I write about people who See, who See things differently and who find the Systems stripped away, or exchanged for other Systems, so that they pass from world to world in some lightning-stroke of an understanding, or the slow erosion and reconstruction of things they thought they knew.
--C. J. Cherryh (Introduction to Visible Light)
The phrase "going native" carries a negative connotation of regression from a "civilized" mode of thinking and/or behavior. In several of the novels of C. J. Cherryh, "going native" is not a regression, but a lateral shift to a different way of thinking, of being, of experiencing one's environment. The characters Elizabeth McGee (Forty Thousand in Gehenna), Sten Duncan (The Faded Sun series), Thorn (Cuckoo's Egg), and Raen A Sul hant Meth-maren (Serpent's Reach) all absorb, to varying degrees, elements of the thinking, behavior, and worldview of their "adopted" nonhuman (though sometimes humanoid) cultures. These characters also share a well-known human trait: they are all outsiders in their own cultures, mavericks of various kinds. Three of them take conscious steps toward alien cultures; the fourth has no choice.
Their reasons for moving away from human cultures are specific to each character. McGee is a scientist who discovers a nasty underhandedness in her government's treatment of the "residents" of Gehenna and tries to change that treatment, even when events catch her unprepared and force her hand. Duncan is a military officer and survivor of several combat missions who is captured by humanity's foe, the mri. Duncan learns that the mri are more after his own heart than humans, and does all he can to protect them as the last of their kind journey homeward. Thorn, a human baby raised by an alien, must seek answers from his foster father concerning his own origin, his differences, and how he came to be among nonhumans. Raen is a child when her clan is slaughtered, her immediate family and most of her kin murdered in a House vs. House battle in which she is the only survivor. The insect-like majat take in the starving and half-mad Raen, and she comes to rely on and trust them more than she can ever trust any human again. She makes the majat the instrument of her revenge, though in the process of seeking that revenge, she herself is changed.
Forty Thousand in Gehenna
This book is one of several set within Cherryh's "future history" known as the Alliance-Union universe. Humans have expanded into space from Earth via commerce, and the Earth Company's previous stranglehold on its merchanters and space stations is broken in the Company Wars. There come to exist three economic powers among humans: the Earth Company, weakened but still active; the Alliance, a loose confederation of stationers and spacers; and Union, a planet-based government formed by scientists. Union's eventual wholesale use of cloning (resulting in the cloned humans called azi) is viewed by the Alliance and the Earth Company as reprehensible, at best. The Alliance and Union also have their conflicts, which result in Union's covert plan to seed potential Alliance space with as many of its own colonies as possible.
The story of the colony of Gehenna is a generational one, beginning with the original "born-man" government personnel and azi who first arrived there. The colonists expect other ships to follow, but these ships never appear. The born-men die, from age and disease and violence, and the azi are forced to begin their procreative programs earlier than they expected. The native lifeforms aren't as well understood as the colonists were led to believe, and the azi children grow further and further away from their bewildered parents, drawn in fascination to the "aliens" of Gehenna.
Although arriving later in the story than most of the other viewpoint characters, Elizabeth McGee is pivotal to the conclusion of the story because she is the first to see (and to be allowed to see) that there is something new evolving on Gehenna. The human-azi society of the Union colony has collapsed, along with most of its culture, and in its place a partnership between azi descendants and the native calibans -- sentient nonhumanoids -- is rising. Gehennans and calibans have taught each other about each other, and as a result both groups have gained new perspectives on themselves and their worldviews. The two species construct enclaves called Towers, in which they both live. New ways of thinking pass between humans and calibans, and at the end of the book this intellectual cross-pollenization is brought into use, in order that humanity might make sense of another, even more different culture.
McGee enters the story after several generations of azi have passed, when a Union ship finally returns to see what has happened to the colony on Gehenna. She meets and helps a wounded Cloud Tower child, Elai, and is later allowed into Cloud Tower to observe the struggle between Cloud and Styx Towers for supremacy in Gehenna's settled area.
