CJ Cherryh Why You Gotta Be So Panicky?

I’m re-reading Cyteen by CJ Cherryh. I’m sure I talked about it before, but just to reiterate – it’s the book that basically cemented my own writing style. I read Cyteen when I was 19 and finished the whole trilogy in a week (read about 100 pages a day; I was enthralled). It made me go “wow I didn’t know there are English sci-fi books that are like this!” English because there are many, many Chinese books like this, although not sci-fi, where it’s sort of an ensemble cast and it’s a giant web of deceit and personal relationships. (This was back in early 2000s, long before Game of Thrones was a mainstream thing.) Anyway, I’ve decided to re-read it, see if it holds up now I’m no longer a wide-eyed teenager being exposed to new things. It…does and doesn’t at the same time?

It doesn’t because I’ve matured as a writer, so I can recognize pacing issues, and that the dialogue is a bit repetitive, and how her prose is kind of bland and succinct. Now nothing wrong with succinct prose – hell I should learn some of that for myself, god knows how long-winded I can be – but the story is so long and complicated that the oversimplified descriptions doesn’t really keep me engaged. Her books are not action-oriented tales, so a lot of the conflict is psychological and internal. It’s boring to keep reading “they can’t trust anyone” over and over expressed in similar ways, you know? Some parts drag on too long in the worst way. Those aren’t boring, nope, those are anxiety-inducing and panicky. You feel like you’re just pacing around in circles, pumped full of fear, and it doesn’t end. I mean, I guess the writing succeeds in that you feel the full extend of panic, but it’s just so draining. You can read how this character is panicking and the relief doesn’t come for another 100 pages. So by page 80 you’re like okay enough is enough I can’t take this constant anxiety time to skip ahead good lord. Unlike Downbelow Station, which is just as anxiety inducing but moves at a good pace so it actually keeps you super engaged, Cyteen just makes you want to put the book down and never pick it up back again without taking some Xanax.

I’m only halfway through right now, butI think I finished all the parts I remember from before (the brilliant parts). Apparently all the interesting stuff happened in the first third, which I guess is the first book (it’s an omnibus). I feel like the first benefited from setting up the world and the people, so you are naturally interested because they’re so alien and unfamiliar. And the people themselves are quite fascinating. But by book 2 and 3 she should’ve stopped setting up, so to speak, and get more plot points in, but they don’t. Well, I don’t know what the 3rd book does because I’m not there yet, but book 2 is definitely sloggy. Now I just want to move on so I can read the actual sequel Regenesis. That desire prompted the trip through the Union side of the Alliance-Union universe in the first place.

(Watch this bite me in the butt when I write my own trilogy, and all the readers’d ever remember is the first one. I’m crossing my fingers that this won’t be the case.)


Serpent’s Reach – Afterthought

I am on a serious CJ Cherryh binge right now. I think after I started reading The Wind-Up Girl (still only halfway) and got so bored by its character clichés that I figured I need to turn to something better, and since I’ve never actually delved too deep into Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe save for the two Hugo winners, I might as well start at the beginning.

I’ve decided to start Union-side because there’re only 4 books (and a short novella) in the series, plus I want to re-read Cyteen again. I first went to Wikipedia because, for crying out loud the background is so ridiculous that you definitely need the Cliffnotes before you start (to be fair, there’re 27 books total in this series so I get how it became this way). Serpent’s Reach is the first one. It follows a woman whose clan got wiped out in a political move and basically is a long-con revenge story with some star-system shattering endings.

Let’s get the bad parts of this book out first: mainly the pacing. There were several time skips and I thought they were abrupt and frankly, either need to be expanded or completely removed. Right now they’re in that awkward place where you have enough details to want more but don’t get any. Like the years the protagonist spent between her exile from a planet and arrival on a ship. There’s a whole chapter devoted to her physically aging. Like, what? You couldn’t just go ‘she was 16, now she’s 29, here’s a summary paragraph about what she did during that time, done?’ And the plot would work out pretty much exactly the same, so this definitely came across to me as really unnecessary.

