Books for Grownups · Reading

“Forty Thousand in Gehenna” Review

“The place was large and cold and somehow the instructions lost themselves in so strange a place.”

So begins Forty Thousand in Gehenna by C. J. Cherryh. I have a pattern developing here: I go to Half Price Books. I look to see what C.J. Cherryh books they have. I buy them.

This one happened to be on the shelf a month or so ago. So I bought it.

Not a bad cover at all, though it doesn’t represent the content of the book with precision. Still, young girl riding on a giant, ferocious lizard…I mean, who wouldn’t want to pick that up?

In brief, this is a science fiction version of a James Michener book. Michener, you’ll remember, wrote books like Chesapeake or Poland in which the location itself was the primary character. Chesapeake was probably my favorite: he takes the Chesapeake Bay area as his focus and begins with some of its early Native American inhabitants. The book progresses by leaps and bounds, sometimes skipping over whole decades, and follows several family lines all the way into the modern day. It’s a fascinating way to look at history and though in the end I find the books a bit dull and loooonnnnnggggg, they have a certain charm.

Forty Thousand in Gehenna begins with the colonization of a new world and follows its progression (regression?) over the next three hundred years. The benefits of this approach are that Cherryh does a fantastic job showing how this new culture develops, how it interacts with outsiders, and how those outsiders must wrestle with questions of intervention when the new culture seems to fall apart. It also shows the developing relationship of these humans to the native inhabitants. The lizard-like caliban are thought at first to be unintelligent animals; their behavior displays nothing like human thought or communication and their ways are assumed to be on par with similar earthly creatures. These assumptions, as well as all assumptions on what it means be be intelligent life, are challenged as the years slip by and generation after generation deals with the caliban’ persistent presence in their lives.

The problem – from my perspective – with the Michener books and this work from Cherryh, is that they loose the personal connection to specific characters. With the turning of a page, from one chapter to the next, fifty years might go by and all those individuals I was getting to know have died. The world is interesting, the questions raised fascinating, but the characters are a large part of what makes a book really powerful for me, and so this treatment leaves me feeling a bit empty and disconnected.

A further criticism I would level on Forty Thousand in Gehenna in particular is that Cherryh’s characteristic subtly was especially noticible here. There were multiple points where I just wasn’t sure what all was happening. I knew I was missing subtle points, subtle character motivations, subtle hints as to why this or that was happening and without the strong character connection to keep me interested, missing out on these plot points felt more frustrating that usual.

Overall an interesting book, but my least favorite by my favorite author.

NOTE: Somehow I forgot to do the content notes until a year or so after finishing the book so accept this as my best recollection.

Profanity1Very little.
Violence2Moderate battling/killing.
Sex/Romantic Themes4Quite a bit in both occurrence and detail, including rape and some rather bizarre sexual behavior.

NOTE: As always, my content notes are for informational purposes, not judgmental ones. For a full explanation of my Content Notes and the scale, click here

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