Monday, July 6, 2009

Gate of Ivrel

This will necessarily be a shorter post than usual since this is a selection of my book group.

For most of my reading career, I have thoroughly enjoyed the works of C. J. Cherryh. I have nearly all of her science fiction and am particularly delighted in her character interactions and the very nice future setting she generally uses for those novels. But for some reason, I have avoided the fantasy novels; I'm not sure if there was a conscious decision on my part or if circumstances just led to their exclusion. And so I enthusiastically recommended her when a book group member wanted to select Gate of Ivrel, the first in a series known as the Morgaine Saga.

Cherryh's more recent novels, especially the Foreigner sequences, have been difficult for me to read, given that almost all of the action is internal. A great deal of time is spent with the humans trying to first figure out the alien species and then represent that species to other humans. Later novels in the Foreigner sequence apparently become more complex as more alien races are introduced. Cherryh did some tremendous work developing the alien race in atevi in the Foreigner books; I'm not sure any alien race has been more fully thought out. However, I gave up reading the books after the fourth or fifth one; on the one hand, there are tremendously long passages where nothing happens—just internal dialog as the lone human tries to figure out what is going on while dealing with his own doubts and insecurities. No doubt this is a real state for diplomats, but for me, it makes uninteresting reading since there is no way I can unravel the mystery of what's going on and the human character becomes more and more whiny as he does nothing and complains about his inability. On the other hand, this pattern is repeated over and over in the novels, is actually the focus of the novels. I found it relatively interesting going through it the first time, but even if the character grows, when they go through it again and again, it's difficult for me to maintain empathy or eve interest. Again, this might be a realistic portrayal of what such a career would be like, for which I applaud the series. But that doesn't make it good reading for me.

Sadly, Gate of Ivrel has similar problems for me. I find the narrative character, Vanye, to be pretty much unlikable; despondent about his own state of affairs and doing very little to change his circumstances. The world that Vanye moves through is a foreign one, which other authors could (and have) made interesting. But Cherryh doesn't use the narrative trick of having an outsider come to this land and allowing us to see it through those eyes; instead, the narrator is well-accustomed to his environment, and we only see what he sees without actually knowing what he knows. When he discovers something, the reader discovers it also, but if Vanye already knew it when the novel started, it is assumed the reader knows it too until the narrator has to call on that piece of knowledge. A little reading about Cherryh indicates that she does this extensively, though I don't recall its use so much in the science fiction novels. And if it is used in those novels, it isn't nearly so unhappy an effect, perhaps because it is easier to live inside the head of a likable character than that of the morose (though justifiably so) Vanye.

So while I give Cherryh all the credit in the world for creating and succeeding with a difficult narrative structure, the result is not something I particularly enjoy. I'm reminded of LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness, but at least LeGuin offers us an outsider's point of view through which we can try to parse the alien culture. Left Hand of Darkness is a triumph of narrative form, though an artistly one that requires examination to perceive the entirety of it. In fact, LeGuin's narrator makes what appear to be some stupid decisions, but he is constrained by his knowledge which is surpassed by the reader's own. Once you realize the character can't know what we know, the novel merely becomes frustrating because of what are apparently poor decisions. Other genres, such as suspense and mystery, thrive on this sort of dramatic irony, but it is unexpected and not always used well in science fiction. And in Gate of Ivrel, there is no irony at all—the reader knows nothing more than the narrator. And living inside the head of an unhappy narrator, in this case, doesn't make for good reading. I don't think I'll be reading any of the other Morgaine books, especially since the narrator appears to be travelling to different worlds—worlds he has never been to before. IF that is the case, it sounds too much like the Foreigner books for my comfort.

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