I also found some of her plot elements intentionally too vague. Overall the book feels like it’s been cut due to page constraints or something, because there were a lot of uneven detailing going on. I couldn’t figure out what happened at the end to the Kontrins until I looked up the plot on the Internet! I mean I got the sense that the planet blew up and everyone died (it didn’t), but not exactly what went down. An additional sentence or two would be more than enough to clear it up, instead of me just have a vague feeling of dread, which worked very well in Downbelow Station but not here. Guess that’s why that one won a Hugo and this one, not so much.

And now onto the good stuff – the great things that makes me such a devoted Cherryh fan – her characters and their relationships. (With a healthy dose of political intrigue, although not too much for this book.) I loved the parley between Raen (main character) and Pol (sort of antagonist but turned out to be antihero-ish). They were completely on equal terms when it came to connivance and ruthlessness that it made Raen just as terrifying as all the male villains (a lot of media doesn’t do women the same justice). That had always been the case with Cherryh –  her aliens are wonderfully alien, her men are emotional and exquisite, and her women absolutely frightening. It’s special in that her women are NOT devoid of emotion (no “ice queen” or “stoic assassin” here), on the contrary,  usually it’s driven by passion or hunger for power or, in this specific case, revenge for the death of her entire family.

Her male characters, on the other hand, tend to be the “heart” of a story. The helpless ones, the insecure ones (which most of them overcome if they’re given enough screentime), the downtrodden ones. And I don’t mean all her men are like that, I mean if there is a character in an ensemble who’s more on the powerless side, it’s assigned to a male character and not a female one, unlike convention. There’re plenty of strong male characters in Serpent’s Reach, by all means, but the least ruthless (arguably?) was a clone named Jim who eventually gained independence through his own volition. It’s refreshing to see, and all the power dynamic he had were flipped from the norm (at least in 1980s terms). I love that he eventually gained the same mindset as Raen through “programming”, which brought out the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture. I also love that her entire Union-side stories tend to focus exclusively on this because of the clones. It just added more dimension to what it meant to be human (along with, of course, the super non-human aliens such as the majat and how they navigate a world completely different from the various strains of future homo sapiens.)

Reading Cherryh’s books makes me happy. It’s escapism at its finest for me, because I can forget about how depressing the real world works and just lose myself in this new, more fascinating future. I know some sci-fi people love because it really could happen, like Star Trek give people hope and optimism for the human kind and such. Well, I don’t think this series is it, necessarily. In fact some facets of it I hope never come to life. It’s like the world of Game of Thrones – no way you want to actively strive to create a world just as such, but if you’re already in it, it is quite an awesome ride to live vicariously through.

Library Trip

I went to the library today. Walked there – it’s only about half a mile away and it’s a beautiful day after a full week of non-stop rain. I had a book on hold but due to MLK day and such I could not go until now. It’s like the smallest library branch I’ve ever seen! I’m pretty sure I’m just going to use it as a pitstop for picking up books on hold, because collection is so tiny it’s not worth me browsing through even.

I picked up CJ Cherryh’s Serpent’s Reach. I was going to get this and 40,000 in Gehenna BUT THEN I looked up the page numbers and thought, yeah…ain’t gonna finish those in three weeks. So one will do for now. I’m actually going to try to read through this universe because I really want to re-read Cyteen again, and then move on to Regenesis, so might as well start at the beginning. Her books, like Mary Renault’s, always seem to cheer me up.

I’m actually halfway through The Wind-Up Girl on my Kindle and I’m just…not feeling too much for the story. Mostly because the main attraction, the “wind-up”, is boring as fuck! I mean, super power female sex robot from Japan, omg, I’ve never seen that before! Christ, if you’re going with that route at least make it a male sex robot or something, or have more agency than “omg I’m a helpless girl I was made this way all I want is happiness and be with my people oh look suddenly I have super powers that may be the key to solving every other problem in the book but no one knows about it omg I’m so fragile save me!” Like, right, um, yawwwwnnnnn. It’s kind of sad because there are parts of that book that’s original, as I’ve never seen that many different Asian cultures being featured in a book in a non-“look at me look at how exotic and Oriental these people are!” way. Anyway, I should finish reading this one first but the CJ Cherryh book just calls to me, so I figure that can wait.