I typically smoke a cigar in the afternoons (when it’s warm enough, but not too warm; I only smoked in the house once – never again) and will take a dead-tree book with me while I do so. Because I’m cheap, and have bought and given away so many books in the past (thousands, for sure), I’m reluctant to buy new books. I’ve also got conservative over the years and typically don’t take on new authors, as it’s expensive to test the waters (now I beta read, so get to read new authors for free and give back to the writing community at the same time). As such, I generally reread the same books I’ve saved over the decades as too good to give away (maybe 50). I selected the three novels in the Chanur’s Venture / The Kif Strike Back / Chanur’s Homecoming series to read and it had been so long that I’d forgot most of the plot details (see, there are benefits to being absent minded ;-). I really enjoyed (re)reading the series, often lingering past the point where I was done with my cigar and should have been beta reading (sorry to all those in my queue; I expect to make up for lost time over the next couple of weeks).
I’ve adopted part of Cherryh’s writing style as my own, so obviously I’m a big fan in more ways than one. I love the intellectual challenge of figuring out how her universe works through context, and have tried to adopt that aspect in many places as well (particularly in my DoaCK series). As I’ve been having issues with conflict in my own writing, I was acutely aware of how Cherryh kept ratcheting up the tension and how it all felt organic as I read. As an author, I wondered if she added some of these conflict/tension elements later, after she’d written her first draft, or if she’d been doing it so long that she naturally added it as she went. I’ve been finding places where I feel it’s organic to add conflict to some of my work, but still struggle with it sometimes feeling gratuitous.
Pyanfar Chanur is the primary character in the series (there’s a novel that details events prior to the series and contains many of the same characters and is called “The Pride of Chanur” and a following one that introduces many new ones called “Chanur’s Legacy”). Pyanfar is a hani (lower case on purpose), a member of a humanoid cat-like species. What’s even more interesting is Pyanfar is a female and, until the events of the series, no male had ever been outside their home star system and only a handful had even been in space. The males fight among themselves to become leaders of a pride (so to speak) and would then be pampered until he lost to another challenger, who would then be pampered. The menfolk were believed too passionate and violent to consider even exposing to outside events. Not quite a 180 degree flip from our misogynistic culture, but a very interesting take nonetheless. Cherryh also has several other extremely well done alien species and part of the fun is trying to understand the motivations, and even communications, with the various species.
Cherry’s faster-than-light travel, her hyperspace, has some interesting limitations, at least to the characters that are primarily the focus of the stories. Some species (humans being one) need to be drugged to even make it through the travel. Others, like the hani, don’t need the drugs, but are barely semi-conscious during that period and are reliant on automation for the hard-to-define period of travel, that can take what appears to be biologically several days or even weeks. Also, hyperspace travel has to happen between specific locations, so it doesn’t allow willy nilly movement. Their in-system travel is done with conventional (well, probably fusion-powered) rockets and takes the appropriate time. Their hyperspace travel mechanism, though, can be used to boost (or slow) the ship to (from) close to the speed of light, which allows for some interesting challenges. For instance, when a ship enters a new system it’s moving so fast that those in the system will often find out about the ship moments before the information about it has arrived, even if the ship has been inside the system for hours.
Anyway, regarding the tension and conflict, Pyanfar’s body slowly deteriorates over the course of the series (which may only cover a month of ‘realtime’ (if you can even define that with all the relativistic effects going on)) as she spends so little time to recover in between hyperspace jumps. One of her crew is seriously injured and they’re all legitimately worried that she (the entire crew is female) won’t survive the stress of the jump. Then a bunch of food/vermin (one of the species she reluctantly has onboard can only eat live food) escapes on the ship and it seems they’re perfectly happy during the jump, even breeding and eating as the crew are in a zombie-like state.
Pyanfar has more and more responsibility dumped on her increasingly frail and weakened shoulders, and events degenerate to the point where it feels even a sneeze could set off irrevocable events that could destroy whole worlds.
The series is very fast-paced, even frenetic at times, but it works perfectly. The results at the end make logical sense and the only thing I wish Cherryh had done was give a longer wrap up so we could see better how things turn out.