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To date, the corpus of the Alliance–Union universe consists of 27 science fiction novels along with a series of seven short story anthologies edited by Cherryh and a few other miscellaneous works. It encompasses both books for which Cherryh won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, Downbelow Station and Cyteen, and also incorporates various other series books such as the Faded Sun trilogy, the Chanur novels, the four Morgaine books, and the Merovingen Nights shared universe series.
As humanity reaches out to the stars, space stations are financed by the private Sol Corporation, eventually known as the Earth Company. Each new station is built by the previous one and is located ever farther away from Earth. In the days before faster-than-light travel (FTL), nine stations are laboriously constructed around nine stars, all lacking habitable planets.
The stationers and the merchanters who man the ships that supply them both develop distinct cultural identities, but remain psychologically and to some degree materially dependent on Earth. Still, directives from Earth, bound by the speed of light, arrive hopelessly out-of-date and are routinely ignored, making the Earth Company's attempts to maintain control increasingly futile.
When Pell's World is discovered in the Tau Ceti system, the fragile economic and political equilibrium is disrupted. Not only is this new planet's biosphere reasonably hospitable to humans – requiring only gas masks and air tanks for survival – but it also supports intelligent alien life, the gentle, technologically primitive Hisa, called "Downers" by humans. Importantly, human crops can be grown on Pell's World, dangerously weakening Earth's economic dominance. After the construction of Pell Station above the planet, colonists expand outward in space with renewed vigor and build additional stations even more distant from Earth.
The first successful FTL probe using newly developed jump technology is launched in 2248. Earth takes advantage of the breakthrough to try to re-assert its authority among the colonists. With a poor understanding of stationers and merchanters alike, its clumsy attempts backfire, provoking first unrest, then occasional armed clashes, and eventually rebellion. As the situation spirals out of control, the Earth Company commissions the building of 50 military carriers, the "Company Fleet", under the command of Conrad Mazian, to enforce its orders.
The situation culminates in 2300 with the declaration of an independent Union by the colonists centered at the Cyteen system, another habitable planet and space station at Lalande 46650, precipitating outright war. Union augments its population and armed forces with genetically engineered and psychologically conditioned human clones, called azi, which are seen as an abomination by Earth.
Fighting between the Fleet and Union forces is fierce during the ensuing "Company War". The stations closest to Earth, disturbed by the azi and other developments on the Union side, remain loyal to Earth; several of these are destroyed by Union action. With sporadic, inadequate support from Earth, the Fleet has no choice but to forcibly requisition equipment and personnel from the increasingly alienated merchanters. However, these measures only serve to maintain the existing warships. Without new ships to replace its combat losses, the Fleet gradually begins to lose a war of attrition.
Caught in the middle are the merchanter families and Pell Station, the primary transit point between Earth and Union space. The conflict comes to a head at Pell in late 2352 and early 2353, as described in the novel Downbelow Station. Faced with the increasingly dangerous situation, many of the merchanter families finally band together to form the Merchanter's Alliance, creating a third, neutral power, soon after a team arrives from Earth to negotiate an end to the conflict.
Mazian refuses to accept the peace, and the Fleet continues to fight on, this time in the service of his ambition. When Signy Mallory, one of his most senior captains, learns of his plans to seize control of Earth itself, she and her ship, Norway, defect to the new Alliance, becoming the core of its militia. The remainder of the Fleet remains loyal to Mazian, but he is forced to launch his coup attempt prematurely. Forewarned, Earth manages to defend itself.
With Earth turned against the "Mazianni", Union sees a chance to finally rid itself of its bitter enemy. Because Union does not dare weaken its forces at this crucial juncture to guard its rear against the newborn state, the Alliance is able to broker a favorable peace treaty, with Pell Station as its de facto home base. The treaty cedes to the Alliance a monopoly on interstellar commerce, even within Union, giving it the power to shut down stations simply by withholding trade.
The Mazianni are gradually driven off, as mentioned in Rimrunners and Merchanter's Luck. In Tripoint, however, it is revealed that they have discovered another habitable world and are establishing a colony there.
