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Port Eternity by C.J. Cherryh

Port Eternity.jpgPort Eternity is the second of three Cherryh novels that have been referred to as her "magic mushroom" novels. The first is Wave Without a Shore, and the third is Voyager in Night. The three novels have a reputation of being offbeat, and they have been collected in an omnibus called Alternate Realities.

Port Eternity is a kind of metafiction. It is specifically a story about the Arthurian legend. At it's core its about the wealthy owner of a pleasure space yacht that's called the Maid of Astolat. The staff and crew of the ship are azi, which are people from the Union part of Cherryh's Union-Alliance universe, who are clones that have been conditioned or programmed using pre-recorded instructional tapes. The azi are created according to the designs of their owners, and Dela is a woman who lives in a kind of romantic daydream based on Arthurian legend. Therefore her azi are all based on characters from Arthurian legend and specifically from Tennyson's poem, Idylls of the King, which is quoted at the head of every chapter. Dela sets off on a pleasure cruise with her latest lover, Griffin (hmmm, where could that name come from?)

The next layer of the meta is that Dela's azi personal assistant, Elaine, has been secretly indulging in a story tape that's clearly a version of Tennyson's poem. Story tapes are experienced in a way similar to how the behavioral conditioning of the azi is applied: you take a drug and then the content of the tape is piped into your receptive brain, and you live the story out vicariously, like a kind of virtual reality. Therefore Elaine is conscious of how she herself and all her fellow azi staff and crew are shaped to be like characters in the tape, not just behaviorally but in their physical cloning. This gives her something like a tragic view of things as she watches, for example, her personal favorite, Lance, struggle to accept that his services aren't needed while Griffin is giving Dela the pleasure she craves, and it also shapes her view of how Vivien, who is, or at least perceives herself to be, slightly superior to Elaine in the ship hierarchy, behaves. The other azi on the ship are Lynette, Percival, Gawain, and (ominous music) the nerveless Modred, who is conditioned to be analytical and asexual.

As for what actually happens in the book, the Maid is stranded in subspace during a failed FTL jump. Initially this is a very hallucinatory experience in which the whole universe seems to be turned inside out and nothing makes perceptual sense. Eventually, however, they become accustomed to their bizarre new surroundings, and they encounter a large artificial structure that has attracted other ships to it over time. After that it's an ongoing struggle to understand what the structure is and what is happening to them and what to do about it as the existential crisis gets more and more tense and the preprogrammed relationships start to fray. Our understanding of what the characters are up to plays out against our understanding of the characters and the story they're based on.

The concept of the azi is a fascinating one that Cherryh explored to even greater effect a few years later in her Hugo-winning novel, Cyteen. What's interesting here is the way in which the azi are a kind of fiction to begin with -- which is to say, they are created things that may or may not serve the purpose their creators intended -- and who in this story have to grapple with their place in another kind of fiction. The conditioning of the azi creates an air of control and fatalism, and yet their biological nature makes the conditioning uncertain. Meanwhile Cherryh gets to play around with vicarious experience, dreamlife, free will, and the relationship between story and reality, and yet she's doing it in a purely genre, as opposed to literary, way. Just as with Wave Without a Shore, it has the feeling of an experimental work while not being avant garde at all.

Cherryh has said in an interview that Donald Wollheim allowed her to write this kind of offbeat novel as long as she kept it short and continued to produce big middle-of-the-road science fiction blockbusters like Downbelow Station and Cyteen, but I suspect that this was due to the special relationship they had and to the moment in publishing history in which this was occurring -- i.e. the era of the wire rack displays in drug stores and such, where a steady flow of mass market paperbacks fed the ravening maw of readers looking for a cheap thrill. I seriously doubt that even best-selling writers have this kind of freedom anymore, but what do I know? It's not as if these three novels by Cherryh had much of an obvious impact on the field, and they are still amongst her least-known books. On the other hand, it's pretty cool that they're still in print in that omnibus. On that note I've got to say that the original DAW paperback cover is one of the ugliest and least evocative they ever did.

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