McGee is a scientist, sent to Gehenna to study and observe the interaction between the azi descendants and the calibans, and to learn what happened to the original colonists. What she discovers is more alien than she expected, yet her mindset is such that she can eventually determine how the Gehennans think, how the calibans communicate with each other and with humans. She isn't locked into a certain way of seeing things, and thus is able to achieve a gestalt-like jump of comprehension. Other scientists assigned with her on her mission aren't as flexible, and end up paying a fatal price for their narrow-minded perceptions.
Elai, who becomes leader of Cloud Tower several years after first meeting McGee, has her own reasons for allowing McGee into her life and her home. McGee is willing to go along with Elai in order to gather information on the culture that has developed between the azi descendants and the calibans. But when Elai rides to battle with those of Cloud Tower against Styx, McGee must decide whether the "new" humans of Gehenna deserve her help and loyalty more than her own government. She decides for the Gehennans, and in doing so promotes further contact between them and the Union government, albeit at a slow pace. This is a pace Elai prefers, caliban-like, and McGee's superiors have the good sense to heed her advice.
Thus, McGee has essentially "gone native" in the interest of preserving a unique human culture, and because her moral compass points her in that direction. Without McGee acting as a linchpin between established human culture and Gehennan culture, resolving the differences between them would have been much more difficult, perhaps impossible. The one who Sees is the one who locates the correct path.
The Faded Sun
The events chronicled in the Faded Sun books (Kesrith, Shon'jir, and Kutath) are set about 400 years after the Gehenna colony's founding. Three years after Alliance ships first encounter the species known as the regul, a forty-year war between humans and the regul breaks out. The mercantile regul employ another species, the humanoid mri, as their soldiers. Mri warfare -- based on an honor code and a ritualized form of combat -- is neither recognized nor adhered to by humans, and the mri are forced to learn their opponents' ways.
For their periods of service to the regul, the mri always ask that one world be ceded to them as their homeworld, to be only inhabited by regul and mri, and never to be surrendered to any foe while their contract was in force. But the regul conveniently ignore this central element of their deal with the mri when they begin peace negotiations with the humans. When their property and interests are threatened, the regul begin giving orders which prove deadly to the mri, and thousands of them die needlessly.
Sten Duncan is a veteran pilot of the human-regul war, selected as an aide to George Stavros, the soon-to-be human governor of a new human region of space, whose base is on a world called Kesrith. The problem is that Kesrith is the mri homeworld, and humans aren't supposed to be on it at the same time as mri. When Duncan encounters a mri warrior in the regul government building on Kesrith, a series of events begins that will end in disaster for the mri.
Duncan, an orphan without family or roots of any kind, can work alone and survive in fluid situations, and he's trained to survey and assess new environments quickly. Once he and Stavros are on Kesrith, he begins to suspect that the regul aren't telling Stavros everything he needs to know. Having already unexpectedly encountered one mri, Duncan asks for -- and receives -- permission to go on an unannounced walking tour of the regul's port facilities. On this scouting expedition he encounters Niun, another mri warrior, who captures him and takes him back to the mri edun, the structure on Kesrith in which the mri live. His military training gives him the ability to see things through another's eyes -- another one who Sees -- and gain useful insights that keep him alive. The mri do not usually take prisoners, nor do they let themselves be captured if they can still fight.
The rootless Duncan is perfectly positioned to be strongly influenced by a major change in his life. His military experience has made him a maverick by necessity. His lack of rank and lack of knowledge of the humans' plans make him expendable, and he knows it. The regul, who don't write anything down because they remember everything, prize deep knowledge; Duncan is therefore of no use to the regul because of his limited memory. He is also of little strategic value to the humans because of his relatively low rank. His dislike of the regul soon turns to hatred, and his respect for the mri as opponents in war grows into an attachment that his species will condemn as unnatural.
The process by which Duncan grows attached to the mri is necessarily a slow one, given his military training and the fact that the mri were but recently humanity's enemy. Duncan's first long-term experience with the mri is as Niun's prisoner. He learns a little about their ways, their social structure, their beliefs, and sees they aren't the faceless berserkers he was taught to fight.
