Ranking CJC’s Oeuvre: SF

Okay, now for the hard one. CJ Cherryh has written a whoooole lot of SF. As with her fantasy, it ranges from practically perfect to books I frankly find disappointing and even forgettable. A wide range of quality regardless, always noting that these rankings are all my personal opinion, but it’s a pretty strong opinion! But I expect disagreement!

Also, she has three different novels or series that are sort of SF, but read like Fantasy (as Mike S. pointed out in the comments of the other post). There are so many SF novels that I unilaterally decided to shove all three into the fantasy post, so they’re not here, they’re there in the earlier post.

I used to think that I preferred Cherryh’s fantasy to her SF. I remember thinking that when I heard or read something about how her SF is better than her fantasy. Well, as I’ve created these posts, I’ve changed my mind and now agree with basically everyone else: I do think that almost all of Cherryh’s best work is SF, not fantasy.

Once more I’m going to go from the best to the worst. It’s going to take a LOT longer to get to novels I really did not care for. The ones at the top all the way through the middle are amazingly good.

1. Cuckoo’s Egg. In the previous post, I said that I thought few readers would agree with me that Paladin belonged at the top, and whoops, I was wrong, a lot of you did agree! We’ll see what happens this time. I think few readers have ever encountered this story compared to Cherryh’s better-known works and therefore I don’t think most people would put it the top. Also, on the surface, I think Cuckoo’s Egg looks less ambitious than Downbelow Station or Cyteen, though actually I’m not sure that’s true. I think Cherryh was trying to do something different and interesting in this story, and I think she succeeded perfectly.

This very short novel does so much in its scant wordcount. Really, it’s astounding. Also, the story is perfect. That’s also astounding as well. Oh, I see it was a Hugo nominee. I didn’t know that. Good taste among people making nominations that year. That was a ways back; Cuckoo’s Egg came out in 1985. I’m glad to see it’s collected in this ebook linked here.

This story includes a lot of tropes I absolutely love, re-cast into an alien society that is a lot like a human society, but not quite. The last line has a great deal of quiet impact. I just love this story — you can probably tell — and I personally think it makes a great introduction to Cherryh’s work: It’s short, it’s compelling, it shows her facility with alien species and her proclivity for throwing one human into an alien society — she does that a lot — and it is SO MUCH MORE APPROACHABLE than Downbelow Station, it’s hard to express. Honestly the two stories are so different they might as well be in different genres. I get that Downbelow Station is the one people think of, but it sure isn’t the one I’d put at the top. In fact, you can see from this list how far down I personally put Downbelow Station. I’ll explain why when I get there.

2. Foreigner: (2nd trilogy) Precursor, Defender, Explorer. This is the arc that includes the largely defunct station and the kyo. The Foreigner series is my favorite long-running SF series by a mile and this is my favorite arc in the whole series. Could you actually start here? … I’m not sure I would recommend that, but probably. Cherryh is pretty good at working in reminders for the important events; every now and in this long series she includes a long recap in the form of a letter or something.

Regardless, is it worth reading the initial trilogy to get to this one? ABSOLUTELY.

3. “The Scapegoat.” This novella always brings me to tears. I find it very effective. It’s also one of Cherryh’s attempts to show how difficult it can be to grasp the viewpoint of an alien, or for an alien to grasp the human viewpoint. First published in an anthology of three novellas by the name Alien Stars; now available in ebook form, thankfully, in a collection just called “The Collected Short Fiction of CJ Cherryh.” This collection includes the stories from Sunfall, the stories from Visible Light, and various other stories, including “The Scapegoat.”

I didn’t realize this collection existed until now. Reviews are saying it’s a mixed bag. Well, yes, that’ll happen in a largeish collection of short stories and novellas. IMO it’s worth picking up just for “The Scapegoat,” and if you like other stories as well, that’s a bonus.

4. Foreigner: (5th trilogy) IntruderProtectorPeacemaker. Lots of Cajeiri. The shadow guild is decisively defeated. Fun times, fun times! I like this part of the overall series a lot. I mean, really, a lot.

