Tag Archives: c. j. cherryh

Diversity in Science Fiction: Some Diverse Reads

Science fiction often touts itself as the genre of the future. But science fiction is a reflection of today as much as it is a dream about the future. Science fiction has been too white and too male, both in authors and in protagonists. This is a reflection of the biases in our society.

My own top 20 sci-fi novels list features 18 books by white men, and two books by Ursula Le Guin. The Guardian’s list of top 500 scifi novels featured the names of 18 women. Any scifi reader starting out will hear about Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. Too many people get defensive when someone points this out. (See: the Great SFWA Shitstorm.)

The answer is to read widely, and to continue to read widely. So in that spirit, I list below some diverse science fiction*, some of which I have read, and some of which I ought to. For further reading, here is a great article listing a lot of great authors from the LA Times.

  • Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler: we destroy ourselves with war and aliens come in and save the survivors, mostly people from South American cultures who avoided the bombs. Oh, and the aliens want weird weird sex. A fun and weird read.
  • Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi: A western man goes to future Bangkok. The native Thais and the genetically-engineered windup girl are the stars of the show, though.
  • The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu: One for me to read! A best seller in China, recently translated into English.
  • Downbelow Station and Cyteen by C. J. Cherryh: Distant future novels where women kick ass in militaristic and scientific settings, if you can get past the info-dumping at the front.
  • Who Fears Death by Nnedi Orakafor: Another for me to read! Far future, post-apocalyptic Africa.
  • The Miles Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold: I have looked for these for years in used bookstores. I guess they fall into that awkward old-enough-to-be-out-of-print-, not-so-old-as-to-be-reprinted phase. They won a buttload of Hugos. And they feature a disabled protagonist.

*Note: I think it’s currently easier to find diverse fantasy. Maybe this is because it’s straightforward to use alternate mythology to Western mythology. I personally vastly prefer sci-fi. I think diversity in far future sci-fi is a challenge, because our whole concept of diversity is rooted in today’s culture. Just giving everything Chinese-ish names isn’t very satisfying. In LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Genly is black, but this isn’t relevant to the story at all. But I would like to see more female protagonists!

 

Book Review: Cyteen (C. J. Cherryh 1988)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

Rating: 4/5

Cyteen was the winner of the 1989 Hugo Award. It is about neither cyborgs nor teenagers nor cyborg teenagers, despite the name; Cyteen in the name of a planet. Cyteen takes place in the same universe as Downbelow Station (which I reviewed here) in a different culture and time. Like Downbelow Station, this is a book that requires patience up front, but offers great rewards. Cyteen is 750 pages of intricate scheming and counter-scheming, supported by interesting and conflicted characters.

Cyteen is the capital planet of the Union, one of a few major political entities in a future where humans have drifted amongst numerous stars with faster-than-light travel. The economy of Union is largely supported by the production of a cloned working force called “azis”, who are psychologically trained to serve in various capacities. All azis are produced in a research lab/city called Roseune. The book opens with power struggles between the forces of Roseune, the military, and another faction. A murder follows this initial conflict, which weakens the status of Roseune and fundamentally alters the lives of the characters. The continuing power struggles are described through the individuals trying to survive them at Roseune.

My biggest complaint: the book takes too long to develop. The first 20 pages are textbook-style background. Even after that, my progress was slow. It took a while to figure out a lot of the politics, and I didn’t understand what azi were for at least a hundred pages. Additionally, it read slowly, constantly packed with intricacy and detail on each large page of text. I very much enjoyed this book, but it is not light reading. Read this one when you have a solid block of time to set aside.

I would recommend Downbelow Station over Cyteen, although I prefer the characters in Cyteen. Despite a shared universe, the styles of the two books differ substantially. Downbelow Station is a smart space opera, threaded with politics. Cyteen is a personal drama, saturated with politics. If you enjoy hard science fiction and you are patient, you will probably enjoy both of them.

Book Review: Downbelow Station (C.J. Cherryh 1981)

Note: I avoid spoilers in this review. Any plot details I mention occur early in the book.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

I’ve had Downbelow Station on my shelf for a while. It’s 526 pages, so a little on the long side. I’d seen the book on a few “best of” lists, but no one I know has ever mentioned it. It was the 1982 Hugo award winner. So finally I bucked up and read it, and it was excellent.

Although I see “Downbelow Station” described as a hard science fiction book, the technological aspects of the book do not occupy the foreground. The interactions and desires of the characters do that; in some ways it’s a  high-class space opera. I found the style of the book most similar to Vernor Vinge in books like “A Fire Upon the Deep” with a little more militarism. I wonder how much the post Vietnam era affected the portrayal of militarism; the warring elements do not come off positively in this book. Cherryh does a good job developing culture; we can see the cultural differences between Union, Company, Pell, and the Downers. If you like sweeping science fiction, this is a highly worthy read.

Most of the action takes place on Pell Station, a space station orbiting a habitable planet with natives called “Downers” in the year 2352. Humans have expanded into space, one station after the next. At some point in history, humans developed faster than light “jump” technology, so they can spread further yet, into the “Beyond”. The humans in the Beyond have become disassociated with Earth; likewise Earth is somewhat detached from the stations. Pell finds itself between the forces of the Beyond and the renegade forces of Earth. The first 20 pages or so lay down this background; it’s a lot of exposition and it’s confusing and not totally engaging. The beginning is the weak point of this book. Once the ground work is laid, the story takes off.

We arrive at Pell when the Company ships of Earth force the station to take on a bunch of refugees from another station which has been destroyed in the conflict between the Company and the Union of the Beyond. These unregistered people are housed in quarantine, or Q, which is lawless and places a great deal of strain on the station’s resources. Over the course of the book, we watch people from Q, from Pell station, from Union, and from the Company as they vie for the strategically valuable Pell. The people of Pell station I found especially interesting, and their interactions with the Downers.

There are several other books in Cherryh’s Union-Company universe that I look forward to reading. Check out my Top 20 science fiction novels for more science fiction recommendation.