Thursday, July 23, 2009

Forty Thousand in Gehenna, by C. J. Cherryh

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Forty Thousand in Gehenna
C. J. Cherryh

I came into Forty Thousand in Gehenna with an interesting perspective. Because I had recently read C. J. Cherryh’s Hugo Award winning novel Cyteen, I viewed Forty Thousand in Gehenna as one of those novels which expands on a small aspect of a different novel. See, the discovery of a situation in Gehenna is a fairly significant political plot point in Cherryh’s novel Cyteen. It is referenced more than a handful of times and the existence of the Gehenna situation plays a role in how things develop in Cyteen. So, coming at the novel from this angle, it is easy to read Forty Thousand in Gehenna as an expansion novel of an unexplored aspect of Cyteen.

The problem with that is Forty Thousand in Gehenna was published five years before Cyteen.

Even though I knew the publication chronology when I went into this novel, it was still hard to escape knowing the political fallout of the events of Forty Thousand in Gehenna, and even more, knowing backstory for Gehenna that is not presented in this earlier novel. This probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense right now. Let me back up a bit.

Three colony ships are sent to the second planet orbiting the Gehenna star. Gehenna II (just as our Earth could be considered Sol III, and probably is once you get deeper into Cherryh’s Alliance / Union universe – or a variety of other science fiction novels, for that matter). The three Union ships are sent from Cyteen Station and they carry 452 fully human citizens and more than 40,000 azi. The azi can and should also be considered fully human, but they are laboratory designed, created, and born. Azi are trained from birth by “tape” that teaches them their future jobs, morality, provides reward and punishment. Azi are clones and can be delicate creatures when outside the parameters of their tape, but they are perhaps like anyone else indoctrinated from a young age. The azi are to be the workers on Gehenna, serving the citizens (as they are elsewhere in the Union).

So far as the colonists know, this is to be the first wave of colonization on Gehenna (a world they were to call Newport, but Gehenna stuck for a variety of reasons). Three years after arrival, after the initial facilities had been built, another colony ship would be sent with another group of scientists, workers, and colonists. That ship never arrives and Gehenna is abandoned by the Union that sent the first three ships.

The first section of Forty Thousand in Gehenna is told from the perspective of the first colonists, of the first colonial governor, and of the two azi Jin and Pia. Through these eyes the reader is given the first glimpse of Gehenna and the strange situation on the ground and the maybe-sentient creatures they call “calibans” that burrow and build tunnels and other mounds of dirt. The earliest section deals with the developing colony, their expectation for reinforcements, and the changing behavior of the calibans. It deals with the breakdown of the colony, even in those first three years (possibly impacted by the calibans).

That’s the beginning of Forty Thousand in Gehenna, but it isn’t the end. This is a generational novel and the primary characters through the generations are the descendants of Jin and Pia. Cherryh shows the changing culture of a world with a limited population that doesn’t have contact with the rest of civilization (i.e., the rest of the universe). The culture that develops is quite different than what landed and is tied into the geography and the native life.

After a slow and somewhat clinical start, the development of Gehenna culture and the later rediscovery of the planet by the Alliance is a fascinating examination of how people change and it seems to get at the essential question of if there is anything inherent in how civilizations develop. If this is a question Cherryh is asking, her answer seems to be “no”. Civilization and Culture adapts in regards to the situations it finds itself in. Cherryh does a damn fine job is putting this all together and showing the changes with each generation and does so over a couple hundred years.

What is revealed in Cyteen but is not touched upon in Forty Thousand in Gehenna is the reason the colony was abandoned. It is an important detail in the backstory and makes the larger universe richer, because there is a specific reason behind this and it plays into the precise nature of the tape the colonizing azi were given and what their purpose on Gehenna really was, but it is not necessarily important to the story of Forty Thousand in Gehenna.

Forty Thousand in Gehenna, at its core, is a novel of an abandoned colony and how it changes, survives, and develops over the centuries before there is renewed contact with the Alliance.

I have used the terms Alliance and Union because they apply to this novel and the larger series Cherryh is working in, but the reader unfamiliar with Cherryh’s work only needs to know that these are two differing political philosophies in the human expansion of the galaxy or Universe. Cyteen is Union, Sol is Alliance. More or less. Neither is inherently morally corrupt or morally virtuous. It’s people with different philosophies for what humanity is about. This is what Gehenna is caught in the middle of.

I was about to write that Cherryh does not get into the consequences of Gehenna in this novel, but that is true only to a point. The larger political consequences are not touched on, but we do see through the generations how certain actions are part of the changing culture. The weird autistic-like children of the azi (not the regular children of the azi) run off to live with the calibans. We see the ramifications of this through the generations. Other artifacts of culture are part of the changing landscape of Gehenna. So, in that sense, Cherryh deals with consequences on the ground and the consequences of human life of Gehenna.

Because this is a generational novel, readers should not become too attached to any one character or any one era.

Forty Thousand in Gehenna is a solid novel and one that gets better once the viewpoint is shifted past the original colony and the clinical tone used for the azi viewpoints is muted.


Anonymous said...

It's About Time. It's also About Gender. It's a great, strange novel, and really quite ludicrously under-rated. For me, this is a far better book than Cyteen. There are very few novels, either sci-fi or mainstream literary fiction, that combine such a strong sense on the one hand of Time the Annihilator, with on the other hand such a sense of infinite possibilities. As you've said in your thorough review, though, it may be best not to get too attached to any one character - people don't last, particularly in this book.

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