Cherryh's latest novel is getting mixed reviews. The negatives have pointed out that the "alien culture" is just Beduoins riding around on things indistinguishable from camels, and that the first half of the novel consists of marching out of the desert, then back in, then out again and then, you guessed it, back in.... And they're right. But so what? It's interesting that science fiction readers will put up with the tedious monotony of pseudo science relentlessly explaining how to make an interstellar drive from, say, potatoes and neustuphiem, but not the boredom of a Biblical exodus. Different tastes.
Synopsis, like translation, is a dangerous form of publicity. To appreciate how little such a synopsis as the above can tell you, consider this similar distillation of Larry Niven's grand exercise in pointless fiction, The Burning City: A boy grows up in a city with extraordinarily rigid class hierarchies, accidentally kills someone and becomes a fugitive. In the course of his flight, he learns about the origins of his culture and becomes the progenitor of a new society. I wish. In Niven's self-indulgent machismo fantasy, spanning half a century, the dreary protagonist grows from an uninteresting child to an uninteresting older man with a pot belly. It is a science fiction novel with Babbitt as the central character, and not intended to be funny. The plot is best characterized as monotony broken up by occasional stretches of tedium. Hammerfall moves with the relentless energy of a freight train or, if you like, the deceptive slow force of a rocket lifting off.
The soldiers of the ruling class are gathering people with a certain type of madness and bringing them to the Ila, a woman with absolute power over most of the planet, who questions them and then, typically, has them killed. Our point of view is that of the son and potential heir of a fierce uncivilized tribe, banished by his father for the shame of "insanity." But the madness is in fact the voice of a second woman of power, the equal of the Ila, who has spent thirty years attempting to undo the damage the Ila has done to the deep ecology of the planet and is now urgently calling together the people of the planet through some sort of intrusive, telepathic device the marginally industrialized people regard as magic and madness. Luz is trying to save them from the wrath of the ruling race of the star system, the ondat, who have launched a devastating fleet of something like comets or meteors at the planet to wipe out the effects of the Ila's meddling.
Marak, the hero, learns this by marching out to Luz's mysterious paradisal oasis, and he must then march back to tell the Ila to bring all the nations to Luz's shelter. The bulk of the novel recounts the desperate third march back to the oasis and the final hammerfall that destroys everyone and everything that fails to arrive in time. But, to extend a trope of a reviewer who has done a fine, if ultimately negative, review of the book (John Clute, in his column "Excessive Candour," at Scifi.com), this summary is rather like saying that in Moby Dick some guys go looking for a whale and after looking a lot, they find it.
Some questions keep coming up amongst the nay-sayers, and I'd like to respond to them.
(1) Why doesn't Luz just use some superior technology to communicate directly with the Ila? Because communicating with the Ila is not the point. The Ila knows what she has done, understands the consequences, and is even, as Marak learns late in the novel, aware of Luz's activities. For all her power, she is a vain, vicious-spirited woman, as evidenced by her sudden alliance, near the end of the novel, with one of her worst enemies for no reason but to undercut the growing stature of Marak.
(2) The purpose of the "madness" that Luz creates is to get certain key people to come "east" and visit her. So why does she keep bugging them with voices, even when her noise is obviously interfering with their attempts to follow her bidding? Well, the fact is, they are not "following her bidding." The march to paradise is punctuated by numerous attempts on Marak's part to do things his way, ignoring Luz's instructions. The purpose of the madness is not to get Marak to visit, it's to mobilize the entire population of the planet so they will hurry to the safety Luz has created for them.
(3) If Luz has all this wonderful technology, why can't she fly Marak back to talk to the Ila? This may be a legitimate complaint. I suspect that the answer is, Cherryh wanted us to spend a lot of time in the desert. But perhaps she would argue that Luz doesn't necessarily have a device that can leave the "paradise." If she did, wouldn't she have used it to scout the world? It's easy to see why she didn't "come and get him," so to speak, instead of making him walk: He had to experience going there to believe what he saw and to know the way for the exodus. It's pretty obvious why she doesn't pack everybody up and fly them back, eliminating the final march: Everybody is really everybody. The entire planet is going hostile. That's one mother of a shuttle craft, if you are going to haul a few million people. What's more, the march is a culling, refining activity. The weak learn strength or die. So that leaves the flight back after Luz meets Marak the first time. And I don't know. It didn't bother me; maybe it should have.