As the danger of the Mazianni recedes, a new rivalry develops between the Alliance and Union. Union resents the treaty restrictions, while the Alliance fears being overwhelmed by Union's much larger population. Tensions rise further when Gehenna, a precious habitable planet in the Alliance sphere of influence, is found to harbor a population descended from a secret Union military mission deliberately abandoned there to deny the Alliance an easy acquisition.
Meanwhile, within Union, two political factions vie to determine its future. Unbeknownst to either, brilliant scientist and political leader Ariane Emory has her own agenda.
The events depicted in the first books in the series, Heavy Time and Hellburner, take place shortly after the start of the war. Most of the books set in this universe, however, take place subsequent to the establishment of both the Merchanter Alliance and the breakaway Union, hence the label "Alliance-Union" universe.
The works in the series are usually described as space opera, or especially for works such as Cyteen and Downbelow Station, hard science fiction. The "Company Wars" novels and the Faded Sun trilogy regarding the Mri Wars are also examples of the military science fiction subgenre. The Merovingen Nights series takes place on a single planet and features swashbuckling heroes and low levels of technology, and as such might be classified as science fantasy, borrowing elements from the historic sword and planet subgenre; this is also true for the Morgaine Cycle books, set remotely in time and space from the main sequence. Unlike most works in this universe, the novel Voyager in Night also borrows elements from horror fiction.
Books and reading order
- For a complete list of works in the Alliance–Union universe, see the article C. J. Cherryh bibliography
Cherryh has stated that with two exceptions, the books set in the Alliance–Union universe can be read in any order, "just like real history." The first exception she notes is the two novels Heavy Time and Hellburner, which should be read in that order (as originally published and as compiled together in the omnibus edition Devil to the Belt). The two are prequels to Downbelow Station, although they can be read either before or after that novel. The second exception is Cyteen and its sequel Regenesis, which are tightly linked and should be read in that order too.
The novels in the Faded Sun trilogy are designed to be read in sequence, as are the books within the Chanur and Morgaine series. The Merovingen Nights series begins with the novel Angel with the Sword and then continues to the short story anthologies, numbered 1 through 7.
- Pyanfar Chanur, Hani captain of one of her clan's merchant starships, the Pride of Chanur; later leader of the Compact, a loose confederation of diverse species that deliberately excludes humans lest they disrupt the delicate balance of power (the Chanur novels)
- Sten Duncan, Alliance Security special forces soldier; human who "goes native" and joins the Mri; serves as mediator between the Mri and humans (the Faded Sun trilogy)
- Ariane Emory-1, superb scientist and Union administrator of the influential and politically powerful Reseune research complex, source of most azi innovations (Cyteen)
- Ariane Emory-2 PR (Personal Replicate), clone of Ariane Emory created after her progenitor's death (Cyteen, Regenesis)
- Damon Konstantin, Pell Station administrator and ex-officio leader of the Merchanter Alliance; husband of Elene Quen (Downbelow Station)
- Elene Quen, co-founder of the Merchanter's Alliance; last survivor of the respected Quen merchanter family, casualties of the Company War (Downbelow Station)
- Conrad Mazian, brilliant commander of the outnumbered Earth Company Fleet; after the end of the Company War, leader of the renegade Mazianni, the remnant of the Fleet—except ECS Norway—that survived the war (Downbelow Station)
- Signy Mallory, captain of the Earth Company military carrier ship Norway; defects to the Alliance after Mazian turns against Earth; her ship (along with the armed superfreighter Finity's End) forms the core of the newborn Alliance's militia (Downbelow Station, Merchanter's Luck)
- James Robert Neihart, senior captain of Finity's End and one of the Merchanter Alliance negotiators (Finity's End)
