C. J. Cherryh was one of Donald Wollheim’s discoveries; DAW published Cherryh’s debut novel Gate of Ivrel in 1976. Wollheim being Wollheim, he not only insisted she be C. J. (and not Carolyn Janice), he added an H to her surname, Cherry, so it would not seem too girly.
Works like Gate of Ivrel and Brothers of Earth won her the Campbell in 1976 and her short story “Cassandra” won her first—but not last!—Hugo Award in 1979. She is still a prolific and popular author. If SFWA were in the habit of giving the Grandmaster award to women, I would say Cherryh had an inside chance of winning it at some point.
1982’s Merchanter’s Luck is a sequel to her 1981 Hugo winner, Downbelow Station. Downbelow Station introduced readers to the Company War, a long, bitter war of independence pitting an avaricious Earth Company against a malevolent Union; hapless smaller merchants were caught in the middle. As this book begins, the war has concluded and most of the survivors are ready to set old grudges aside to begin rebuilding the interstellar economy.
For Sandor Kreje of Le Cygne, that’s an impossible task.
Most of Earth Company’s ships turned pirate, or Mazianni, towards the end of the war. An encounter with a Mazianni ship left all but three of Sandor’s shipboard family dead. As Merchanter’s Luck opens, accidents and misadventures have removed the other two and Sandor is the only survivor.
Being the sole owner of a starship makes Sandor a rich man in theory, but in practice he has almost no liquid funds. What makes a bad situation worse is that he has a criminal record under his real name, thanks to a long string of scams he and his now late relatives ran to stay solvent. Sandor is forced to travel under a false name, with falsified papers linking him to a corporation he hopes is too far away to notice what he is doing. He is all too aware that one slip on his part could end in arrest and brainwipe (if he cannot manage his preferred ending, going down in a hail of gunfire).
Although paranoid and secretive, Sandor isn’t immune to crushes. Smitten by Allison Reilly of the merchant ship Dublin Again, he decides to follow Dublin Again across the Union/Alliance border to Pell. His flamboyant gesture makes the news, never a good move for an confidence man on the run.
Sandor gets lucky; Allison is a junior officer on Dublin Again, but if she can arrange for Le Cygne to be taken under Dublin Again’s wing, she could become a senior officer on Sandor’s ship. It’s enough of an opportunity that she manages to convince the wealthy and powerful Reilly clan to bail Sandor out.
Unfortunately for Sandor and everyone now onboard Le Cygne, mutual distrust among the heterogeneous crew make running the ship nearly impossible. Even worse, Sandor has pinged the radar of Signy Mallory, commander of the former Earth Company carrier Norway. Mallory and Norway defected to Alliance at the of the Company War; they defend the merchant nation in exchange for support and a pass on any war crimes Norway committed. Mallory has a use for a ship like Le Cygne.
I have to admit that ever since I read Downbelow Station, I’ve wondered about various details of the background. For example, even when ships were just sub-light, there was something that was valuable enough to justify the cost of shipping it across interstellar distances; I have never been clear just what that would be. It’s not biological goods, because the discovery of a life-bearing planet around Tau Ceti was the first crack in the Earth Company’s control of interstellar trade. Merchanter’s doesn’t really answer those questions
I also don’t really get how the sub-light drives work in this world. The ships can come out of jump at speeds close to the speed of light, which, given light signal lag, makes tracking them a <Fe>joy</Fe>.One of the reasons Sandor makes the news is that Pell Station can’t tell if Le Cygne (or Lucy, as Sandor is calling it at that time) is planning on decelerating or on ramming them.
Another implausibility: ships don’t seem to have much trouble quickly dumping that unwanted velocity. Sure, the books describe deceleration as a strenuous experience, but … to dump huge velocities over what seems to be mere hours or days should not leave the crew tired. It should leave them paste.
A feature that is in no way unique to Cherryh’s SF is that her ships are very labour-intensive vessels. I am not entirely sure what everyone is doing or why what they are doing cannot be automated, but ships have a lot of people. Cherryh’s ships are a bit like Heinlein’s Traders, with crew being family; that could be a hangover from the sub-light days.
Now, as to the sides in this struggle: Union appears to be pure evil with smug-justification frosting. Alliance comes off looking better than Union because to look worse than a state that mass-produces brainwashed slaves, they’d probably have to be barbequing live babies or something. That said, while I understand the logic that led Alliance to cut a deal with Norway, I do wonder just how much the Alliance can trust a gang of heavily armed indicted war criminals. Cherryh doesn’t try to make Mallory and company attractive, either . It isn’t just that Mallory uses a ship full of innocents to draw out her enemies. I got the sense that had it been Norway that encountered Le Cygne (and not whichever unnamed ship it was), Sandor’s family would still be dead.
Another point that struck me: if there’s one theme that runs through a lot of Cherryh’s SF, it’s chronic sleep deprivation. If you, like me, suffer from sleep apnea or some other sleep disorder, I can assure you that Cherryh definitely understands sleep deprivation. A lot of what Sandor does makes sense only if we understand that he is overworked and punchy from exhaustion; Cherryh piles on the agony by depicting FTL travel (and space travel in general) as feeling like being hit with sacks of rocks for days on end. If Sandor could just get a good eight hours sleep, he might make better decisions.
But of course, if Sandor were fully prepared, completely briefed, and well rested, it wouldn’t really be a Cherryh novel.
1: In retrospect, I think Mallory and Alois Hammer would have a lot in common.