Friday, June 1, 2012

Book Review: Heavy Time & Hellburner

Heavy Time (1992) C. J. Cherryh. Paperback, 336 pages.
Hellburner (1993), C. J. Cherryh. Paperback, 384 pages.

Summary: Decker, a stranded asteroid miner, is rescued by fellow miners, but shadowy interests seem bent on using the lucky survivor to their own ends. For a more detailed summary, click here. After (mostly) recuperating from the psychological trauma of losing his partner and almost himself in a mining accident, Decker is once again hospitalized, this time after what appears to be sabotage during a military exercise. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences:
It was a lonely place, this remote deep of the Belt, a place where, if things went wrong, they went seriously wrong.
Ben indexed through the motile pictures and the text, the statistics about rainfall and mean average temperature which the Guide cautioned a visitor did not in any sense mean a constant temperature.
     He despised crying. He didn't. He wouldn't. The doctor was getting impatient. He took deep breaths to help him. "Don't give me any shots. I need to figure -- how far is it . . ."
     "Don't distress yourself, Mr. Decker."
     January has thirty-one days. February is 28. March, 12.
     Out there in space. Seventy-one days. She'd have been out of air in 4 hours. Oh, God, . . .
     "Mr. Decker."
     "March has thirty days. Or 31?"
     12 from 31 is 19. Nineteen days in March. April is --
     Thirty days hath September . . . April, June, and November . . .
     The doctor patted his shoulder. One of the orderlies came back.
     "No!" he yelled. "I've almost got it, dammit!"
     They shot him with it anyway. "Be still," they said. "Be still. Don't try to talk now."
     49. They found me on the 21st. 49 and 21. Do you count the 12th twice?
     I'm losing it . . . start again.
     Or can I trust my memory?

Writing Quality: 6/10

Depth of Concept: 6/10

Rounded Characters: 7/10

Well-Developed World: 7/10

Page Turner: 7/10

Kept Me Thinking: 6/10

Overall Recommendation: 7/10


Writing Quality: 6/10. Cherryh is a perfectly competent writer. Every once in a while I come across a construction that seems a bit of a puzzle, but never anything that strikes me as amateurish. She's got her own distinctive voice that carries over through her various novels, but while many characters share a similar syntax, she still finds ways of making character voices reasonably distinct. I think that every novel of hers I've ever read has included various repetitions of the following: "Damn, damn and damn." I don't think that any specific phrasing ever stands out to me, though, as something worth remembering. Her writing seems mostly utilitarian, to service the plot and other themes. And here and there, there is excessive exposition that comes in the form of one-sided conversations, a result of Cherryh's "very tight limited third person," as she calls it, which prevents her from offering the more omniscient observations that other authors can sprinkle throughout the narration.

Depth of Concept: 6/10. I considered scoring this a point higher, which would have matched it up with my reviews of Pratchett's Night Watch, Ender's Game, and The Once and Future King. But while Cherryh is always intelligent and appreciably ambiguous in many aspects of her writing, I don't think that these two novels exhibit her greatest skill at offering multiple meaningful interpretations. I'm thinking that her novel Cyteen, at the least, deserves a 7 and maybe even an 8 in this category. To me, Heavy Time and Hellburner offer only a hint of the interesting psychological explorations that occur in Cyteen. In Ender's Game, we got an interesting allegory in which children fill in for the adult analogs in our world, and where phobia of aliens can help us think about our real-world phobias of the foreign. In The Once and Future King, there was a lot to explore about national identity and the trials and tribulations of leadership and loyalty. I do think that Cherryh raises some intriguing ideas about the ways that people who live on Earth may differ psychologically from their space counterparts (oh, maybe now I'm second-guessing my lower score), but I think that Kim Stanley Robinson did that at least as well in Red Mars, and had a lot more conceptually to offer besides.

