NASFiC acceptance speech: How C.J. Cherryh built her Alliance-Union Universe, & the launch of a prequel trilogy with Alliance Rising, the 2020 Prometheus Best Novel

If you’re a fan of C.J. Cherryh in general and her vast, complex, economically literate Alliance-Union Universe in particular, the full text of Cherryh and Jane S. Fancher’s Prometheus Awards acceptance speech is a fascinating must-read.

Cherry and Fancher co-wrote Alliance Rising, billed as the first prequel in a projected Hinder Stars trilogy exploring how her – now, their – future history develops.

The Libertarian Futurist Society, which presented its 2020 Prometheus Awards ceremony Saturday at the all-online North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC), chose Alliance Rising as its 2020 Best Novel winner partly because of the plausible realism with which Cherryh and Fancher weave a portrait of how the emergence of an interstellar trade network with private property and active markets tends to reduce conflicts, violence and the threat of war while sustaining peace, prosperity and progress.

“Its not so much that we set out to write a novel about the link between freedom and economics,” Cherryh said in her acceptance remarks, “but that when you start telling a story about human civilization, it goes with the territory.”

Prometheus-winning novelist F. Paul Wilson presented the Best Novel category. Before announcing the finalists and winner, Wilson talked about the meaning of the award, which he first won in 1979 at the very first Prometheus Awards ceremony and has won four times since.

The full video of the LFS two-part NASFiC program, including the award ceremony and related panel discussion, will be posted soon on the Prometheus blog.

While the video is enjoyable to watch and worth watching for many reasons, especially for the spontaneity, ad libs, humor, insights and personalities of the award presenters and winners, Cherryh and Fancher’s enthusiastic speech diverges significantly from the much-longer text of the acceptance speeches they wrote but didn’t have time to fully deliver live.

C.J. Cherryh, left, and Jane Fancher, at their wedding years ago. (The little guy, Fancher says, is Wiishu, their “bracelet bearer.” The couple have matching bracelets with “not all who wander are lost” engraved on them. Photo courtesy of Jane Fancher

Here is the full text of Cherryh and Fancher’s speeches, which will be of special interest to their fans and anyone who has enjoyed reading the many novels in their Alliance-Union saga and wants to understand more about how the series was conceived.

So far, the Alliance-Union universe has been dramatized in 27 science fiction novels, plus seven short-story anthologies edited by Cherryh and some other works. The separately readable but interrelated novels encompass the Faded Sun trilogy, the Chanur novels, four Morgaine books, the Merovingen Nights shared-universe series and Cherryh’s Hugo-winning novels Downbelow Station and Cyteen. The development of the far-flung saga is explained and placed into context in Cherryh’s and Fancher’s speeches.

Here is Jane S. Fancher’s acceptance speech:

“C.J. asked me to speak first, because it’s kind of my fault we are here. Sure I said. No problem.
And then the lovely folk over at LFS sent us an email asking to send them a copy of our speech, just in case, you know, helpfully including some samples of previous winners’ acceptance speeches. All of which are clever and funny and even super intellectual.
And I start stressing. I write stores, not speeches, right?
I have to say something, I’m used to getting up in front of a convention audience and winging it. If they laugh, I know I’m on the right track. If they don’t, I cut my losses and run. Fast.
Ah, well. I went to the computer, stared at the screen and panicked. So instead of writing, I naturally started a game of Spider Solitaire. Medium difficulty.
And found the only unsolvable game Microsoft ever rolled. And of course, I can’t stop playing. You just don’t give up a game of Spider Solitaire, right?
Well, after much gleeful undoing, I solved it. And exited the game before I could start again.
No more excuses. So here we go.

First and foremost, we want to thank the entire Libertarian Futurist Society just for putting us on the ballot, alongside so many other great books. That would be cool enough.

To actually win it has my die-hard Libertarian brother doing a virtual Snoopy dance. We couldn’t be happier.

Any author hopes, in the back of their mind, to win some kind of award, someway.

To win one that acknowledges the successful incorporation of a very powerful message… that’s just about perfect.

Only thing better would be if Captain James Robert were sitting here with us to accept. Though he’d probably tell us to leave him alone and let him do his job.

And speaking of doing their job, we could not have written it without (DAW Books editor) Betsy A. Wollheim’s support and enthusiasm.
Betsy… we love you!

