C.J. Cherryh, |
The Collected Short Fiction
The Collected Short Fiction of C.J. Cherryh is not that, strictly speaking -- at least, it is not complete, no matter the implication of the title. It is assembled from two prior collections, Sunfall (with the addition of "MasKs," a novella written for this volume) and Visible Light, and a group of "Other Stories." Not included are Cherryh's contributions to Robert Asprin's Thieves' World shared-universe series, Janet Morris's Hell series (which were incorporated into the novels Legions of Hell and Kings in Hell, the latter with Morris), nor her own Merovingen Nights shared-universe series. (This is probably all to the good, since the present volume runs to 640 pages without those additions. And perhaps those stories should just stay in their original contexts, since that is where they make the most sense.)
The first section, "Sunfall," tells stories about six great cities at the end of time. The first, "The Only Death in the City" (1981), is strongly reminiscent of Jack Vance's tales of the Dying Earth -- it has that same arch, acidic quality that nevertheless incorporates a strongly poetic streak as it relates the story of Alain, the first new soul in centuries, born into a Paris inhabited by the reincarnated living on their previous lives. "MasKs" (2004) takes place in a Venice that has somehow, as it approaches the end of days, become the Venice of history -- perhaps all of history. This is a tale of carnevale, of deception, of the memory of power and position and, of course, of love.
As a group, the stories from "Sunfall" are best categorized as "speculative fiction" -- Cherryh has blurred the lines between science fiction and fantasy, and one really doesn't care.
The second group, "Visible Light," is a collection more varied in mood and tone, including a brief story of the qhal, "The Threads of Time," that relates -- or is drawn from, or formed the basis of -- the Morgaine Saga. (Indeed, in an interlude before this story, the narrator -- Cherryh as voyager -- and her interlocutor mention Gate of Ivrel, the first of the Morgaine stories.) Cherryh has set this group up as tales told by a traveler -- herself -- with intermezzi in which she discusses -- well, it's really about writing: where stories come from, how they create themselves, why they sometimes languish in file cabinets for long years before they see print.
The "Other Stories" section is just that -- stories that have appeared in various anthologies by various editors and have no particular reason to be together except that they are "other stories." Again, we see some -- notes? possibilities? or perhaps sketches? -- "The Dreamstone" (1979) is the seed of the novels The Dreamstone and The Tree of Swords & Jewels, providing an introduction to Arafel and the Ealdwood. The story itself is an incident that has within it the character of Arafel and the tone of the two novels, in miniature, but clearly drawn. There are one or two that I wish Cherryh would take another look at and bring forth as novels.
That Cherryh is a writer of both range and depth is well known to those who have followed her career. Even so, this collection holds some surprises. Like any story collection, it would bend credulity to claim that they are all flawless -- some are strong, some are not so strong and one or two should, perhaps, still be languishing in their file cabinets. However, Cherryh's range is fully represented here. There is honest-to-henry science fiction, as well as some magically told fantasy and those stories that are, broadly speaking, "science fiction" but call to mind more works of satire by such figures as Huxley and Orwell (in fact, for a good example of Aldous meets George -- with the barest hint of Cordwainer Smith -- see the London of 1981's "The Haunted Tower"). There is even a story that opens with the closest I have ever seen Cherryh come (successfully, at least) to broad humor ("Wings" from 1989).
The themes are as varied as the subjects. The commonality throughout, as is so often the case with Cherryh's work, is that they all hinge on character -- even when the character is a city. Even a romance like "MasKs" gives us fully realized people.
In her introduction to the present collection, Cherryh makes the point that she is, first and foremost, a novelist, and that the shorter works happen in between projects. Indeed, a number of the works in this collection are novellas, and even many of the "short stories" are fairly lengthy. The length in itself is no difficulty -- Cherryh's prose is strong enough and rich enough to keep the reader engaged. At any rate, those who are familiar with Cherryh's work also know the flawless universe building that goes into her novels: her gift for creating believable contexts is here in full measure.
For those who avoid anthologies, you might want to make an exception in this case, particularly if you are partial to Cherryh's own brand of rich, thoughtful, dense fiction. And for those who have been plugging into Cherryh periodically for decades and think of her primarily as a novelist -- well, she agrees with you, but this is still quite an eye-opener.