Friday, September 19, 2014

Strong Story Sets the Course for Voyager

In science fiction, strange is good. Think about it: This is the genre that features honor duels fought with guns guided by advanced geometry, ninja deliverymen schlepping pizza about dystopic neighborhood-states, and ape-like hominids cavorting around an intelligence-boosting alien monolith. Yes, SF certainly goes in for the bizarre -- but typically just when it comes to content. Aside from the occasional neologism or off-the-wall speculative flourish, most authors in the field appear to prefer straightforward composition. C.J. Cherryh, though, isn't most authors, at least if her 1984 deep-space abduction novel Voyager in Night is any indication.

"Hardscrabble." That's the word that best describes the lives of Rafe, Jillian, and Paul, a trio of void-sailing miners struggling to make their mint. Every penny the three managed to beg or borrow has gone into a pitiful little ship dubbed Lindy. A tiny tug-like vessel, Lindy has barely been retrofitted for asteroid work, held together with solder and spit and the prayers of its crew who hope it will bear them into a better life. Bear them it does, but not to wealth and fortune. Instead, it takes them into terror and pain when an impossibly massive generation ship jumps into the system, snatches up Lindy, and jumps out. When Rafe comes to, he finds himself all alone in a cavernous hold covered with an almost fungal growth. But is he really by himself in the deep night? Seems not. He has vague memories of pain beyond imagining, and the lights strobe in odd patterns. Then a mirror image of himself appears as if out of thin air ...

Voyager in Night doesn't sound particularly weird in description, but it certainly is when it comes to reading it. Just consider the following a conversation among the generation ship's inhabitants. (You knew it had to have inhabitants, right?) Excerpt:
"Move us," said <^>, anxiously, from elsewhere in the ship. <^> feared the Cannibal and stayed far away. "Move us from this place. Others of this species may come."

"No," <> said "not yet."

<^> raged and wept, fearful for <^>self. <^> was very old, and very fond of <^>self, besides being slightly mad, and <^> skulked off, with |||000||| slinking after in growing despair.
A few pages into Voyager in Night, I felt like launching into a long-winded diatribe about pretentious, award-winning writers (Cherryh has received both a Hugo and a Locus) with more style than sense. It's difficult to keep track of what's going on when the players are named ((())) and ====. You know what, though? Cherryh performs something of a compositional magic trick by book's end, managing to make move those awkward interludes into intelligibility. Despite the fact that the ending is a good deal less surprising today than it doubtlessly seemed during the eighties, it manages to make a mélange of high-concept speculation, deep psychological character development, far-flung worldbuilding, and a bit of body horror into something deeply poignant. In other words, Voyager in Night succeeds remarkably well. Sure, parts come off as a little overly artsy beginning and some confusing sections crop up where -- what shall I call them? -- multiple iterations of the three main characters start appearing. However, Cherryh never lets them go entirely unexplained. She apparently knows that story must ultimately set the course.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Sweetie187; Hat Tip: /r/printsf)

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