I happened to find The Faded Sun trilogy on my dad’s bookshelf when I was helping him sell his house. I had never heard of C.J. Cherryh, but it had been a while since I’d read space opera from the 1970s, so I figured I’d try it. Plus, the beautiful cover art by Michael Whelan evoked Dune, with a race of ancient warriors on a desert planet.
The Faded Sun takes place some time in the distant future. Humanity has established colonies on other worlds. As the book opens, humans and an alien race called the Regul had just signed a peace treaty putting an end to a forty-year war. As part of the agreement, the Regul agree to cede the planet Kesrith to the humans. Kesrith also happens to host a colony of Mri, who served as mercenaries for the Regul during the war.
*** SPOILER WARNING ***
One of the human colonialists, Sten Duncan, is a former space marine and personal assistant to planetary governor George Stavros. He becomes suspicious of the Regul and decides to investigate. Meanwhile, the Regul betray their former Mri allies, nearly exterminating the Mri colony on Kesrith. Duncan finds himself crossing paths with two Mri, Niun and Melein. The trio eventually leave Kesrith in order to find the Mri’s true homeworld.
At first, it might be tempting to assume that The Faded Sun is yet another take on the archetypal story of a (white) foreigner joining a primitive society and leading them to victory (a la Dune or Lawrence of Arabia). However, despite the cover art, The Faded Sun isn’t just Dances with Wolves with aliens (a.k.a., Avatar). Instead, Cherryh subverts that archetypal story in interesting ways. Duncan does indeed assimilate into Mri culture, but the Mri never become his followers. On the contrary, he makes quite clear that his role is to serve the Mri. Duncan provides advice on how to deal with the humans, but he’s always a supporting player, never the lead.
In fact, humans as a whole are supporting players in The Faded Sun (at least until the third book). Cherryh takes care to develop the Mri and Regul as plausible, non-anthropocentric alien species. Sci-fi writers are notoriously reluctant to use aliens as point of view characters because they’re worried that they can’t capture an alien mindset, but Cherryh shows how it can be done. The first chapter throws readers deep into Mri culture. Readers have to keep track of dozens of alien terms (a glossary would have been helpful). Cherryh doesn’t provide much in the way of exposition to help readers learn about these alien cultures, which ironically mirrors theDuncan’s experience of having to learn about the Mri. Because of this, The Faded Sun is not an easy read. It requires quite a bit of work to understand what’s going on and why.
At first glance, the Mri come across as stereotypical “noble savages.” They are a warrior race with a complex code of honor and shun modern technology. Cherryh describes them as tall with golden skin, generally pleasing to the human eye. Fortunately, Cherryh avoids the “noble savage” trope by using Niun as the Mri point of view character. Niun belies the stereotype of the inflexible traditionalist. We get to view events through his eyes and understand his thought process rather than just viewing him as “the Other.” I particularly enjoyed watching Niun balance his growing bromance with Duncan with respect for tradition.
In some ways, the Regul are the more interesting alien race, although they don’t receive nearly as much attention as the Mri. The Regul possess eidetic memories, so lying results in a sort of cognitive dissonance (although that doesn’t prevent Regul from being deceptive). Regul do not have different genders until they reach elder status, at which point they start to vegetate and need to utilize sleds in order to move around. Physically, the Regul are described as squat and ugly (I imagine them looking somewhat like Vogons from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Despite this, the book suggests several times that humans have more in common with Regul than with the Mri.
Cherryh excels at creating a vibrant sense of life and culture around the alien races, but The Faded Sun struggles a bit in setting up the world and the other characters. Although the book focuses on the aftermath of an interstellar war, there’s shockingly little worldbuilding. There’s almost no context about humanity or its place in the galaxy. In some places, I just didn’t find the worldbuilding particularly convincing. For example, we learn that there are only a few hundred Mri left alive at the end of the war. That seems remarkably low, especially considering that the Regul used Mri as frontline fighters. How did the Regul even wage war with so few fighters (we do learn that millions died during the war)? How did the traditionalist Mri wage war against technologically advanced humans? The book doesn’t really dwell on these questions.
The Faded Sun also suffers from pacing issues. Duncan and Niun spend a lot of time wandering in the desert in the first book, and then wandering in space in the second book. There are some great moments, but it sometimes felt a bit directionless. That’s partly because the first book waits until very late to reveal the true nature of the story (i.e., Duncan’s integration into Mri culture). It also feels like the earlier parts of the book set up characters/plot points that don’t really pay off (George Stavros, who at times was even a point of view character, drops out of the picture shortly after the first book). By contrast, the third book picks up the pace considerably, but almost seems to rush towards the end. It suddenly expands the focus from the Duncan and Niun bromance to a wider cast of characters and a more traditional space opera climax. Ironically, I found myself wishing the story would slow down during the last 50 pages.
I’m glad I tried The Faded Sun, but I’d also have a hard time recommending it. It’s a tough book, one that doesn’t reward readers with big moments or immediate payoffs. It’s probably too long and would have worked better as a duology. I definitely felt like I had to work to get through the nearly 800 pages. For readers that make it to the end, The Faded Sun is a rich story about acculturation and cultural change.