Alternate Realities (Alliance-Union Universe) - C.J. Cherryh An omnibus collection of three novels (I'll update this review as I finish the subsequent books - Wave Without a Shore and Voyager in Night):

Wave Without a Shore (read Nov 5-6): "Man, said the inscription, is the measure of all things. 'No,' he said." (p. 516).

The quote pretty much sums up the theme of this novel, and I don't mean that to disparage the book. Before there was Beszel/Ul Qoma, there was Freedom*, a remote planet in Cherryh's Union-Alliance future whose human inhabitants refuse to "see" the native ahnit, or even the occasional human spacer who visits the system. The book is told from the point of view of Herrin Law, an artistic prodigy who, along with Waden Jenks, the antagonist, carries the solipsistic conceits of the planet's human inhabitants to extremes - the only Reality that matters is the one that they build around themselves. When Waden's (the planet's ruler) "reality" collides with the one Herrin inhabits, Herrin is forced to truly "see" the world around him and it precipitates a revolution.

This is easily the best novel of the omnibus, exploring as it does questions of how we (try to) shape reality and how it shapes us. Herrin starts out as one of the most arrogant, self-centered and unlikable persons you're likely to ever meet but the shock that finally opens his eyes and his subsequent transformation are believable.

Like many Cherryh novels, this one slowly builds to a sudden, pell-mell conclusion but the story is short enough that it doesn't drag.

* And before Freedom, there was Jack Vance's Ampridatvir in The Dying Earth.

Rating: 3.25

Voyager in Night (read Oct 15-16): Voyager begins a year or so after the end of the Company Wars (AD 2355). Rafe and Jillan Murray and her husband Paul Gaines are orphans of the War trying to re-establish the Murray clan and return to the starlanes as merchanters.* Unfortunately, their ancient, creaky insystem miner is swept up by an alien starship that passes through the Endeavor system, and they find themselves unwilling guests of Trishanamarandu-kepta, also called "<>". Actually, it's only Rafe who's physically present on the ship, Jillan and Paul having died in the collision, but all three's brains have been copied by <> and they continue to exist (several copies eventually) as hologrammatic memories within the ship.

What struck me when I finished this second book was its similarity to John Varley's Gaea trilogy. Anyone who's read those novels will understand when I say that <>'s nature and problems mirror that of Gaea's to a great degree, though <>'s resolution of <>'s difficulties has a less fatal ending than Gaea's.

I think the near fatal weakness of Voyager is that I can't care about the characters. Rafe, Jillan and Paul never become much more than the insubstantial holograms of their ghosts, and Cherryh goes out of her way to make <> and <>'s passengers utterly inhuman so there's not much to identify with there. There's also too much exposition and not enough action. And by "action" I'm not talking about Han Solo shooting Imperial stormtroopers but the simple process of learning about someone through their actions and dialog. Instead, for example, we're told the nature of the humans' relationship with each other - in fact, they're told about the relationship by <>, who's mapped their minds.

A final cavil, in her effort to make Trishanamarandu-kepta as alien as possible and to avoid pitfalls like thinking of <> as male or female, Cherryh uses a supremely annoying convention of using symbols to refer to the aliens (which I've imitated in the paragraphs above - forgive me gentle readers).** It results in nearly unreadable sentences like:

"Only older," </> returned, gaining more of <>'s territory, </> extended a filament of </>self all about the center, advanced Paul-mind and ==== in their attack. The passengers huddled far and afraid, in what recesses they could, excepting ((())), who had forgotten who had killed ((())), long ago; excepting entities like 2.75

Port Eternity (read Oct 8-9): Like many of her SF novels, Port Eternity is set in the author's Union/Alliance universe, where humanity is divided between the two major eponymous powers. Union sustains a massive colonization effort and rapid expansion of planetary populations by using "azi," cloned humans who are conditioned for obedience, routinely re-educated via tapes, and usually put down around the age of 40. Some of Cherryh's more interesting stories revolve around how azi react when left to themselves or are forced to push the bounds of their conditioning (e.g., [b:Forty Thousand in Gehenna and the Josh Talley thread in Downbelow Station).

This is a less successful effort along those lines. The azi here are named after characters from Arthurian romances - Lancelot, Elaine, Vivien, Lynette, Percival, Gawaine and Modred - and they staff the household of the born-man Dela Kirn. When Dela's starship, The Maid of Astolat, is caught up in a subspace warp from which they can't escape, the azi crew must learn to cope without the certainties of their structured existence.

Rating: 2.5