Cherryh vs Niven & Pournelle

On the Digital Media Tree blog I quoted BruceB's reconsideration of the Niven & Pournelle science fiction novel The Mote in God's Eye in light of the "9/12 mentality" of Glenn Reynolds and other techno-class warmongers:

What most troubles me now is the glibness of it, the emphasis on the cleverness of the humans who see through the Motie deceptions, since this looms even larger than the courage of some humans who must die for the sake of plot developments. And it’s completely callous about the wisdom and morality of just standing by and watching an entire society collapse into barbarism - since it’s not the full-blown genocide some authorities had thought be necessary, it’s an improvement, and it seems like since it’s not genocide, it’s A-OK. Other people’s stuff is there to be exciting and interesting props, but it and its owners can be shoved around and broken up as need be, and what really matters (as presented in Mote) is the coolness of the humans who’ll do the pushing and breaking.

Just finished Serpent's Reach by C. J. Cherryh (yeah, yeah, prolific paperback author but there are gems in the canon--this one's from 1980) and found it dealt with Mote-like themes in a much less chauvinistic way (mild spoilers):

1. The premise is a quarantined star system where aliens periodically go on destructive rampages, causing the complete collapse of organized society.

2. The difference is the humans aren't just worried observers trying to contain the menace. In Reach, human colonists entered the system pre-quarantine and have been living among the aliens for centuries. They are verboten to the rest of human space, along with the aliens, because they have developed a de facto symbiosis--not in terms of breeding but shared cultural traits. The Majat species is a hive organism split into four families and over the course of the book we learn how insect-like and clanlike the humans have become living in close proximity to them.

3. This human-alien bond that develops between the descendants of the colonists and the Majat is a working partnership, resulting in biotech and other goods that are traded all over human space, outside the quarantine zone.

4. So the hive worlds thrive and the monstrosity of human-alien "cultural miscegenation" continues. Unlike Niven and Pournelle, who approach the Moties as outsiders and a mere problem for the dashing "Americans" to solve, Cherryh's perspective is that the "Americans" are outsiders--she even calls the people from human space that, Outsiders--as she tackles the bigger topic of what happens to former "Americans" who have settled down and become as intermingled with another culture as, say, Christians and Muslims intermingled in pre-war Bosnia or Iraq.

5. The POV of the book is that of a human aristocrat denizen of the quarantined zone who communes with the hives and is long-lived thanks to that biotech. She and her fellow aristocrats have adopted hivelike, eusocial characteristics without ever openly acknowledging it. For one thing, they have taken the ova of of would-be colonists sent to the hive worlds from human space (pre-quarantine but after their own arrival) and bred Betas, who are normal-lived test-tube humans psychologically conditioned to serve the aristocrats. The Betas in turn have bred "azi," who are clones and comprise yet another, lower caste of servitude.

6. Cherryh describes this state of affairs non-judgmentally. She assumes that colonization means change and that both good and bad come from this (this is true of the other books of hers I've read--Downbelow Station and Cyteen). She is more interested in mapping the psycho-geography of this change than writing disguised polemics about "appeasement" or "the rights of the unborn." She devotes much ink to the emotional connections that develop between aristocrats and aliens, or between aristocrats and their serfs and sub-serfs. And from that a morality is mapped out for a set of circumstances completely different from ours. So, file it under "post human studies" or "the Cyborg."

7. One thing should be clear--the aliens are not just so-called second or third world peoples in disguise. They are truly alien. Cherry is exploring the unknown here--how will humans change in the face of circumstances not currently even imaginable. It would be like Lovecraft actually writing about the fish men in The Shadow Over Innsmouth instead of just shrieking in horror at them.

8. Ultimately, for all its strangeness, Cherryh's yarn is richer, more complex, more satisfying, and more real than Niven & Pournelle's boys' adventure story.