I first started reading Cherryh’s works when I was in my teens, and that may be one reason why her stories seem so formative to me. I loved the complex plots, the rich and layered settings, and how she so often juxtaposed naïveté with cynicism in her characters. If I were only to take one of her books to a desert island, it would probably be Serpent’s Reach. In this book — which is a standalone novel, although set in her greater Alliance-Union universe — we see the character Jim struggle with the need to be more than he was created to be, knowing that he must give up who he is to achieve that. It’s a though-provoking read, and one that can be related to our current media-controlled lifestyles.
For first read, I would recommend Downbelow Station. I read that book when it first came out and admittedly, I found it a bit heavy-going. I pushed my way through the first hundred pages and then sighed and stuck it in my closet. There was so much information in those first hundred pages that I couldn’t see the plot. About a month later, determined not to let it beat me, I pulled down the book and dove back in. The plot kicked in on page 104, and I actually read the remainder of the 700-page book in one sitting…it was that good! Despite the slower beginning, I recommend this as the starter book because it holds the groundwork that underlies later books like Merchanter’s Luck and Finity’s End, two of my other favorites.
Even though I have always been aware of Cherryh, I really “discovered” her work through Jo Walton’s 2008 series of articles on Cherryh’s work and for no reason that I can remember eight years later, decided that Cyteen was the place to start. For me, it was, because I’ve been hooked on Cherryh ever since. Murder. Genetic Engineering. Cloning. Galactic, personal, ethical, and sexual politics. Cyteen has it all. Reading Cyteen caused me to go out and buy more of Cherryh’s work. Cyteen is a big and occasionally dense novel, so I’ve seen people recommend against beginning here, but it’s why I’m a Cherryh reader in the first place.
My second recommendation would be Forty Thousand in Gehenna. Because I read it after Cyteen, it feels like something of a expansion novel to me because the events in Forty Thousand in Gehenna are referenced in Cyteen, but I do recognize that Cherryh wrote Forty Thousand in Gehenna first so it’s only a trick of my mind that I read it like this. Forty Thousand in Gehenna, at its core, is a novel of an abandoned colony and how it changes, survives, and develops over the centuries before there is renewed contact with the Alliance. It’s fantastic.
First, let me say, it’s about damn time that Cherryh, a luminary in our field for decades, has finally been recognized for her oeuvre. The cranky part of me says that if she was Charlie Cherryh, she’d have long since been named a Grand Master.
The joy and difficulty in the Cherryh oeuvre is that, with the exception of her latest series, which she has been putting out in a straight-up linear fashion, there is a jungle of possibilities and worlds and sub-worlds to get your Cherryh fix, and get into her work. Even if you skip some of the minor works, there are still a wealth of places where you could plausibly try her fiction. I’m here to help!
Downbelow Station – This is the one she won the Hugo and Locus award for, and deservedly so. Long before Babylon 5 and DS9, Cherryh created a fascinating central point for a conflict on a stellar scale, with important ideas that feel like they are ripped out of today’s headlines, and passionate, interesting central characters. Signy Mallory is one of the greatest space ship commanders in science fiction. It’s a key story in The Company Wars historical period in her Alliance-Union universe, but you can read it as a standalone without any prior background in her “future history” needed. It’s a slow burn of a novel, but when that fuse goes off, it goes off with a bang.
The Chanur series – Readers of her more recent Foreigner novels might wonder just where Cherryh learned how to make the Atevi so alien and fascinating. This is the series where Cherryh really learned and honed the craft of making believable, interesting, complicated aliens that far transcend the “rubber forehead” type of aliens usually seen in Science fiction. We get interesting alien psychology, physiology, ethics, and much more. They are rendered wonderfully, but never as just tics or simple variations on a human scale. Her aliens often act very alien indeed. And this is an extremely immersive series from an alien viewpoint. Tully is the only human character of any note in this series, and his role is mainly is as the Macguffin for the various species who are indeed very curious about a hitherto unknown alien coming into their region of space and what that means. I’m pretty sure the creators of Farscape put a little bit of him into John Crichton. And showing that she knows a good idea when she sees it, and uses it, Meetpoint Station is a key fixture of the series, and even more of a Babylon 5 inspiration, as it does have to handle aliens whose tolerances for temperature and breathable atmosphere vary wildly.
