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Muse for a Fannish Odyssey

by Special Guest of Honor Diana Thayer

If not for C. J. Cherryh, there’s a very good chance that I would not be involved in fandom today. All unbeknownst to her, she and her work have had a subtle influence on my life for 20 years. To meet her was the reason I went to my first SF convention. Had I not done so, I never would have met and married the charming and unique Teddy Harvia, or gone to a Worldcon, or written this article.

Oh, I had read science fiction for years, starting at about age 10 with my father’s collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells. The first science fiction book I remember buying with my own money was an Ace Double, Alpha Centaurior Die by Leigh Brackett and Legend of Lost Earth by G. McDonald Wallis. I paid 40 cents for it. I had to make a choice among authors who were unfamiliar to me at the time, and I wanted to make the most of my money. I chose the double so I could sample two authors for the price of one. And then I narrowed my search by the only logical method—I looked carefully at the covers. The art for Alpha Centaurior Die (uncredited) intrigued me. It is one of those highly stylized paintings so favored in the early 60’s. Five humans in space suits—one a woman—float in the interior of a cylinder, the wall of which is covered with impressions of electronics. one figure strives to reach a glowing horizontal disk from the center of which rises a long conical shaft. Looking at it now, I wonder if there might have been something a bit Freudian about the choice of that cover.

By the time I finished high school I had worked my way through all the science fiction books in our small city library, and was working on a collection of my own. At that age, I don’t think I ever wondered about the authors of these books, and I certainly didn’t analyze how they were written. The story was the thing that captured me.

Then, somewhere on the Delaware turnpike during my senior trip to New York City and Washington, D.C., I picked up a copy of The Hobbit. I caught the enchantment and when I got back home, I went on a quest for the pieces of The Lord of the Rings. As I read that marvelous epic, I began to wonder what the author was like, where he lived, and what his background was. That was the first time I can remember doing that, realizing, with some awe, the craftsmanship that went into the writing. I was to read those four books many times over the years, something I have only done with one other series.

Then the real world intruded. I left home and was responsible for myself at last. And, to paraphrase the Red Queen’s comment to Alice, it took all the running I could do just to stay even. I didn’t read much that I didn’t have to read for the next several years. I was too busy learning what I hadn’t been taught in school.

In the late seventies I was working in Las Vegas. The job paid well but was repetitious and boring. I read a lot on my breaks to escape the monotony.

Then three things happened over a year’s time which changed the direction of my life: a friend dragged me to see Star Wars; I turned 30; and I discovered C. J. Cherryh.

Star Wars rekindled my interest in science fiction and I ended up seeing it 12 times. Turning 30 made me reevaluate where I was in my life and where I wanted to be, and I started writing again. Shortly thereafter, I discovered C. J. Cherryh and it was like a wind from the sea.

It was the summer of 1978. I regularly prowled the bookstores at the mall near my house. I kept seeing a certain cover with a woman wrapped seductively in black chiffon, clasping a cutlass and gazing boldly back at the viewer over her whispy black veil. A large creature with a face that was at once sad and ferocious moved in front of her as if to protect her. The book was The Faded Sun: Kesrith. Okay, I admit it. I bought the book because of Michael Whelan’s cover. I can use the excuse that I had just broken up with my boyfriend of 3 years, and that I needed something to read at the time that would make me feel as bold and confident as that woman in her skimpy outfit with her formidable sword.

What I got was much more than I had anticipated—a strong story as poignant as it was tough and demanding. Characters I felt were somehow familiar even though they lived in a vastly different reality than mine. I inhaled it. I read on my breaks and at home late into the night for the next 3 days. And at the end of the book, I threw it against the wall.

It was incomplete. There were too many loose ends. I wanted the story to continue. I felt I had found a rare gem only to find its beauty flawed by betrayal in the end.

That did not stop me from looking for more by C. J. Cherryh. I knew at gut level that anyone who could write a story like that would not leave it incomplete. So I kept searching for a sequel. It was a year before I found The Faded Sun: Shon’Jir and another year for The Faded Sun: Kutath. In the meantime I learned something of the logistics of marketing novels and the limitations of shelf space. I forgave DAW Books for dividing what seemed to me to be one story and was content with the result.

I can’t say exactly why, but I had become quite sure that C. J. Cherryh was a woman. The style was tough and the prose tight. But there was an intuitive perceptiveness to the handling of the characters that was more in the style of a woman. Rather like a mother who knows her children and forgives them their flaws, but has no illusions about them.

By the time my first husband and I moved back to Oklahoma in 1983, I had read a dozen books by C. J. Cherryh and had more on the shelf awaiting my attention. I read The Pride of Chanur on the 1400-mile trip from Las Vegas to Oklahoma. It was exactly what I needed. My problems seemed so simple next to the problems of dealing with Kif and Knnn.

I was delighted when Chanur’s Venture came out and I could return to Compact Space. Of all the venues in Cherryh’s novels, Compact Space seems the most like home to me. It’s amazing that no matter what species the characters are, I recognize them as people I know or have met.

