December 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Explorer by C.J. Cherryh
Daw / Penguin Putnam HCVR: ISBN 0756400864 PubDate: 11/01/03
Review by Edward Carmien

408 pgs. List price $ 23.95
Buy this book and support SFRevu at halfprice.com / Amazon US / Amazon UK

By long tradition, established in my penniless teenage years when I prowled used bookstores seeking the distinctive yellow-spined DAW covers of Cherryh’s novels, I read this author in paperback. I mention this because while Explorer is new in paperback it of course came out last year in hardback. This in a sense is old news, but it is still news worth hearing.

As the sixth novel in the Foreigner series, the characters are familiar to readers familiar with Cherryh’s epic examination of first contact and subsequent relations between biologically divergent cultures, human and atevi. For readers not familiar with this series, this review should serve but one purpose—to make you go find Foreigner and start reading. Block out some serious time, and be prepared to be challenged intellectually, for Cherryh’s qualities are high-falutin’ literary qualities—but the mountain you climb will be worth it.

Bren Cameron is a diplomat, human, a colonist on an alien-dominated planet, and (by book 6) one of the few humans linguistically skilled enough to interact effectively with the atevi, the tall, ebony-skinned planetary natives. In Explorer he is on a space journey on the Phoenix, the starship that went awry in the distant past (extensive backstory explained in Foreigner—go read it already) journeying to another star system in which shady humans are residing, apparently to the displeasure of yet more aliens. He is accompanied by senior atevi government representatives and other human colonists, which creates the now-classic Cherryh triad of powers: atevi, ship crew, and human colonist passengers.

This triad collapses when they arrive at the star system, which contains an inhabited space station. The fourth power, the shady humans, cause the ship folk to act as one—but since two is not ideal of course there must be a new third power, and indeed there is: the scary aliens who are upset about the existence of the space station.

Once the stage has been set yet another first contact takes place, partially through valor of arms but in large part via the intelligent application of Bren’s knowledge as linguist, translator, and cultural chameleon.

Some of the novels in this series suffer from a lack of plot action—too much occurs inside the head of our Mr. Bren Cameron, and not enough happens out in the world. While this sort of psychological fiction can be enjoyable, too much of a good thing, as the saying goes, is not always a good thing. In Explorer quite a bit happens, and readers who might have found some earlier books a bit overwhelmingly focused on interior action will find more breathing room here.

In most SFRevu reviews, my intent is to indicate what kind of reader will enjoy the work, and why. With Cherryh, I’m writing to two distinct audiences. One, Cherryh readers, are already sold on her merits as a writer (and indeed these folks have already sprung for the hardcover, or got the paperback the week it was available, and this is old news). The other, non-Cherryh readers, fall into two groups: those who have tried and found Cherryh not to their taste, and those who have yet to try one of her books.

For the latter, this is my message: read Cherryh. Start with Foreigner if you like. Or Downbelow Station. Need a fast introduction? Rimrunners, Merchanter’s Luck, or Cuckoo’s Egg are good bets. Note I’m only talking about Cherryh’s science fiction titles here. With more than fifty titles produced in less than thirty years, including classics of the genre such as Cyteen, her output covers fantasy as well—but that’s another review for another day.

Read Cherryh. No one, in my professional estimation (and I am both published fiction writer and stuffy, opinionated academic), who is currently active in the field outstrips her in relevance to contemporary science fiction. Her prose is literary and deliberate. Her grasp of languages is impressive, as is her far-ranging interest in history, archeology, technology, culture, human behavior…the list is nearly endless. That Cherryh choses to exercise her literary talents in the science fiction and fantasy genres is a tribute to the power of these “literatures of change” (forgive me, James Gunn, for sticking fantasy in there).

Reading Cherryh will not slim your waistline, teach you how to become a millionaire by working from your home, or regrow hair. Reading Cherryh will enlighten the attentive reader in the same way that physical exercise will improve one’s physical health. Like exercise, being an attentive reader of Cherryh’s prose can be difficult—but, lets be honest, while there is enjoyment of a certain kind to be had from fiction that does not challenge, aren’t the most significant literary works those that stretch us, make us reach beyond our grasp? Tolkien’s LOTR isn’t an easy read. Dune is not. And the Foreigner series is not.

Explorer, despite Cherryh’s “what came before” section early in the narrative, is not a book that should be picked up by someone new to her work. It can be done, of course, but I am a firm believer in the rule of series fiction: thou shalt read a series in order to best appreciate it. Fortunately, Foreigner, along with a good number of Cherryh’s older titles, is readily available in paperback.

Explorer is a fine conclusion to an excellent series, despite a twist or two that may take veteran Cherryh readers by surprise. Space travel works differently—for obvious reasons innate to the narrative, this must be so. Time-dilation “jump” FTL would not suit this series, and while one can easily imagine how Foreigner connects to Cherryh’s “Company Wars” universe, this is not apparently the case—at least in fine detail. One of the many charms of reading Cherryh is noting how it almost all can be made to fit together, one way or another. Combining the sub-creation detail of Tolkien with a muscular version of Niven’s consistent-across-books “known space” concept, Cherryh’s body of work—including a few otherwise “fantasy” novels—largely hangs together. The Odyssey through time and space that her novels make is breathtaking in its scope and depth.

So, one last time: catch a ride. Read Cherryh.

(Shameless Plug: Look for The Cherryh Odyssey, a collection of articles about Cherryh’s work and literary career, coming in late summer 2004 from Wildside Press!)

© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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