As for my all time favorite, I came to Cherryh thanks to Morgaine and Changeling, one of the most deadly swords in all of fantasy. There is pathos, and tragedy, and lost honor, and fighting against the impossible in the Morgaine novels. I first heard about Morgaine thanks to an old issue of Dragon magazine, and I was delighted when I finally read them. Anyone who thinks that “grimdark” was invented by George R.R. Martin and Warhammer 40k should take a look at Morgaine’s story. Morgine, in her quest to close the World Gates, sacrifices entire worlds to their fate in the accomplishment of her extremely important mission. And did I mention that except for her vassal, Vanye, the rest of her team are long dead, and so it is a lonely, heartbreaking mission at that? The series also ground breaks a lot of other conventions: mixing science fiction and fantasy, strong female protagonist and secondary characters, complicated inner lives of protagonists, and much more. The worldbuilding chops she so skillfully exercises in later works are developed and displayed here. You’ll never think of Elves the same way again, for example, once you meet the Qhal. The Morgaine series still feels as fresh today as it did when it was first published, and, joyfully, is back out in ebook form. In addition to the starting points suggested above, you could always start “at the beginning”, as I did. You won’t regret it.
Back in the late 70s, I was ranting – I’m known for ranting – in my workplace about the dearth of decent fiction. The books I’m reading are all about suburban angst and young women who aspire to publishing careers having affairs with older married editors, I probably said.
One of my co-workers said, “You should read C.J. Cherryh,” and told me about the Morgaine books. I went out that very night to the chain bookstore in the mall and bought Gate of Ivrel. Two days later I went back for Well of Shiuan.
Strong women. Complex stories. Moral dilemmas. Good fight scenes. And the only angst in sight caused by circumstances a great deal more dire than growing up in a dull suburb. I was hooked.
Scouting the bookstore for Cherryh’s works led me to other fascinating science fiction writers: Le Guin, Delany, Tiptree, Russ, McIntyre. Eventually I moved to Washington, D.C., which had a great science fiction bookstore (the late, lamented Moonstone Bookceller) and started finding many other writers.
I kept reading Cherryh, of course. New books by her kept showing up even before I caught up with the earlier ones. I recall marveling that she could write so quickly, since her stories and the cultures in which she set them were so complex. (I still marvel at that.) The books were full of adventures, and those adventures were strongly affected by politics, wars, and other conflicts among the characters (human and alien). Some of her characters were bit players, while others made decisions that changed worlds.
I love many of Cherryh’s books. Cyteen is a masterpiece. Not only did the Chanur series rearrange gender roles in interesting ways, but it brought humans in as aliens to the main characters, doing all this in a series of rip-roaring adventures that I re-read on a regular basis.
But The Faded Sun series spoke to me the most, in part because I read it the first time when I was beginning what became a lifetime obsession with martial arts. The world and ethos of the Mri fit in well with the principles I learned first in Karate and later in Aikido. I read and re-read them until the mass market paperbacks fell apart.
Cherryh not only opened the gate, but she set a high standard for my future reading. I fell in love with science fiction because her books – and the ones she led me to – made me think. That’s what I expect from all science fiction. C.J. Cherryh deserves the honor of grand master and I’m thrilled to see her in the pantheon.
By the way, the co-worker that introduced me to Cherryh also dragged me to see Alien by convincing me it was science fiction, not horror. It occurs to me that I owe him a lot. J. Edward Hocker, if you happen to read this, please get in touch!
Selecting gateway works, whether for an author or entire genre, is, I‘ve come to believe, a mug’s game. However, I’m quite happy to discuss my favourite works by Carolyn Janice Cherry, an author I’ve long admired. I remember discovering her books back in the early 1980s – she became one of my favourite authors…which may or may not have been a consequence of the fact she seemed almost ubiquitous in UK book shops at the time. (I suspect the sf book buyer for WH Smith during the 1980s was a Cherryh fan – not that I’m complaining.)
However, choosing a favourite work is harder. I know which Cherryh novel I usually plump for, the one which immediately springs to mind as a “favourite”. And I even have the benefit of a recent reread to validate my choice. The first time I read Angel with the Sword something about it really appealed to me. And yet I’m not entirely sure what. There’s a lot wrong with the story’s setting: it’s the sort of ersatz Randian, neoliberal setting beloved of many US sf fans, and the heroine’s young age – and consequent romantic adventures – is problematic at best. But it’s also a wonderfully immersive novel, and an object lesson in how to write and present a story in a world that is not our own.
