Tag Archives: science fiction

Book Review: Forty Thousand in Gehenna

Book Name: Forty Thousand in Gehenna
Author: C.J. Cherryh
First Published: 1983
Nominated for Locus Award (1984)

Author Carolyn Janice Cherry is better known by her pen name C. J. Cherryh. She is a Hugo Award winning science fiction and fantasy writer with 40 novels under her belt. Cherryh is pronounced “Cherry”. When she first began publishing her stories in the early 70s, Cherryh was asked to create a pen name by DAW editor Donald Wollheim. He felt that her real name more fit a romance writer instead of a science fiction writer. She also switched to using her initials to disguise that she was female. This was a common practice at the time since women authors were not as accepted in the genre as male authors were. Fortunately, that is no longer the norm in the genre.

C.J. Cherryh was born in 1942 and raised in Lawton, Oklahoma. In 1964, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Latin from the University of Oklahoma, and went on to gain a Master of Arts in classics from Johns Hopkins University. After graduation, Cherryh became a high school teacher of Latin, Ancient Greek and the classics

After graduation, Cherryh taught secondary school in the Oklahoma City public school district. While her job was teaching Latin, her passion was history. During her summers off, she would conduct student tours of ancient ruins in England, France, Spain, and Italy.

As busy as she was, Cherryh could not shake the writing bug. She had been writing stories since the age of ten and continued to write novels in her spare time. She did not follow the usual path of science fiction writers of the time, starting with publishing short stories in the national magazines of the day, but instead her focus was on writing novels. While Cherryh has written shorter works, she did not begin to do so until after she had published several of her novels first.

Her break came in 1975 when Donald Wollheim bought two manuscripts she submitted to DAW Books. She stated once in an interview on Amazing Stories, “It was the first time a book really found an ending and really worked, because I had made contact with Don Wollheim at DAW, found him interested, and was able to write for a specific editor whose body of work and type of story I knew. It was a good match. It was a set of characters I’d invented when I was, oh, about thirteen. So it was an old favorite of my untold stories, and ended up being the first in print.”

It was the start of a long and fruitful friendship. Cherryh has gone on to publish almost 40 novels, most of them with DAW, but not exclusively, and still continues to write more books today. She has won the Hugo Award for Best Novel twice, first for Downbelow Station and then again for Cyteen, novels that are part of the Alliance-Union Universe series that Forty Thousand in Gehenna is also part of.

Currently, Ms. Cherryh lives in Spokane, Washington, with her partner science fiction/fantasy author and artist Jane Fancher. She enjoys skating, traveling and is a regular guest at many science fiction conventions.

Culture is how biology responds and makes its living conditions better. – C. J. Cherryh

Forty Thousand in Gehenna is not a normal story about the colonization of a planet where an intrepid group of humans set up a foothold on a world and build. Instead, it is the story broken into two main sections with a few smaller vignettes bridging. The characters are born and die of old age as the centuries go by. The focus of the novel is about the interaction between humans, from Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe, and the Caliban, large lizard aliens that are not the unintelligent animals the colonists were led to believe when they first arrive.

Gehenna, which means “hell”, is an experimental colony set up by Union. It is made up of a small faction of “born men” and forty thousand “azi”. The azi live to the age of 40 and then their bodies fail. When they are cloned in the lab, each human azi is programmed psychologically so that he or she is subservient to the born men and happy in their place in society. They are the worker slaves of the Union civilization and outnumber their aristocratic masters a thousand to one. The azi are the key to how Union manages to take over worlds ahead of their competitors, the merchants of the Alliance, giving biological numbers to the leaders of Union to place where they will.

The first part of the novel is about the original colonists and follows a born-man named Gutierrez who comes aboard the colony disguised as an azi and a clone named Jin and his love interest Pia. Within a few years, it is realized that Union has abandoned Gehenna and no more supplies or the promised azi labs arrive as scheduled. The colony begins to fall apart as the machines break down. The azi begin to have children instead of reproducing via cloning techniques and teach their programming to their children as best they can. In the mix, the alien Caliban intrude as the settlers realize that the giant lizards are far more intelligent than first realized. The azi children imprint on the Caliban as well as their azi parents. This creates a entirely new culture that grows more different as the centuries go forward.

The middle of the book covers when Alliance discovers Gehenna and via a mix of reports and chapters from many different points of view, we see how the outside stellar civilization sees what is happening on the planet in the long view. Alliance meddles in the Gehenna culture with ill effects.

