Dystopic feminist science fiction novel: C.J. Cherryh’s Rimrunners


I have to admit that, although I wouldn’t particularly want to live in it, C.J. Cherryh’s “Alliance-Union Universe” is my favorite from a feminist fiction perspective; she doesn’t write agenda driven polemics but rather writes about a world in which one of the most capable and ruthless commanders of the interstellar warships is a woman, but no one ever mentions her gender as being in any way unusual. Given that, despite significant improvements in recent decades, we could until appallingly recently refer to “the black medievalist” or “the female physicist” with a reasonable expectation that others in that field will know to whom we refer…we’re not there yet. Not by a long shot.

In this future, women are marines and doctors, pilots and and engineers, on a par with men. The giant multi-generational merchanter ships are run by families set on a matrilineal design. On the down side, this is an uncomfortable future, dystopic in a way. We’re not talking the climate-controlled cushy carpeted future of Star Trek, in which planets habitable by humans abound and people casually bop between spaceship and planet surface. In the Alliance-Union universe, people live and die on ships and on space stations, never having set foot on natural dirt or tasting food that was once alive; indeed, they’re a bit squeamish about the idea, much as we would be about eating something alien to our culture, whether cheese or crickets.

Eventually, I ought to read Downbelow Station but for the moment I’ll stick with Rimrunners; long blog posts get old. The writing style of Rimrunners can be a bit difficult to follow; it seemed to me then that Cherryh was leaving out explanations on the theory that readers would be familiar with her earlier books in this series1 although in fairness, Merchanter’s Luck had the same style…just shorter.

As Rimrunners begins, Bet Yeager, a twenty year veteran of the Mazianni2 marines, is stranded on a dying station, Thule, and is desperate to get passage on a ship—any ship—before she is discovered by either Alliance3 or Union4 troops as a past member of the opposition OR by station authorities as a freeloader5. She skips out on a spook ship, Loki, just as the station police close in on her to ask a few pointed questions about the two dead men they’ve just found: one in in a women’s bathroom and the other stuffed into a closet in his own apartment, with the door duct-taped shut. She’s viewed with suspicion by Loki’s crew as an outsider, although unlike other merchanter ships, Loki is not run by a single family. The officers, quite rightly, assume she’s got something to hide. In the end, she has to acknowledge her past as it turns out Loki is pursuing another of Mazian’s ships, and the officer’s need Yeager, the only one with real military experience, to reassemble two suits of battle gear in order to repel the Mazianni ship.

It’s a strangely disconcerting ship by current standards—it’s completely coed, dormitories and bathrooms alike, for starters—and the cliques would put anyone off. I want that equality, but not if I have to actually get a berth on Loki. I’ll just read the books set in this universe, thank you very much…

1Rimrunners is a later book in the series.
2the bad guys
3the ‘merchanters’, or trading ships
4stations wishing to break free of Earth’s dominion
5no free lunch in space; it’s job or nothing

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