June 2nd, 2018

Winter Sunlight

Read all the Cherryh: Port Eternity

This was apparently one of her earliest Alliance-Union books in terms of publication dates (published in 1982) but I'm glad I read it after reading enough of the other books in the 'verse to get a strong sense of how much people fear jump-space and how profoundly important it is for humans traveling through jump to drug themselves so they don't remember it. This is a book about what happens when you don't, and what actually IS between, and why ships or individuals getting lost in the between is a thing that happens sometimes.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. It's got a lot of great high-concept stuff going on: the trapped and haunted spaceship for all your Something Is Outside The Ship creepiness, the ship full of slaves forced to play-act a doomed Arthurian romance for the amusement of their mistress who end up somewhere their play-acting can become real, the clone-people whose entire lives are templated off pre-programmed tapes inadvertently using entertainment tapes to template themselves into more complex emotional lives. The general idea of azi developing more complex emotions and being, essentially, forced to become more human when they're stuck somewhere that their programming doesn't apply was the main thing I wanted (and didn't get, to my satisfaction) from the first section of Forty Thousand in Gehenna. And since we spend the entire book inside the head of an azi narrator, there is a lot of background thinky stuff about what are emotions, really, and what counts as "real" emotions. Are Elaine's (and the others') feelings of love and loyalty any less real because they were programmed to feel them? Are naturally born humans any less programmed? And so forth.

There's also the deeply creepy worldbuilding detail that Elaine, and others like her, are "terminated" at age 40 because her line of azi are designed to be ornamental, and once they stop being pretty, they're killed; the only way to avoid this is to find a way to be "clever" or otherwise useful. Elaine is clearly terrified of this fate while trying to convince herself that she's not because she has no right to her own life, she's only an azi. This seemed particularly relevant because we'd just been talking in the Chanur discussion about the way the Chanur books upend our own society's screwed-up relationship with male vs. female aging, where males in hani society are considered useless once they're past their reproductive prime. It was clearly something on Cherryh's mind at the time, because this book deals with the same issue in a different way: in Union, people like Elaine are meant to be looked at, their sole function is to be beautiful, and once they're no longer young and lovely, they're killed. (It's not specifically a female issue in this book, because that's also the intended fate of her fellow azi Lancelot, who is also around mainly for ornamental purposes. But it's pretty obviously a related statement on youth and attractiveness.)

(Randomly, the back-cover blurb describes the azi as "androids", apparently missing the point that they're genetically human, they're just clone-people. But in retrospect I guess the book doesn't really go into the details of Union, so if you're not already familiar with the universe, it's not that obvious what, exactly, the azi are, just that they're driven by programming more than ordinary emotions.)

... The main problem I had with the book, though, is that it's a bunch of very passive and in some cases unlikeable people stuck on a spaceship in the middle of nowhere, with no one but each other to interact with. The first half of the book in particular was extremely heavy on descriptions of people sleeping and entertaining themselves with the 24th-century equivalent of movies. I liked Elaine as a protagonist but I just wished there had been more ... well ... happening, which is an ironic comment given that the book was about a bunch of people trapped in a situation of DOOM and possibly under attack, but somehow the book's narrative style managed to leech out a lot of the suspense.

I also have zero emotional connection to the Arthurian mythos, which the entire book is built around, so that was probably also an issue. If you're more into the idea of Camelot In Space than I am, you might enjoy this book better.

But there was still a lot about it that I liked, particularly the vivid and creepy descriptions of in-between space and the survival aspects of trying to adjust to the idea that they might be trapped for the rest of their lives with no one to depend on but each other. I ended up wishing some of the ideas that were developed in this book had been developed in about three times the space (it's a short book, more novella-sized than full novel sized) so that we'd had more of an opportunity to get to know the characters better and to really deal with the ins and outs of azi psychology that this book merely brushes across. Which, come to think of it, is probably why she wrote Cyteen later on. This book strikes me as an early attempt to feel around the edges of some of the issues of identity and self that Cyteen addressed head on.

(... or at least I assume it does. I did read Cyteen a very long time ago, but I don't really remember anything about it now except "clones". It's one of the ones I'll be getting to soon-ish; it's in the pile!)

Also, giving me more fuel for my theory that Cherryh's id is pretty much my own, this is another book that revolves around a little group of found-family-ish types who are all up in each other's space all the time. As well as everyone living together on the ship, the azi prefer sleeping in a big cuddle-pile because they're more comfortable with other azi around them. It also comes thiiiiiiis close to a canonical threesome or possibly foursome, but then veers around it at the last minute; awwww. (You can headcanon it in very easily, though.)

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