Forty Thousand in Gehenna by C.J. Cherryh science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsForty Thousand in Gehenna by C.J. Cherryh science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsForty Thousand in Gehenna by C.J. Cherryh

Tantor Audio recently released two of C.J. Cherryh’s stand-alone ALLIANCE-UNION novels, Merchanter’s Luck and Forty Thousand in Gehenna (1983), together under the title Alliance Space. I’m reviewing the novels separately since that’s the way they were originally published and can still be purchased. However, I love that you can get them both in one Kindle edition or one 22-hour long audiobook! The narration by Daniel Thomas May works well enough, though his voice is a little too deep to handle many female characters. That becomes noticeable in Forty Thousand in Gehenna which has more female characters than Merchanter’s Luck did. Forty Thousand in Gehenna is 13.5 hours long.

Forty Thousand in Gehenna, originally published in 1983, is totally different from Merchanter’s Luck — the novels are unrelated except that they both take place in the same universe, which means that they’re just as related as, say, The Road and The Martian are. So, no need to read Merchanter’s Luck first.

This story mostly takes place on a habitable but (as they will soon find out) slightly hostile planet named Gehenna by its new settlers. The Union is creating new colonies on distant planets so they can use them as bases in any future war with the Alliance. The ~42,000 Union colonists include scientists, soldiers, other professionals, and thousands of azi.

The azi (the word stands for “artificial zygote insemination”) are human clones who’ve been dumbed down and conditioned to be content with whatever job they’ve been created for. The Union uses them for slave labor, expendable military forces, and to seed colonies on new planets. The Alliance views this practice as unethical, as do some of the Union’s own citizens.

Alliance Space by C.J. CherryhOnce these 42,000 people arrive on their new planet, they expect to begin setting up a human colony. They’ve been told that after three years, the Union will send more supplies and the cloning equipment needed for cranking out 1,000 new azi babies every nine month.

The colonists struggle to embed themselves on Gehenna, mostly because they are sharing the planet with the calibans, a large enigmatic dinosaur-like species whose sometimes aggressive behaviors they can’t understand. The calibans will occasionally ignore the barriers around the human camp, even tunneling underground and disrupting it.

When the Union resupply ship never shows up, the colony’s “born-men” realize they’ve been abandoned and they’ll have to figure out how to fend for themselves and live with the azi and the calibans. As the years, decades, and then centuries go by, the humans and calibans evolve together and, by that time, both the humans and the planet look nothing like they did when the first Union ship arrived.

Forty Thousand in Gehenna, which was nominated for the 1984 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, starts by introducing us to several of the characters boarding the ship to Gehenna. The new governor of the colony is Colonel James Conn, a recently widowed and retired man who feels guilty that he’s leaving his wife’s grave behind. Lieutenant governor Captain Ada Beaumont has brought along her civilian husband, Bob Davies. Biologist Marco Gutierrez loves teaching the crew about what to expect from the planet and the calibans. Most interesting is Jin 458-9998, one of the forty thousand azi who are content to sit on a bunk in the cargo hold all the way to Gehenna. Jin is nervous and excited about the trip, especially since he’s been told he’ll love his new work and have a chance to raise his status when he fathers children for the Union.

We get to know these characters pretty intimately, so it’s a little shocking when they leave the scene early on in the novel and are replaced by the next generation of characters who we never feel much connection with. At this point the story starts jumping forward in time (it spans a couple of centuries) and the reader feels like she’s now watching from above instead of from inside the story. Also at this point, the story turns even darker. As civilization breaks down, there’s lots of violence including murders and a gang-rape. Without education and resources, the humans have devolved.

Eventually, the colony is discovered by the Alliance who aren’t sure, ethically, how to handle the situation. While they don’t want to leave these humans in a backward and uncivilized state, they realize that introducing technology too early will be harmful. When the Alliance decides that it would be strategic to learn how these humans have co-evolved with another sapient species, we finally meet some new scientists and (by this time) natives that will stick around for a while.

Many readers will feel that Forty Thousand in Gehenna is at its best in the first and last thirds of the novel, when Cherryh was more focused on showing us how humans were interacting with Gehenna and the caliban and giving us characters to care about. In the middle third, during the devolution of the humans, the years fly by but there’s not much to latch onto since the plot is choppily told from multiple perspectives. However, this section effectively gives us a sense of the epicness of the story — the huge amount of time that has passed — and gives us insights into the factors involved in the final evolutionary product. By the time the new scientists showed up, I had been conditioned to assume they’d be gone in a few pages, so it took me a while to settle in with them.

So, the pacing off this novel is uneven, but I liked the ecological aspects, the focus on the evolution of a new society forced to mold itself to this strange environment (this is really well done), and the ethical quandaries faced by the Alliance scientists who aren’t able to practice naturalistic observation without becoming participants. Cherryh mentions Genenna again in the novel Cyteen.

Originally published in 1983. Alliance Space audio edition published in February 2021. When forty thousand human colonists are abandoned on a planet called Gehenna for political reasons, and re-supply ships fail to arrive, collapse seems imminent. Yet over the next two centuries, the descendants of the original colonists survive despite all odds by entering a partnership with the planet’s native intelligence, the lizardlike burrowing calibans.


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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