Angel with the Sword is set in the city of Merovingen – which later featured in a series of “mosaic novels” by diverse hands, but edited by Cherryh – the chief city on a world that has been knocked back to a low tech level by mysterious aliens. The heroine is Altair Jones, a young woman who is a “canaler”. She lives and works on the waterways which form the lowest level of Merovingen, and are also home to the lowest levels of Merovingen’s society. That is until Jones becomes inadvertently embroiled in a plot involving the upper levels of society…
Despite its problems, Angel with the Sword has bags of charm. It’s only really science fiction because Cherryh says it is in an appendix; but it is also relentlessly plotted and has all the remorseless appeal of a romance novel – as I said in my review on SF Mistressworks. I love the book, but I find it hard to recommend…
On the other hand, Cherryh’s Chanur, or Compact Space…
Having said all that…it doesn’t really answer the question as set. C.J. Cherryh has written many excellent novels, and some of them have won awards. I would certainly call Angel with the Sword a favourite, and the Compact space quintet a very good entry point to her oeuvre. But there’s also Serpent’s Reach, Downbelow Station and Cyteen, which are all excellent novels. Not to mention The Faded Sun Trilogy, which is also worth reading. Or the “Foreigner” series, currently at sixteen novels, and which starts with, er, Foreigner…I suppose that, essentially, you could pick a random Cherryh sf novel, and it would prove a good introduction to her work. C.J. Cherryh has been writing science fiction – and fantasy – since the mid-1970s, and she is very, very good at what she does. She has a very distinctive – and terse and muscular – prose style, an admirable restraint when it comes to exposition, and an ability to plot that is second to none. I’m not surprised she has been made a SFWA Grand Master, I am only surprised it has taken so long.
I’m sure lots of people jumped up and down when C.J. Cherryh was named the 32nd SFWA Grand Master, but not many jumped higher or more enthusiastically than I did! Cherryh has been a fixture of my reading life from the time I started reading science fiction and fantasy – one of the few authors who was important to me in when I was a kid and is still important to me now. In my personal library, Cherryh’s books take up three full shelves and have designs on a fourth.
Of course, when an author has written close to seventy novels and a good handful of shorter work, not to mention edited a shared world anthology, her books may well show territorial ambitions. With such an extensive body of work, it’s no wonder readers lucky enough to discover Cherryh today have a hard time deciding where to start!
Of all Cherryh’s work, my personal favorite is undoubtedly the Foreigner series.
Well, it’s probably the Foreigner series. It’s hard to choose! But the Foreigner series has all the elements Cherryh handles best, developed to the highest possible level. Over and over in her science fiction, C.J. Cherryh has created a story around alien psychology and sociology and then inserted a single human character to serve as a touchstone for the reader – sometimes as the protagonist and sometimes not. Taking fifteen volumes (so far) to develop one alien society…well, no other writer can begin to match what Cherryh has done with the atevi, and with the interface between atevi and humanity. And Cherryh’s managed something else unique for such a huge series: she hasn’t let it sprawl out, but has kept closely to a single point of view. Oh, she added a second point-of-view, a young ateva boy, in the later part of the series, enlivening the story considerably. But Bren Cameron has been the central protagonist from the beginning, and he still is.
Bren entered the story as a simple translator…well, more or less…and over the course of the series has become the most important diplomat in the world, a power in his own right as well as an advisor to the ruler of the world. Watching Bren function as a diplomat at the top of his game is, for me, one of the great pleasures of the series. I recommend the Foreigner series to everyone who loves beautifully developed alien species in science fiction, and beautifully drawn, highly sympathetic human characters set down in the middle of an alien society.
But I don’t recommend the Foreigner series as an entry point to Cherryh’s work. Though I have heard of readers doing just that, and having it work out for them, if there’s a single constant of C.J. Cherryh’s work, it’s that her stories are slow to start. Not always, but usually. For the Foreigner series, the entire first book is really one long introduction. Neither Bren nor the reader understands what’s really going on or why until close to the end of the book. And that’s fine! But it means I don’t think first of the Foreigner series when I’m pressing C.J. Cherryh’s books on a reader new to her work.
No, for that I suggest Cuckoo’s Egg, a gem of a novel, self-contained and hardly over 180 pages, with one of the most perfect endings I’ve ever come across in science fiction. Or, for readers who enjoy complicated politics in their space opera, Pride of Chanur, which is fairly well self-contained even though it does start a series. I always suggest it with the warning that the second book is definitely not self-contained! But the whole series is wonderful. These days I have a particular soft spot for the final book, Chanur’s Legacy.
Or I suggest Cyteen, a great favorite of mine which I’ve read many times for the sheer delight of reading about Justin and Grant, and young Ari and Florian and Caitlin. But Cyteenis also an ambitious, genuinely important work, dealing with huge themes: what it means to be human, what determines identity, how to deal morally with dilemmas raised by human cloning.
Or, for readers who prefer fantasy, I’d suggest Fortress in the Eye of Time, a lovely story, somewhat slow to unfold, with wonderfully drawn, complex, sympathetic characters. Or for readers longing for a setting that draws on China rather than Europe, perhaps The Paladin – again, as is typical for Cherryh, slow to unfold. But, for me, utterly engaging from the first lines.
And for everyone who hasn’t happened across the emotionally intense novella “The Scapegoat,” well, that, too, is Cherryh at her finest.