31 January 2010

Books I love: CJ Cherryh's The Faded Sun

The Faded Sun was originally published in 1978-79, comprising three novels: Kesrith, Shon'jir, and Kutath. They were collected in an omnibus and reprinted in 2000, with a nice Michael Whelan cover. Unlike other books I love, I've only read this twice: years ago when I first heard of Cherryh and started getting my hands on all her books, and over the last few weeks.

The story is told in Cherryh's characteristic deep-third-person point of view. It's the parallel story of Niun, a mri warrior, Sten Duncan, a human special-ops soldier, and Melein, Niun's sister. We get occasional looks into other characters' minds: Stavros, Duncan's boss; various regul; other mri. But it's mainly Niun and Duncan's story.

For forty years, humans have been fighting against mri, who work for the regul. Mri are nomadic, and they do not build themselves. They contract warriors to another species, and they get goods in this fashion. Mri are vaguely humanoid, though desert-adapted, with nictitating membranes in their eyes, low body hair, and a coarse mane. The regul, however, are not humanoid at all; I imagine them as Jabba the Hutt. The regul have eidetic memories and think they're the pinnacle of life, the smartest beings in the universe.

Regul and humans have signed a peace treaty, and the regul have ceded Kesrith to the humans. There's one problem: the mri have Kesrith as their homeworld. Because the humans see the mri as enemies, as a warlike mercenary species, they don't want to have them as neighbors.

Duncan, assigned as aide to the governor of Kesrith (Stavros), goes out on a fact-finding mission when he begins to suspect the regul aren't being fully honest. Regul don't lie, you see, because it puts false memories into their history. But neither are they fully truthful: lies of omission are a time-honored regul tactic. While Duncan is out, he runs into Niun, who was sent to the mri ship that landed as an ambassador from his city. Together they witness a horrible betrayal, and Duncan begins to understand that what humans think they know about mri isn't anywhere near the truth. Duncan is sent on a mission, taking Niun and Melein with him. He learns, on the course of their voyage, to be mri.

Niun's story is one of growth and change, becoming the head of the warrior caste and fighting for Melein's right to govern. Melein become spiritual leader of the mri before she's ready, but through her confidence, she manages somehow.

This is the type of story that, on the surface, looks like it could be What These People Need is a Honky or Mighty Whitey (Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar (the blue people), etc.) However, Duncan isn't the White Savior of the mri. He doesn't magically become better at being mri than the mri are. He's limited by his human-ness: mri reflexes are quicker; they're adapted to the climate of Kesrith (and Kutath); they're stronger and have better senses. He doesn't become leader of the warrior caste, supplanting Niun. He doesn't even get to be in the higher ranks of the warrior caste! It's true that he has one asset that the mri don't have: access to humans, and understanding how human minds work. But Melein uses it to her advantage, and Duncan allows himself to be used, because explaining to the humans that the mri aren't just mercenary killers will benefit Melein and the mri.

There are also matters of prejudice to explore: the humans think the regul are ugly, smell weird, and other things, but they're the allies now, against the mri. The mri look human, so various humans want to sympathize with them, if it weren't for forty years of war. A key theme of the trilogy, especially evident in Kutath, is that you fear what you don't understand, and if you don't try to understand the other, you'll never move beyond fear. The regul have no desire to attempt to understand mri or humans, and their fear leads to catastrophic results. The humans, once they learn to ask the right questions, make the attempt to understand mri (and regul, in a way.)

So it ends with hope: that humans can understand the other and not live in fear of it. This is a message as relevant today as it was thirty-odd years ago, and will remain relevant into the future.


Lisa said...

I love this trilogy for many of the reasons you mention. Something I found fascinating was the Regul Suth's attempt in the end to understand the human ability to imagine the future and play out scenarios, since the Regul have no such ability.

Suth finally grasped an analogy - he likened it to the edges on a pencil rolling between his hands, but with edges at much finer detail. The spinning sides each representing a possible outcome that a human could consider in any situation. It's amazing that Cherryh could present our ability to imagine the future using such a unique (alien) interpretation of this human trait, from the perspective of a race that has no such capability to do so. I'd never think of imagination as distinct slices this way but it's a neat idea.

I also appreciate that Duncan didn't become some "super Mri" as you mention. That makes him, and the story, much richer and believable.

The ending, however, nags at me. Why did Hlil, Ras and Tuas return? Was it they or the humans who decided that the ages-old service/homeworld relationship wasn't stable and should end? It's also not clear (perhaps only to me) if additional human kel returned with them.

I've seen other interpretations that state that the cycles starts again, but I'm not sure I agree. The Mri left Kesrith and returned to their ancestral homeworld so expansion beyond Kesrith won't continue. But Kutath is already populated by two species, the Mri and the Elee, and according to Melein, the original service debt had to be repaid. I assume this means any service for the Elee is no longer an option.


CD Covington said...

I'm always impressed by Cherryh's ability to take an outsider's look at humanity and distill its essence. That's probably one of the main reasons I love her writing. (And her aliens can be so very alien, not just humans in different skins.)

I thought Melein wanted to continue the tradition of voyaging - going for the going's sake. But she understood/realized that keeping the reason they travel a secret meant that their employers would continue to misunderstand them, and it would result in more dead planets. So Boz was sort of a paidhi for the mri to the humans - and got them to ask the right questions and start thinking in a different direction. And with that understanding, they entered into a contract with the humans.

Because humans are relatively capable of understanding others' mindsets if they try (it's the trying that's the trouble.) That's why I get that little feeling of hope at the end.

(Sorry for the delay in publishing this comment; I had some spam troubles and started moderating comments on posts older than 2 weeks.)