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Wave Without a Shore by C.J. Cherryh

cherryh wave without a shore.jpgWhen I was hanging out on rec.arts.sf.written back in the '90s there was a discussion of C.J. Cherryh in which someone mentioned her three "magic mushroom" books -- Wave Without a Shore, Port Eternity, and Voyager in Night -- which were presented as the three weirdest novels that Cherryh had ever written. The three were later collected in an omnibus called Alternate Realities. Although I've read only nine of her novels up to now, in two widely separated clumps, I liked what I'd read enough that all three "magic mushroom" books immediately went on the big, imaginary To Be Read pile in my brain. Having been inspired by Ann Leckie's list of her ten favorite SF novels to get back to Cherryh again, I finally picked up a copy of the earliest one, Wave Without a Shore, which was published in 1981.

As a side note it was also interesting to realize that Wave Without a Shore was the first novel Cherryh published after Downbelow Station, for which she won a Hugo in 1982. At least that's the implication of the list of other books by Cherryh included in the original DAW edition of the book, which lists the short story collection Sunfall between Downbelow Station and Wave Without a Shore, but doesn't mention her other 1981 publication, The Pride of the Chanur. One of the things that makes Wave Without a Shore unique in Cherryh's bibliography is that while it's lumped under the broad umbrella of her Union-Alliance Universe stories, it isn't connected with any of the series or subgroups in that story universe. Port Eternity and Voyager in Night, along with Cuckoo's Egg are thrown into a category called The Age of Exploration, about which the Wikipedia bibliography comments, "These novels share a common theme, but are unrelated to each other and can be read in any order." My impression is that none of these stories is explicitly linked to the others in the Union-Alliance universe, but as John Clute points out in his entry on Cherryh in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, the apparent isolation of these novels from the others might be taken as proof of the effectiveness of the Gehenna Doctrine governing the Union-Alliance universe, which is basically the same as Star Trek's Prime Directive, forbidding meddling with weaker civilizations. It's a sign of the remarkableness of Wave Without a Shore that even within that kind of loose association, it can't be linked to the other stand alone novels even thematically.

So what is Wave Without a Shore about? It's hard to say! It has been described as more philosophical fiction than science fiction. It's set on a planet called Freedom, on a continent called Sartre, in a province called Camus and a city named Kierkegaard. The planet has been settled by humans, who have displaced an alien race called the ahnit. More than one reader has pointed out that the novel can be read as precursor to China Mieville's The City and the City, because the humans treat the ahnit as invisible, and furthermore treat some of their fellow humans as invisible too. They choose not to see them even when they are standing nearby or even taking something that belongs to the unseeing person. The protagonist of the novel is Herrin Law, a genius who is sent to the University in Kierkegaard to study art. There he meets two other geniuses, his lover, Keye Linn, who studies ethics, and his best friend and rival, Waden Jenks, who is the son and heir of the planet's ruler.

What's a little difficult to understand is the basic premise of the story, which I've seen described as an exercise in solipsism. (The title evokes limitless solipsism -- a system without feedback.) Herrin, Keye, and Waden are all struggling to impose their Realities on each other, which seems to be both a philosophical exercise and a power struggle. It's as if the one who can come up with the best theory of the world controls it. All three are working in different realms, but really the central struggle is between the artistic vision of Herrin and the political vision of Waden, who is trying to open the planet up to the Outsiders -- that is, to the off-planet civilization that's presumably part of the Union-Alliance universe. (One of the clues that the Gehenna Doctrine is indeed in play comes at the end when one of the off-planet officials remarks that if there is a native government it puts matters in a "special category," although it's unclear to me whether by native he means the human settlers or the ahnit.) The Outsiders, like the ahnit and the outcast planetside humans, are invisible to most of the humans on Freedom, so Waden is doing something radical by inviting them to participate in the planetary economy.

But really, the bulk of the novel is a contest of wills between Herrin and Waden, with occasional interludes of jousting with Keye as well, although she ends up being a relatively minor character. Herrin creates a great work of art that threatens to subsume Waden to his vision, and this eventually causes a rupture between them that throws the whole weird seeing/unseeing arrangement into chaos. As always, Cherryh limits us rigidly to what her protagonist can see, so it's difficult for us to get a larger perspective until his changes. When it does change, also as so frequently in Cherryh, it is breathtaking. What I suppose is different from a lot of the novels of hers I've read is that Herrin isn't an outsider himself. Usually her protagonists are marginal characters to begin with, working inward from the edges, but Herrin is a supreme creature of privilege who ascends to the highest level of his society. But while her outcasts all have to control their feelings because their humanity is being denied in some way by external forces, Herrin controls his own feelings out of an attempt to control reality. Thus we still get the sudden outburst of raw feeling that are so common to Cherryh's stories, and the release gains great power from the earlier absolute control and repression.

It's definitely a strange book. It feels like one of those nearly experimental narratives that are so common in science fiction, which result from sheer imaginative exploration and extrapolation. What if there were a society that valued the ability to control one's perception of the world through philosophical constructions? Since much of the story is set at the University, it feels like a university novel too, with young people living the bohemian life and learning the limits of learning. It reminded me at times of Elizabeth Lynn's A Different Light (published three years earlier), because of the focus on the artistic process. Mostly, however, other than the sense in which it's a precursor to Mieville, it feels like a Cherryh novel. Her frequent theme is the way that her characters become alien, and that's true here too, at least in the broadest sense. There are scenes in which Herrin interacts with an ahnit named Sbi that are truly remarkable for how thoroughly and intimately his Reality is breached and transformed. Those moments pack real emotional, somatic, and psycho-social-civilizational wallop. That's Cherryh's superpower as a writer, I guess. Is there anyone better than her at evoking a sense of encountering the alien?

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