Words: Treason or loyalty? Thoughts on the Chanur books

Recently author Jo Walton posted a review of the trilogy Chanur’s Venture/The Kif Strikes Back/Chanur’s Homecoming. It’s an interesting piece because it highlights the way interpretation can vary, and the way different people put different meanings in a word.

For me what Pyanfar does is not to commit treason to her species but to risk being ostracised for her defence of the Compact, the stability of which she views as a guarantee for Hani autonomy.
In her case it means going against the Han, the ruling body of her culture, and this is the core of the issue – is the ruling body, of any society, the same thing as the society it governs? Is it possible to be loyal to the society and not to the governing body, at the same time?

I, of course, think so. My continuous questioning of those managing the company employing me is based on that tenet. I view that as loyalty towards my employer – I want the company to thrive so I get interesting assignments and a reasonable salary. Pyanfar does much of the same, even if it becomes personal when Sikkukkut threatens annihilation of her species. That this loyalty crosses swords with the narrow-minded self-interest of a local government is only to be expected because that is what happens when you have people entrenched in status quo, with vested interests in maintaining the present situation.

If someone commits treason it is Tully, the only human. But looking at his motives it becomes clear that he doesn’t share the interests or motivations of the human fleet (which is neither Mazianni, Alliance or Union – I read it as a Sol initiative to seek it’s luck in the opposite direction, to make it possible to sever the connection to the three aforementioned forces) – he feels more at home with the hani crew than with his own species.

So, even looking at the same situation it is possible to name it two things – treachery or loyalty.

No wonder we humans don’t understand each other.

Good thing we haven’t met any aliens yet. We would mess it up beyond repair ;-)


Trust across cultures

As said in an earlier, in fact my previous post ;-), the range of topics possible to discuss when having read Cherryh’s Chanur books are many and varied. One of the ones most often talked about is gender. Therefore I’ll let that thread rest. Maybe I’ll pick it up later. But for now I’ll reflect on another topic – that of trust.

Take eight different species, three of them not breathing oxygen and one of the oxygen breathers an intruder. Even so the four resident oxygen breathers are very different from each other – from different planets, and thus from vastly different cultures. It should be obvious to us as readers to appreciate the differences, but instead we fall into the trap of anthropomorphising. Or at least I do. Repeatedly.

And what happens is that despite the characters too knowing about these differences, and in some cases learning about the at the same moment as the reader do so, they have troubles with understanding and interpreting each other. It becomes clear to the reader that language is a cultural construct, something that resides within the culture, and not every expression translates very well. Rather the opposite, and it is visible in the pidgin language shared between the hani and their mahendo’sat allies. But it is also obvious in the clashes between groundling or station bound hani and their spacer kin – culture can change within a species as well, culture is in constant evolution – it is the means by which we handle our reality.

It’s almost that the truly weird kif are easier to understand because they are so alien anthropomorphising is not an issue.

So while the hani captain Pyanfar ought to trust her two mahen “friends” Ana and Jik she doesn’t. This is partly because she realises they have been meddling and manipulating, both her and others, and it isn’t until the next to last book that we learn the reason for their behaviour (conditioning), and maybe we don’t exactly understand how their society functions until the next to last chapter of that fourth book.

Are these issues unique to a pretend universe? I think not. Cultures here on our planet places value on different things and behaviours. Immigrant parents don’t understand their kids who have grown up in a different society not only because the surrounding culture is different from what their parents grew up with but because they are younger, and culture and society are fleeting, almost as chimeras. Even waster gaps exist if you look on a greater scale, between and across continents.

How can we expect trust when we can’t even talk to each other without misunderstandings? How can we expect trust when one bows to the other only out of fear? How can we expect trust when one thinks he’s more valuable than another, just because he’s of a different colour or religion or, indeed, only wealthier?

Valid questions. Because I think trust is essential when humans deals with each other – without trust politic society wouldn’t hold.

Will it?

Almost a review: Chanur series, by C.J. Cherryh

I’ve made several tries at starting this post, the first as far back as 12 March. Why has it been so hard? If I question myself I think the most probable answer is “the scope”. Some people reads the five-book series as a space opera adventure. Others reads it as a treatise on gender. Yet others as a discussion on culture and politics. And to me it’s all of these.

At the most visible layer the books tells the tale of one Pyanfar Chanur (with the last book having a different perspective and protagonist). A trader travelling between space stations bringing wealth to her down-planet clan she get caught up in interspecies politics, quite by accident, and her life takes a hard turn.

Pyanfar is female. So are all other hani in space; hani being her species. In hani society the women runs the show for the feeble-minded and rash males, of which only a few survives to maturity. Males are viewed as unreliable, ruled as they are by their feelings rather than their minds.

Other species we encounter are the mahendo’sat, a primate (I imagine them as a wee bit more human-proportioned gibbons because if I start thinking of them as baboons or any other of the ‘great’ apes I’d die laughing), who like humans travels space male and female alike; the stsho, with three genders and ability to change gender throughout life; the kif, who seems almost exclusively male, but who know? They are almost reptile, or at the very least rodent-like; and then the methane-breathers – the knn, the t’ca and the chi, with only the t’ca able to communicate with the oxygen-breathers, and then only via complex multi-tiered matrices.

There’s also some stray humans, most notably Tully whose escape from a kif ship is what get Pyanfar entangled in the conflict in the first place. But we don’t get the story as seen by humans – rather humans are the most alien species of all, in this setting.

Against this backdrop it is possible to discuss almost any topic there is concerning culture, politics, societies… and that is exactly what’s going on, if you want to look further than the action.

Some people might be put off by the ‘cats in space’ theme put forward by the cover art but I really do recommend these books.

The Chanur series consists of the books The Pride of Chanur, Chanur’s Venture, The Kif strikes back, Chanur’s Homecoming, and Chanur’s Legacy. The first and the last could be viewed as standalones, while the three in the middle is one story split over three volumes.