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Brief descriptions of the Compact races and C.J.Cherryh's style in depicting them



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>From: Lesley Grant <lgrant>
>Subject: cherryhlist: forwarded by permission of author
>Date: Tue, 20 Oct 92 8:34:58 BST
From: dani@netcom.com (Dani Zweig)
Newsgroups: rec.arts.sf.written
Subject: Chanur
Message-ID: <1992Oct16.225726.14372@netcom.com>
Date: 16 Oct 92 22:57:26 GMT
Organization: Netcom - Online Communication Services  (408 241-9760 guest)
CJ Cherryh is one of the few authors who really attempts to portray aliens who are more than thinly-disguised humans. It isn't easy, and she does a creditable job of it.

The problem is to create aliens that will be of interest to the human reader, that won't be so alien that no true interaction is possible, and that won't be humans with a quirk. Her Compact stories present a range of races with just enough in common to coexist.

The Hani are what sf authors usually use for their aliens: A species so similar to ours -- in the way it thinks -- that the reader can easily forget that the viewpoint character *isn't* human. There are the obligatory biological quirks, to remind us that there are differences. I'm not complaining: The viewpoint characters *need* to be essentially human for the book to work. (I've read a few sf stories told from the viewpoint of very different aliens, and they tend to be pretty bad.)

The Kif are insanely (by our standards) predatory and competitive carnivores. The way they're hard-wired, words such as 'friend' and 'loyalty' are literally meaningless to them. But they're highly intelligent, and if you are not dealing with them from a position of weakness, it's not that hard to get along with them and not even *realize* how badly you're misunderstanding each other. It can seem that you're speaking the same language.

The Mahendo'sat are the most humanoid of the Compact's races. Their main quirks appear to be a mystical bent, and a quasi-religious respect for charisma. Yet it's very hard to tell the difference between their system of government (using the term loosely) and that of the Kif.

The Stsho are enigmatic. Feeble, unaggressive, and very wealthy, they should have fallen prey to the Kif long ago. It's not clear whether their continued survival and prosperity is based upon hidden strength, a good bluff, or just adroit politics. We see more of this race in Chanur's Legacy than of any other (except Hani), but we still come away knowing almost nothing.

Naturally it's always the viewpoint character who has to make the adjustments and employ the protocol of the various aliens. But Cherryh lets us see the corollary: The aliens in question are probably thinking that *they're* the ones who are bending over backwards.

However strange these species are, they're all oxygen-breathers competing for similar resources, employing technologies which have to contend with the same laws of physics. Cherryh also throws some methane-breathers into the mix. These are so alien that after centuries of contact, and even trade, oxygen-breathers still haven't managed to make them understand statements on the order of "you're going the wrong way on a one-way street." Interestingly enough, this has a *stabilizing* effect on the Compact: You tend to behave more cautiously when you haven't a clue how your neighbors will react to anything you attempt.

I've just read -- and enjoyed -- Chanur's Legacy. One of the better things about it is that it's *not* a story that, with a bit of revision, could take place in medieval Europe, or in some generic space empire. The viewpoint character could as well be human (for the most part), but she isn't moving through a universe of allies and enemies with fully intelligible motives. The Compact is a civilization in which each race tries to do the best it can for itself in a universe it shares with half a dozen (to its eyes) insane species that can only some of the time be trusted to even behave with enlightened self-interest.
Dani Zweig
dani@netcom.com
(...)

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