Thursday, July 27, 2006

C.J. Cherryh's Brothers of Earth

One of the pleasures of living a life of moderate length is that sometimes you get to revisit part of the past. Having a bunch of old books around the house mainly adds to the clutter, but occasionally you pick one up and re-experience an old pleasure.

I'm an old science fiction reader. I came to history via SF. So I have many SF books of the 60s and the 70s in the basement (off the floor!); not so many new ones. This past week I read, maybe for the third or fourth time, Brothers of Earth by C.J. Cherryh, the first book by an author of reasonable reputation. Brothers of Earth is really the only book of hers that I particularly remember, and that's because it is, to my mind, an interesting reconstruction of the ancient Mediterranean.

The plot of the book concerns two humans on opposite sides of a galactic war who end up stranded on a primitive planet inhabited by humanoids at the Iron Age level. It is the social depiction that I particularly like. The humans both end up in a merchant city-state where there are two groups: the descendents of the aboriginal people, whose cities and villages were long ago conquered by overseas invaders, and the descendent of those invaders. The latter, the Families, still dominate trade, the fleet, and the "Senate" and set the overall religious and cultural tone. The descendents of the aboriginals are slowly recovering from that long-ago conquest and some agitators among them are wearing the old clothing and practicing the old religion and insisting on their rights as the original people of that stretch of coast.

To add to the complexity and the fun, the descendents of the invaders are at odds with their city of origin overseas. In that "shining city," they are seen as traitors to their religion, and entirely too soft on the aboriginals. They deserve no better than to be reconquered by people who will uphold the superiority of their ancestral ways.

Cherryh's characters and plotting are very good in this book, but it's these social and cultural complexities that make the book for me. When I enter into this world, I get a little feeling for what it must have been like in a Greek, Phoenecian, or Etruscan colony in the Mediterranean basin some generations after the conquerors came from the sea and set up their fortress in the best harbor in the area.

Some might say that this is a false understanding. Me, I think that all our understandings of the past are partial, even flawed, and dependent on imagination. You have to be careful with imagination, but without it you've got nothing.

If anyone knows what C.J. Cherryh was thinking about when she wrote this, I'd love to know. It might have been something else entirely. Or maybe she made it up out of whole cloth.

As I said above, I'm not particularly interested in more recent science fiction. Last year, however, a friend sent me three of the best SF novels I've ever read: Kim Stanley Robinson's series, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. Not only does it have the best and most realistic depiction I've ever seen as to how science works, and affects daily life, it is the capstone of the American utopian SF tradition. They are the best. That's it. Argue with me if you dare.

There are a lot of catastrophes and wars in the Mars books, but I wish the future looked as bright in real life as it does in Robinson's universe.

If you are interested, Robinson has a lot of good material on the Web.

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