5. Chanur’s Legacy. This is the one where Hilfy is the main focus, and it is a great story. I was surprised how much I liked it the first time I read it. I hadn’t been especially fond of Hilfy. But this novel is fast, fun, with high stakes that keep rising, AND Cherryh actually made me like the stsho, a species I largely disregarded in the original Chanur quadrilogy. Plus, I love what Cherryh did with the kif in this book. Plus the young male hani who carries part of the point of view. Honestly, this is a great story!

6. The Chanur trilogy: Chanur’s Venture, The Kif Strike Back, Chanur’s Homecoming: This is a single story that follows the first book, Pride of Chanur.. It’s great. Seriously. It’s fairly fast and definitely high tension, but I trusted Cherryh to bring the story to a fantastic conclusion. She delivered. There’s a line near the ending … let me see if I can remember it well enough to quote it … it’s another ship’s captain defending Pyanfar and her people.

This captain snarls to all those who are collectively making themselves an obstacle, “Look at ’em, you say! They’ve got mud on ’em, must be them as brought the flood! And you never seeing they’ve been holding up the gods-be timbers!”

Great scene, wonderful scene! And very high tension because there’s significant risk that the hani species may be wiped out if people don’t get their tails in gear and take effective action right that minute. This moment is the impetus that leads to a handful of male hani going to space — because if all the males are on one planet and that planet gets destroyed, whoa, that’s it.

Lots to love in this excellent, intense, series, which is actually introduced in –>

7. Pride of Chanur. This is the original book, a standalone. As you see, I think the series gets better and better, but it’s great right from the start. The aliens are just about the very best aliens in all of SF as far as I’m concerned. That is, they’re not the most inhuman. Well, the methane breathers are up there. But the kif and the mahendo’sat — and of course the hani — are understandable without being human. The hani are based on lions, as you probably know. Not sure the kif or mahendo’sat are based on any recognizable animal. I didn’t recognize them. Plus of course there is one human, but we never see through his eyes. Anyway, a great book. This series offers a splendid introduction to Cherryh’s science fiction.

8. Foreigner: (4th trilogy) ConspiratorDeceiverBetrayer. This is the arc where Bren is the tremendously skilled and quite powerful diplomat who sorts things out on the west coast. I love this arc, not least because Bren has ENTIRELY come into his own. This is captured best in the cover here:

Look at that! Bren Cameron, Badass Diplomat, here to solve problems or else. This is really a wonderful arc in the series, which should tell you something about how much I love all the stories and novels above this.

9. Cyteen / Regenesis. For crying out loud, what is wrong with publishers? The first book is not available in ebook form and not linked to the second book on a series page. I bet if CJC tried to get rights back, she probably could, and I wish she would do that and bring out an ebook edition. Who brought out the sequel? DAW. Well, why don’t they make an effort to get the rights to the first book as well? No doubt there’s a story there.

Anyway, about the books. Look. I realize the creation of the azi says uncomfortable things about that society. And the manipulation of a little kid in order to try to re-create her clone mother, very iffy thing to do. But I love, love, love Cyteen.

I mean, not all of Cyteen. When I re-read it, which I have done many times, I skim or entirely skip through the front part, picking up when Baby Ari is born, and read the novel from there. At that point, we begin a wonderful story with a great child protagonist (among others; quite a variety of points of view in this epic SF story). We follow Young Ari as she grows up and takes power in Resuene, following her clone mother. We also follow Justin (most important secondary character) as he grows into himself after a really tough beginning.

I love Young Ari, I love her azi, I love Justin and Grant, I’m even moderately fond of a few of the other characters, such as Yanni. And you know what makes me happy? That Regenesis exists. Did Cyteen need a sequel? Not really. Did we actually need to know who killed Old Ari? Not really. Finding that out is by far the least important thing that happens in the sequel. Did we need to get the political situation sorted out? I guess. But none of that is important to me. What *I* like is that in Regenesis, Young Ari, Justin, Grant, and various other people all get their lives sorted out and get set up for a proper happily-ever-after. THANK YOU, YES, THIS PLEASE. After a long, tense story where a lot of people have to struggle really hard to overcome serious problems, let us by ALL MEANS have an extended epilogue where they do overcome all those problems and get set to move forward into much better lives!

