22 July 2010

C. J. Cherryh's Chanur Series: Space Opera Done Right

I used to be a big fan of science fiction writer (Carolyn) J. Cherryh, and have read many of her books. Somewhere back in the mid 1990s, I stopped enjoying her work so much, and I had not read a book by her for many years until I decided to re-read her five-volume Chanur series, published in the late '80s and early '90s. And, to my surprise and pleasure, I enjoyed them at least as much this time around as I had the first time of reading.

The Chanur series consists of five books:

The Pride of Chanur
Chanur's Venture
The Kif Strike Back
(OK, OK, terrible title, I know)
Chanur's Homecoming
Chanur's Legacy

The first and final books are standalones; the middle three form one long narrative; and all five are set in one universe. The first three books are available in one volume as The Chanur Saga, and the last two as Chanur's Endgame.

The universe of the Chanur series is one in which six spacefaring species, three oxygen-breathing and three methane-breathing, control adjacent sectors of space. Within the framework of an increasingly uneasy "Compact", they meet, trade, and sometimes fight. But then a new spacefaring species: largely hairless, bipedal, sadly lacking in claw or fang - enters the picture. With the arrival of these "humans", as they call themselves, the fragile balance of the Compact is further disturbed, and war looms.

The Chanur are a spacefaring clan of the hani species, whose biology and social structure is modelled most closely on lions: the smaller females do the planning, organised hunting and (in this case) trading, while the larger males are valued mainly for their abilities at breeding and single combat. As the series opens, only hani females venture into space, with the males (and many females) remaining behind on the homeworld, Anuurn. The Pride of Chanur is a Chanur trading vessel captained by the unusually far-sighted hani captain Pyanfar Chanur.

The Chanur series falls within that sub-genre of science fiction known as space opera. It's not a sub-genre I'm particularly fond of, so why do I like the Chanur books so much?

i think it's because they violate many of the expectations and tropes that weigh down "traditional" space opera, or for that matter the new space opera which has become so popular over the past twenty or so years. Traditional space opera focuses on the mind-bogglingly vast, with the plot proceeding by successive revelations on an increasingly gargantuan scale, and the characters are little more than ciphers chosen to advance the plot.

By comparison, the Chanur series takes place within a limited volume of space, in which movement from any one star system can only be to a limited number of other systems. Most of the time, the action takes place within normal space, on spaceships or on the space stations which serve as venues for trading and diplomacy. Time spent in hyperspace (travelling faster than light) is brief and dreamlike. The narrative style, as described in C. J. Cherryh's Wikipedia entry, is "tight third person": that's a good choice to described the cramped, fraught environment of an overburdened spaceship far from home. And, over the five books, we get to know - and, in many cases, love - the complex, flawed characters no less than we would in a novel set in our here and our now.

At their core, the Chanur novels are about overcoming one's prejudices and learn to appreciate difference. By the time the first four books are over, Pyanfar's crew, all female hani at the start of the first book, has swelled to include male hani, male human, and even a kif, widely condemned among the other species for treachery - though, by their own lights, they are the soul of consistency. In the fifth book, Pyanfar's heir apparent Hilfy Chanur comes to appreciate the delicate ways of the st'sho, masters of diplomacy and indirection.

The Chanur novels are exciting, well-written, and thought-provoking, and Pyanfar Chanur, and the human Tully - even seen through eyes very alien to us - are two of science fiction's most memorable characters. You won't regret a journey with the Chanur clan.


David Tulloch said...

Curse you ... I've had to go and order them from goodbooksnz now ... and soon I'll have to read them ... I'll get you for this (shakes fist)!

Tim Jones said...

Ah, but you have had your revenge already, because you did not order them via the affiliate links to Goodreads which I so thoughtfully provided. I'm ruined, I tell you, ruined!

(I do hope you enjoy them, though.)

Helen Lowe said...

Well, I can't go buy them, because I already have them all and they are amongst my favourite CJ Cherryh novels--although I think I might have to tip my hat to Downbelow Station as Cherryh's most outstanding work of fiction. I also think she is one of the scifi writers who best blends the laws-of-physics realism of what space travel could/might be (in both the Downbelow and Chanur books) with the sociocultural/anthropological effects on human society (Downbelow) and human/alien interaction (Chanur). And just in case you doubt my laws-of-physics realism comment, I understand NASA named a planetoid after Ms Cherryh for that very reason.

Tim Jones said...

Helen, I'm with you on "Downbelow Station" as a (somewhat) standalone novel, though I should go back and re-read it to see what I think of it now. It was the first C. J. Cherryh book I read, and I remember it being hard to get used to her distinctive writing style at first, but that my perseverance was amply rewarded.