- Kurt Morgan, sole surviving crewman of the Alliance ship Endymion, participant in the Hanan Rebellion and the wars of the Nemet race (Brothers of Earth)
- Raen a Sul hant Meth-maren, sole survivor and head of the Sul sept of the Meth-Maren House of the Kontrin company; human mediator with the alien, hive-mind Majat (Serpent's Reach)
- Thorn, Hatani guild member; human raised by the Shonunin to be their ambassador to his species (Cuckoo's Egg)
Sentient alien species
Cherryh has been praised for her complex, well-developed alien cultures. Her Alliance–Union universe features numerous sentient alien species, including the following:
|Species name||Home system||Home planet||Appearing in||Notes|
|Amaut||Kesuat||Hunter of Worlds||Industrious, stocky humanoids; little regard for other races that are in the way of valuable resources|
|Ahnit||Wave Without a Shore|
|Caliban||Gehenna||Forty Thousand in Gehenna||Large, semi-reptilians of uncertain and varying intelligence; some bond telepathically with the descendants of 40,000 colonists deliberately abandoned by Union on a planet in the Alliance sphere of influence (to cause trouble for the rival power)|
|Chi||Chchchoh||Chanur novels||Sticklike, yellow methane-breathers; frenetic; linked to T’ca|
|Elee||Na'i'in||Kutath||Faded Sun trilogy||Humanoid, artistic, perhaps akin to Mri|
|Hani||Ahr||Anuurn (Ahr II)||Chanur novels||Bipedal felines, with many parallels to lions; matriarchal society – only females travel off-planet, as merchants and traders; males are considered too unstable, at least until Pyanfar Chanur changes the rules|
|Hisa||Pell's Star (Tau Ceti)||Pell's World (also known as Downbelow)||Downbelow Station, Finity's End||Peaceful brown-furred bipedal mammalians; called "Downers" by Pell stationers, they use little technology|
|Iduve||Kej||Kej IV||Hunter of Worlds||Dangerous, psychic, predatory humanoids who travel in lone, huge, immensely powerful spaceships and terrorize other species with their sometimes incomprehensible behavior; more technologically advanced than any other known civilization; members of several species, including at least one human, have been forcibly taken as slaves|
|Kallia||Aus Qao||Hunter of Worlds||thin, hollow-boned humanoids; vehement pacifists|
|Kif||Akkt||Akkht||Chanur novels||Long-snouted bipedal carnivores; extremely competitive; quick to shift "loyalty" to whoever is in power (or likely to take over, in their frequent, often lethal power struggles)|
|Knnn||Unknown||Unknown||Chanur novels||Multi-legged methane-breathers; packrats; chaotic; they (along with the Tc'a) control the most advanced jump tech in the Compact, capable of maneuvers no others can match|
|Majat||Alpha Hydri||Cerdin (Alpha Hydri II or III, depending on source)||Serpent's Reach||Hive-mind insectoids – the entire species consists of only four distinct hive-minds, identified by the Meth-maren by color (blue, green, red and gold)|
|Mahendo'sat||Iji||Chanur novels||Highly political mammalians and therefore not especially trustworthy; introduced the Hani to space travel|
|Mri||Na'i'in||Kutath||Faded Sun trilogy||Humanoid; tripartite caste-based society; militaristic|
|Nemet||Brothers of Earth||Humanoid; strict honor-based society; reminiscent of Atevi, Mri, and Shonunin|
|Regul||Mab||Nurag||Faded Sun trilogy||Xenophobic; juvenile and adult forms are highly differentiated; eidetic memory; averse to direct violence, prefer to employ other species for such to remain out of harm's way|
|Stsho||Llyene||Chanur novels||Hermaphroditic; physically and emotionally fragile|
|Sharrh||Merovingen Nights series||Advanced; aggressive; territorial|
|Shonunin||Cuckoo’s Egg||Bipedal mammalians; their technology is less advanced than humanity's, being approximately equivalent to that of 20th-century Earth|
|Tc'a||Oh’a’o’o’o||Chanur novels||Serpentine methane-breathers; multipartite brains; linked somehow to the Chi, though the exact nature of the relationship is not made clear; highly advanced|
The novels Port Eternity and Voyager in Night feature additional sentient alien races. The Morgaine books are built around the actions of a humanoid race called the Qual, Khal and similar names, while Morgaine herself is a half-blood member of the "ancestors of the qual", and the third book in the series features an arboreal species called the Harilim.
