Tuesday, June 12, 2018

CJ Cherrryh's Alliance-Union Series

If you don't know, Adrian Simmons and I are kicking off a book club over at Black Gate. This time (I don't know how often we'll do this), we're reading CJ Cherryh's 1981, Hugo-winning Downbelow Station. It's the story of the last days of a war between the space fleets of the outclassed Earth Company and the seemingly unstoppable forces of the colonial Union. Brutal starship commanders, weak-willed bureaucrats, desperate refugees, and cuddly aliens struggle to make some sort of sense of events as the war arrives on the front stoop of Pell, aka Downbelow, Station. You can read the first discussion HERE.

If you haven't read CJ Cherryh and you love space opera, go track her down. I'd suggest on of the thinner volumes - ex. Merchanter's Luck or Rimrunners - first. She's a demanding writer who expects her readers to follow along the road she's made and pick things up along the way. She almost never spends time on exposition. Sometimes characters explain things to one another, but that's a rare moment to be savored.

In the 24th century, the giant and complacent Earth Company lashes out at the breakaway colony world, Cyteen. The resulting war between the Company and the colonial Union is brutal and unforgiving. Earth never really understood the lives of space-bound stationers and merchants, let alone that of the clone-augmented populations of alien worlds. Unable to defeat the Union, Earth is slowly ground down. That's where things stand as Downbelow Station opens.

Two of the series' books, Heavy Time and Hellburner, take place around Earth early on during the war. Cyteen explores the titular planet and its evolving un-Earthlike culture. Merchanter's Luck, Rimrunners, Tripoint, and Finity's End take place after and in the wake of the events in Downbelow Station.

There are several other books that are part of the A-U universe that are standalones. Several of them focus on human-alien interactions. A few, the Faded Sun trilogy and Hunter of Worlds among them, are set many centuries later than Downbelow Station.

Finally, and my personal favorites, are the Chanur books. Set in the alien-populated Compact, they tell of the adventures of Pyanfar Chanur and her crew during first contact with humans from Earth. I reviewed the first book, Chanur's Pride, at Black Gate. It came out in 1982 and lost out on the Hugo in 1983 to Foundation's Edge, a decent enough book, but not one anyone's rushing out to read anymore.

Cherryh's sci-fi, aside from FTL travel, are pretty high on the science hardness scale and the future they depict is deadly. They're tough, sometimes even brutal. Her books may have happy endings, but the price of them is great, and broken characters litter the pages. Some of these books are hard going psychically, but they're absolutely worth it.


  1. I read Downbelow Station, Rimrunner, Merchanter's Luck and maybe one or two others about 20 years ago. (The same time I read the first six Black Company books, come to think of it.) It might be time for a reread

  2. Her work really holds up. Sure, the tech is very pre-digital feeling, but everything else feels right.