Tuesday, July 04, 2006

C. J. Cherryh: Chanur

C. J. Cherryh's Chanur Series (Pride of Chanur, Chanur's Venture, The Kif Strike Back, and Chanur's Homecoming) tells a wonderfully involved story from an alien point of view. This is the quintessential example of a story in which the aliens seem to have different motivations and points of view that aren't quite human. In my review of MacLeod's Learning the World, I mentioned that his aliens seemed like people in bat suits. Cherryh's aliens are understandable to us, but different.

The story is told from the point of view of the crew of The Pride, a Hani ship. The Han are a feline species that are relatively new to space. The Pride becomes the unwilling caretakers of Tully, a human, who was a captive of the Kif, but escaped. Tully is the only human we ever meet, though the recent arrival of humans is affecting interspecies relations throughout Compact space. Through the course of the series, Tully is returned to humankind, and comes back to the Pride for the final installments.

The characters we meet (at least the oxygen breathers) all have plausible motivations that differ among members of the same species, but the way of thinking seems somewhat consistent within each species. This isn't the Dune style of interstellar civilization, where each planet has a single kind of habitat, and most of the members of any species are indistinguishable. We meet a few different Stsho, and they're uniformly fearful in the face of (even hinted at) violence, but they have different goals, and approach negotiations differently. The Kif are clearly the kind who look for and follow an alpha-leader, but we see some of the beta kif scheming to supplant a current leader, while others scheme to gain status by supporting the current leader. The different races of methane breathers are inscrutable in widely varying ways.

Pyanfar Chanur, the Captain of "The Pride", an interstellar merchant ship, must navigate an ever-deepening network of entangling alliances and enmities. Her friends and enemies are Hani and other; sometimes she understands their motivations, other times she has to guess wildly, or infer motivations from capabilities and actions.

I've been making my way through this series for several years, but it's apparently always been on the back burner: one of the books I take with me when I expect to have free time in a waiting room or between acts at a play. The series never showed up in the "Currently reading:" portion of my .sig line. Even so, I remember all the characters vividly, and can keep the various races straight. I think I half-consciously measure out my progress slowly in a book or series when I discover a kind of poetry in it. I want it to last. This was that kind of story. Cherryh has written several stories that have had that effect on me. The Chanur series was published in the early 1980's, but it doesn't seem dated. I enjoyed it immensely.

Oh, and there's a follow-on separate story: Chanur's Legacy. I look forward to it.

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