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Literature / Alliance/Union

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The Alliance/Union universe in C. J. Cherryh's fiction is a complex, detailed future history that is the subject of most books and series she's written over the years. It's a Space Opera setting, with Faster-Than-Light Travel of the Subspace or Hyperspace type which is invented after a fair amount of sub-light exploration and colonization. All the novels take place after the FTL revolution, however. The universe is the setting for Cyteen, the Chanur Novels and the Morgaine Cycle, though the latter is only loosely connected via the back story.

Not to be confused with the Union of Allied Planets from Firefly.

Works in this 'verse with their own pages include:

Other works in this 'verse provide examples of:

  • Alien Arts Are Appreciated: The works of the Downers, especially their spiritual artifacts, are highly prized.
  • Asteroid Miners: Fairly common in the 'verse, but asteroid mining is the setting for Heavy Time and many of the characters of its sequel, Hellburner, are former asteroid miners.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: Even some of the human cultures in the Alliance/Union universe.
  • Boarding Party: Several novels feature ship-boarding power-armoured marines, especially among the piratical Mazianni.
    • In Merchanter's Luck, the makeshift crew has to endure a boarding, bringing back unfortunate memories for the captain of the time, as a child, when he lost most of his family.
    • Rimrunners features a former Mazianni faced with a difficult choice when the ship she's hired out on is boarded by her one-time compatriots.
  • The Battlestar: The Earth Company jump carriers are examples of this, being heavily armed ships that are also serve as carriers for smaller craft.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Kontrin family really take this up to eleven. They are immortal dynasts who rule the quarantined Serpent's Reach with an iron hand, constantly try to kill each other either for political power or just because it's been a boring week, and are all lightly inbred because Kontrin never reproduce with non-Kontrin, when they do it at all. Any Kontrin gathering is a mess of plotting, backstabbing, and thinly-veiled hostility. Small wonder that Moth decides to burn it all down.
  • Burial in Space: Being sent to the sun seems to be the preferred burial method among those identify themselves as spacers.
  • Centrifugal Gravity: Ships have rotating living sections mounted on a non-rotating "frame".
  • City of Canals: The lightly connected novel Angel with the Sword and the shared-world anthologies Merovingen Nights are set in such a city.
  • The Clan: Merchanter ships are run by large matrilineal extended families, ranging in size from the Kreja's couple dozen members on a small tramp freighter to the 1,000+ strong Reilly clan and their superfreighter. This has the advantage of crewmembers trained from birth, but there's some downsides, as seen in Merchanter's Luck. After Sandor Kreja loses the rest of his family to a Mazianni attack he finds himself unable to retain a new crew as the only spacers he can hire are stranded merchanters looking to hitch a ride back to their clan ship, while Allison Reilly can't realize her dreams of command unless fifty of her seniors die in a freak accident.
  • Clones Are People, Too:
    • The Union's Azi, especially Alphas, are often treated as equals or near equals, even though their personalities are derived from tape. They can even aspire to full citizenship, much like the slaves in Ancient Rome. In 40,000 in Gehenna, an entire planet is settled with freed clones created specifically for this purpose.
    • Some wealthy Union citizens have "vanity clones" that are raised like ordinary children and are born with full rights.
    • In general, whenever the azi come up in any significant capacity, the narrative will make the point that the only difference between azi and CIT embryos is the label—although azi genesets are carefully managed, ultimately what divides azi from everyone else is nurture (ie, the tapes).
  • Clone Army: The Union military relies heavily on azi, mass-produced Designer Babies intended to help make up the population difference between the Union and Earth. They're not all clones per se, but many genotypes are copied many times.
  • Cloning Blues: Union, one of the factions, produces cloned soldiers and colonists in huge numbers, in an attempt to grow quickly in strength. Cyteen is set at the primary research and development centers for this cloning, and deals extensively with the ethical issues, as well as experiments to re-create individual genius talents through a combination of genetics and careful rearing, with mixed results.
  • Company Town: Humanity's space stations throughout colonized space were run by the Earth Company, at least on paper. Until they rebelled.
  • Corporate Warfare: The Earth Company built a fleet of warships to bring the rebelling stations back under their fold. But the Union was better prepared and Earth eventually decided to cut their fleet off from supply, too costly.
  • Corrupt Politician: Politics, economics, and international alliances are all tied together and complicated by FTL and the individual nations that are spaceships and starships. Viking Station is a third world nation on the edge of corruption and Esperance is explicitly corrupt.
  • Death World: The planet Cyteen's native life is silicate and the fibers and dust it gives off is highly carcinogenic to any human that breathes it. Outside of protected enclaves, humans have to wear suits and breathing apparatus.
    • In general, planets with shirtsleeve environments are fairly sparse in this 'verse. (Gehenna is one, but Gehenna's got other issues.)