We’ve wanted to write an open collaboration for years. And DAW gave us that chance. Thanks, Betsy, for believing in us, and for your excellent input that helped us clarify the very complex, tangled elements of this story.

So… why am I responsible?

Well, as much as I love her books, I’m a huge fan of her Alliance Union books. In the thirty-plus years we’ve been working together, I’ve pelted C.J. with questions about how the Alliance Union economics actually work, and how and why they came about.

I became fascinated with Captain James Robert and his crew, and the whole “our deck, our rules” ultimatum to the Earth Company (EC). But overall, the details were still missing, in part because every detail of a milieu a writer nails down, limits the options in subsequent books.

Writing Alliance Rising was pretty much the only way to shut me up. The fact that shutting me up led to this award is truly the icing on the cake.

The fact is, we didn’t consciously write a book about personal liberty and responsibility, though we both have very strong feelings on those subjects that creep into every book we write.

We just tried to write a good story about a pivotal moment in C.J.’s Alliance Union future history – that, due to the fundamental precepts and events already established in other Alliance Union books, just happened to center around the very issues the Prometheus Award acknowledges. (Believe it or not, that sentence actually does make sense.)

Writing is pretty cool that way. Even character-driven stories exist within a framework, and sometimes that framework becomes a character its own right, with all the complex nuances of any well-crafted hero or villain.

Alliance Rising is set at the event horizon of humanity’s presence in interstellar space. The monolithic Earth Company has built scientific R&D stations at all the nearest stars and supplies station personnel with regular shipments from Earth.

All at sublight speeds. A very simple economy run on company goods, company credit and company rules. Those original employees marry, have kids and the kids grow up and work for the company.

After several generations of this steady state operation, major change happens exponentially with the discover of other bio-rich planets and faster-than-light ships resulting in a thriving system that no longer needs the handouts from their parent Earth Corporation in order to survive.

The Company Store has competition. The simple economy and corporate rules no longer apply to the situation. The notions of work for hire are being challenged. Ownership is in question. Big Time.

There are several key players at this moment in history. The Earth-based “EC” isolated from the fast-paced ‘FTL’ economy, Sol being just out of reach of the ‘FTL’ ships, but with limitless resources, and their corporation notions of ownership, presents a major threat when and if they find a route out of that prison.

Then there’s Tau Ceti’s Downbelow Station, orbiting the first bio-rich planet discovered beyond Earth, the original source of basic survival and independence from Earth.

And finally, there’s Cyteen, the station built by wildly independent scientists, source of FTL faster-than-light travel, the ‘azi’ clones that scare the bejeezus out of everyone else… and ‘rejuv’, a wonderful little fountain of youth drug that makes them richer than Croesus in the new interstellar economy.

The future of humanity teeters on the horizon. And the ‘EC’ begins to build a monster ‘FTL’ ship at Alpha, the oldest station of all. A ship designed to carry personnel, not cargo.

Enter the final, wild-card player: the ‘merchanter’ ships, heirs to the pusher shops who established certain independence of operation at the end of the first round-trip to Alpha Station.

Upon their return to Earth, they refused to give up their ship, refused to retire and let another crew take over… and won. The ‘EC’ loaded the ship with cargo, and for the price of fuel, supplies for the trip and regular maintenance, the crew agreed to take it back to Alpha, thereby setting a precedent for all the pusher crews to follow. True to this legacy, the merchanters collectively consider trade to be their privilege, and are about to issue an ultimatum, that could just change – everything.

A wonderfully rich moment in time, a piece of history that anyone familiar with C.J.’s work is familiar with. A story of shifting loyalties, shifting politics and shifting economics but mostly it’s a story about the people who made the history happen.

Writing within an existing framework like C.J.’s future history is never simple and this universe is composed of books set at various times and places throughout its complex history.

Alliance Rising is actually the earliest of all of them, the very foundation of the Alliance.

C.J. and I had joked about doing a legitimate collaboration since I first served as CJ’s sounding board on a daily basis, back when she was writing Cyteen.

Over the years, the jokes became serious discussions. We considered all sorts of scenarios, including a YA starship academy story but when DAW books actually gave us the go-ahead and push came to making a decision, I really wanted to tackle this scenario.

I figured I wasn’t the only one waiting for those details. Fortunately, I didn’t have to hold my breath for very long. As I said before, C.J. was more than happy to tackle the project.

Here is Cherryh’s full acceptance speech:

It was a little daunting. I began with a star map, not a fictitious star map, but a real one, of the stars closest to the sun.

