Since I was tiny, I have consumed books like I breathe oxygen. My parents started me on this path early, encouraging me to sound out words in books as soon as I showed an interest in being able to read for myself the books we brought home from the library. My parents enrolled me in a book club, and I received books in the mail for years. Some stories are still stuck in my mind: The Giant Jam Sandwich, in which a town solves their wasp problem in an inventive way; Stand Back, Said the Elephant, I’m Going to Sneeze, which is mostly about what happened the last time the elephant sneezed, and I loved the original stories from A. A. Milne about Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher Robin.
I can remember in middle school reading six or seven books a week, in addition to whatever was required in English class. However, most novels assigned in English class were not to my tastes. The big exception was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I read nearly all the way through on the first night. When the quiz question the next day was “What happened in chapter six?” I was stumped. Since the teacher had assigned up to chapter six, she assumed we would all read only that far. But I couldn’t put it down.
I took AP English Literature when I was a senior in high school. I barely remember the books we read. The two novels I remember are The Great Gatsby, and The Stranger. Plus I remember writing one of the examination essays about Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, so we must have read that as well. Why aren’t most of the books I studied in school the ones I love? Why don’t I love all these examples of “great literature?” I have always wondered.
What do I love about books?
I love plot. I get drawn in by characters I can empathize with. I like language that is clear, modern, and straightforward. I like characters to make choices I find sensible—what would I do in the same situation? I also like a certain sense of humor.
I have never enjoyed reading Jane Austen. I admit it has been a few years since I tried, but I have never successfully read an entire Jane Austen novel. Compare to C.J. Cherryh. While I cannot claim to love ALL of Cherryh’s work (her Russian folk-fantasy books were not my cup of tea, for example), there are many novels of hers I have re-read multiple times. Why the difference? Especially when a number of my friends appreciate Jane Austen very much?
Austen’s main characters are women. The novels take place in country homes, the language is decidedly not modern, and the plots center around romance and the petty intrigues that romance can involve. It’s like high school. People snub each other, pass notes, try to attract attention from the right person, wind up with the wrong person who turn out to be the right person…I don’t mind watching the movies, but I won’t spend the time it takes to work through the books.
Many of Cherryh’s main characters are men. The novels take place in the far future, once it is possible to travel between star systems in a matter of months as opposed to years. (OK, not something that can ever happen, but a useful plot device.) Cherryh used to teach high school Latin, but her language is very modern. While the plots can be traditional such as “coming of age” or “outcast learns to fit in,” she also explores the idea of “first contact” —what happens when one group of people encounters another group for the first time.
Maybe you have seen a movie about humanity’s “first contact” with an alien culture, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or ET: The Extra Terrestrial. Cherryh’s books are so much better! The advantage that Cherryh has as a novelist is that she can go much further than any movie. Also, she can use words to create a vision in the reader’s mind of what the “aliens” look like, without the clumsiness of movie special effects. While movie special effects are getting better and better, they still can’t compare to the pictures inside my head.
Take Cherryh’s Chanur series of novels: a human captured by one set of “aliens” escapes and stumbles onto the ship of a different species of “alien.” Cherryh excels at portraying alien cultures through their interactions among themselves, their foods, their rules for government, their family structures, and their negotiations. There is never a lesson, or an aside for explaining who these people are. Background gets filled in gradually as different situations arise in the plot. One of the great things about these books is that the one human character isn’t even the protagonist. The human is in the position of the unknown outsider, and the narrative never takes his point of view. This is a refreshing and different way of presenting the situation.
Another Cherryh novel I love is Cyteen. This is a complex story originally published as a trilogy, in which a powerful and ferociously intelligent woman is cloned after her death and her clone is raised to be as much like the original woman as possible. While the overall plot is ultimately political, so much goes on in this novel that it is difficult to describe. In addition to the clone main character, there is a second main character: a man who was emotionally scarred by the original woman and who watches the clone grow up and be manipulated by her uncle. A psychological theme runs throughout, as does a moral theme: that of the clones. The powerful woman was the head of a company that makes cloned workers (among other things) and trains them through subliminal tapes listened to under the influence of drugs. Brave New World and soma? To some extent. But while I was not interested in reading Brave New World (though I did read the whole novel), I loved reading Cyteen which is about three times as long! I never empathized with the characters in Brave New World, but I felt Justin’s pain and Ari’s frustrations along with them in Cherryh’s amazing novel. Why is it different? Maybe Huxley was just too blunt with his Ford and Freud. Maybe he went too far in making his dystopia. Cherryh’s future (and far-away) world is much more ambiguous, with more shades of gray. Huxley’s London wasn’t a place I wanted to explore. Cherryh’s ReseuneLabs (where much of Cyteen takes place) is vivid and interesting.
I also recommend Cherryh’s other stories that take place, like Cyteen, in her vividly-imagined Alliance-Union universe. These include Finity’s End, Tripoint, Heavy Time, and Downbelow Station. Her Foreigner series is also excellent, and has stretched to three trilogies by now, with Cherryh working on yet another book in what will be the fourth trilogy.
I plan to tell you more about other books and I like, but it may be a while before I do. I hope you take a chance on Cherryh sometime, if you haven’t read her books before. Maybe you’ll find that Cherryh is your Jane Austen, and you can’t finish the book. But maybe you will like her stuff!