helps the reader know what’s going on and why the characters care. But more importantly, it allows Cherryh to draw meaning out in a way that feels honest to human psychology—sometimes the moment is too chaotic to fully understand the implications, but a little reflection can unlock a lot of wisdom.
—She paces the book well through this structure in order to not overburden the reader with too much rumination or too much action. Rather, the action and the rumination are split, like in normal day-to-day life, but the book is constantly going back and forth between the two instead of being all action for the first three hundred pages, and all rumination for the last. She doesn’t keep the pace up too high for too long, or too low for too long, instead allowing the chapter breaks to switch gears within the story and bring in a slower or faster scene—or to continue directly from the last chapter to increase the tension within the ongoing scene.
—This structure makes this book easier to follow, especially with Cherryh’s typical voice. Like in Cyteen or A Song of Ice and Fire, most chapters are self-contained and it’s a strong tactic.

3. Cherryh uses a third person narrative that typically focuses on one character. Her voice is so closely tied into the character’s thoughts that Cherryh will not describe what the character is seeing fully—if the character has never ran foul of security, they will not notice the security around, and the reader will not know if security is around. Or if the character does notice something, it’s probably important because it’s new, unusual, or a problem. This is something that I adore about Cherryh’s writing because it keeps the story moving along: through this voice, Cherryh focuses on what’s important—the actions, dialogue, and thoughts of the characters—rather than what isn’t—the specifics of the technologies, the mundane, and the non-informative stuff like going to the bathroom. There are things that are unimportant to stories and Cherryh’s voice is a perfect way to exclude them.

4. The writing allows places of beauty and places of efficient prose. This use of prose is common and Cherryh does it well here: the description of the new apartments are incredibly effective at communicating beauty through beautiful images and language. But other parts are efficient prose that concisely describe things that are not beautiful with more normal language. This variety is key to my enjoyment of Cherry’s novels because as it’s constantly changing, I am entertained by the variety.

5. Cherryh deals with the characters changing well: Justin and Ari are perhaps the two most significantly changed by the events in this novel. And though Justin is a new man by the end, part of the administration that was his antagonist for so long, he is still Justin and still influenced by his time as a consistent suspect. Ari is finding herself through the intense expectations on her and her otherness in being partly her predecessor and partly herself. By the end she knows which parts are her and which parts are Ari I, and she takes a number of conscious choices throughout the novel to utilize the best of both and become a middle ground that she desires. This example shows Cherryh using the science fiction cloning technology to make the coming-of-age narrative explicit. It’s a fantastic use of science fiction to take something we almost know and make it strange in order to explain it: here Cherryh illuminates how we deal with the beliefs of our parents as we come into our majority, discarding some as old fashioned, some as ill-fitting, and keeping what we agree with after we’ve had a chance to reflect on our own experiences. Justin and Ari are not the only characters that experience these changes—especially from the start of Cyteen to the end of this book—so this is a theme explored more than just how it relates to Justin and Ari. Cherryh does a great job at changing the characters in fundamental ways, but keeping enough of what was before that it feels psychologically honest.

6. There are a couple of points where the story seems to forget threads that are not resolved, but these specific dropped threads do not bother me because the book is a character study of Ari—let me explain.
—I could complain that the unrealized looming visits by people who were sent away during Ari’s childhood creates a dropped plot point, but I don’t think they actually do. The important thing to the novel is Ari’s realization that she isn’t that little kid anymore and these people have lived their own separate lives for more than a decade: they were not placed in existential limbo by being separated from her, they are complex humans who she does not know. This realization is incredibly important to the novel because it shows Ari that she isn’t the little kid anymore, as much as she is needled by Justin calling her a kid. It also slaps her in the face with her own ego: she is just a dim memory to them and her obsessing over them for years is a sign of her strangeness. It reinforces the coming-of-age theme and signals the beginning of the end of that process for Ari.
—Similarly, Yanni and Hicks are suspected of malfeasance by Ari, but are cleared in ways that are not as complex as some of Ari and Justin’s changes. But again, the book focuses on Ari, not Yanni and Hicks. Ari realizing that Yanni is not a threat is a big step in explaining Ari and her growing up. She shows that she is able to contextualize a person and realize what that person is in a way that children do not. Yanni is neither enemy or friend, but he’s his own person and agrees with Ari in some ways while disagreeing in others. To me, since the novel is a character study of Ari, this reason for dropping suspicion of Yanni satisfies the plot point of suspicious Yanni sufficiently.
—So even where the story seems to forget things or drop threads, they are used for what Cherryh is doing in the novel, for what is important to the novel. They are not forgotten, they are used and moved on from.

