Cherryh’s Merchanter Universe

September 9, 2019

I’ve recently had a chance to dive back into one of my favorite space opera universes, C. J. Cherryh’s Merchanter series. There’s a new book out this year co-written with Jane Fancher, Alliance Rising: The Hinder Stars, with the hope of more to follow.

I finished it and immediately had to re-read the first book in the series I ever read, Finity’s End. They’re tied together in some pretty big ways. Some epic ways. The ship Finity’s End features in both, but in Finity’s End we’re at the end of Captain James Robert Neihart’s career. In Alliance Rising we’re at the start of it. One of the main characters in Finity’s End is Fletcher Neihart, and a big deal is made of the fact that he’s named for one of the heroes in the ship’s history. In Alliance Rising, we meet that heroic Fletcher — before the self-sacrificing heroism became necessary. And ugh, we’re in for a ride in any future sequels.

You see why I had to immediately dive back in to the earlier (chronologically later) novel to get my bearings? It’s a bit of a gut punch and I’m emotional about it all over again.

I’m trying to figure out why these books draw me in so hard and why I get so wrapped up in them, because on the surface, technically, they shouldn’t work. They’re full of exposition. Long chapters of nothing but exposition, with a few observations from the viewpoint characters. I thought maybe it was just Alliance Rising, that the writing was maybe a bit stilted after so long away from the world, but no, Finity’s End does the same thing. I remember being swamped by exposition in Downbelow Station and Cyteen. These books dive deep into the four-way politics of merchant Families, stations, Earth, and Union. We get lots of descriptions of trade routes and why everyone is suspicious of Cyteen and why the sovereignty of the Family ships is so important and why some stations are rich and others aren’t, and what Earth has to do with it all, and how hyperspace works, and, and…

And then, just when I think I’m getting bored, I get to a chapter with a sharply drawn character moment and I start crying because somehow, all that exposition and the people involved with it have hooked me and I’m emotionally caught. Ross Monahan and the Galway, you guys. Broke my freaking heart.

I think Moby Dick does something similar. That one gets dinged for all the exposition, the seemingly endless details of whaling. But you need all that to understand what’s happening. By the time you’re neck-deep in the climactic battle, the story doesn’t have time to stop and explain — and it doesn’t need to. The book was teaching you how to read itself the whole time. I think the Merchanter books do the same.

Writing workshop are always telling us to avoid long passages of exposition.

But then I’m reminded of the primary, number one, rule of writing, as told to me by John Crowley:  Whatever you can get away with.

You’d just better be sure you can get away with it.


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