With their golden hair, gold-toned skin and eyes, the mri are more pleasing to the human eye than the large, awkward and hippo-like regul. Duncan becomes convinced that destroying the mri won't bring back the human dead of the recent war, and that the mri way of life is as meaningful as any human one. He has no family of his own, and the obvious caring and devotion he sees among the mri is too strong to ignore; Duncan is lonely, searching for a home. The mri, in turn, are forced to accept at least his physical presence, and they, too, slowly come to know their one-time enemy through Duncan.
After he saves the lives of the last two mri left in known space from annihilation by the perfidious regul, his growing devotion to them is used against him -- and them -- when the three are put aboard a ship to follow a mri navigational record. The record leads back to the original mri homeworld, to a life Duncan could barely imagine, and to a choice for Duncan about where he belongs. The mri -- brother and sister, priestess and warrior -- have to decide whether they can trust this "tsi-mri." this not-mri who chooses to go with them on their journey.
In the end, though, Duncan's choice is almost inevitable. Made obsolete by the end of the war and believing -- as the mri do -- in a clear-cut form of justice, he aligns himself with them and earns a place among them. He finds a home in the most unlikely of places, and among people he comes to regard as his family. Duncan doesn't so much abandon his humanity as set it aside for a life which suits him better, where he eventually feels welcome and valued. He moves from maverick and orphan to societal and family member, and becomes a liaison between his "biological culture" and his chosen one.
Cuckoo's Egg, a novel set in a separate universe from the Alliance-Union universe, approaches the human-alien encounter from a different direction. In this book, a spaceship with only one human left alive arrives in the solar system of the shonunin, a species that has just achieved spaceflight, with bases on their moon and at least one space station. Surprised and afraid, shonunin ships fire on the human ship, chase it down, and board it. The last human on the ship is killed during capture but manages to send out a final message. The shonunin scientists' analysis of the captured ship yields a scientific gold mine, and shonunin technology takes a quantum leap forward as captured human technology is introduced into shonunin culture.
Duun is a shonunin hatani, a member of a kind of philosopher/judge guild. The shonunin government, after the capture of the human ship, brings a question to Duun in his capacity as hatani: what do we do with this new knowledge? Duun's answer is to have more space stations built, and to have a human clone developed and brought to full-term. After many mistakes in the cloning, a male human, Thorn, is born. Duun takes him to his ancestral home and raises him to be hatani, without knowing whether he will succeed, whether Thorn is even capable of becoming hatani.
Nine years after the human ship's capture, shonunin listening posts in space begin receiving signals that they recognize as human, although they can't translate them. Duun, receiving this news, decides that when Thorn is old enough, he will learn his own language without being told the purpose for such learning. Duun hopes that Thorn can eventually send a message in return to the humans nine light-years away. . .if Duun can only keep Thorn alive long enough to do so. Other shonunin interests are bent on preventing Duun's plan from coming to fruition. Not only must Duun push Thorn to his physical and mental limits without even knowing what they might be, he must also keep Thorn from being killed by rival shonunin. Along the way, Duun wants Thorn accepted as hatani as well.
Thorn, lacking human parents, nonetheless exhibits human emotions and reactions. He wants to know who he is, but is afraid of the answers he might find. He wants to be a part of shonunin life, but knows that he is different from shonunin as a race. He wants to please Duun, but he fears he'll never be able to do so.
Being the only human among a planet full of nonhumans automatically makes Thorn a maverick, even though he's raised as shonunin. He cannot change the parts of him that are human hardwiring, and this both frustrates and scares him. When Duun finally reveals what Thorn's purpose is, Thorn wants to turn away from it. And when Duun relates the tally of Thorn's accomplishments in shonunin culture, Thorn's response is: "Do you love me, Duun?" But even this human reaching out is shonunin-tinged, because it's the question a hatani would ask.
Thorn is also a maverick in the sense that his foster father Duun -- and the shonunin as a whole -- can't predict what he'll do or of what he's capable. But Thorn is also one who Sees. Situated within an alien culture and eventually learning that representatives of his "biological culture" may be on their way to the shonunin homeworld, Thorn is thrust into the role of interpreter and liaison. He accepts the purpose for which Duun has trained him. For Thorn, there is no choice between "going native" and remaining true to his biological species; he must do what Duun asks him to do in order to protect his foster father and prevent his adopted species from possible harm from the approaching human ship.