Pell's World, also known as Downbelow, is a planet orbiting Tau Ceti; it was discovered by a probe in 2093. It was the first planet in the Alliance–Union universe to be discovered by humans with an advanced ecosystem and, more significantly, intelligent extraterrestrial life, the Hisa. Pell Station, a space station prominent in this universe, orbits the planet. It was the discovery of sentient life that sent shock waves back to Earth, sparking off moral, religious, philosophical and policy debates. Then, to aggravate an already delicate situation, Pell Station became a source of agricultural goods and other luxuries, hitherto only available from Earth. This economic advantage disrupted the whole balance of power in the Alliance–Union universe, and became one of the main contributing factors to the outbreak of the Company Wars in 2300.
Gehenna is a rare habitable Alliance–Union universe planet in the Zeta Reticuli system, and home to the calibans, sentient lizard-like creatures. Although in Alliance space, it was secretly colonized by the Union, and then abandoned for the Alliance to discover a lost colony on what should have been a pristine planet.
Cyteen is a planet deep in Union territory in the Alliance–Union universe that was discovered between 2125 and 2201; it was found to have nonsentient life. Two space stations were constructed in orbit around the planet, the Inner and Outer Stations. The planet's atmosphere is toxic to humans and necessitated terraforming and the establishment of enclaves, or semi-encapsulated city-states. Its native life is also toxic, although it was the source of Cyteen's rejuvenation drug.
Cyteen features in several of the Alliance–Union universe novels, most notably Cyteen (1988).
In addition to the advanced technologies required to mine the asteroids, send slower-than-light vessels to nearby stars, and establish large space stations there, signature futuristic technologies of the Alliance–Union universe are:
- The jump drive, derived from the theoretical physics work of Estelle Bok at Cyteen Station in 2230, allowing faster-than-light travel. When ships jump, they shift into a space parallel to normal space and appear to move at faster-than-light velocity until they re-enter normal space via their trajectory encountering a star-sized mass. Ships emerging from jump possess a large velocity relative to and pointed at the target mass; the jump drive is also used to lower this velocity to more reasonable levels. Jumps of more than about 10 light-years can sometimes result in the destruction of the jumping ship or its permanent disappearance into hyperspace, so ships' courses hop between stars and other nearby stars or jump points (large collections of matter that are not large enough to achieve fusion, such as brown dwarfs or rogue planets). Jumps appear to take days to weeks from the perspective of the crew of the ship, but weeks to months from the perspective of the residents of stations and planets. The experience of jump is unpleasant enough to threaten the sanity of most of those who endure it without being tranquilized – spacers seem to fear few things more than "jump without trank".
- Rejuv, a life-extension drug derived from lifeforms on the planet Cyteen sometime in the 2220s. Rejuv leaves users with the mental and physical capacities they had at the time they started using it (usually in a person's 40s) while extending life up to about age 140; when rejuv failure sets in, life functions collapse rapidly in a one- to two-year period. However, once a person begins using rejuv, they must continue to take it regularly or suffer fatal consequences. Side effects include sterility, some bone and muscle mass loss, and whitening of hair. The Earth Company's inability to control the underground rejuv trade with Union is one of the precipitating factors of the Company War.
- Human cloning. Human cloning technology is developed to a high degree in Union. The clones require the normal amount of time to reach maturity, i.e. they must be raised to adulthood just as natural-born children are. A small amount of cloning is done to replicate children who die in accidents or to produce "Parental Replicates" for those who can afford them, but the vast majority of cloning is done to produce azi, genetically-tailored laborers, technicians, and soldiers who lack civil rights (although they can acquire them). An azi genetic type's cognitive level is rated using a Greek-letter system similar to that in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.
- Subliminal conditioning and information transfer, known as tape. Tape is used for a variety of purposes: entertainment, teaching both physical skills and advanced concepts, psychotherapy, and social and political indoctrination. The technologies involved do not involve direct brain interface, but instead use visual and auditory stimulation as well as electric muscle stimulation (to provide a kinesthetic component), all while under the influence of drugs to induce a state of suggestibility. Azi use tape extensively for rapid learning of skills required by their jobs as well as a constructed psychological state to make them do those jobs effectively and happily, as well as obey designated authorities. A technology similar to tape, mindwipe, is used to create a blank-slate psychology and artificial amnesia in criminals, those with catastrophic psychological conditions, and deep-penetration secret agents, on top of which regular tape can be used to rebuild the person's psychology as desired.
