I mentioned in an earlier post on Cherryh’s Foreigner (1994, USA) — see here — The Faded Sun Trilogy (1987, USA) was the first book by Cherryh I remember reading, and yet I’m one hundred percent certain the first novel by her I read was much earlier than 1987. True, The Faded Sun Trilogy is an omnibus of Kesrith (1978, USA), Shon’jir (1978, USA) and Kutath (1979, USA), but the three books were never published separately in the UK and their first appearance is the 1987 omnibus pictured below.
And while I remember reading the 1987 omnibus The Faded Sun Trilogy — and still have the copy I read on my bookshelves (and so now in storage) — I have no memory of its plot. Fortunately, I came across a copy in my local secondhand sf book shop few months ago, and have now remedied that lack.
According to the author, The Faded Sun Trilogy takes place in her Alliance-Union universe, which is indeed where most of her science fiction novels take place, but many centuries later. Before the trilogy opens, humanity has been at war with an alien race, the regul, for forty years. But the regul are merchants and cannot fight, so they employ the mri, a warrior race, to fight for them.
Humanity wins, and the mri are reduced to a handful of survivors, less than a thousand in total. The regul “doch” (a sort of combination of nation, clan and trading combine) which prosecuted the war has seen its fortunes plummet, and a rival doch has stepped in to broker peace with humanity and take over the losing doch’s holdings. Chief among the latter is Kesrith, a regul colony, and one of the planets ceded to the humans. It’s also the planet the mri call their home world, although they’re not native to it. The humans send their ambassador to the regul, George Stavros, to be the next governor of Kesrith. He is accompanied by Sten Duncan, an ex-SurTac (think special forces), as his assistant.
Meanwhile, at the mri settlement on Kesrith, Niun, the youngest Kel, the mri warrior caste, is disappointed not to have seen combat. He’s not convinced the mri matriarch knows what she’s doing, nor does he understand why his sister, Melein, was moved from the Kel to the Sen, the mri scholar caste. But when Stavros and Duncan land on Kesrith, it breaks one of the conditions of the contract between mri and regul. And the regul are very scared of the mri, even more so of mri no longer contracted to them. So they wipe them out. Only Niun and Melein, hastily promoted to matriarch, survive.
At some point during all this, Duncan becomes the only human to spend time with the mri and survive.
The second book, Shon’jir, opens with the Stavros secretly allowing Niun and Melein to escape Kesrith, with Duncan in tow as a trainee mri, following the navigational data encoded in an ancient mri artefact. This leads them across the galaxy to Kutath, the original home world of the mri. Their route is littered with dead worlds — the mri left their Kutath some eighty thousand years earlier — and when the trio eventually reach their destination, they learn the mri abandoned their cities millennia before and now live as tribal desert nomads.
The three travellers learn that two races once inhabited Kutath, the mri and the elee. The latter were the technologists and built huge, now empty, cities, which are protected by powerful defence systems controlled by AIs. There’s something about the description of the first visit to an elee city which reminds me of a Star Trek: The Original Series episode: ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’, perhaps?
A human warship appears in the Kutath system — it had been trailing Duncan and the two mri — quickly followed by a regul ship. The regul ship attacks the elee cities, which respond, dragging the humans into the battle. The cities are damaged, some mri are killed, and the humans belatedly realise the regul are nothing like humans — and nothing like the humans thought they were like.
Meanwhile, Niun and Melein become the leaders of a mri tribe, but they must unite all the tribes if the mri are to survive. Duncan’s presence does not help — he is not mri, although he behaves as mri and Niun and Melein treat him as such, despite the fact Kutath’s desert environment is affecting his health.
The three books of the The Faded Sun Trilogy were among Cherryh’s earliest books, preceded only by Brothers of Earth (1976, USA), Hunter of Worlds (1977, USA) and Gate of Ivrel (1976, USA), the first book of the Chronicles of Morgaine. Kesrith was shortlisted for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards, and many who have read Cherryh count the trilogy among their favourites by her.
It’s easy enough to understand why. The mri are a desert people, and as harsh, uncompromising and skilled at combat as the Fremen of Frank Herbert’s Dune (1966, USA). Any differences can be attributed to the fact the mri are alien. But Cherryh never really does “alien”, all of her non-humans are “inspired” by some earthly culture, and it seems likely with the mri she went back to the Bedouin who’d inspired Herbert. There are even hints the mri alphabet resembles Arabic’s cuneiform script. The regul are more interesting — as is often the case in Cherryh novels, where secondary alien races show more originality than those occupying the centre of the narrative (such as the kif in the Compact Space quintet). To a modern reader, the regul read a like a cross between the Ferengi of Star Trek and Jabba the Hutt of Star Wars. The former, of course, did not exist when Cherryh wrote the three books, and are pretty much an antisemitic stereotype anyway, which the regul are not, but the Hutt likeness is harder to dislodge (the chronology is a little too tight for Star Wars to have been an influence, but who knows?).
Despite this, it’s in the third book, Kutath, where the trilogy becomes more than the sum of its parts — and it’s all down to the psychology of the alien races and the various human characters. Duncan is trying his hardest to be mri, but suffering physically because of it. The mri are implacable, but insular almost to the point of xenophobia. The humans hate the mri, because it’s the mri they fought, not the regul. And the regul plot and manoeuvre always to benefit themselves, which may or may not include reducing Kutath to a dead planet and ridding themselves of any inconvenient human witnesses.
The novel becomes a terrific balancing act, in which the mri on Kutath are little more than bystanders — and yet it is the future of the mri which is at stake, and only the mri can bring about that future. The last-act appearance of the elee muddies the plot a little, and achieves less story-wise (and the elee, now decadent, seem as unlikely creators of the cities and AIs as the mri). But it’s the psychology and biology of the regul, carefully hinted at over all three books, responding to the actions of the mri and the humans, which drives the resolution of the trilogy. And each of the three groups seems to get the ending it deserves — an impressive trick to pull off, given the story.
I had fond memories of The Faded Sun Trilogy, but I’d read it in my late teens, and although I’d remained a fan of Cherryh’s work, I was all too aware that books last read decades ago rarely survive a recent rereading intact… This one did. I may not have remembered the plot, and had only a mangled memory of the mri (think Fremen), but I found The Faded Sun Trilogy stacked up against Cherryh novels I’ve read in the intervening three and a half decades.
It’s always surprised me Cherryh has never been seen as one of the giants of US science fiction. But, of course, she’s a woman. She’s produced a large body of work, of greater consistency and of higher quality, over six decades, than most of her male peers… And she’s still going, with a novel out later this year, co-written with her partner.
Even in 2023, you can’t go wrong if you pick up a CJ Cherryh novel to read And, what’s more, afterwards you’ll have a huge oeuvre to explore as well.