C.J. Cherry (Creative Commons license)

I started a map and my calculations of routes with the help of an Atari computer – yes, that far back) and a lot of tractor-feed paper.

I worked out a route with the realm of advanced possibility. But a lot of real astronomy has intervened in the last several decades. I had to ask if any or all my real places were still viable in the way I’d imagined. Or if we’d found things that made it all impossible.

No, not so. If anything, we knew more fascinating stuff. I just took notes.

And Jane and I, claiming a booth at our favorite pub, began plotting. Our waiters understand us. We took to the road, Seattle and back, taking notes all the way. We have our ways – of working.

We laid out a basic scenario, based on hints given in already published books. James Robert had to be involved. That was first. Jane created some characters; I created others; and we began to figure our way to a crisis.

We do have characters which are ours in a sense. As for how we work, it’s back and forth – one works a scene, the other reworks and carries on to a new scene, which then goes back to the other, and honestly, neither of us can tell, looking at a given paragraph, who wrote what.

When you’ve both edited something a dozen times, it all blurs into one. I can claim the pusher ships, although ironically we don’t ever see one. And Ross is pretty much entirely Jane’s doing. We needed him.

The stations, the ‘merchanters,’ the ‘EC’ – those were set in published stone. I’ve written books about Downbelow, Cyteen, and individual ‘merchanters’ like Merchanters Luck and Finity’s End, the development of war ships and the aftermath of the war, but the scope of Alliance Rising is quite different.

Alliance Rising is the story of all the ‘merchanters’, these merchant ships of the future, descendants of the pusher ships, who used to serve the stations, traveling for decades between port calls. The former crews have become family, and the ships have become family ships, unique in language and culture but equally well needing the stations, and hauling cargo, “the foundation of everything that thrives” save a couple of ancient pusher ships linking the first station, Alpha, to Earth and Sol.

For all their unique cultures, they share a universal language: trade.

Centuries back, the Earth Company, an international corporation that had expnded into every space-based activity, launched the first interstellar probe, then the first ship to Barnard Star, and founded Alpha Station.

The Earth Company, grown immensely wealthy, made its corporate decisions the law and its economy the only game in town in every enterprise it founded. And that included not only Alpha, but also the further stations it founded.

Pell Station, at Downbelow, was a case of locals at Venture taking their own destiny in hand, defying Company instructions, building their own station core, hiring a pusher ship and heading for Tau Ceti, where they found a viable planet to park above. Eventually a group of dissident scientists went that operation one better, stole a station core bound for Mariner, and established Cyteen.

Then a scientist on Cyteen handed the universe ‘FTL,’ faster thn light travel and a system of jump points that excluded Sol and Earth. It was ‘FTL’ that created the merchanters ships moving rapidly between stars, no longer financially part of the independent, each ship on its own, the very antithesis of the ‘EC’ system.

The FTlers and two bio-rich planets ended the independence on pusher ships from Earth. The last station remaining entirely under EC control was the first and oldest station: Alpha, to which a handful of the oldest ‘FTL’ ships gravitated, as the last and least profitable market while the EC has diverted all the pusher loads for several decades to the building an FTler of its own at Alpha, but maybe not with the intent of carrying goods.

And a small group of merchanters from the ends of known space arrive at Alpha with a proposal to the station and to the merchanters. That it’s the merchanters who have, collectively, the economic power to keep individual ships going; it’s the merchants who can keep information flowing because it moves faster than their ships; it’s the merchanters who can keep goods moving, for the benefit of the stations and themselves. They don’t need the EC to tell them how to do what they’ve already one; and they don’t need to pay the EC for the privilege.

It’s an idea that is spreading wherever ships go and serving notice to the stations as well: We’ll haul for you and you keep us running. A basic deal, a fair deal: “no law on our decks,” as the song has it, “but the law we have made.”

Its not so much that we set out to write a novel about the link between freedom and economics, but that when you start telling a story about human civilization, it goes with the territory.

Early on, interstellar economics is pretty simple: the company builds an outpost using a station core built in Sol System and pushed out to the stars via the pusher ships, mans it with personnel (also trucked out from Earth) and pays those employees with life essentials and luxury goods (also from good old Mother Earth.)