Unlike McGee and Duncan, Thorn's choices are more closely tied to personal survival than to a moral code. But he does have the moral code he learned from Duun, and his belief in this code helps him decide what is best for himself, the shonunin and his own species.
While Elizabeth McGee, Sten Duncan, and Thorn are involved with alien species that are more human than not, Serpent's Reach concerns a human alliance with a species that is very alien despite its apparent kinship with earthly creatures.
This novel is set in the Alliance-Union universe, in the Alpha Hydri region of space. The seat of government is Alpha Hydri III, also called Cerdin, where the majority of human-alien interaction takes place. The aliens in question are the majat; they're similar to insects in their physical appearance, hive-mind behavior, and social structure, but the resemblance ends there. Majat are much taller than humans, and their jaws can snap off a human head in an instant. Majat communicate vocally using a vibrating, almost buzzing sound, but they also learn and pass knowledge to each other via chemical exchange -- "taste and touch," as it's called. After the crew of a first human probe was captured and killed by the majat, a second probe followed; by the time it arrived, the majat had absorbed knowledge from their initial human contacts.
The majat offered a deal: one "human hive" would be allowed to settle in the Reach (i.e., the entire Alpha Hydri system), but no other humans. That human hive was the Kontrin company. As as result of this agreement, the Alliance government declared the Reach a quarantined area, protecting both the majat and their irreplaceable trade items. However, Kontrin company representatives on the second probe secretly brought millions of human ova to Cerdin, to produce azi (clones) as their workforce. To majat, it appeared as though the "human hive" was increasing its numbers as would a majat hive, so they allowed it to continue. The Kontrin "grew" betas, clones that closely resemble born-men, to oversee the production and sale of azi to the majat, who used them to manufacture the biologicals that form a vital part of the Reach's commerce.
There are four types of majat, distinguished by color: red, blue, green and gold. Each majat wears a badge which allows humans to tell to which color hive it belongs. As a symbol of their authority and lineage, each Kontrin receives a permanent jewelled mark on the right hand. They are known to the majat by this mark, as it is the only way majat can distinguish them from other humans because it's visible to majat eyes in infrared light. Among the Kontrins and other humans it acts as currency. All commerce between the rest of humanity and the humans of the Reach occurs on a space station orbiting the planet Istra, near the outer limit of Reach space -- an area called the Edge.
The humans in the Reach -- called Kontrins or the Family -- are ruled by 27 Houses, each with its Septs and Clans. Over the seven hundred years of human presence in the Reach, Houses have risen and fallen in power and prestige. The majat gave the Kontrins extended lifespans in order to make them more amenable to the majat, whose "hive mind" structure carries both long memory and long life. Majat have difficulty with the concept of death, because the hive mind appears eternal to them, although its individual members can be killed. Since such lifespan extension is vital to continuing human-majat trade, all Kontrins are automatically provided it. Their resulting near-immortality often causes them problems.
Raen a Sul hant Meth-maren is a teen-aged member of the Sept and House which now holds the land where humans and majat first managed to conclude trade agreements and living arrangements. Her ancestors became "hive friends" with the blue majat long ago, and their working relationship flourished over the years. The Meth-marens have held this land for a long time, and other Kontrin are becoming increasingly restless at their long monopoly. The Family uses assassination as a political tool, and it's wielded particularly by those whose ambition makes them impatient. Other Houses hold controlling interests with other majat hives, on Cerdin and on other Reach worlds, but the Meth-marens are very wealthy.
Other Houses covet the apparent control the Meth-marens have over the blue hive and its commercial production. Two less prominent Houses mount a joint takeover, and Raen emerges from the bloody power struggle as the last Meth-maren. She escapes death by asking for and receiving sanctuary in the forbidden tunnels of the blue majat, the first born-human ever taken in by majat in such a manner. She is also the first in several hundred years to be allowed into the presence of a hive queen. Other hives learn of this, but do nothing, being concerned with their own human commerce partners. Raen is nursed back to health and as she heals, she contemplates what her mother once told her: "Revenge is next only to winning." Thus, she begins to plan the destruction of the Septs that annihilated her House.