7. In all, Regenesis is a fantastic book, but it’s only a sequel—it assumes the reader has read Cyteen and it doesn’t stand well on its own. The fact that it’s not as popular now as Cyteen was twenty years before is a sign of how times and science fiction have changed. Nearing the end of the Cold War, this Eastern Bloc focus was on everybody’s mind, but is now not thought of as often.
—Meanwhile, science fiction has begun to reflect the political correctness of the culture today, and that means that the Azi, the human clones that are essentially a second class within the society, or slaves by most reviewers’ reckoning, are just not popular today. People have a problem with Cherryh not explicitly stating that she is against this slavery in the novel. She says that the specific people trying to save the Azi are more earnest than wise, but the morality of the Azi/Citizen culture is a big sticking point for a lot of people. Her voice is partly to blame here: her characters make money by selling Azi for altruistic reasons that their culture politically agrees with, so it’s somewhat understandable that they don’t want to question the morality of it—like Heinlein, her characters run away with the novel. As deplorable as their ignoring the issue may be, people do it every day and we should discuss it: wearing clothes made by slave labor, buying products when the store isn’t adequately compensating the provider, working for companies engaged in adverse business practices—these are things we all deal with daily. Cherryh tackles the mindset, not the specific problem. Shouldn’t we be conscious of these things and thinking about them? They’re important issues. I don’t think I should deplore the book because Cherryh’s characters live in and support a culture that I disagree with. I should react to their culture in healthy ways.
—But I think the issue is deeper than self-deception: the Azi are a necessity for the population booms needed in space expansion on the scale of this novel—people don’t want to move from their comfortable positions, so Azi fill the role of pioneers and their children become the citizen base for new cultures at new space stations or planets. Yes, Cherryh doesn’t include what could have been the interesting implications of the Gehenna situation and its international relations fallout; but on a smaller scale she deals with those issues throughout the novel. Also, the Azi inherently reflect the citizens’ beliefs and wishes and as they create problems—Paul with Jordan, Kyle with Gerrard, or Abban with Ari I—the author might be making a moral statement: Azi are an efficient political necessity, but too little thought went into the premises of that necessity argument to allow them to be problem free—especially in military Azis’ reintegration to society, but even in small things like Caitlin not realizing that Justin calling Ari a kid may be disturbing to a natural human of eighteen who has a crush on Justin. Olga Emory is deplored for the military mindsets she pumped out over a century in the past. Who is and is not frustrated in the plot probably indicates the author’s point of view.
—In closing, if science fiction isn’t where we can discuss a culture like this and learn from it, then where can we? I’m obviously not advocating more slavery in science fiction, not by any stretch of the imagination. But I am advocating freedom for authors to discuss ideas they find important through cultures that are different than ours.
—Where Cyteen was notable for gay main characters, Regenesis is deplored for Azi slavery, and that critical and fan response is a perfect snapshot of how science fiction has changed from 1989 to 2009. This is a good book, a great sequel, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending too much time reading it and not enough time doing my chores or being social. These are important issues and I’m glad Cherryh is bringing them up. She probably means to rub the reader the wrong way with them, and I love being asked to think about things.

10 June, 2016

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks

1. This Culture novel strikes me as a solid book, and I can’t quite tell why I like it this much. It’s solid: the whole thing is well put together, well executed, an enjoyable read, but nothing really stands out much. There is no one thing Banks does exceedingly well here that I can marvel at and praise and ramble on about for pages and pages. But in a sense, that’s why I love this book so much: everything fits well together. This is a comfortable Banks, writing what he knows and doing it well.