With Earth a minimum of a twenty-year voyage away, during which all your friends back on the station would age a lot faster than you, those employees basically sign on to the station for life. They marry, have 2.5 offspring, who grow up – and work for the EC because there’s not a lot of options. Each station becomes its own little island. Eventually, the essential setup of the station is done, and individuals are left with spare time. Time to produce unique goods with those raw materials that can actually be traded to others on the station in exchange for station credit to buy more luxury items from Earth.

So the simple economy begins to get a little less simple. When those locally made goods begin to flow to the other stations in the chain to Tau Ceti, the web gets pretty tangled.

The real chaotic element which makes the economy linking these three distinct groups – the stations, Earth and the truckers… er.. ships – interesting enough to become the character that it is in Alliance Rising begins when the truckers i.e. the sub-light crews, refuse to retire and be replaced.

Because of time dilation of near-light speeds attained in their voyages, they have become completely out of sync with both Earth and the stations they dock at. Their entire lives become centered on the ship itself and all they really need is fuel and supplies to get them to their next port.

They strike a deal with the EC that essentially cedes ownership of the ships to the crews, in return for them ferrying supply… laying the groundwork for everything that follows.

It begins small, with the now-independent truckers picking up some locally made goods and carrying them to the next station to supplement their contractual income. It is a trade of goods outside of the EC’s knowledge, let alone control. Independence… freedom.. lurks in the shadows from that point on.

Allince Rising is set in the second age of star travel, after the discovery of FTl begins to shatter the old economic system. Not only has humanity reached Tau Ceti where they found a bio-rich planet that gives Sol a competitor in the life essentials market, but the stations have begun to build their own cores out of locally mined materials, undermining the notion of absolute EC ownership. The stations and cores populate stars further down the line, where they find yet more competition or the bio-stuffs market: a third bio-rich planet where the extremely independent scientists of Cyteen rule. Their development of FTL is the final blow to the old, simple Company-run economy.

Ships now take months, not decades, traversing the void between stars. Commerce moves faster and further. And star stations multiply.

The old Earth Company, the EC, tries to govern this new set of connections on the pretext that none of it would exist without their initial investment – and support of the early stations.

Only there’s one small problem: Earth hs no viable fast road even to the closest of the stars involved. It lies just tantalizingly beyond the reach of a single FTL jump. The two ships that still reach Earth operate in decades, and the colonies Earth claims as its properties now travel in months. For now. But change is coming.

The ships that connect the colonies that make the goods flow, and iron out the differences the colonies my have with each other are suddenly realizing themselves as a third power, one that governs all that moves between the stars, nd that is not willing to see the old EC move back in as an overriding authority militaring the docks and giving orders to the civilian authority.

With this background, we open our story as an anomalous ship arrives and creates a stir on the docks of the only colony that has fallen under direct Earth governance.

So Jane asked me: “All right, what, in detail is the deal between ships and star stations? How does the economy work?”

She kept digging, and what we worked out together in detail is our collective vision of what could happen hereafter.

Jane wanted to know the parts I hadn’t told; and thanks to Betsy Wollheim, and DAW, we got to go there together, spinning ideas off each other.

Writing can be a solitary kind of occupation; nobody to cheer at the good bits, nobody to talk through the stuck spots. And then there’s having somebody you can toss the file to and say: Take it!

And magic happens by the next time you see it.

That’s a gift. A special gift.

And thank you so much for the recognition given this particular, special book.

Coming up next on the Prometheus blog: The video of the LFS two-part NASFiC program, along with a report on the post-ceremony panel discussion with Prometheus-winning novelists F. Paul Wilson, Sarah Hoyt, C.J. Cherryh, Jane Fancher and LFS veteran leaders William H. Stoddard, Michael Grossberg and Tom Jackson.

* Other Prometheus winners:   For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website. (This page contains convenient direct clickable links to each Appreciation for Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction, as they are published on the Prometheus blog.)

* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history that launched the series in 2019 with review-essays about more than 40 Best Novel winners and that continues most weeks in 2020 with appreciations of the more than 40 Best Classic Fiction winners in the Prometheus Hall of Fame.
If you’ve ever wondered why some fiction is recognized with a Prometheus, this series will help you better understand what LFS members see as the libertarian and/or anti-authoritarian themes in each winner.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans, and help nominate, judge and vote for the annual Prometheus Award winners. Libertarian futurists believe upholding and advancing culture is as vital as politics in spreading positive visions of the future, achieving a flourishing society based on cooperation instead of coercion and a better, free-er world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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