You know what my favorite scene in Regenesis is? The part where Young Ari shows Justin and Grant around the small new apartment complex. I’m a sucker for the coming home to a home you’ve never seen before scene.

10. Foreigner: (6th trilogy) TrackerVisitorConvergence. This is the trilogy where Bren gets things under control on the station and then visits Mospheira as the powerful representative of the the aji. It’s great fun. He’s still very much at the top of his game, and this time he gets to demonstrate that to his own people.

11. Foreigner: (3rd trilogy) DestroyerPretenderDeliverer. This is the arc after Bren and everyone return from meeting the kyo and discovers that Tabini-aji got deposed and they have to deal with the shadow guild and get Tabini back in power. It’s fine, but it’s by no means my favorite part of the series.

12. Voyager in Night. This is not one I think many people would put at the top. It’s not at the top for me either. But I really liked it. But I have to say, I’m not sure I should. Parts of it are grim, and the resolution is pretty ambiguous.

13. Merchanter’s Luck. I really like this as well. Putting people in such grim circumstances doesn’t always work for me, but the overall arc did in this one. I wasn’t sure why, so I poked around, looking for reviews of this one, and found a fantastic review on Goodreads, which I’m going to quote here because I can’t possibly say anything better than this about Merchanter’s Luck:

The rest of the novel is about the lingering echoes of Sandor’s family catastrophe, about how something resembling post-traumatic stress disorder can screw with a man’s head the rest of his life, and about how hard it is to look past all of these things to find love and trust. It’s a book about desperate love. In a few of Cherryh’s trademark clipped, condensed paragraphs in the first pages, she paints a picture of a young man on the edge of life, scarred by a horrific tragedy in his youth, eking out a living in the shadow of the big players of Downbelow Station. That novel made a big splash in the early 80s, and I read it, but this story is the one that stuck in my mind for thirty years. I come back to it over and over because of the tone Cherryh puts into it, because of the way she expertly balances the yearning in Sandor against his fear of betrayal, his pride, his survivor’s guilt, the secrets and ghosts (metaphorical) that are all he has left. Sandor is a victim who doesn’t realize he’s a victim, so he behaves like a hero and then is surprised when people say nice things about him.

Okay, so … if you haven’t read this book, that’s what it’s about. Moving on:

14. The Faded Sun trilogy

I love this trilogy. I loved this story when I first read it as a kid and I love it now. It’s one of Cherryh’s trademarked stories where she throws a single human into an alien society. She does that a lot, as I’m sure you’ve realized. Here we do get the human’s point of view some of the time. And the society is not quite as different. But you know, in some ways it is pretty different. The people don’t look as different as the hani of the Chanur series or the shonunin of Cuckoo’s Egg, but their society is at least as different — more different, really.

I may not need to say this, but the Faded Sun trilogy is VERY VERY SLOW. The first book is setup. The second book is … more setup. You have to enjoy the character stories and the slow (slooooow) build or I can’t see why you’d bother. The third book then crashes to a close, much faster paced and much more intense. Wait, intense in a different way. The whole thing is intense.

And now we have a break!

We are now leaving the books I just love and entering the category of books I like less. Do you see how long that took? How many books are above this line? Wow. I’m just saying. I hadn’t realized myself how many books are crowded into the top of CJC’s oeuvre for me.

***

15. Foreigner: (1st trilogy) ForeignerInvaderInheritor. I like this. I really do, but it’s veeeery slow to get moving and also, if you start at the beginning and read the whole series in one go, there are some inconsistencies that become apparent between this initial trilogy and the rest of the series. Also, Jase is so unhappy for so long, which makes parts of this trilogy a slog. Also, there’s no Cajeiri yet. What with one thing and another, this is not my favorite part of the series. It’s almost my least favorite part of the series. When I last re-read the Foreigner series, I actually started somewhere in the second trilogy, I don’t remember where, but I stepped past this entire trilogy.

If you were really starting for the first time, sure, read this. Treat the entire first book as a prologue. I mean, I know there’s a prologue. Just treat the ENTIRE first book as ANOTHER prologue and you will probably be more patient as you work your way into the world. Which is very much worth doing. Seriously.

