The history, legends, and myths surrounding the man known as King Arthur are some of the most enduring and inspirational material in the English language. Like Robin Hood, Arthur’s name resonates in modern history. The number of books, fiction and non-fiction, which have been spun off the man is increasingly difficult to quantify. Appearing in such a wide variety of Western media and culture, most people, in fact, have only a hazy idea of who he was or might have been (including this reviewer), Disney being as much a teacher as high school history class. C.J. Cherryh is an Arthurian aficionado, so she applied her interests in a science fiction novel. Knowledge of the legends is required for a full appreciation of Port Eternity (1982), a survival in space story that uses a strong sense of character to play with Arthurian myth to a satisfying degree.
Port Eternity is the story of the crew and passengers of the Maid of Estolat. Dela, the rich and influential owner of the pleasure yacht, routinely takes her lovers on lengthy space cruises to indulge in the pleasures of life. A lover of Arthurian legend, she has decorated her ship in a motif of swords and shields, banners and castles, and, indulgent in the technology of her age, has had her clone servants psych profiles set to characters from Arthurian legend. Lance is model man who functions as a lover. Vivien is her keeper of accounts and protocol aboard the ship. Gawain is an engineer, and Mordred is the ship’s pilot. And the narrator, Elaine, is Lady Dela’s personal servant.
The story opens with Dela’s taking of her latest lover, Griffin, on a tour of the stars. But quickly, as the Maid just gets into hyperspace, things go awry. Caught in the spatial-temporal void between the jump point and their destination, things become even stranger when a bit of indescribable mass drifts the Maid’s way. Survival becomes the name of the game and Elaine, her fellow crew members, and Dela and Griffin come to look at life from a different perspective as the realities of their new situation slowly come to light.
Fully a character-driven novel, Port Eternity utilizes the personages established in Arthurian legend to tell a science fiction story. Plot coming second, character interaction and the tension which arises due to the social hierarchy inherent to the clone/born-man duality, as well as the natural differences in personality, are the book’s focus. The conflict becomes increasingly ripe as the Maid’s position in space becomes better known. The realizations, sentiments, reactions, and turmoil of subservience vs. autonomy unravel in focused, satisfactory fashion. The novel is short, but it nevertheless tells an affective story culminating in a denouement the reader cannot predict — despite the legendary roots.
The plot of Port Eternity is straightforward and it’s more than possible to enjoy the book at face value. Knowledge of Arthurian legend, however, allows for a deeper understanding, and is necessary for complete comprehension. Knowing the history and legends which parallel the Maid’s plight provides layers of comparison and contrast available only to those who know Lancelot, Mordred, Arthur, and the others’ back stories.
In the end, Port Eternity is a character-driven story openly in dialogue with Arthurian legend that tells a tale of survival in space. The ship is the element that binds them all together while personality and social status are the facets threatening to tear them apart — a situation exacerbated by the tension inherent to the individuals onboard. Cherryh focuses on the thoughts and emotions swirling in the midst of this interaction, and the result is a solid story that benefits from the reader’s understanding of Arthurian legend. For his love and play with similar themes and topics in his fiction, Poul Anderson’s The Saturn Game and The Queen of Air and Darkness run as parallel texts to Cherryh’s, more so than say, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s re-visioning of Arthurian legend in The Mists of Avalon.