Review: The Collected Short Fiction of C.J. Cherryh


The Collected Short Fiction of C.J. Cherryh
2004, DAW

Review Summary: Fortunately (unfortunately?) C.J. Cherryh is a much better novelist than a short story writer. Almost every one of the selections does have an element of interest in it, an idea or phrasing or theme that makes it worth consideration, but for the most part I was disappointed with the execution.
Full Review:

Fortunately (unfortunately?) C.J. Cherryh is a much better novelist than a short story writer. Almost every one of the selections does have an element of interest in it, an idea or phrasing or theme that makes it worth consideration, but for the most part I was disappointed with the execution.
Selections of note:

Section 1: Sunfall

The premise of the Sunfall series is potentially fascinating, describing the handful of great, mostly self-contained cities or city-states that still survive in Earth’s old age, as the sun itself is dying. The majority of humanity now lives among the stars, having spread out to innumerable planets throughout the universe, and Earth is now stagnant, dying, and without ambition, the remaining isolated inhabitants having turned inward and strange.

The collection seems to start off strong, leading off the Sunfall series with “The Only Death in the City (Paris)”, which incorporates what I see as Cherryh’s signature prose, and ending with a disturbing, not entirely clear image that nonetheless stirs something to be felt and thought about and discussed. “The Haunted Tower (London)” is bland, and “Ice (Moscow)” starts out with a vividly painted picture, but then quickly falls into the incomprehensible. “Nightgame (Rome)” is dark, eerie, and possibly worth further exploration, “Highliner (New York)” is good enough, and “The General (Peking)” is interesting in its own right as a slightly different play on the Arthurian theme I have found in other short story collections; the collection “Grails: Quests of the Dawn” in particular comes to mind. “MasKs (Venice)”, while it has a subtly interesting act on the part of the heroine at the end, is nevertheless also somewhat bland and doesn’t really seem to fit with the rest of the collection – the Earth’s age, or the failing of its sun, doesn’t really touch upon the storyline.

Overall this section showed some promise, although I think it could use some revamping and strengthening of the overall “Sunfall” theme.
Section 2: Visible Light

For someone who has admired the writing of Cherryh for some time now, the semi-autobiographical interruptions interspersed throughout the middle “Visible Light” section, where the author takes the opportunity to “lower the mask and give the audience an insight into the mind behind the creation” was disappointing, disturbing, and something of a turnoff for me, with its vague, semi-mystical, sentimental feel. For the first time, I have developed something of a bad feeling about the author, as I suspect I would not be as interested in talking to her as I originally thought. The credentials are all there – a student of history, archeology, and sociology, interested in science fiction and the ability to almost poetically work these themes into her stories – but the “personal” dialogue left me with the impression of some kind of new-age mystic rather than the person I had been forming in the back of my head over the years.

That being said, the only story I really appreciated from this section was “The Brothers”, which probably shows the most realistic possibilities of trying to bargain with fae or the old, fickle gods of many folklores – as hard and as clever as you try to bargain, human beings rarely get the better of a deal with the older powers of the earth. The other two stories worth mentioning are “A Thief in Korianth”, which held possibilities had it been developed into something longer and fuller, and “Companions”. “Companions” was interesting in and of itself, minus the authorial comments, but while reading it I had a nagging feeling that I had read this before. Searching through memory and doing some deductive reasoning, I finally tracked the familiarity down to one of Asimov’s short stories from the posthumous “Gold” collection called “Hallucination”, where the narrator likewise finds himself on a world without large non-plant life-forms. Add a touch of Clarke’s H.A.L. from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and presto – I’d basically read the story before.
Section 3: Other Stories

The best of the selections appear towards the end of the collection, though the majority of the stories at the end are definitely not flawless. “Of Law and Magic” is an example of one of the better flawed stories in this section, touching upon a couple of possibly interesting ideas, but only during the culmination of the story where they cannot be explored in any further depth.

The stand out selections, of the section and the collection, are most certainly “Sea Change”, “Pots”, and “The Scapegoat”. The description of the isle’s scenery where the “Sea Change” takes place is expertly written, and serves as the perfect backdrop for the main characters in the story. “Pots”, in addition to being well-written and feeling complete, manages to touch upon a number of fascinating topics, in a perfect blend of hubris, theocracy, science fiction, historical fiction, pragmatism, belief and archeology. “The Scapegoat”, although it has an unfortunate and inapt name, is actually the jewel of the collection in my opinion, describing the terrible, vital difficulties inherent with trying to communicate a vastly different, alien – or very human – world-view, even while using a shared language. The worldview finally communicated, however, is powerful and moving in its starkness and strangeness, this last opinion likely being extremely subjective and strongly influenced by my youngest brother’s serving in Iraq at the moment.
Overall, I would say that Cherryh’s collection is not very strong in regard to execution – again, Cherryh is not the best short story writer I have read, or at least has not taken as much time to cut and craft and finish the short pieces as other writers in the medium perhaps do. The majority of her ideas are interesting, however, and somewhat entertaining, although personally I felt like I was slogging through most of the book. The couple of gems in the collection don’t quite pull the whole into a higher category of fiction for me, but I suppose I have read worse as well. Having enjoyed the author’s novels so well, I perhaps had set a higher standard than necessary for her short stories.
01/06/07 CSL

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