Alliance Rising is approximately the umpteenth book set in C. J. Cherryh’s Alliance-Union Universe, a space opera series that starts on near-future Earth and extends far into the future and a good way into our galactic neighborhood. It takes place, as the title implies, during the early stages of the building of the Alliance, which is a union of merchanter ships that form a key part of the economy of the widespread Stations, and especially of the Families that operate those ships.
The books in the series haven’t been written or published in chronological order, and for the most part aren’t intended to be read in any particular order. Which for me is fortunate, because this is my first.
The action takes place entirely on Alpha station, one of a series of stations that orbit stars but not exo-planets, established by the Earth Company (EC) in its initial push away from the Sol system. It’s one of the closest to Sol, and it’s where the sub-light “pusher” ships come with cargo from earth on a round-trip that takes several decades. Communications at light speed take at least 10 years each way, in fact, all of which has led to more and more independence among the stations and merchant fleet.
In the meantime, FTL drives have been invented, but so far there is no convenient jump point or series of points that lead to or from Sol, further increasing the differences among humanity in the Beyond and increasing independence from the First Stars — or Hinder Stars as some call them with a sneer. Some stations in the Beyond, especially Pell, orbit planets with alien life; and one, Cyteen, has developed cloning and other technology to augment their ability to travel at speeds faster than light.
Alliance Rising is set at the very beginning of what will soon become all-out war among EC, the Union of stations, the merchanters’ Alliance, and sub-groups within each of those. For at least a decade now, EC has been building its own FTL craft at Alpha Station, using plans stolen from Pell. The ship Rights of Man is completed but lacks a trained crew; and everybody has started to notice that it seems to be built to carry people, perhaps troops, rather than cargo.
That’s the situation when the state-of-the-art Finity’s End arrives at Alpha with a fluourish. It’s one of two huge and powerful merchanters in its class, a generation or two more sophisticated than Rights. It is crewed by the Neihart Family under Captain JR Neihart. Its arrival threatens to upset the already precarious state of affairs at Alpha, where ships and station both are suffering neglect due to all resources going to build and attempt to launch Rights.
We see the story as it unfolds through the eyes of three characters: JR Neihart, who is bringing the proposition of Alliance to the Families at Alpha; Ross Monahan, a junior navigator on Galway, a small FTL merchant ship based at and loyal to Alpha; and Benjamin Abrezio, Director of Alpha Station. None of the three at the outset know or trust each other, and each harbors suspicions and mistaken assumptions about the others’ motives.
It’s an effective storytelling device. The narration is in third person and is limited to what each of the men sees, thinks and does. We’re just as in-the-dark as they are, and slowly learn more about what each character is truly doing in bits and pieces. But it means also that the story starts off quite slowly, and the first half or so of the book’s nearly 350 pages takes place in sometimes complicated exposition in the form of three separate internal monologues. Looked at cynically, it’s a story of the creation of labor unions in space, and there’s a certain amount of theory of the galactic economics disguised as exposition. Early on I was tempted to give up, or at least to skim quickly to try and get to the action, if there indeed was any.
But rest assured there is eventually plenty of action, though it’s all on a human scale and fairly intimate. I came to care about these three men and those close to them, as well as Alpha Station, and am committed to delving deeper into this saga that’s been some 30 years in the writing and centuries, nay light-years, in scope. It was out in hardcover and ebook earlier this year, and now available in paper. More at Penguin Random House.