Rounded Characters: 7/10. A score of 7 here matches it up with Robinson's Red Mars, although I think there are some notable differences in the way the two go about explaining their characters. Cherryh tends to keep her character's thoughts very immediate, in an intimate stream-of-consciousness that ends up emphasizing very local and pressing concerns. Robinson, by contrast, takes a more omniscient look at his characters, and allows their personality development to be placed within the context of larger movements and social paradigms. Ultimately, I find Cherryh's long long internal monologues (in all of her novels, including the award-winners) to be a little over the top, and frequently repetitive, but there's no doubt that the accumulation end up offering substantial insights and intriguing thoughts about each of her characters. I particularly appreciated the understated way that characters develop and grow in their relationships with each other over the course of the novels, and you feel that you're present as they change. By contrast, you often feels in Red Mars that you're uncovering things about the characters, layer after layer.

Well-Developed World: 7/10. You don't get info dumps with Cherryh when it comes to world-building, and it's something I appreciate about her style. A lot of writers feel like they need to explain the world to you in big blocks of explication, and maybe that is sometimes necessary. But mostly when that happens, it feels to me that the author couldn't figure out a way to include that information in a more nuanced, organic way. It's particularly noticeable and irritating in fantasy novels (The Eye of the World, Wizards First Rule, The Sword of Shannara, etc.). Cherryh, however, doesn't coddle you, and writes from the very beginning only through the eyes of her characters; if they already know something, she doesn't break the rules of the perspective she's created and search for cumbersome ways of explaining it (with the exception of some of her character's long-winded monologues about political intrigue). And if they don't know something, she doesn't tell you about it until they learn about it. Having said that, her environments feel real and distinct, with little about them that could be dismissed as merely "conventional" or "stereotypical." I especially like the thoughtful (if not always scientifically rigorous) way she discusses the limitations imposed by space travel, whether in terms of health and diet, or in how ships maneuver.

Page Turner: 7/10. There are moments that rise far above a 7. But there are also moments that drag, as during the long internal monologues I've already described. Still, I found both novels to be basically engaging, and frequently gripping. After many of the Cherryh novels I've read, I find myself surprised at just how little actually happened, and yet how engaged I was, sometimes literally on the edge of my seat. Cherryh has a great ability to build suspense and to use action to heighten tension without having the narrative devolve into a run-and-gun caper. Nevertheless, I kind of wish some of the longer monologues could have been edited out, in which case I'd score these novels, and Cherryh generally, a point or two higher.

Kept Me Thinking: 6/10. There is plenty to think about here, but everything is so tight and personal and intimate in scope that I didn't find myself musing about life and real-world analogs in the same way that I did while reading Red Mars, or even Terry Pratchett's Night Watch. And, while Cherryh's characters are usually interesting, she always seems to be constructing personalities that would only exist in the worlds she creates, and so I have a harder time using her novels as an analogy to my own real-world experience.

Overall Recommendation: 7/10. I think Cherryh can be a bit polarizing. I'll argue to the death that she writes really intelligent, really interesting literature. But whether you like her style, that's a little more dependent on taste. These two novels are probably a little more action-oriented than Cyteen, which is her most renowned, but less action-oriented than her Chanur novels. If your goal is ACTION!, then I might suggest starting with The Chanur Saga or Downbelow Station. If you're willing to go a little slower, and spend time with her (intelligent but lengthy) psychological explorations, then Cyteen is a truly fascinating novel, along with its sequel, Regenesis. Still, I enjoyed these, and I don't think I'll ever regret reading one of her novels.

Books To Compare: Cherryh generally, as well as in these novels, writes about the mysterious and manipulative forces of politics and bureaucracy. Then mix in a bit of psychological angst and maneuvering space-ships. In the sense of a "Big Brother" government where you never really know who is in charge, you could make some reasonable comparisons with the dystopian classics: 1984, Animal FarmBrave New World. Something about the way governments work (and oppress) a la Marx's Communist Manifesto would probably fit well into Cherryh's paradigm. The psychological angst is less universal and less insightful than many novels (Moby-Dick, Don Quixote, Hamlet, The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, The Turn of the Screw), but it wouldn't hurt to think of those classics as a way to get the most out of Cherryh's efforts.

Check out Heavy Time and Hellburner on Amazon.

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