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40,000 in Gehenna by C.J. Cherryh

Alliance Space.jpgThis is a very dense, complex, difficult novel, even by Cherryh's standards.It's squarely set in her Union-Alliance future history, and it first came to my attention through the references to the events of the book in Cherryh's Hugo-winning Cyteen. Unlike, say, Port Eternity, which is also about Union space and the azi but takes place off to the side in the future history, this one refers to major historical events, like the War between the Union and Sol forces in Downbelow Station that led to the Merchanters Alliance. In fact, the colonization effort in 40,000 in Gehenna is a continuation of that war by other means.

So the ostensible plot is that the totalitarian Union has decided to colonize the planet Gehenna with a mixed force of born-men and azis. The azis are considered lab-born: genetically-modified clones who have also been conditioned or programmed using what is called "tape," which delivers information/instructions to the subconscious subliminally. Most azi are basically slaves who have had the ability to make decision programmed out of them, but there appears to be another category of Union citizens who have been genetically modified and slightly conditioned but who still can make independent decisions. One of the additional layers of complexity in this novel that I don't fully understand is that some non-azi people sneak onboard the colony ship disguised as azi. It's not clear to me why they do it (for sheer scientific curiosity?) or who organized it (a mysterious "board"), but the main character in this group, Gutierrez, swiftly becomes a team leader amongst the regular scientific "civs".

40,000 in Gehenna bristles with all kinds of ancillary documents and commentaries, from genealogical trees to maps to scientific reports to diary entries, and I think there's a lot of information buried in these documents that would take multiple readings to fish out. What the novel really ends up being about is how the Union abandons the colony -- and in fact never really intended to follow through on the colonization plan -- and how the abandoned colony transforms over the course of multiple generations. Because the cloning labs are never set up, the azi are allowed to reproduce in the usual human way, but because the tape training systems are never set up, they are never trained how to raise their children. So their children are strange and detached to begin with, being raised by parents with no independent judgment or feelings of their own.

However, the other layer of complexity to the novel involves Gehenna's natives -- a variety of apparently semi-intelligent lizards that the humans call ariels (the small, green, pretty ones) or calibans (the larger, uglier, grey or brown ones). The question of the sapience of the lizards hovers over the novel and is a source of argument between the human scientists. Gradually the calibans, who initially seem harmless, grow more aggressive toward the colonists, and the descendants of the colonists form disturbing relationships with the calibans. As so often in Cherryh, the humans become more alien, but what's interesting about this novel is that the aliens seem also to grow more human in terms of aggression and territorialism. The humans who form the closest relationships with the calibans basically can't communicate with other humans any more and are considered Weird even by the strange standards of the nearly autistic descendants of the azi.

What's also interesting is that Cherryh seems to be in dialogue with Anne McCaffery's Pern books here: a lost colony of humans who have formed a symbiotic relationship with reptile aliens. She even refers to the aliens as dragons occasionally, and of course they are color-coded as well. But Cherryh's aliens are decidedly more alien than McCaffery's, and the form of communication between the two species, while non-verbal, is not telepathic. Instead, the lizards use a non-verbal form of language called Patterning, which is described as symbolic. Eventually Cherryh delves into how this works, but for the most part we only get a subjective experience of it, which can be baffling at best.

Meanwhile, off-planet humans are trying to understand what happened to the colony. In Cherryh's future history humans try to practice non-intervention when they encounter alien species, but this novel is an interrogation of the whole concept of non-intervention. Human scientists inevitably get drawn into relationships with the descendants of the colonists and their caliban allies, and the whole question of the neutrality of scientific observation comes up. It's safe to say that Cherryh doesn't believe in scientific neutrality or objectivity. The observer has an influence on the observed, and this has political implications as things finally come to a head hundreds of years after the initial colonization.

One of the things that wasn't completely clear to me after a first reading was whether the political factions that form between different alliances of human descendants and calibans reflects a difference in the descendants of pure azi genetic lines and those that also have non-azi genetic lines in them. Really it might have to do with those humans who had rearing only from azi parents and those who had some rearing from non-azi parents somewhere back in the past. The main difference between the two factions seems to be the one eats grey calibans and the other eats only fish, but the one faction also seems to patriarchal while the other has female leaders (and warriors) as well as male.

There were parts of 40,000 in Gehenna that reminded me of the horrific aspects of Voyager in Night, particularly the claustrophobic encounters underground that cause traumatic transformations in some of the characters. There are grotesque sexual encounters that feel very much like rape, but in which the characters seem to just surrender to it because it's the only way they will survive, even though they know they will be something completely alien on the other side of the experience. These sequences are ugly and terrifying, and they seem to embody Cherryh's theme of becoming alien in the most visceral terms. It's a horrific experience, and Cherryh embraces a tragic view of the human condition. People have no control over their lives, they get hurt, they get abused, they get changed, and all they can do is try to make the best of whatever traumas life deals them.

To my mind this all adds up to some very powerful fiction, and it actually reminds me of some of Delany's more avant garde explorations of similar themes in his later career. Cherryh is just as radical as Delany in a less avant garde fashion. This is a very high concept novel told from multiple and clashing points of view over a long period of time, and as I say, it's a challenging and difficult work to digest. Sometimes I feel that Cherryh bites off more than she can chew and doesn't always give us adequate context to understand all the layers (cf Gutierrez posing as an azi), but perhaps further readings will reveal the context that I missed the first time. Cyteen has long been my favorite Cherryh novel, but after my recent Cherryh spree, focusing on her odder early novels, I'm beginning to think I've barely scraped the surface of her greatness. I'll be reading more.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 13th, 2016 12:00 am (UTC)
I read the very first C.J. Cherryh novel long ago, but haven't read anything since. So, after rereading that, what should I read next?

Your writing about her work intrigues me.
Mar. 13th, 2016 12:06 am (UTC)
You might try Cuckoo's Egg, which I reviewed recently and is a pretty concise exploration of some of her favorite themes and ideas.
Mar. 13th, 2016 12:13 am (UTC)
Will do. I see with a quick glance at Wikipedia that "Downbelow Station" was not her first novel, and was part of a different series than you've been reading. But still!
Mar. 13th, 2016 12:16 am (UTC)
Downbelow Station is in fact set in the Union-Alliance future history, as is 40,000 in Gehenna. But it isn't even close to her first novel. It was, however, the first of her novels to win a Hugo.

Edited at 2016-03-13 12:22 am (UTC)
Mar. 13th, 2016 12:25 am (UTC)
Well, there you go. Okay. One of the reasons I never followed up after Downbelow Station was that by the time I turned around (so to speak) it felt to me like she had several different series and many many books published. ANyway, I've put both DS and Cuckoo's Egg on reserve with the library, and I'll get them soon.
Mar. 13th, 2016 12:30 am (UTC)
She's written a lot of books. I've read her in spurts, starting with a couple of her early trilogies, then DS, Rimrunners, and Cyteen (twice), and now a more pro-longed exploration of other early novels. We'll see where it goes from here, but Gehenna makes me want to read the Chanur series, which is supposed to be another take on inscrutable aliens. She does great aliens, although I actually found DS disappointing in that regard.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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