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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)

Author Interview: Kendra L Saunders

It is always a pleasure to highlight an author with a sense of humor who also writes science fiction. I hope you will enjoy this interview with Kendra Saunders here on No Wasted Ink.

Author Kendra L SaundersMy name is Kendra L. Saunders. I’m an author, interviewer, music fanatic and fashionista! I’ve lived all over the United States, pulled many years working in music shops and now interview artistic professionals, especially in the fashion industry, for radio and for print.

When and why did you begin writing?

As a kid I often wondered what other people thought, felt and cared about. That curiosity could only be satisfied through acting and writing, and writing came more naturally to me than acting.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

In second grade, for Halloween, we were supposed to dress up as what we wanted to be when we grew up. It really occurred to me then that I would be a writer. For whatever reason, my mental image of writers meant that I borrowed my dad’s suitcase and wore a boxy, over-sized jacket. These days my clothes are a bit better, thankfully, but I knew from a very young age that I was meant to tell stories and to read them aloud to as many people as would listen. Performing was in my blood, and hearing someone laugh from a joke I wrote for the very first time… priceless. A high like no other.

Can you share a little about your current book with us?

Death and Mr. Right is a screwball sci-fi comedy. Death, a blue haired diva who happens to be the agent of nightmares, finds himself exiled to modern Boston and chased by reapers. It’s really my tribute to Douglas Adams and to Simon Pegg movies like Hot Fuzz. It’s colorful, wacky and full of adventures and snarky ghosts.

What inspired you to write this book?

I’d never written an adventure story before, so this was a challenge to write a very plot-driven story with a singular goal throughout the whole book. Death just wants his job back. And a lot of his misadventures were based on actual events in my own life. Death himself was inspired by a friend of mine who had blue hair and diva tendencies and a larger than life personality to contrast his five-foot-two frame. Many of the side characters were inspired by friends and are my gift to the people around me who let me disappear into fake worlds with people who don’t exist.

Do you have a specific writing style?

My signatures are lyrical descriptions, magic in ordinary settings and screwball, unexpected humor. I see everything in life through a filter of humor, so it always ends up in my writing. Sometimes it’s a very dark humor, but there’s always some element you can laugh at, even if with a bit of guilt.

How did you come up with the title of this book?

It came from a poem I’d started writing years ago and never finished. The poem was about a grim reaper and Cupid comparing notes, sitting on a bench together in a friendly manner. Plus I think “Death and Mr. Right” just really sounds great when said out loud, and has a good sense of the humor in the book.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Sometimes being loyal to your friends is the most important thing you can be. Sometimes you’re good at something unexpected instead of what you want to be good at, and that’s okay. Reading can pay off! And be careful of going to parties with German art-house film freaks.

Are experiences in this book based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

Many of them! Death drinking too much tequila, the rave scene and many others are based on things that happened to me. Thankfully I didn’t have a hangover like poor Death had, though…

What authors have most influenced your life? What about them do you find inspiring?

Neil Gaiman is my favorite author because he’s hilarious, imaginative and has a strong voice in his writing. Besides that, he’s a rock star in every sense of the world. I love Sophie Kinsella for her sense of humor and her wonderfully flawed female characters. The Time Traveler’s Wife, Interview with the Vampire, The Winter Prince and The Night Circus are all books that made a huge impact on me as a writer, too.

If you had to choose, is there a writer would you consider a mentor? Why?

Neil Gaiman, absolutely. He just has the whole thing… he writes, gives stirring speeches, reads aloud with so much color and warmth, wears cool leather jackets and handles all forms of social media. I would love to spend a week just hanging out with him and learning from him.

Who designed the cover of your book? Why did you select this illustrator?

Kate Kaynak designed it! She’s also made the covers for many of NYT Bestselling author Jennifer L. Armentrout’s books. A lot of people asked me about my cover at BEA when I signed the advanced review copies of it.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Write until you think you’re a good writer. Then have someone tell you all the ways you’re still terrible. Don’t hit them. Cry in private. Learn. Rewrite. Get better. Write until you think you’re great. Ask someone you respect what they think. Cry in private. Learn. Never stop learning. And talk to as many human beings as you possibly can. They are your muses, even when you can’t see their faces. Be careful about having too much caffeine. Love your friends and family. Never give up… daydream every day.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

Thank you for reading this! I’m very friendly and awake at ridiculous hours, so feel free to talk to me on twitter, instagram or facebook. I share pics, videos and funny stories from my travels and torturous day job. Frequently I post pictures with famous people. And pretty clothes.

Death and Mr. Right Book CoverKendra L. Saunders
New Hampshire


Publisher: Spencer Hill Press
Cover Art: Kate Kaynak