Friday, December 11, 2009

C. J. Cherryh: Forty Thousand in Gehenna

C. J. Cherryh's Forty Thousand in Gehenna (1983) is a classic, and shows Cherryh's mastery of the presentation of alien minds. In this case, she makes the non-humans even more alien by having humans become incomprehensible to their own kind in the process of living and working with them.

The story takes place on the border between Alliance and Union space. In a political move, the Union sets up a colony on a remote world, and then fails to resupply it, leaving the colonists on their own. The colonists discover that the planet is inhabited, something the surveys failed to notice. The Caliban (various species of lizard, from smaller than a dog to as large as a brontosaurus) don't seem to be intelligent, though it's hard for the under-supplied colonists to control them and keep them out of the settlement.

The settlers start out as a mix of a few thousand natural-born humans and the titular 40,000 Azi (programmed humans). The plan of the settlement is to remove the programming once the settlement is set up, and allow the Azi to marry, raise families, and farm the land. The first generation of Azi have a hard time adapting to their freedom, and don't have any experience of family, so they don't do a good job with the next generation. At first arrival, the Azi vastly outnumber the free humans, so the resulting culture is a result of the natural forces that arise from the mixing of untutored second generation Azi and caliban than anything the Union planners might have intended.

Two generations later, a resupply expedition arrives, and tries to figure out how to deal with the cultural mix of Humans and Caliban. The expedition's leaders are slow to realize that the caliban represent a separate intelligence from the feral colonists. Eventually, anthropologists learn enough from the divergent societies (the colonists have split into warring factions) to understand that there are two alien groups (diverged humans and the Caliban who have adapted to a human presence) to be integrated into the galactic civilization.

I've read many stories set in Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe, and this is probably the only one in which Azis play a prominent role as individual characters. Normally they're present to show how a high-tech society would hold slaves. They're treated relatively well physically, but have their mental lives completely controlled. In this story, they're prepped for the mission with hints and build up that they will be learning to live on their own and that this is a great honor and an important mission. The latter is part of their standard indoctrination, so while they believe it, they don't assign it any particular significance. There's a little bit of hinting that they are excited about the opportunity to be free individuals, but as it turns out, their foreboding about having to manage their own affairs is more to the point. Shortly after the colony is founded, the resupply mission fails to arrive, and the technology that was used to give them reassuranc and training starts to break down. Since additional tools and technical assistance would also have arrived at the same time, the Azi and the other colonists experience their new freedom as part of a package deal with the gradual decay of their technology base. It's too small a colony to be self sufficient in maintaining the technology, though they are capable of feeding themselves as long as everyone works the land. In the end, what could have been an interesting story about discovering how to live a self-directed life is side-steped because the manumission happens in conjunction with a general breakdown in the social order.

It's not surprising that the children of the colonists, growing up in an impoverished settlement, surrounded by nearly incomprehensible but strangely communicative alien beasts grow up estranged from the previous generation. Few of the elders know enough about survival skills in farming or exploration to be of much help, their myths are suited to a much more technological society, and the vast majority of the older generation learned skills as they needed them from the tapes they were fed along with the programming that kept them docile. Given this, it's not surprising that their children charted a new course, but it is interesting to see how Cherryh presents their divergence, and the fumbling steps the envoys from civilization take in their attempts to control and understand them. Cherryh also does a good job of showing how bureaucracy and politics interfere in the task.

I apparently started reading this once before, since I see that Google's cached summary of a 2005 review I wrote has it in my "Currently Reading" list. I'm pretty sure I didn't get very far, because the story was all new to me this time. It's also been on my list for a while, but it took me a while to find a copy. (And then to find another.)

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