- Terraforming. Terraforming technologies were used by Union to make some areas of the planet Cyteen suitable for Earth-based life; Cyteen's native life is extremely toxic to Earth-based life, although it was the source of the rejuv drug. In the early years of Union this was a brutal "hand over fist" process, but later concerns over potential disruption of the rejuv supply led the Union government to stop the terraforming. During the period of détente after the Company War and Earth's contact with the Compact, Cyteen provides terraforming know-how to Earth, which uses it for bioremediation on Earth itself as well as terraforming on Mars.
A broad sociological trend in the Alliance–Union universe is the divergence of fundamental attitudes in planet-dwellers, space station-dwellers, and starship crews. Planet dwellers (ordinary residents of Earth and Cyteen) seem to have many of the same attitudes and concerns as 21st century people in developed countries. The space-dwelling populations find it strange that planet-dwellers fight over things like energy sources and territory (which are plentiful in space) but act in a cavalier and wasteful manner toward their physical environment (which must be carefully tended in space).
Space station residents (stationers) tend toward extreme caution towards both their physical as well as social and economic environments, since an unplanned change in any of them could be fatal to the entire station population. For example, a great deal of the conflict in Downbelow Station is caused by Pell Station's need to absorb a large refugee population, for which they do not have adequate housing or jobs.
Starship crew (spacers) have an extremely insular world-view engendered by the time-dilation effects of jump; this attitude was even more extreme before the jump drive was developed, when travel between stars took years. Merchant starships are all crewed by extended families, which occasionally fission if the family prospers enough to purchase another ship. Merchanter women will often have unprotected sex while in port in order to become pregnant and preserve genetic diversity in their crew-families. Spacer self-identification is so great that many spacers would rather starve to death than accept "grounding" and a stationer's life. Spacers often feel they can only relate to other spacers, since stationers and planet-dwellers seem to rapidly age and die from their perspective.
Additionally, in Union, there is a sociological and psychological division between the unengineered citizen population ("CITs" or "born-men") and the azi. Azi are treated by CITs on a continuum between outright slavery and the companionship of equals; in many ways they are treated like children, since they are vulnerable to stimuli that lie outside the coping abilities of their artificially-constructed psychologies. The majority view in Union is that azi are necessary to preserve the technological and industrial base of their many space settlements, while a minority wants to abolish the practice and cease azi production. The majority view is apt to be the more stable and persistent, since azi can, in time, become citizens whose children are born CITs, and these children receive their basic values from their parents. This process is the result of deliberate social engineering on the part of Reseune, the Cyteen-based center of all research and development concerning human cloning.
The Mazianni is a term which refers to the military star-ships and their crews who remain loyal to their commander, the charismatic, ambitious Conrad Mazian, when he renounces his allegiance to Earth.
The ships had begun their existence as the 50-ship strong Earth Company Fleet, sent out to enforce Earth's control of its star stations. In the long Company War between Earth and the breakaway Union, their number had been whittled down to 15 patchwork ships with waning loyalty to an increasingly indifferent Earth. Losing a war of attrition, Mazian devises a subtle, dangerous plan to establish a firebreak between Union and Earth. The Fleet retreats to Pell after the war.
Mazian makes the fateful decision to rebel and attempt to take over Earth itself. Downbelow Station ends with his (implied) failure, and the defection of one of his most senior captains, Signy Mallory, and her ship Norway to the newborn Merchanter's Alliance, based at Pell. The remaining ships, outlawed by all three major powers, return to guerrilla warfare: hit-and-run raids and preying on merchant ships for replacement personnel and equipment. At least three subsequent merchanter novels mention the Mazianni.
C.J. Cherryh wrote a collection of songs about the station trade in the Alliance–Union universe. These were recorded by filk musician Leslie Fish and others, and released in 1985 on an album entitled Finity's End.