My uncle Pierre was the first nerd I knew, and had a knack for picking the right book for the right person. Now that he’s gone, I have to pick my own. My selections are often suspect, but I intend to read them here.
Brothers of Earth (1976) is prolific science fiction/fantasy author C. J. Cherryh’s second novel, the first of her Hanan Rebellion books. It’s a story about an intergalactic war between humans where the only spaceship crashes in the first chapter and there are only two humans in the whole book. Kurt Morgan, the last survivor of his crew, lands on a planet expecting a rescue, but finds himself at the mercy of its inhabitants, the Nemet of the city Nephane, and their appointed leader Djan, the only other spacefaring human on the planet, a castaway soldier in the enemy forces. Kurt has to make his way in this world while learning to accept the fact that no one knows he is here and no rescue is coming.
As a novel, it has most of the hallmarks of 1970’s science fiction. Barely pronounceable words, obscure customs and traditions, and smooth shiny space things. Cherryh doesn’t waste time explaining why the world is the way it is. The reader understands what Kurt understands, which isn’t much. They are a stranger in a strange land. At just under 300 pages, it’s a pretty quick read, and well worth it if you’re on a short bus trip and want to sip from the forlorn feeling of being lost in a strange place and knowing you’ll never go home.
What’s remarkable about Kurt is that beyond being the protagonist, he is fantastically unremarkable. He isn’t a tall, handsome spacebro who cows and impresses the natives before conquering the planet, pausing only to seduce his enemy before blasting off to parts unknown. He’s a bit of a screwup, really. He blunders about, projecting his humanity onto the customs of the Nemet who give him hospitality, making assumptions and paying for them. He’s not a coward, but he does spend an awful lot of time hoping the people around him don’t kill him and pleading for his life. As a person whose contributions to warfare in his previous occupation mostly consisted of operating beep boop spaceship instruments, he’s not exactly equipped to fight with swords and spears like the Nemet.
While Kurt is in himself boring mcnormalsman, his relationships and feelings are anything but. Throughout the story, he enjoys a blossoming bromance with Kta of House Elas, who serves as the iconic example of Nemet nobility, a severe being who’s bound by custom and honour. He adopts Kurt into his House and inducts him into his traditions, serving as a guide to the city and the world. His other central relationship is with Djan, the other human (there are humans on the planet, but it’s made clear that they’re not civilized, and definitely not spacefaring). She understands him and they’re both driven by an intensely Dostoevskyan loneliness. To each other, they are the last humans they will ever meet, and they’re sufficiently introspective that they recognize the desperation that fact fills them with.
Kta is the essential supporting character, the one who picks Kurt out from the tamurlin, the feral humans of the planet. He serves as a guide, friend, and shield-brother on Kurt’s journey, shepherding him through local customs and protecting him from a city that will kill Kurt simply because it does not care about him. His purpose is indomitable, and it places his family and his city above all other things. With all of those commitments in place, he manages to be the genie to Kurt’s Aladdin, the Gandalf to his Bilbo, the Sebastian to his Ariel, a guide in a fish out of water journey.
The struggle between federations of spacefaring humans becomes irrelevant almost immediately, replaced by the struggles of the Houses and the sufaki, an underclass of Kta’s people. It’s a tale of two cities, divided by a great sea and existing in tension that rises with the madness of Djan and the erratic actions of Kurt who, despite being awful at everything, does know how to operate all those cool space weapons that secure the seat of Djan’s power (along with a divine mandate. It’s complicated).
While not a book about space combat, Brothers of Earth is about a lot of things: colonial characters interacting with foreign customs, the settler mentality, and how devotion to tradition can endanger the future. Most of all, it’s a book about desperation. Kurt is desperate to survive in this new world. Djan is desperate to cling to a humanity she’s too long felt alienated from. Kta and the Nemet grasp desperately to their duty and tradition, even in the face of certain destruction. The Sufaki, the city of Nephane’s underclass, press desperately against the Houses they regard as their oppressors, and Mim…You’ll have to read it to find out about Mim. No spoilers.
In an essentially arbitrary rating system that I’ve just made up, with the greatest science fiction of our time at ten and Battlefield Earth at one, Brothers of Earth gets about an eight. It tries to grapple with interesting feelings and issues, and manages to convey them really well. Bonus points for a lack of ray gun fights and space bros. Also bonus points for the Methi of Indresul, she’s hard-core. Negative points for the alien spirit guide who can solve all your problems except for the ones he needs the protagonist to solve. All in all a great if somewhat sad way to spend an afternoon.