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The pride of Chanur - C. J. Cherryh

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Author: C.J. Cherryh / Genre: Sci-Fi / Fantasy

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      09.11.2007 23:07
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      First in a set of four, this is simply one of, if not, the finest sci fi novel ever written

      One of the lovely things about science fiction is that we get to visit far off worlds and meet interesting new species from our armchair. Just how interesting varies, and I personally find the most interesting ones are the most detailed, and utterly foreign aliens that we manage to find some common ground to understand and appreciate them. Very few writers manage to pull off this feat, and rarer still is the author who manages to stand and look back at us with alien eyes, or better yet, to have us look at ourselves through the eyes of the aliens. One such writer is C. J. Cherryh, and in the Pride of Chanur, she surpasses herself.

      Taking place in the Alliance-Union universe of Downbelow Station, Forty Thousand in Gehenna, and Cyteen, this time she has us look in the opposite direction. To one side of Earth lies the explored and settled Alliance-Union space, and to the other, a more or less unexplored region of space. Unbeknownst to humans, it is this region of space that will spawn humanity's first contact, and it is not the romanticised nor heroic and noble encounter that many fantasize about. This region of space is known to the locals as Compact space. The Compact is not a governmental body, but rather an agreement that allows trade to occur between the regions five species.The rules and regulations of the Compact therefore only apply to trade, and the free access to the interstellar trading lanes and free, safe access to space stations and outposts for the purpose of trade. Any other political issues are beyond the remit of the Compact, and so must be dealt with by the individual species between themselves.

      This of course, can cause problems from time to time, as politics often affects trade. It gets even murkier when trying to balance both to advantage, and trying to guess what is going on within the mind of a totally different species. The five species of Compact space are further divided by oxygen breathers and methane breathers, making for an interesting mix of cultures and mores.The five species of Compact space are:


      These are brown coloured primates the same size as the average human being.They have a big sense of curiosity and have a complex political system. It is based upon Personage, in which a person makes themselves seem important, attracting hangers on and followers, and prestige to the Personage is enhanced or detracted by not only their own actions, but those of their followers. They seek out other intelligences, and were the ones responsible for discovering the Hani, and giving them space travel, but are famously bad at learning the languages of others.

      The Hani

      Cat like beings, with a social structure similar to lions with clans (prides) providing the social structure. Also like lions, the females are smaller and responsible for the role of "hunter", in this case, being the space faring traders, while the larger males take care of the domestic side of things and remain planet bound. Each clan only has one male, who fights his way to dominance, and all male offspring live in exile upon reaching manhood. The government structure is a council inspired by the Mahendo'sat example.


      Frail, avian type creatures, the Stsho provided most of the legal framework of the Compact law.They deal with words and legal matters mostly, not fighting, and rely on wealth and alliances for trade and gain. They stress out very easily, and when they do, undergo personality changes, often morphing into another sex entirely (like fish or frogs can). Politics can be difficult with them, therefore, as the stress can bring upon the changes, and is further complicated by the mind set of the species having three sexes, and only the indeterminate sex being allowed contact with other species. This means that is a Stsho stresses and changes sex to male (gtste ) or female ( gtsto), then negotiations must start all over again with a new personage.


      The Kif are hairless, ebony skinned predators with long snouts and double sets of teeth. . Socially , their regime is dependent upon factions in which a single Kif has distinguished himself to be the most ruthless and able to wield the most authority. Kif so capable amass followers who form a court type entourage, with the dominant Kif seen as a prince.They change alliances at any sign of weakness, and are known to be cannibals and pirates as well as master opportunists. The other species are wary of the Kif, and see them as nuisances.

      Tc'a and Chi

      These are actually two species who have a symbiotic relationship. Methane breathers, the Tc'a are snakelike beings, and the Chi are almost arthropod in nature Technologically advanced and politically powerful, they are amongst the hardest of the species to understand, as they have multi part brains which function quite differently from the rest, and when translated, their speech often seems to be gibberish at worst, or full of intertwined messages that are jumbled together. They are primarily found on space stations rather than ships, usually running the methane atmosphered sections.


      This is the third of the methane breathing species. Their language is incomprehensible to all except the Tc'a, who at best can communicate in a rough manner with them. Their ships must be closely looked for as well, as their thought processes cause them to navigate in ways that are incomprehensible to the others, with many near collisions. This is only one aspect of their nature that causes the other species to consider them dangerous, however. as prior to the Tc'a finally getting through that it is not the done thing to simply happen upon a trading vessel and take it apart, it is precisely what they did. Their current activity is only slightly better, as now they simply take what they want, and leave behind tokens of whatever they think is adequate and acceptable recompense. This spidery species also happens to be the most technologically advanced, as they can manoeuvre within hyper space, and even take ships into it with them.

      As you can see, the complexities of the various species makes Compact space a rather interesting place to be. It is into this maelstrom that a human exploration ship wanders and ends up making first contact. Unfortunately for all aboard, it is with a Kif vessel, and the crew and their ship fare poorly. All save one is killed, and he is kept prisoner as a trophy for the status amongst the Kif. Upon stopping over at a space station, however, the lone human escapes, and manages to stow away upon a Hani ship, The pride of Chanur. The Kif are furious at losing their exotic prize, and try violent subterfuge to locate him. Refusing to surrender the human, Tully, a battle of wits and political intrigue ensues. The Kif want the human to make translator tapes for them so they can get the prestige of dealing with the humans (it was over this the rest of the crew were murdered), but the Hani recognise what a powerful bargaining tool this is and protect Tully. Political manoeuvrings with the Mahendo'sat ensues and a mysterious intervention by the KNN. Just what is everyone hoping to gain, will Tully get back to human space alive, and will everyone ever learn the truth?

      I have to say this is absolutely hands down my favourite book from all of her writings. Seen from the viewpoint of the young Hani captain, Pyanfar Chanur, the reader is plunged headfirst into a strange universe that is intimately familiar nonetheless as we slide easily into her skin. The political machinations are diabolical, and the frustration of Pyanfar and her crew is palatable, as is the sheer terror the uncomprehending Tully feels as he is subjected to depredations at the hands of the Kif, and the fear of the unknown. Tully is in uncharted emotional territory here, as humans had no prior experience with an alien species, much less several. Pyanfar is also in uncharted waters, as her species is a junior member of the Compact, and her actions have caught everyone literally by the tail. How she handles the situation, and its outcome, have a direct effect on how things move forward forever after in Compact space.

      Cherryh's writing style is at her best here as well. Being a very descriptive writer, one gets fully immersed into the fictional universe she paints for us. So much so, in fact, that putting the book down feels as if a rude awakening has occurred, and things appear slightly strange for a few moments. Just mere moments, but it happens nonetheless and is a testament to her excellent skills.To be quite honest, it is a book that is all too easy to wish to slip straight back into, and begs to be read in as large a chunk as possible without interruption. This is its only true "failing", if it can be considered that. While you CAN read it in smaller bites, you will wish you had gotten to read it in one sitting.


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