Now an orphan, Raen adopts the blue-hive majat as her personal army and pseudo-family. She manages to wipe out one of the Septs that murdered her House, but is forced into exile from Cerdin by the Kontrin elders. Her acceptance into the blue hive and into its queen's presence is seen as far too radical a change, and she is prohibited from contacting any majat. Nonetheless, both her allies and enemies keep tabs on her. She spends years wandering the system, going from one planet to another. Everywhere she goes, disturbances in the hives follow after her because of what happened to her House. To the majat, she is dangerous but known. To the Family, Raen is a maverick, a loose cannon. No one in the Family has any definite idea of her agenda, or if she even has one, and that uncertainty makes both her allies and enemies nervous.
When she decides to go downworld to Istra, beta company executives tell her a tale of food shortages, sabotage, and population crisis among the azi. Only a Kontrin can license changes in status or numbers for azi, and the elders on Cerdin have been silent for nearly 20 years. Without direction from the governing Kontrins, the beta-run companies on Istra are at a loss as to what to do. Raen sees the hand of one elder, Moth, in this lack of attention. Though Raen doesn't know what Moth is doing, she decides to take on the betas' cause, and draws the attention of the Family closer to herself. Thus, when the opportunity to retake what was stolen from her presents itself, she is prepared to use and be used by the majat as an agent of change. Long life breeds ennui, and Raen sees the Istran situation as a way to break out of her enforced monotony.
Raen begins to plan a revolution, but in the midst of it she discovers that the majat are going through their own revolution. She uses this conjunction to her advantage, and the Reach society and government goes into collapse. When outside contact is finally made again after decades have passed, Raen is still there, and she has her own terms for renewed trade. She has gone from being bereft of everything she knew to having everything, and wanting only the reassurance of the majat.
Raen, Thorn, and Duncan are all orphans or become orphaned, which suggests one reason why these characters are uniquely suited to coping with and improving human-alien interactions. Duncan only dimly remembers his family, and Thorn never had one, so their behavior patterns were largely set outside a core human family setting. Raen was ripped from a comfortable, easy existence into a frightening, disorienting solitude, but her family's long association with blue hive gave her an edge. While they conducted commerce with the hives, the Kontrins also studied them. Kontrin elders know a lot about majat, and Raen surreptitiously gleans this knowledge during her space travels through the Reach. But being an orphan is not a requirement for being a maverick. McGee is adept by training and personality at seeing beyond her own culture's borders, and this gives her the ability to see life through the Gehennans' eyes.
With these characters, Cherryh focuses on a type of person who is able to transcend the limitations of species, culture, and history to find points of intersection with other species and cultures that remain alien to the rest of humanity. These characters make certain choices based partly on their own internal moral codes and partly on what they absorb from the alien cultures they choose (or are forced, in Thorn's case) to join. McGee sees exploitation just over the horizon for the Gehennans, and she makes her choice for their continued existence and expansion at the expense of her "own people." Duncan makes a similar choice for similar reasons, though he's more concerned with honor, as both regul and humans have betrayed him and the mri. Thorn is the one who walks closest to the middle line, the one who must balance most carefully between what is best for the shonunin and what is best for himself. In the end, he chooses the shonunin and, like Duncan, the honorable way. Raen's versions of honor and morality are decidedly blood-tinged at first, but she learns the value of a more mature -- and less human -- perspective on both by book's end.
By the very fact that they can step outside their human perceptual boundaries, these four characters are mavericks to others, human and nonhuman. Cherryh may be saying that in order to make that step, one must accept the role of maverick because, in the end, it will benefit the individual as well as society. "Most of us are too busy about things that give us too little time to think," she wrote in the introduction to her short-story collection Visible Light. "I think two kinds of humanity create events: fools and visionaries." With these four characters, Cherryh shows she'd prefer the visionaries to have the upper hand.
The Faded Sun series, according to the author herself, should have been published as a single book. For that reason, I've treated it as such here. Cherryh's original intent was recently fulfilled by DAW Books with the paperback reprinting of TFS in one volume.
J.G. Stinson is a freelance writer and copy editor whose articles have appeared in Speculations and Tangent Online. Her previous publications at Strange Horizons can be found in our archive.
Visit C. J. Cherryh's Web site.