Forty Thousand in Gehenna Paperback – 9 Jan 1986
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Set in the same future as the Hugo award winning Downbelow Station, the colonists of Gehenna are abandoned, but by entering a partnership with the planet's natives, they find an unusual route to survival.
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After a while, my enthusiasm waned, I got rid of most of the books I had bought and have moved on to other things.
40,000 at Gehenna is the exception. It’s the first book of hers I read and, for me at least, it’s her best. It is set in the same Alliance-Union universe as Downbelow Station and Cyteen, and is about the planting of a Union colony in what was projected to become Alliance space. The book then skips forward in time to show how the colony developed.
I think there were 3 aspects to this book that has stayed with me: the emergence of the new society on Gehenna by the descendents of ‘azi’ clones, and the academic backbiting between Alliance anthropologists who are sent to study it when the Alliance discovers the planet.
The final aspect also relates to her wider work. CJ Cherryh is widely praised for creating believable alien societies. I think what I liked about Gehenna is that the true aliens here were not the lizard-like calibans and ariels the settlers lived with, but the humans themselves. You get a real sense they think differently to the ‘normal’ humans when the Alliance turns up.
I’m sure many people will disagree that this is CJ Cherryh’s best book. But whether or not you do, or even whether or not you are a fan of hers, this is one book you should try.
It's set in her Alliance/Union universe, but very little of that conflict appears here, mainly providing the background and the main reason why the planet Gehenna was colonized in the first place, with a colonist list of about a thousand `normal' humans, and forty thousand `azi', laboratory-bred clones who receive their instructions, education, orders, and outlook on life from programming tapes. On the planet their only real problem is how to deal with the supposed highest form of life on the planet, the Calibans, who build impressive geometrically shaped mounds but are thought to not truly be intelligent.
The book has a very slow start, as the scene is set, and we are given some brief looks at the initial shaping characters for what happens over the course of several generations. However, although slow, it has far less of the abbreviated, clipped style full of acronyms that most of her other books in this universe have, and it provides a solid foundation for what happens later in the book, without leaving the reader feeling lost in a very strange room.
About one-third in, though, we settle on single group of characters: a couple of anthropologists and a few of the descendents of the original azi. From this point on we are treated to a true tour-de-force, as Cherryh develops not just a very fascinating alien race with a very different outlook on and approach to life, one so different it truly qualifies as `alien' and not just some rehash of human traits transferred to differently shaped beings, and a culture of humans that in some ways is just as alien as the Calibans. Most of this is viewed through the lens of one of the anthropologists, and her own viewpoints, contrasted with those of the other scientists studying the culture, providing quite an illuminating (and somewhat satirical) view of the high-tech, scientific mindset.
By the end of this book, the result is remarkably impressive, and by its clear image of societies and civilizations that are not based on any standard human model, provides a viewpoint from which to view our own society and some of its foibles and quirks.
In some ways, this book is kind of prequel to Cyteen, Cherryh's truly great look at the morality and consequences of the azi clone technology, with a set of answers that are not at all the same as that book's. Both of these really should be read to see the full tapestry of the questions, problems, and effects that a cloning technology could have on the human condition.
---Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)