This is a novel originally published in 1982 so it’s another pick from Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great. C.J. Cherryh is a well known name in science-fiction but I don’t believe I’ve ever read any book of hers before this. This novel is part of her Alliance-Union universe but I think it was a mistake to venture into it with this title. There’s very little exposition of the world in here and I believe I would have been better off starting with her best known novel Downbelow Station.
In this universe, interstellar freighters are crewed and run by an entire merchanter family. Sandor Kreja is the last surviving member of one such family and sole owner of a ship now called Lucy. Most of his family by Mazianni pirates and the other two perished in various mishaps over the years. Alone he barely keeps the ship running, by accumulating debts at various space stations and constantly changing faked identities. At one station, he hooks up with Allison Reilly, a junior officer of a very large freighter called Dublin Again. When Allison lets slip her ship’s next destination and that trade with Earth is starting up again, he decides in a fit of madness to race her ship to the next station and makes it only by taking insane risks. The feat makes him something of a local celebrity and focuses the eyes of the authority on his shadowy past. Allison decides to use this as a chance to buy-in on Sandor’s ship, taking her watch crew with her to be crewmembers on the Lucy, providing capital to refit her properly and political cover to sole Sandor’s legal woes. Sandor is skeptical but is in no position to refuse. Meanwhile the head of the Alliance military Signy Mallory and a former Mazianni herself allows this arrangement for her own purposes.
As I’ve noted there’s little effort being spent on worldbuilding here, so newcomers like me will be lost when it comes to understanding the differences between the Alliance, the Union and the Mazianni. Similarly there is not much information on the technology being used in this universe. Reading between the lines, I gather that ships here jump from one system to another at specific jump points, that the transition is traumatic enough that crewmembers need to be tranquilized and that the ships are sufficiently large that they only ever dock at space stations. In fact, not one single scene in this novel takes place on solid ground and it appears that the merchanters almost never visit planets. It’s space stations and starships all the way. Medical technology is also advanced enough that there are people who are still hale and healthy well into their hundreds. Apart from this, I know nothing about what sort of technology is available or how they work. We don’t even get decently detailed descriptions of what the ships look like. This is very much not a hard sci-fi book.
What we do have instead is a detailed and ugly account of someone suffering from PTSD. Being the sole remaining member of a large family, Sandor sees ghosts in every corner of his ship. As he was a mere child during the pirate attack, he was never formally trained to operate an entire starship by himself. Instead an older survivor who has since died made voice recordings about every aspect of the ship and programmed it into the ship’s computer so Sandor continues to talk to his dead relatives long after their death. The pain and suffering isn’t just something that he grapples with internally either. The trauma and memories affect all of his decisions and ruin his relationships. This is the kind of story in which the main character makes decisions that are so dumb that you feel an overwhelming urge to strangle him and in which there would be no conflict at all if only all of the good guys would just honestly lay their cards on the table. But this novel makes it clear that depression and trauma like this isn’t something that you can just shake off and power through. We can understand why Sandor behaves as he does and we can see that Allison and her crewmates are justified in fearing for their safety as he really is a crazy person however much we would wish that everyone could just work together.
This unusual focus means that Merchanter’s Luck is a book that has all the trappings of science-fiction but doesn’t feel science-fiction. The themes that it deals with are obviously weighty but it sometimes feels as if placing them within a science-fiction context actually lessens the effectiveness, that they would be taken more seriously in a mainstream literature book. Then again I can’t think of a comparable real world analogue to Sandor’s situation, the unique isolation of living on a starship, how Lucy is both a millstone around his neck that he can’t escape from and the only thing left of his family. Perhaps it’s even fair to explore these themes in a science-fiction novel for the benefit of an audience who would not normally venture outside of it.
For my part, while I can appreciate what it’s trying to do, I must confess that I don’t much like it. It makes for a depressing, even a frustrating read and Sandor is a character that is difficult to have much sympathy for, despite everything that he has been through. I also have to say that I don’t believe that this is all that well written, in the way for example Random Acts of Senseless Violence was also hard to read but blew me away with its powerful emotions. Probably I also found it difficult to get into the book due to my lack of familiarity with this fictional universe. Anyway, I bought this as a volume that collects two separate novels by the author, so I definitely will be revisiting this world later.