NOT using the panel discussions of the most recent World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki, Finland in August 2017 (to which I be unable to go (until I retire from education)), I would jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. But not today. This explanation is reserved for when I dash “off topic”, sometimes reviewing movies, sometimes reviewing books, and other times taking up the spirit of a blog an old friend of mine used to keep called THE RANTING ROOM…
Carolyn Cherry had the first novel she’d written published (after the SECOND novel she’d written) twelve years after the American Civil Rights Act of 1964. The novel was aptly titled BROTHERS OF EARTH.
One reviewer wrote, “If anyone knows what C.J. Cherryh was thinking about when she wrote this, I'd love to know. It might have been something else entirely. Or maybe she made it up out of whole cloth.” (http://smuhlberger.blogspot.com/2006/07/cj-cherryhs-brothers-of-earth.htm) The reviewer takes it to be reminiscent of the interaction of three ancient Earth societies.
Reviewers on goodreads (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/57091.Brothers_of_Earth) take an even dimmer view of her book: “Not great, but certainly good. The seeds of her wonderful alien/human/various species thing is there…”; “I didn't find any of the characters believable in their motivations and there was no real characterisation/emotional realism, as well as the slow pacing.”; “Kurt rather thick-headedly brings disaster down on everyone around him by his ignorance of the ethnic tensions of the city, so that the suspense is about just how bad it will be and how much will be salvaged.”; “But it piles improbability on improbability until the storm in a tea cup becomes a full-fledged civil war, amongst people with very long and difficult to pronounce names.”; “the plot is pretty boilerplate sci-fi: lonely human finds himself marooned on an alien…world. Gets involved in local culture and politics and so on. Conflict, both bloody and cultural ensue.”; “a pulpy, adventure-centric novel like this.”; “fairly simple plot and characters, reminiscent to some extent of Andre Norton.”; “this book is over 30 years old and reads like it.”
I didn’t read any more reviews because they seem to flop in the same vein…
A quick bit of background: I am a school counselor and was a science teacher for thirty years before that. The school I work in is nearly 70% non-white, borders a major metropolitan urban area (which also happens to be the “bad part of town”), and about 85% of our students come from families that qualify for free/reduced lunch federal programs. As a big, old, fat, white guy, I have grown to be very aware of cultural, ethnic, and race issues. Equity is a major issue in our district, situated as it is adjacent to a large northern city. I refused to vote in the past election (national, state, and local) because I saw little difference in the candidates being offered up for our election.
Maybe that’s why I saw the images I did when I read CJ Cherryh’s first published science fiction novel. Twelve years (or less) after blacks were legally protected from racism by the federal government, they had continued to live as slaves to an economy and government controlled by the people who had either owned them or condoned the owning of them by inaction.
The images I saw in BROTHERS OF EARTH were of a society on an alien world that was little different from the one she was living in in 1976. Of course she tweaked reality – the Indras had invaded Sufika land rather than taking the Sufika from their land and bringing them to Indras lands.
But the effect was the same, and there are scenes and dialogue that were very little changed in the US at that time. Take for example this scene from Chapter 10 might have been a conversation written on Twitter last summer:
“You have taken us from our land, our gods, our language, our customs. You accept us as brothers only when we look like you and talk like you, and you despise us for savages when we are different…Here I am, born a prince of Osanef, and I cut my hair and wear Indras robes and speak with the clear round tones of Indresul, like a good civilized man, and I am accepted. Shan…does what many of us would do if we did not find life so comfortable on your terms.”
“…the long-haired braid in the back, that is an ancient custom, the warrior’s braid. No one has done it since the Conquest. It was forbidden the Sufaki then. But in recent years the rebel spirits have revived the custom, and the Robes of Color, which distinguish houses.”
While I haven’t finished the book, it’s clear where the lines of the two cultures will intersect: civil war.
The main character’s job as I see it, is as an observer; a named version of the unnamed viewpoint character in Ralph Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN. He’s not part of either society, yet has gotten himself entangled in what I think of as the dominant “white” culture of this world. He has been victimized by the subjugated “black” culture of the same world. The scope of course is in a city, a microcosm of the society as a whole, and while the Indras are themselves a despised offshoot of yet another superpower (American roots are…hmmm. And those same people still can’t figure out whether to love or hate us (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20857972)), they are fighting a cultural battle that is fascinatingly predictive of Ferguson, MO in 2014 and reflective of the Watts Neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1965.
I’m continuing to read and may update this essay later, but the intersection in BROTHERS OF EARTH seems clear from this point. Far from being a trivial story by a soon-to-be-famous speculative fiction writer, this books seems to have laid out a scenario that is playing out in the second decade of the 21st Century.
Oh, last point, I find that the title itself makes me think that Cherryh’s intent was as much to spark conversation as to entertain. It seems to speak to race relations in the US at the time better than it speaks to relationships between two alien peoples. As far as I can tell, the people reading the book (then and now) entirely misread it (out of ignorance or because they found the message too pointed)……or I’m reading way too much into it.