(4) Nobody explains how Luz's paradise works. If the whole planet is going to be hit by meteors, what technology could possibly protect them? This one is really silly, if you ask me, especially coming from people who guzzle bug-eyed monsters and telepathic puppydogs like popcorn. I'm reminded of Jesus' complaint about the logic choppers who strain at gnats and swallow camels. We are seeing the whole story from the point of view of a non-technological nomad. If Luz explained how it worked, he'd understand none of the explanation. If she gave him a book about it, he couldn't read it, and if she read it to him, he wouldn't understand it. The whole focus of the novel is on creating a fusion of science fiction and Biblical folklore. Luz is under no more obligation to explain her safety dome than Jehovah is to elucidate the workings of the celestial spheres.
(5) We never get to see what these mysterous "vermin" are. In our days of "realistic exit wounds," we may have forgotten that often the unexplained is more horrifying than the gory details. For me, the notion of the earth seething with eaters that we can only see in flashes and glimpses, like a tropical river over-populated with piranhas and snakes, is horrible enough, thank you. What's more, I suspect that when we get a clearer picture of "the Ondat," the nature of the vermin will suddenly be clearer too. We'll see.
(6) The main characters are just pawns in the larger action. Uh, like in War and Peace? While it is true that Marak comprehends very little of what is happening to him, his wives, or the world, his dilemma is not so different from Everyman's. The world won't stop and wait for him to catch up. The race against the final, world-destroying meteor is a metaphor for the challenge we all endure in a universe that doesn't coddle us, one Matthew Arnold described in that masterpiece of despair, "Dover Beach," where ignorant armies clash in the dark.
What I find in Hammerfall is a mature handling of themes Cherryh has explored before. The exodus of the planet to Luz's paradise is the alembic in which Marak is tried and hardened. He must mature as a leader, so that his people can be led by one of their own rather than through the totalitarian magic of a superbeing. He must face and make hard choices as the representative of his fellow humans. He must choose between warring "gods." And he must succeed in a universe where some failure is inevitable. He can't stop the meteors. He must succeed within that boundary. And his growth is a particular of the growth the entire race must undergo. It sounds terrible to say that the last march is a culling process, because what is culled is weakness and ignorance, with no regard for good or evil. But the people who make it are not the rich who could buy rides on Luz's shuttle or the poor and weak transported by a loving Mommygod. They have to walk, and they have to hurry, and they have to learn the desert. They arrive terrified, beaten, weak, and evolved.
If Hammerfall borrows its cultural foundation from Cherryh's Faded Sun, its narrative structure reminds one of Forty Thousand in Gehenna: the slow disclosure of the science beneath what appears to be a pre-technological universe. All science we do not understand appears to be magic, to paraphrase the old saw. Here, the science is so far beyond the ken of the central characters that they, like the inhabitants of Gene Wolfe's Urth of the New Sun, have no choice but to use the vocabulary of magic and religion to explain it. The effect is a sprawling, Biblical story with familiar elements of the Cherryh world: a flawed man of action in thrall to a fierce, illogical superwoman (two, in this case, fighting over him), cultures of an organic complexity that slowly unfolds as the narrative progresses, and world-threatening catastrophe brought on by pride and ignorance. Heady stuff, and obvously the beginning of a new series.
Is it a great novel, or even a great Cherryh novel? Perhaps not. I withhold that judgment until more of the story unfolds. But I trust Cherryh's vision.
I have a page devoted to discussion of C. J. Cherryh's novels, and her own website is www.cherryh.com. You may want to purchase direct from Cherryh the two graphic novels she and her friend Jane Fancher created for Gate of Ivrel. Interesting variants on the stories I consider among her best work, and sure to become collector's items.
Another excellent source of information on Cherryh and her work is Shejidan, an evolving fan site.
Buy Hammerfall at Amazon.com [Hardcover]