2. Like much of Banks’ works, this novel is about international relations on the surface, and personal philosophy, relationships, and motivations on a deeper level.
—The science fiction theme here is Culture being betrayed by allies that imitate Culture to betray them. They’re little pan-human beings that are perfectly beautiful and childlike, but hide evil plots behind that facade. Including their imitation of Culture in order to frame Culture for some mischief they want to get up to.
—In essence, this is the applicable theme as well: the surface details don’t give the whole picture. Vepers, the main antagonist, is a perfect example of this: a popular, fiercely wealthy oligarch who uses his wealth to buy privacy and privilege in order to do whatever he wants—murder, rape, and double deal. But the rest of the main characters also hide behind facades: Led is tattooed to her atoms, never really being seen as a human being until she finds the Culture, but the novelty of that deeply upsets her; Prin turns into a hell demon in order to escape hell after posing as an inmate; Chay pretends to be a mother superior when she has not a religious belief in her body, finding peace through this subterfuge; Yime is a Special Circumstances plant in Quietus who has forgotten that she is SC; Vatueil has changed his mind in the virtual war over the hells and is a traitor time and time again; while Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints both pretends to be Torturer class when really it’s an Abominator class, and hides a heart of kindness behind a facade of brusque lack of political correctness. In these ways, and others, the main characters and most of the secondary ones hide behind constructed surface details in order to gain advantage over their situations.
—It’s the most conspiratorial of the Culture novels, so far—and there are multiple conspiracies on multiple sides. These tiny pan-humans aren’t the only group to hide things from another. Culture, at the end, hides their capabilities to allow the little pan-humans some success that the Culture wants, but still making it look like the pan-humans are the perpetrators.
—The point is to not trust things as they first appear to be. Banks gives both positive and negative examples of this hiding, not judging that people do it, just stating that they do and we better find a way to live with it. The book effectively uses this theme without telling the reader outright that this is the theme. Instead, these situations that I cataloged above show the theme adequately without Banks breaking into some melodramatic monologue illuminating the whole. Often, a book with a weak theme will only reveal its theme through the plot, but here it feels intentional due to how consistent it is in almost every situation. This “theme through showing” tactic is well done and might perhaps be the one thing that Banks does best within the book.
In Valley 308, which was part of the Thrice Flayed Footprint district of the Pavulean Hell, level three, there was an old-fashioned mill with a tall external over-shot wheel, powered by blood. It was part of the punishment of some of the virtual souls in that place that each day they be profusely bled for as long as they could without falling unconscious. There were many thousands of such unfortunates to be bled during each session and they were duly dragged screaming from their nearby pens by grotesquely formed, irresistibly powerful demons and strapped to canted iron tables with drains at their foot. These tables were arranged in serried ranks on the steep banks of the arid valley, which, had one been able to look at it from far enough above, would have been revealed as a ridge forming part of a truly gigantic footprint; hence the district’s name.

3. The characters are all very engaging here, through each having a positive and a negative main characteristic—and both are linked. Often the negative stems from the positive. Led, though bent on revenge, doubts her own ability to enact the revenge that consumes her desires. Prin is so profoundly affected by his experiences in hell that kidnapping, people showing up in his dreams to threaten him, threats to the lives or wellbeing of anybody he ever cared about—nothing fazes him anymore. Chay finds a way to live in hell, but is so changed that she chooses to not go back to the physical reality. Yime thinks highly of herself as this incredibly unique person who turned down SC for Quietus—but she isn’t and once she finds that out she never finds a place to truly belong again. Vatueil finds the side he believes in, but by doing so he betrays his old side and is never trusted again by either. Vepers throws monkey wrenches into everything, shakes things up in unexpected and interesting ways, but it’s all for his own benefit. These internal conflicts allow each character—and each section that focuses on a character—to be incredibly interesting. And Banks shifts back and forth between the characters at a perfect pace, keeping each scene succinct and important, with some rumination, but not so much it bogs the book down. Each of these main characters is allowed space to flourish and find footing in the reader’s mind. This effectively allows each character an interesting conflict that keeps Banks’ structure interesting all the way through.

4. Okay, by this point in the series, I expect the Banks structure of disparate situations and characters slowly converging before everything gets crazy. And Banks doesn’t disappoint. But the start was unexpected: the first three chapters end in three deaths. These three characters come back—two were in virtual worlds, of which one is reborn in the physical world and the other in another virtual world, while the last one was surprised by being reborn in Culture, where she had never been. All three rebirths end up being central parts of the novel, but it is strange when it happens, especially with Banks’ usual tactic of not naming characters right away. It made me think the novel was about death, not subterfuge. This bait and switch is unfortunate, but it does set up the novel nicely in terms of world building. I think this might be an inherent problem with Banks’ typical tactic: the first few chapters introduce the reader to the main characters by jumping between them, and are confusing because they do not immediately link together—though they did in Matter, which might be why that book stands on its own so well.

5. I loved this book. It’s a solid Culture novel and it works well in that context. But it also works well with the applicable theme of dealing with people who are hiding things behind surface details. The characters are all quite engaging and interesting while the story clips along nicely with a great mix of adventure and rumination. It’s not my favorite Culture novel, but I can’t quite figure out why.