CJ Cherryh: The Outcast and the Uncertain Mind

Since her 1976 debut with Gate of Ivrel, CJ Cherryh has earned a reputation as a diverse and prolific writer. Prolific she surely is, having written somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 novels to date, in addition to short fiction and several collaborations. Diversity is also an apt description, as her settings range from the quasi-fantastic to the technical, and include several forays into pure fantasy.

Despite diversity, many of the finest writers become fascinated with a particular type of character or theme, and explore it in many different settings. Zelazny examined the mortality of immortals. Vance is fascinated with the mutability of culture. Cherryh explores the turmoil of the outcast.

The struggle of the outsider to cope with suspicion, intolerance, or plain lack of understanding from his fellows is a plot element Cherryh employs as a lens through which other events of the novel are examined. Often this is the major plot line of the story (eg Merchanter's Luck, Rimrunners, Tripoint, and Finity's End). Just as often, it is a minor plot element (eg Josh Talley's situation in Downbelow Station, or Tully's in the The Pride of Chanur). In the series that started with Gate of Ivrel, the two major characters are outcasts: Morgaine with her iconoclastic mission to destroy a baneful technology, and Nhi Vanye, primarily by virtue of his association with Morgaine.

Cherryh never adopts omniscience. The reader must view events in the third person, from the point of view of one or more characters, and the main character is nearly always in a state of emotional turmoil. Cherryh's writing technique, following the linkage of the character's thoughts, compels the reader to share the uncertainty and misapprehensions of the character. Her style mirrors human thought processes, without the artificial fluidity of the "stream of consciousness" constructions. Short, choppy sentences. Reflective clauses. Or prepositional phrases, with emotional freighting. Like that. For this reason, Cherryh's work can sometimes be difficult; however, when you've taken the trouble to follow the thoughts and the feelings, the effect is quite profound.

Cherryh seems to glory in this turmoil, and sometimes adopts plot elements that will accentuate it. In a series of three fantasy novels, set in the ancient forests of the Ukraine, magic is the desire of the magician influencing events and human motivations. Unconscious or casual wishes carry the same force as purposeful desires, so that one may never know for certain the source of one's own actions and purposes. Similarly, two science fiction novels are set on a world in which predators use illusion and fear projected into the minds of their quarry as a hunting tool, and their prey use similar techniques to protect themselves. Humans living on this world are subject to these illusions, their only defense lying in alliance with a native predator, called a "nighthorse". These elements have the effect of heightening the confusion and the complexity of the problems.

In a story by CJ Cherryh, all elements are subordinate to the characters. Expect no lyrical passages detailing landscapes or phenomena. The author seems to regard all such as gratuitous, unless they relate directly to the condition of a character. In Finity's End, for example, the descriptions of Downbelow are limited to those that bear directly on Fletcher Neihart's emotional state, or physical comfort. The same is true of Vanye's perceptions of the lands through which he and Morgaine pass in the Gate of Ivrel series. Cherryh will not compromise the narrative for the sake of a beautiful image. The result is a style that is at once descriptively spare and motivationally rich.

Cherryh's focus characters are usually, as has been noted, under emotional stress. They are working with an ill-calibrated compass in unfamiliar territory. Rarely does she follow characters who are certain of themselves, and of what they must be about. The conspicuous exception was Ariane Emory in Cyteen, and her time in that story was brief enough. The combination of the struggle of the outcast and the uncertain mind give to Cherryh's work its unique flavor. Those who, like myself, enjoy re-reading the works that entertain us most, will be well rewarded by an acquaintance with the works of CJ Cherryh.

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Tim Eagen
September, 1997