The final part of the novel covers a war between the descendants of Jin and Pia’s two children. The descendants have formed three cultures, one is aggressive and “male” the other is more passive and “female”. The third group are termed “weirds”. They are people that choose to live with the Caliban in their tunnels. All groups have formed a symbiosis relationship with the alien Calibans. While the Alliance watches and files reports, the cultures clash for domination of Gehenna.

40K in Gehenna Book CoverDiving into the Alliance-Union Universe can be confusing. There are a great many novels, some of which follow their own mini-series inside the series. This book can be considered the first of a trilogy, the final installment only being written a few years ago. The original cover of a girl riding a Caliban lizard into battle is what originally drew me to the book. It reminded me a great deal of McCaffery’s dragons of Pern, who also had a symbiotic relationship with their human partners. As it turns out, the Caliban are a more complex komodo dragon with a unique way of communication. You learn about it via submersion just as the colonists do in the story. Cherryh is a master at not only developing sweeping historical world views that explore intricate human cultures of her own devising, but she also is adapt at creating stunning alien cultures.

I am fascinated by the concept of the human clones known as azi. Here in Gehenna we get a good look at the Union’s tank-bred, hypnotic-tape-education workforce. The azi make up most of Union’s population and has allowed it to out-breed Sol and the Alliance in these stories, but at what cost? Cloning is a process that is starting in our day and age. The morals and ethics behind the technology have not been fully addressed. What was once science fiction may soon be science fact.

Finally, I enjoy that Cherryh does employ female protagonists in her stories. While in the first section she followed two male Azi, in the last section the protagonist was a girl named Elai who was certainly no wimp and proved to have the wit to fight for her community and people. The 1980s is known for introducing female characters who were independent and functional as full characters in their own right instead of always being the “love interest” for the men.

While Cyteen is the Hugo Award Winner, I feel that you should start with Forty Thousand in Gehenna since it precedes Cyteen chronologically in the series. The two books can be read independently of each other and be fully understandable, but it works better if you read the two together.

Unionside Series of the Alliance-Union Universe

Forty Thousand in Gehenna (1983)
Cyteen (1988) – Hugo and Locus SF Award winner, British Science Fiction Award nominee, 1989
Regenesis (2009)

Guest Post: Meanwhile, In The Serengeti by Barbara Ann Wright

WildebeestStraight people are my wildebeests. I watch them from the grass, waiting. One little noise will send them into a stampede, hooves kicking the dirt into a cloud, making them harder to catch.

I creep forward, silent, downwind from them. I must catch them off guard. I take a deep breath, stand up, let them have a good look at me, and say, “I write fantasy novels about lesbians.”

Okay, maybe it’s not exactly like that, but pitching a novel starring LGBT characters to a straight audience has its pitfalls, but if I want the widest readership possible for my work, it’s something I have to do.

I love all my fans. From the LGBT crowd to the pansexuals and asexuals, those who are intersex, and those who eschew labels. And there are straight people who seek out diverse books. I love them, too. I usually don’t have to sell so hard to any of them. They’re the reason I wrote The Pyramid Waltz. Well, them and me, of course. It used to be that most LGBT characters in fiction faced horrific persecution and a tragic end. So I wrote a fantasy romance where being a lesbian was no big deal. It was just another kind of love.

A lot of straight people have to ease into the idea, though. They know of the books with horrific persecution and tragic ends. They cringe when they hear there are lesbians in my fiction, expecting characters who are beaten bloody by the very society they live in. “Don’t be scared,” I’ll say. “Being gay in my worlds is no big deal. It’s important to read fiction starring all kinds of people. The more diverse characters we see, the more our culture will come to see everyone as just another part of society. So don’t be afraid of the gay king, the lesbian princess, the trans wizard, or the bisexual knight. It’s still your kind of book.”

I go to quite a few science fiction and fantasy conventions, and the bulk of the people I’ve spoken to identify as straight. I’ve seen some people squirm when I tell them that my stories star women who love women. I’ve seen the occasional eye roll, like I’m trying to sell an agenda. I have to keep my cool, keep describing the book, be as funny as I can be, and assure them that it’s all right. The other shoe will not drop. It’s really no big deal. Lucky for me, many people believe me, read the book, and see for themselves. I’ve overheard some conversations where someone reassures someone else about the book by saying, “It’s not really about that.”

And it’s not, not for them, at least. But for those of us who don’t often see ourselves in fiction, it’s very much about that. It gives me joy to see someone who feels the way I do on the page. Anyone who has ever felt excluded knows what I’m talking about. Most of the lesbian, gay, or bi people I know learned long ago to enjoy fiction starring straight characters. Trans people are used to not seeing themselves on the page. Most LGBT people I know don’t look at straight fiction and assume, “That’s not aimed at me,” or have to reassure each other with, “The characters are straight, but it’s not really about that.”