16. Hunter of Worlds. There is so much about power relationships here. Power relationships with huge disparities of power. The iduve have complete power over the people they rule, the kallia, who are very definitely slaves. There are also the amaut, who are also subordinate but much less humanoid, and way, way over yonder, the edge of human space. Humans are unknown, basically, and guess what we have here? That’s right, a single human who has been acquired by a specific iduve. This iduve has also acquired, very much against his will, a particular kallia, whom she intends to use to understand the human via an involuntary mindlink … wow, this sounds awful.

It is awful, pretty much. And yet … this story is also about building friendship and trust. And accommodating huge power disparities without losing yourself. And the importance of powerless people in achieving good outcomes. The outcomes, I will add, are in fact good, or at least much better than they might be.

This is a story I see as an early attempt to do something like Chanur and something like Foreigner. It’s not the same as either. It’s pretty successful on its own terms. The things Cherryh does with language here are really interesting; language is an intrinsic part of the worldbuilding. I actually like this book quite a bit. But not nearly as much as Chanur or Foreigner.

Let’s have another break!

***

Okay, here are the books I don’t actually like that much.

17. Serpent’s Reach. One human among aliens, sort of. I don’t like the protagonist very much at all. The aliens are fine, I guess. I’m somewhat bored with hive-mind aliens. Actually, I’m a lot bored with hive-mind aliens. There are lots of them and they’re all the same and I don’t believe in any of them and … and … what can I say? Even though I do think Cherryh’s hive aliens are much better handled than is generally the case, and even though I liked this book, I honestly did not like it that much.

If I ever create hive aliens, they will tilt everything about this trope hard sideways. I would enjoy doing that.

18. 40,000 in Gehenna. I know some of you are going to put this much, much higher. (Hi, Pete!) The problem for me is that this story is … diffuse. It is the story of a colony, not of a person, or even people. We follow one person and then another and we keep going through the generations and this is interesting, but it is not actually very engaging. I mean, for me. Particularly since a lot of people we follow are basically unhappy.

I like the part with the mature colony the best, the part where two competing models of human/Caliban society are pitted against each other and the nicer society wins.

18. Port Eternity. The Camelot theme was a little much for me. But I loved Mordred. Oh, and this may be the wackiest idea CJC ever came up with, so there’s that. It’s pretty darn wacky for any SF novel. But I did love Mordred.

19. Rimrunners. I liked this story, which is about … I don’t know. Loyalty, including loyalty after people have failed you pretty badly. Some grim stuff in the backstory that is echoing forward in the present-day story. I like how this works out, but I found some of it tough going.

20. Foreigner: (7th trilogy) EmergenceResurgenceDivergence. This is the trilogy where CJC forgets how she handled Nomari, an important secondary character, at the end of Emergence and completely misses her step as she opens Resurgence. AARGH. She recovers somewhat in Divergence, but not really. Plus nothing could really smooth out the huge, glaring discontinuity between Emergence and Resurgence, which was an outrageous mistake that should never have made it into the final draft.

Not that I have strong feelings or anything.

21. Finity’s End. I’ve only read it once and don’t remember it well. But I think I liked it?

One more Break!

***

These are books I honestly do not like or don’t remember at all.

22. Brothers of Earth. This book is interesting. It’s one of Cherryh’s early “throw one human into a terrible situation in an alien society and see how that works out.” It is therefore similar to so many others. Hunter of Worlds, Cuckoo’s Egg, Foreigner, Chanur, they all have this basic setup, though they’re very different in other ways. However, in this one (a) really horrible stuff happens, like practically everyone getting killed except the lead characters. And (b) I just don’t like it very much, even aside from point (a). Honestly, I’d rather re-read this than Downbelow Station, though.

23. Heavy Time / Hellburner. I’ve read them twice, but I don’t particularly like this duology. Too grim, far too claustrophobic. Things do work out, but the PTSD part is hard to take. What time is it? — aargh. But I’d rather re-read these than Downbelow Station.

24. Downbelow Station. Yes, it won the Hugo. I don’t like it. It’s too big and impersonal. Too many points of view, too many I don’t care about. Way too much about the political situation, none of which I care about. I’ve read it twice, but I ought to just give away my copy because I am never going to re-read it.

