(Gary LaSasso’s cover for the 1983 edition)
In my late teens I encountered the space opera of C. J. Cherryh through the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Downbelow Station (1981).* I was hooked. Her paranoia-drenched spacescapes, interstellar freighters, the awe-inspiring cumulative world-building effect of innumerable novel sequences from distinct perspectives, and narration that dwells on psychological impact of events were my bread and butter. See below for the list of the ten (I think?) novels I’ve previously read (although many details blend together). For whatever reason I hadn’t returned to her SF in more than a decade. I am glad I did!
C. J. Cherryh’s Port Eternity (1982), part of the Age of Exploration sequence within the larger Alliance-Union world, can be read alone. It is a claustrophobic rumination on identity and fate and the interplay between fantasy and reality.
Brief Plot Summary
As with so many of Cherryh’s SF works, the majority of the action takes place within a spaceship–a pleasure craft named the Maid of Astolat, decked out according to every whim of a billionaire Lady Dela Kirn. Terrified of growing old, Dela creates recreates her fantasies within the ship. Not only are ship’s trappings straight out of pseudo-medieval Arthurian legend—“real swords and hand-stitched banners fixed on the walls, and old-looking beams masking structural joinings” (11)—but the slave servants are designed and programmed and named according to Arthurian characters (Elaine, Lancelot, Mordred, Percival, Vivien, etc.).
Dela sets off with her crew and new lover, Griffin, on an aimless voyage. The crew detect that Dela’s intentions regarding Griffin are entirely different than her normal action patterns–“I think she might marry this one” (16). The boundaries between reality and fantasy are thrown further askew when suddenly the ship is thrown into the “between” (26)—a liminal subspace. Initially the crew is resigned to spending their remaining days surviving via hydroponics and stores but the nature of the in between world threatens disaster. Their ship is but one of many “fixed to some vast ring. Ship bodies were gathered to it like parasites, like fungus growth” (45). And something appears to have grappled the ship…. and on the hull there comes a tapping (65)! Tubes attach themselves to the Maid’s hull—“the growth had pierced them and kept going” (92).
And straight from the pages of Arthurian legend the crew takes down the weapons from the walls and prepare for battle—but will it all play out as legend intends? Or will the born and the non-born break free from their narrative constraints?
The story is told from the perspective of Elaine: “Elaine was Dela Kirn’s amusement. I was made 68767-876-998. Born isn’t the right word, being what I am, which is a distinction I don’t fully understand” (6). Elaine, grown and programmed via tape with a “psych-set to worry about other’s pain” (21), grapples with a series of dichotomies that she doesn’t entirely understand and are far from fixed: fantasy vs. reality, “psych-set” vs. societal expectation, and born vs. grown. Are the born free? Are the grown, programmed by born men, entirely controlled? And what happens a chaotic accident threatens to unsettle who holds what power?
Initially I found Cherryh’s interplay between Arthurian fantasy and SF adventure (via character names, character programming, and quotations from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” (1859-1985) excessive and belabored. However, the interiority of the perspective—Elaine’s internal debates over her place in the world, and a world suddenly thrown on its head, anchors the story. Still, there are moments when Cherryh has Elaine expound every detail of the meaning behind the story that an observant reader would detect. For example, in the following scene Elaine ruminates on on her “love” for Lancelot:
“Love–not us. Ours was a tape-fixed complex of compulsions and avoidances; pain if we turned away from out duty… pain, and guilt; and this horrible twisting inside, at the thought of losing what we were fixed to, and created to do. And there was a deep irony in it all, because Elaine—the real Elaine, the one realer than I–had destroyed herself trying to turn Lancelot’s love to herself, when it was fixed to Guinevere: she had to try, because in the story Elaine was fixed to him and he was his lady, and that made sense within my frame of reference” (56).
Cherryh’s best moments come from her descriptions of the interaction between Elaine and her kin, those grown and programmed by born men. Off duty they physically touch each other (hold hands, lean body to body…), “not flirting” (16), but as a sign of connection, meaning-making in a world where all meaning seems predetermined.
Both the born and grown have to negotiate their realities and identify what anchors them to reality. Dela imagines a fantasy where she can escape to and populates it with designed humans that cater to her every need. The designed humans, desperate to live as real humans, rely on the predetermined fantasy of someone else for their own existence—yet struggle to break free. Port Eternity brilliantly interweaves these strands.
*In my early SF years I read almost the entire Hugo Award list for best novel (I skipped the fantasy winners). It wasn’t the best way to survey the SF field but it certainly has instilled in me the commercial power of winning an award….
*I devoured many of the other novels in her Company Wars sequence in no particular order including Heavy Time (1991), Hellburner (1992), Merchanter’s Luck (1982), Tripoint (1994), and Finity’s End (1997). The Unionside sequence contained my favorite of her works–Forty Thousand in Gehanna (1982) and the immense Cyteen (1988). Newer sequences such as The Gene Wars also provided fertile but less satisfying reads—Hammerfall (2001) and Forge of Heaven (2004).
For more book reviews consult the INDEX.
(Ken Kelly’s cover for the 1st edition)
(Éric Seigaud’s cover for the 1985 French edition)
(Peter Elson’s cover for the 199 edition)