The Alexandrian

40,000 in Gehenna - C.J. CherryhHere’s the trick to Cherryh: She doesn’t explain herself. Another author might say, “Jane saw him strike the girl. Memories of her own father’s abuse welled up inside her and filled her with an uncontrollable rage. She raced over and threw herself upon him, her fists pummeling him. Every blow was a cathartic release, blotting out her memories.” Cherryh, on the other hand, will simply have Jane become uncharacteristically quiet on page 25 when someone asks about her father. Later, on page 122, she’ll switch off a television program about child abuse with a shiver. And then, at the climactic moment, all you’ll get is: “Jane saw him strike the girl. Faster than thought she was on him, her fists beating a staccato rhythm. Tears welled in her eyes, poured down her cheeks. And then it was done, and she dropped to her knees, shook with the sheer relief of it.” And if you weren’t paying attention – if you didn’t catch the clues – you’ll have only the most superficial understanding of what just happened.

The result is a work which demands attention; it demands that you work for it. And the pay-off, as a result, is rich and full and complex. Because it’s not just that Cherryh cloaks her resolution; it’s that her resolution transforms your understanding of what has come before.

I don’t think it’s possible to fully understand a Cherryh novel without re-reading it. In fact, I doubt it’s possible to ever fully understand a Cherryh novel. Her novels are too finely crafted; too dense; too real to be fully captured in the imagination. I have seen the smallest detail in her work completely transform my understanding of both character and plot. And I suspect that, because of this fine detail and because she forces you to draw your own conclusions from what you see, where you are in your own life will have a profound effect upon the impression the narrative leaves upon you.

And it almost goes without saying that this remarkably powerful technique is extended not only to Cherryh’s characters, but throughout the entire work. In fact, every Cherryh novel I’ve read makes me feel as if I’m standing on an iceberg: I can only see the ten percent of my environment lurking above the surface, and that environment itself is merely a single set of crystallized events floating upon the vast, supporting ocean of Cherryh’s fully-realized universe, the true depths of which are only hinted at with abyssal contours.

Which brings me to 40,000 in Gehenna.

Imagine that you’re one of forty thousand colonists dispatched to an alien world. Your mission is to lay the foundation for the full-blown colony ships which will be arriving in three years: You’re breaking the frontier, establishing the agriculture, and building the homes of those who will come after. You dream of creating a fresh, new society while exploring the wonders of your new home.

But within only a few months those dreams have turned to black nightmare: The weather, far worse than the scout ships reported, washes out your fields and rusts your equipment. Accidents claim the lives of your most effective and important leaders. Fear and desperation settle into your heart. Of course, everything will be all right once the ships arrive, carrying new supplies and new people and new hope.

But three years pass. And the ships don’t arrive. And with each passing month it becomes clearer and clearer that they aren’t just late… they aren’t coming at all.

And that’s when it all falls apart.

40,000 in Gehenna is a grim story. It starts with a shattered dream and flows seamlessly into a dark age. But what makes the book unforgettable is what emerges from that dark age — a thing shaped of strange humanity, alien biology, and unimaginable hardship.

Looking at this slim volume it may be hard to believe that it contains a generational epic, but it does. Cherryh is masterful at taking the stories of her individual characters, each drawn with laser-like precision, and crafting them into a larger narrative telling the story of an entire society.

And then, of course, there are the hidden agendas; the secret behind the missing relief ships; and the mysteries of Gehenna itself. Because Cherryh is never content with simply telling a story on one level: She tells it on three or five or ten. A single sequence of events will tell a simple-yet-powerful story. Then she’ll pull back the curtain and show how those events were, in fact, part of a completely different story. And then she’ll move on and you’ll realize that both of those stories — possibly even the story you thought the whole novel was all about — were, in fact, just a small part of her much larger story. (Which, in turn, has layers all its own.)

In another universe we might have read the Saga of Gehenna in seven volumes. Gehenna could have been the next Pern or Dune and presaged the Mars Trilogy. Instead, Cherryh has given us a single volume. And she’s made it work. And the result is powerful and moving and intense.

GRADE: A
C.J. Cherryh
Published: 1983
Publisher: Out of Print
Cover Price: Out of Print
ISBN: Out of Print
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