I was familiar with C. J. Cherryh before I became familiar with THE C. J. Cherryh, thanks to the time, way back when, I googled something ubiquitous– though, I thought it was pretty unique– “female science fiction writer.” A strict fantasy reader at the time, I wasn’t interested in the harsh realities of space, but I was looking for something different because fantasy was starting to wear on me. I kept Cherryh’s name in mind and eventually stumbled across the first of her Foreigner series in a messy little secondhand bookstore near Rice University. I thought the diplomacy plot would appeal to my poli-sci sensibilities and it did. I liked it okay. And it felt exactly the way I expected space opera fiction to feel.
Nowadays, I’m a little more informed about THE C. J. Cherryh, and her place in sci-fi history, and since reading Foreigner, I’ve noticed that Cherry’s style is almost always described as cold, distant, and dry. Sometimes, mechanical. These descriptors are always loaded as a caveat, as if her writing should be warm, inviting, nurturing—just like all the other warm and fuzzy space opera authors clogging the bookshelves. Well, let’s just come out and say what those well-intentioned reviewers really mean: She is a woman, so where is her writerly womb?
So it’s interesting that I’ve come to a Cherryh book that is essentially about the nurturing of young life, of childhood and family. Will she remain firm in her portrayals of cold, enigmatic diplomacy, or will she breastfeed us directly from the page?
In Cuckoo’s Egg (1985), Cherryh explores the development of a human boy, Thorn, raised by a warrior-judge, Duun, of the Shonunin race. Though Thorn’s differences and the reasons for his sheltered existence are never explained to him, the human boy becomes aware of them on his own. His strict hatani upbringing, however, prevents him from breaching cultural mores to inquire about his origins. He grows up isolated, resentful, and desperate for love and acceptance, while his hatani training adds to his physical and emotional burdens. When Thorn is finally ready to be accepted by the hatani community, he learns the truth of his origins and his ultimate purpose.
A standalone book, possibly built into Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe (although it didn’t feel similar in my limited experience), Cuckoo’s Egg is a coming-of-age tale of otherness and acceptance. Never mind the ill-fitting bird metaphor, it’s clear from the beginning that Duun, and his Shonunin peers, are fully aware that the baby Thorn is an outsider.
It waved its hands. He, Duun reminded himself (19).
Instead, Cuckoo’s Egg is more about the human sapling growing up in an overprotective Shonunin household, while coming to terms with perceived secrets about his alienness within his beloved culture.
…Dunn was suddenly aware of a silence within the child, a secrecy which had grown all unawares, that small walled-off place which was an independent mind. Thorn had arrived at selfhood… (28).
Surely it’s not too soon to coin the phrase human gaze, (and someone probably already has), which is what Cherryh challenges by depicting the human as alien and other among the (normal) Shonunin people, where “the awful, demon face, to the slittted [sic] eyes with their centers like stormcloud” (18) disturbs medical personnel, and where holding the child “would have chilled the blood of any countryfolk…” (18). Thorn’s hairless skin repulses everyone (“I’m all in patches, Duun!”), and even a potential lover is revealed as a spy after she recoils at his advances. The Shonunin, with their fur, claws, and teeth, their restrictive caste-like society, and their severe reticence, are so different from the reader that when moments of humanity shine through, it’s clear that this book not only serves as an allegory of personal acceptance, but also a cultural metaphor that avoids the trappings of the imperialist and privileged gaze that usually comes with most alien fiction.
If large print and wide spacing (and pacing) is an indicator of a book’s intended age group, Cuckoo’s Egg ranks as one of the youngest novels I’ve read this year, notwithstanding the similarly named Cuckoo Song (2014) by Francis Hardinge. And like Cuckoo Song, Cuckoo’s Egg employs quite a lot of darling lesson moments, designed for developing minds: “Some day you’ll be wise enough to solve problems. Until then, don’t create them” p. 136, and “You’re different… and you want to make sure they respect you,” p. 134. This is a perfect book for a young reader who might be struggling with real or perceived differences.
But if we’re going to compare Cuckoo kids’ books, I prefer Cherryh’s for its more penetrating treatment of otherness and growing up, along with her knack for conveying complex interpersonal relationships.
Okay, so maybe cold Cherryh is a tad warmer in this book.
But more than Cuckoo Song, I see more in common with its 1985 Hugo-nominated (and eventually –winning) peer, Ender’s Game. Much of Thorn’s rearing is strict physical and mental conditioning, Karate Kid-style, (another ‘80s peer… is KK the impetus for these books?), to become part of the hatani, a warrior-judge class within the Shonunin culture. Duun is often a distant, unsympathetic, and challenging parent, his training often strays to abuse and neglect. Like Ender with his games, Thorn meets every challenge, endures the depression of failure and isolation, and is surrounded by trusted adults who lie and mislead (for his own good, they say). Both Ender and Thorn are victorious in matters far beyond what they expect, with Ender fated to become a war criminal, and Thorn… well, with Thorn, it isn’t quite clear at the end of the book whether his fate is similar to that of Ender’s:
That’s what you are. A solution. A helper of the world (135).
For Thorn’s sake, let’s hope so.
Warmer and slighter than Foreigner and Downbelow Station. More insightful, and better crafted than Ender’s Game. This kid-focused story might satisfy the critics who dislike her “cold” style, though fans of Cherryh’s will recognize her trademark touch of interpersonal maneuvering and stoic characters. Cuckoo’s Egg is a departure from her usual space opera designs, but mostly because it’s geared toward a younger crowd, though it makes for a satisfying snack for mature readers.
Next week: Yes, Steve, that’s really cool, but it was never really about the machine in the first place.