In February of 1986, 1 had just finished the desperate plunge through The Kif Strike Back. I was in awe of the ease with which Cherryh drew the threads of tension so tautly through the story. I savored the subtle shiftings of motivation among the main characters, the delicious uncertainty of who would do what to whom and why. . . . Why couldn’t I write like that?

I thought how interesting it would be to meet the person who could write like that, to be able to match a face and a voice to the words I was reading. Imagine my surprise when I chanced across an SF convention listing in a copy of Asimov’s that a friend had given me, and saw that C. J. Cherryh was going to be at a convention called OKon in Tulsa, Oklahoma. What was more amazing was that the author whose work I had come to admire 1400 miles away actually was a native of my home state.

So OKon 1986 was my first SF convention. Until that time, I didn’t know that SF conventions existed. All the conventions I had ever attended were overstructured, seriously boring events. I had no idea what to expect. I went specifically to see what C. J. Cherryh was like, not daring to think I might actually meet her. But I did. And I really hope she doesn’t remember the occasion because I’m afraid that in my adrenaline-enhanced enthusiasm, my vocabulary degenerated to the "Oh gosh, oh wow!" level.

I could not have asked for a better introduction to fandom than OKon 1986. I not only got to meet C. J. Cherryh, I actually hugged Bob Tucker, Forry Ackerman, and R. A. Lafferty after a panel on the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Until that time, I did not know who they were, but was delighted to find out. I saw a beautiful recreation of Glenda, the Good Witch of the North, win the Masquerade. I browsed through the wonderful and the bizarre in the Dealer’s Room, and marveled at the Art Show. And true to my mundane mindset, I attended a lot of panels. I tried to take it all in and got a bad case of data overload before the weekend was over.

Later in 1986 I attended SoonerCon 2 in Oklahoma City. Again, because C. J. Cherryh was going to be there. This time I actually relaxed. I listened more, and watched. I saw a lot of the same people I had seen at OKon, and I realized that I had more in common with these people than I did with the people around me in my everyday life.

Over the next few years of attending OKon and SoonerCon, my perspective changed. I was no longer going just to meet the pros, though that was often a high point. I was going to meet friends that I only saw once or twice a year. I still went to any of the programming where C. J. Cherryh was on the panel.

Even after all these years, I am still fascinated by the remarkable things that come out of that woman’s head. Sometimes she tosses out pearls which are just what I need at the moment. Observations like, "Of course, you’re always writing into the dark." (Yes! Thank you! I’m on the right track after all!) or, when questioned on a scientific point, she may provide an explanation so clear and succinct that I can follow it without having any background in the subject. She is equally at home exploring quantum physics or the anthropological significance of the three-legged pot. She does her research, and it shows in the richly detailed worlds she creates. I can believe her venues exist, that her systems work.

I have sat and talked with C. J. Cherryh several times, and she is still an enigma to me. I don’t know her. Yet reading her work I get the feeling that there are a lot of things she knows about me. Timeless, universal things that define the human condition and describe the subtle nuances in the dance of interpersonal relationships.

There are 54 novels and short story collections listed in C. J. Cherryh’s bibliography. Of these I own 52, and am rather chagrined to admit that I have only read 42. I can’t say that I have liked them all, but I have always been engrossed in how the story unfolded, and I have always enjoyed the ride. Some, like Downbelow Station, I have read twice, mainly to catch up on old history before reading new material. But only one series have I read completely through more than twice and that is the Chanur saga. Each time a new book came out, I would have to read all the previous books before reading the new one. When my first husband died in 1989, I read through the first four books again, just for the catharsis of coming through a Kiffish hell alive. Then again when Chanur’s Legacy came out in 1992. And when I was looking over my collection in preparation for this article, fully intending to read some of the books I had never read, what did I pull off the shelf? The Pride of Chanur—and I went sailing off into Compact Space again, through all five books.

I’ve quit asking myself, "Why can’t I write like that?" If I did, one of my favorite mysteries would be gone—how does she write like that? If there is one thing I have learned from C. J. Cherryh, it is to be glad of my own individuality. Individuality and finding one’s own place in the universe are recurring themes in her writing. I am content to write in my own style while continuing to enjoy her exquisitely crafted universes.

There is one more influence that C. J. Cherryh has had on my life that she could not possibly know. I arrived for SoonerCon in 1993 late on Friday night. That night I had a dream in which were Jane Fancher, C. J. Cherryh, the late actor Richard Burton, and the name Teddy Harvia. At the time I had no idea who Teddy Harvia was. The next day I was sitting in the hotel lobby next to Bob Tucker in a circle of friends. I looked over Bob’s head at a tall attractive blonde man who had just walked up to the group. I glanced at his name tag. It read "Teddy Harvia."

"It was you," I blurted out. "You were in my dream last night."

And the rest is history.

Thanks, C. J.