Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Anthology Review: "Alternate Realities" by C.J. Cherryh

I have always found it tricky to recommend the novels of C.J. Cherryh to other people.

Previously, I've given high marks to her western frontier/sci-fantasy/horror duology Rider At The Gate and Cloud's Rider. On the other hand, I've mentioned her problem with fuzzy climactic moments (see the review of Peter S. Beagle's The Innkeeper's Song.)

Cherryh's most famous work, the "Foreigner" series, is my favorite "culture clash" tale...  and a very hard read for people who expect a little more blazing guns and a little less diplomacy in their sci-fi.

But Cherryh's anthology Alternate Realities is an absolute gift to the science fiction genre.

I cannot speak as to the quality of the anthology's third story, "Wave Without A Shore." Every time I try to read it, my eyes slowly close and the book slides from my uninspired fingers. (I suppose that's a comment on quality after all.) However, the first two--"Port Eternity" and "Voyager in Night"--are the most delicious sci-fi novellas ever put to paper. The stories are so rich, so complex. They play in my brain like half-remembered movie clips when I'm awake too late at night.

Now, 66% success is still a failing grade by the reckoning of most American school systems. For fiction, however, that's two amazing books for the price of one, plus a bonus paperweight.

My usual "summary followed by critique" format doesn't work quite as well for anthologies as for novels, when I have only a single plot to describe. Instead, I'll break both stories down beneath the cut.

Port Eternity
5 out of 5 stars
Wealthy Dela Kirn has made her personal starship into a tribute to the Arthurian legends she loves, staffed with androids named after the old heroes and villains. Only Elaine, Dela's maid, has listened to the tape that inspired their existence. She carries the burden for the others: why her dear friend Lance is programmed to hopelessly adore his owner, why gentle, awkward Modred is always viewed with suspicion. 
An idle cruise with Dela's latest lover aboard turns terrifyingly permanent when the ship's systems fail in mid-jump. Now crew and passengers alike are trapped in an eerie space between star systems. Questions about "real" humanity and the right to life are raised alongside concerns as to the crew's purpose, if they can no longer serve. Their fears lead them to the tape and the story they were "born" to fulfill, even as something alien and monstrous begins knocking on their hull.
Wikipedia tells me that the keywords for Port Eternity are "romantic thriller." I suppose that's accurate enough. (Likewise, it tells me that the buzzwords for the anthology as a whole are "thought experiments," but that puts a bad taste in my mouth and fails to capture the genius of these stories.)

What Wikipedia won't tell you is that Port Eternity is the only story which gives me the same sort of emotions as T.H. White's The Once And Future King, otherwise known as my best beloved of all books. Obviously, they're playing off of the same mythos. But Port Eternity goes beyond the surface trappings (as few other Arthurian riffs do) to tell a wholly original yet emotionally resonant story about people trying to be brave and good--without knowing how, despite their fears about their own secret, insurmountable flaws--in the face of a doom too vast and certain to be borne. A story about people who must and will die, and who aren't sure that they are capable of a worthy death, but who claw for hope and for salvation for each other nevertheless.

Port Eternity takes some classic plot themes--as it must--and balances them with fresh twists. The relationship between Dela and her staff will chill and warm the reader in turns. Elaine's viewpoint makes a great vehicle for the story: her generosity of spirit toward each of her fellow characters allows the scope of the tale to expand beyond the physical constraints of the ship. Moreover, the degree of technobabble is kept to a minimum, making the story "safe" for fantasy fans as well as for hardcore science fiction enthusiasts.

The action of the actual conclusion happens rather swiftly, but I found the ending page or so to be a perfect resolution to the emotional weight of the story. And I would recommend the entire anthology to just about anyone simply on the strength of Port Eternity alone. Fortunately, I can recommend Voyager in Night almost as highly. And on that note...

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass?
Content Warning: reference to past sexual abuse, reference to euthanasia, characters with various trauma responses

Voyager In Night
4 out of 5 stars
The Lindy was never equipped for deep-space travel. When a massive alien vessel appears out of the empty space around the Endeavor system, it drags the tiny prospecting ship in its wake. The violent wrench into jumpspace proves fatal for Lindy's three fragile human occupants. 
Then the real danger begins. 
The entities within the alien ship scan and project replicas of the Lindy's ravaged crew: body, mind, and memory. They are unfamiliar with humans, curious about what their new passengers would do if they had lived, and will do now that they are dead. But one of the three humans still has a physical, living, breathing body--one which can still be destroyed, but one which can, in turn, threaten their captors. 
Yes. These are both novellas about a small group of people who get screwed over in deep space. They are both about those people having to learn far too much about themselves--and each other--when faced with death.

Beyond that, they could not diverge more wildly in mood or execution.

The "experimental" nature of Voyager in Night is more pronounced than that of Port Eternity. To be entirely honest with you, dear reader, I couldn't get all the way through it the first time. My usual speedreading does not work here. But read slowly, pay very close attention, and you'll find a gem of a novella.

Forewarned is forearmed, though, so let me give you two points of advice. The first is this: the symbolic "names" of the entities aboard the alien ship can also be read as formulas. <> is the "captain" who captures the Lindy and her ill-fated crew. </>, its clear enemy, is also in a way a "version" of the first--the "not-captain," essentially. This sort of thinking will become clearer when one sees the Cannibal, designated as = = = =, incorporate the character-symbols of other devoured entities into its name.

(If you haven't yet cracked open the book, dear reader, the paragraph above should warn you what's in store. If you can loosen your expectations of what names should look like, though, the story itself is not actually that headache-inducing.)

The second piece of guidance is: since the entities aboard the ship are capable of making "copies", not every viewpoint character designated as Rafe, Paul, or Jillan are the same Rafe, Paul, and Jillan as before. This is, of course, a significant plot point that I have just spoiled for you, but I think it's for the best.

All of this sounds very frightening. I don't mean to dissuade you, only to prepare you. I think the story of Voyager In Night is worth the extra brainpower one must expend on its behalf.

All experimental writing aside, I greatly enjoy the story within this maze. The Murray-Gainses--Jillan Murray, her brother Rafe, and her husband Paul Gaines--are facing in many ways an uglier conflict than the androids of Port Eternity. Two-thirds of them are already dead, left with only the reality of who they were and the secrets they have been keeping from each other. With the fear of death gone, and the fear of running out of time, there are no more excuses except for pride. Now that's terrifying.

Also terrifying: the realization that you are not the only one of yourself, and that your other selves, who know all of the things that only you know, are diverging from who you think you should be.

What else might you be afraid to lose, if "your life" is no longer a concern? Perhaps your dignity. Perhaps your autonomy. Perhaps the love and respect of the only people you have left. That's what Voyager in Night is about, and why it's worth the extra mental exertion.

This novella yanks my heart and my mind around. The experimental writing format sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, so I can't recommend it as highly or with the same confidence as Port Eternity. But I do praise it, earnestly, to those willing to take the plunge.

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 4/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 3/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 4/5
Mental Engagement: 5/5
Bechdel Test: pass, if you count the Jillians as separate people
Diverse Cast: fail
Content Warning: character deaths, existential horror, medical torture, disturbing imagery

No comments:

Post a Comment