So the next time you see a story starring a character with a sexuality or gender identity different than what you’re used to, go ahead and pick it up. It’s not a lion waiting in the grass. See if you like the story. Read a few pages. See what you’re in for. Go online and peruse the ratings. You might discover a new author to follow, a new world and characters to love. You might expand your horizons. You might join me in calming the wildebeests.

Author Barbara Ann WrightBarbara Ann Wright writes fantasy and science fiction novels and short stories when not adding to her enormous pen collection or ranting on her blog. Her short fiction has appeared twice in Crossed Genres Magazine and once made Tangent Online’s recommended reading list. Her first novel, The Pyramid Waltz, was one of Tor.com’s Reviewer’s Choice books of 2012, was a Foreword Review Book of the Year Award Finalist, a Goldie finalist, and won the 2013 Rainbow Award for Best Lesbian Fantasy. One of its sequels won the 2014 Rainbow Award for Best Lesbian Fantasy Romance. Her newest work, Thrall: Beyond Gold and Glory, is a standalone fantasy starring lesbian and trans characters in a Viking-esque world.

A Primer for Writing Scifaiku publishes on Lit Central OC

primer notebook

Scifaiku has become a passion of mine over the past year. It is a form of poetry that combines science fiction themes with Japanese haiku in a “bastard” form. I took a workshop on how to write this form of poetry at a local science fiction convention and it has had an impact on my writing.

I’d like to encourage science fiction writers to take a look at Scifaiku and wrote a primer about how to go about writing it. I’ve included some of my scifaiku illustrations that you see here on my blog with the article. It is published in the online magazine Lit Central OC, edited by DeAnna Cameron.

A Primer for Writing Scifaiku by Wendy Van Camp

Wendy Van Camp Published in Far Horizons Magazine (April 2015)

Far Horizons Magazine April 2015

I’m pleased to announce that three of my Scifaiku poems have published in the April 2015 Anniversary issue of Far Horizons Magazine. The magazine is free to readers and can be read online, downloaded as a PDF or printed from Joomag. I hope you’ll stop by and read not only my work, but the other fine stories to be found there.

Far Horizons: Tales of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror

Book Review: Crystal Singer

Book Name: Crystal Singer
Author: Anne McCaffrey
First Published: 1982

Anne McCaffrey was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The only daughter of three siblings and the middle child, she grew up on the east coast of the United States. Eventually, she graduated cum laude from College where she gained a degree in Slavonic Languages and Literature. In 1950 she married Horace Johnson and they had three children: Alec, Todd and Gigi. The family lived in Wilmington, Delaware for around a decade and then moved to Sea Cliff, Long Island in 1965 where they remained until 1970. During this time, Anne McCaffrey began to work full time as a writer and served a term as the secretary-treasurer of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Her duties not only included the publishing of two monthly newsletters for the guild, but she also handcrafted the Nebula Award trophies.

In 1970, McCaffrey divorced her husband and weeks later took her children to live in Ireland. During the 1970s, Ireland offered artists to live exempted from income taxes and Anne McCaffrey, being of Irish descent, emigrated to Ireland to take advantage of this opportunity. Anne’s mother soon joined the family where they lived in Dublin. McCaffrey’s books about the dragons that lived in a symbiotic relationship with the human settlers of the planet Pern became bestsellers and classics of science fiction. They paid for her cottage in Ireland that she called “Dragonhold” in honor of the dragons that supported herself and her children. She lived there until her death at the age of eighty five.

The roots of the Crystal Singer series begins while Anne McCaffery was a student studying voice. She performed as a singer, directed a play and was employed by the record label, Liberty Music Shop. Despite these successes, it was during her later years of study that she was informed that there was a flaw in her voice that would limit her in achieving in the field of music. McCaffery was devastated by this experience and used it in the Crystal Singer series to shape her main character Killashandra Ree.

The book first began as a series of shorts that were published in Continuum Magazine.

    “Prelude to a Crystal Song”, Continuum 1 (Apr 1974)
    “Killashandra – Crystal Singer”, Continuum 2 (Aug 1974)
    “Milekey Mountain”, Continuum 3 (Dec 1974)
    “Killashandra – Coda and Finale”, Continuum 4 (Aug 1975)

In the short stories, Killashandra Ree dies, but when McCaffery decided to combine all the short stories into a single novel, she revised all the shorts heavily to not only blend them into a single story, but changed the main character’s ultimate fate. The name of the crystal singer was inspired by a small town in north central Ireland called Killeshandra.

