Hereís the trick to Cherryh: She doesnít explain
herself. Another author might say, ďJane saw him strike the
girl. Memories of her own fatherís abuse welled up inside her
and filled her with an uncontrollable rage. She raced over and
threw herself upon him, her fists pummeling him. Every blow was
a cathartic release, blotting out her memories.Ē Cherryh, on
the other hand, will simply have Jane become
uncharacteristically quiet on page 25 when someone asks about
her father. Later, on page 122, sheíll switch off a television
program about child abuse with a shiver. And then, at the
climactic moment, all youíll get is: ďJane saw him strike
the girl. Faster than thought she was on him, her fists beating
a staccato rhythm. Tears welled in her eyes, poured down her
cheeks. And then it was done, and she dropped to her knees,
shook with the sheer relief of it.Ē And if you werenít
paying attention - if you didnít catch the clues - youíll
have only the most superficial understanding of what just
The result is a work which demands attention; it
demands that you work for it. And the pay-off, as a result, is
rich and full and complex. Because itís not just that Cherryh
cloaks her resolution; itís that her resolution transforms
your understanding of what has come before.
I donít think itís possible to fully understand a
Cherryh novel without re-reading it. In fact, I doubt itís
possible to ever fully understand a Cherryh novel. Her novels
are too finely crafted; too dense; too real to be fully
captured in the imagination. I have seen the smallest detail in
her work completely transform my understanding of both character
and plot. And I suspect that, because of this fine detail and
because she forces you to draw your own conclusions from what
you see, where you are in your own life will have a profound
effect upon the impression the narrative leaves upon you.
And it almost goes without saying that this
remarkably powerful technique is extended not only to Cherryhís
characters, but throughout the entire work. In fact, every
Cherryh novel Iíve read makes me feel as if Iím standing on
an iceberg: I can only see the ten percent of my environment
lurking above the surface, and that environment itself is merely
a single set of crystallized events floating upon the vast,
supporting ocean of Cherryhís fully-realized universe, the
true depths of which are only hinted at with abyssal contours.
Which brings me to 40,000 IN GEHENNA.
Imagine that you're one of forty thousand colonists
dispatched to an alien world. Your mission is to lay the
foundation for the full-blown colony ships which will be
arriving in three years: You're breaking the frontier,
establishing the agriculture, and building the homes of those
who will come after. You dream of creating a fresh, new society
while exploring the wonders of your new home.
But within only a few months those dreams have turned
to black nightmare: The weather, far worse than the scout ships
reported, washes out your fields and rusts your equipment.
Accidents claim the lives of your most effective and important
leaders. Fear and desperation settle into your heart. Of course,
everything will be all right once the ships arrive, carrying new
supplies and new people and new hope.
But three years pass. And the ships don't arrive. And
with each passing month it becomes clearer and clearer that they
aren't just late... they aren't coming at all.
And that's when it all falls apart.
40,000 IN GEHENNA is a grim story. It starts with a
shattered dream and flows seamlessly into a dark age. But what
makes the book unforgettable is what emerges from that
dark age -- a thing shaped of strange humanity, alien biology,
and unimaginable hardship.
Looking at this slim volume it may be hard to believe
that it contains a generational epic, but it does. Cherryh is
masterful at taking the stories of her individual characters,
each drawn with laser-like precision, and crafting them into a
larger narrative telling the story of an entire society.
And then, of course, there are the hidden agendas;
the secret behind the missing relief ships; and the mysteries of
Gehenna itself. Because Cherryh is never content with simply
telling a story on one level: She tells it on three or five or
ten. A single sequence of events will tell a simple-yet-powerful
story. Then she'll pull back the curtain and show how those
events were, in fact, part of a completely different story. And
then she'll move on and you'll realize that both of those
stories -- possibly even the story you thought the whole novel
was all about -- were, in fact, just a small part of her much
larger story. (Which, in turn, has layers all its own.)
In another universe we might have read the Saga of
Gehenna in seven volumes. Gehenna could have been the next Pern
or Dune and presaged the Mars Trilogy. Instead, Cherryh has
given us a single volume. And she's made it work. And the
result is powerful and moving and intense.