25. Forge of Heaven. The discontinuity between this book and the prequel, Hammerfall, in the previous post, was so immense that I could not get into this book. I was not interested, I could not get interested, I remember nothing about it except my complete lack of interest and something about social influencers. That’s it.

26. Tripoint. Like Finity’s End, I’ve only read it once and don’t remember it well. But I think I didn’t really like it?

27. Alliance Rising. I haven’t ever read it, and given my disinterest in Downbelow Station and the fairly crappy reviews, I doubt I ever will.

28. Hestia. I know I’ve read this at least twice, but I don’t remember it AT ALL. Complete blank. I’m putting it at the bottom because I guess it was super forgettable for me.

WHEW.

That is A LOT. Half the books and series above are in the “REALLY LOVE IT” category, then another chunk in the “Still like it quite a bit” category. I honestly feel I should probably go re-read Tripoint and especially Hestia.

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8 thoughts on “Ranking CJC’s Oeuvre: SF”

  1. One reason I like 40000 in Gehenna IA it’s different. It covers roughly 100 years in the course of two short novels (presented as a single story, but still.) The only similar book I can think of is John Brunner’s “Crucible of Time,” which covers an alien civilization from its scientific revolution up through the space age. The other is that the characters are *different.* A paterfamilias emerging from a technoserf! A Renaissance queen, inspired by visitors from the stars!

  2. Oh, I just read Alliance Rising this week for my book club!
    I think it’s ultimately worth reading, but with a big asterisk. It’s a good but immensely frustrating book. She spends the first hundred and fifty pages on what is essentially an As You Know Bob infodump with no real plot or characters. When you add this to the CJ Cherryh tendency to write very circular, claustrophobic interior monologues, I’m not surprised a lot of reviewers dnf’d. I probably would have dropped it as well if I didn’t have to complete it for book club.
    The other two hundred pages were very good, though. It’s more positive and the characters are allowed to be more effective and less helpless than CJ Cherryh novels generally run to. Several bad guys are satisfyingly thwarted, although not all of them since the book ends on a semi-cliffhanger with several plot threads left hanging (I think this is book one of a trilogy, with book 3 not yet released.)

    (Taste reference: My favorite Cherryh is probably the Foreigner series. I think Cyteen is very good, but I find the sexual assault plotline in the first bit such rough going I probably wouldn’t reread the book lightly)

  3. How timely, Kat! I really don’t know that I’ll read it, but since I do actually have a copy, maybe the thing to do is kinda skim lightly through the first half and then read the second half.

    And yes, that’s one reason I skip the first part. Old Ari is not a nice person and I don’t care what her broader motivations were.

  4. I too thought the beginning of Alliance was slow going but I kept reading and it got a lot more interesting. So, yes, I think it’s a worthwhile read ultimately. The next book is coming out soon, I heard.

  5. IIRC, it’s a good idea to read Alliance Rising with some distance from the earlier Union-Alliance books. As I recall, there are some contradictions that probably don’t hurt either book in isolation, but can be stumbling blocks if you go straight to or from Downbelow Station or Cyteen.

    I do really like Downbelow Station. But I have an idiosyncratic liking of the sort of Encyclopedia Galactica bit it opens with, and it probably also helps that I learned about Signy Mallory and Finity’s End via filk before reading the book, so I was positively disposed to getting the whole story.

    I do think Cyteen benefits from having first seen Union as the implacable evil expansionists with clone armies before getting the inside view.

  6. At this point I’m thinking of just not reading the front half of Alliance Rising. But … probably I’d be a bit confused in the back half … so, who knows. Maybe I’ll read it someday when I’m on a CJC kick and re-read everything of hers in one giant binge.

  7. Mahendo’sat are chimps, kif are crocodiles, hani are lions, stsho are antelope, at least they have been in my head. I’m just starting to reread now.

  8. Hani are ABSOLUTELY lions, no question. I think I’ll vote yes on all these readings, except not sure about the kif. Hmm. Maaaaybe. They’re a bit difficult, aren’t they? Essentially solitary, yet operating as social groups … but without loyalty … could they be a little like sharks? I’m thinking of schools of sharks.

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