“There’s nothing wrong in doubting. It sometimes leads to greater faith.”
― Anne McCaffrey

Crystal Singer begins when a young vocal student named Killashandra Ree is finishing ten years of study in order to become a vocal soloist of a futuristic civilization known as the Federated Sentient Planets. She anticipates becoming a “rock star” of interstellar proportions. During her final exams, it is discovered that she has a fatal flaw in her voice that will forever prevent her from singing lead roles, despite her perfect pitch and performing talents. Killashandra is heartbroken and plans to leave both the school and her home world in private disgrace.

At the spaceport she meets an older man who uses his musical skills to identify an arriving space shuttle that is about to explode to the authorities, averting the disaster. The two hit it off and he treats her to a whirlwind romance on her home world while he is on vacation. She grows curious about her new lover and his profession of “crystal singer”. It is a occupation of people with perfect musical pitch that use their voices to control devices in which to mine a very rare crystalline mineral on the planet of Ballybran. These crystals are used in most of the complex systems that power interstellar communications and power much of the machinery of her civilization. It is a dangerous profession, but one that earns high credits and has a select and small membership. Although she is warned away repeatedly, Killashandra is drawn to the mysterious Heptite Guild and becomes determined to become a crystal singer herself.

Travel to Ballybran is forbidden to all but its residents. On the moon of Ballybran, Killashandra learns the reason why. Anyone that ventures onto the planet is infected by a symbiotic life form that invades the human body and causes genetic mutations. Many people simply die. Others only gain a partial adaptation that allows them to live, but with reduced hearing or eyesight. They are forever confined to the planet, unable to leave because if they do the symbiont dies and they along with it. Those few that get a full adaption to the symbiont become the crystal singers who gain increased vision and hearing, rapid healing and a long life. It makes them sterile and in the end they suffer memory loss, paranoia and dementia, but only after hundreds of years of life. They also can depart Ballybran for short periods of time without their symbiont dying.

Headstrong and stubborn, Killashandra journeys to Ballybran along with thirty other inductees. The novel follows her and her classmates during their education while they wait for the invading infection. One by one, they fall to the symbiont until all have been converted. During this time she gains the attention of the head of the guild, a man named Lanzecki. He offers her a job that she can’t refuse, one that not only allows her to use her new skills as a crystal singer, but one that might allow her to present a public performance that would put her back in the spotlight she trained all those years for.

Crystal Singer Book CoverI have always loved the Crystal Singer series by Anne McCaffery. I first read the book when it was first released in the early 80’s and felt a strong identification with the main character, Killashandra Ree. She is a complex character, a combination of confidence that borders on arrogance and yet inside she is shy and vulnerable. Many artists have this sort of personality and I liked that she was a strong woman that was willing to take control of her own life in the face of failure. She felt like a real and likable woman to me.

The Federated Sentient Planets that Killashandra lives in is powered not by manufactured technology, such as ours is, but by natural forming crystals that can be sung into service. I love the concept of human art meeting function in this way. It is quite unique and the world of Ballybran and the Heptite Guild society is an interesting concept. The visual of the crystal singer serenading a mountain side and it singing back to her is powerful and one that you will not soon forget. Of all the series set in the universe, I feel that this one is the most clerical in nature. You need a card for everything and the machines monitor all the details. It reminds me of our current way of life.

There are some outdated qualities to the book. During the late 70s and early 80s, sexual freedom was thought to be women sleeping around much as single men of the time period did. Killashandra has several lovers in this fashion. The sex is free and easy, completely consensual, but without long term attachments. There are no steamy sex scenes in the book, but in my view the easy going relationships don’t quite mesh with what we might think of feminism now.

The men in the book were also somewhat paternalistic toward the female main character. Again, this was a common attitude during this decade and it has carried over into the culture of this interstellar society. It is not as bad as in some books and for the most part I felt that Killashandra was treated as an equal by peers, even when they could not stand her for her “perfection”.

While Crystal Singer is not a Nebula or Hugo award winner, it does have staying power and I believe that it would most appeal to high school or college aged readers. It can be a little difficult to find at the local library due to its age, but you should be able to find it on the online outlet of your choice. Go and find the books. If you love classic science fiction and enjoy reading females authors in this genre, Crystal Singer is a great choice.

Crystal Singer Series

Crystal Singer 1982
Killashandra 1986
Crystal Line 1992