  • Designer Babies: Azi are really more like this than clones, some are clones granted but the whole point of them was to increase the Union's genetic diversity so most are made from donor sperm and eggs imported from earth. The first Ariane Emory, the driving force behind Union azi production, essentially used the azi as a kind of living gene ark—Thetas, for instance, are used to preserve valuable hand-eye coordination, while Mus preserve physical toughness.
  • Dysfunction Junction:
    • Finity's End: A boy abandoned by his family to the plight of an addict mother for two decades.
    • Tripoint: A boy raised by an abusive mother, the product of rape and kidnapped by his father's ship.
    • If there was a happy family in her universe, Cherryh killed it with fire.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: There is a hyperspace drive which acts like (and uses the terminology of) a jump drive, since steering is impossible once inside of hyperspace, and all of the conditions needed to end up at the right destination need to be set up before entering hyperspace. Entering hyperspace requires acceleration to near-light speeds (and deceleration from). Also there's a bit of Time Dilation in that crews experience three days to a week (though most members of oxygen breathing races are unconscious during jump) while a couple of months pass outside. Jumps have to be done from and to specific areas - the 'Jump Range', far enough from the mass of the star or brown dwarf not to interfere in the jump. When you reach the other end, the mass of your destination star brings you back out of jump. It's implied that messing up your calculation on targeting that destination is a bad idea. Other ships moving in the same frame of space/time relevance to you can throw your jump out - on one occasion nearly throwing a starship into Epsilon Eridani. However, the ship doesn't actually exist in real space between the two points.
  • Fictional Political Party: The big two parties in the Union are the Centrists (named because they want to concentrate on centralized investment in the already developed systems of Union) and the Expansionists (who want to grow and expand into new systems). There are also smaller, extremist and single issue parties. Those mentioned include parties limited to a single space station, the Abolitionists (who advocate banning human cloning), and the Hawks (pro-military party who want to reclaim Alliance space).
  • Filk Song: Finity's End is a whole album of filk songs based on the setting.
  • Formula-Breaking Episode: Voyager In Night, while technically connected to the rest of this universe because the human characters are merchanters, occurs outside out of human space, involves some deeply weird Starfish Aliens who appear in no other book, and is unusually horror-heavy.
  • FTL Travel Sickness: Remaining conscious during FTL travel through Jump-space causes extreme psychological stress in humans, who must place themselves in drug-induced sleep to avoid it. A small number, however, can stay alert without ill effects, and manage to adjust to the strange reality; they are known as "Nightwalkers", and are seen with a fair degree of paranoia by others.
  • Future Food Is Artificial: Tank-grown fish protein. The stations route human sewage into tanks full of molluscs, which eat the waste — which if you think about it, is exactly what fish do in the real ocean.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Averted in Brothers of Earth. A human man is isolated amongst humanoid aliens, but finds a place with them and gets married. Nobody expects the marriage to produce children and it is agreed that he and his wife will try for children for a year and after that the head of the household will step in.
  • Heel–Face Brainwashing: You can be conditioned to make sure you're not a threat, for instance by giving you a phobia about sabotage.
  • Hive Mind: In Serpent's Reach, the worker/warrior/etc members of the ant-like majat can think simple thoughts on their own. If a thought seems new, important or disturbing it will go to the Hive Queen and share it with her. The queen takes all of the simple thoughts brought to her by the other castes and combines them together into more complex thoughts. Memories are stored in the group of drones that always stay with the queen, which allows for a single hive to maintain a continuous, single consciousness across a span of billions of years. They are extremely perturbed by the fact that each human is their own mind, and when one dies not a unit but a whole intelligence is destroyed, to the point that most majat can't stand to be around most humans. They made the Kontrin immortal to make themselves less freaked out about their new neighbors.
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes:
    • Some passages in Downbelow Station are told from the point-of-view of the Downers.
    • Cuckoo's Egg is the story of a human growing up on a planet inhabited by humanoid dogs. His foster father is disturbed by his adopted baby son: this wriggling hairless thing and later by the way his son looks at him without turning his head to face him.
    • The Chanur Novels are all told from the point-of-view of cat-like aliens who found a strange furless being on the station docks.
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place:
    • Remaining conscious through "Jump" causes extreme psychological stress among humans, who must drug up to survive the experience sane. A small few, however, are able to stay alert without ill effects, and manage to adjust to the strange reality; they are known as "Nightwalkers". Among aliens, some are like humans, while others (such as the Hani) are simply non-functional in Jump-space, and effectively dream until the ship returns. Jump is fatal to the stshto without tranq, while the Kif remain alert and functional throughout, as, it seems, do other life-forms from their world.
    • One of the shorter stories, Port Eternity, tells the tale of a private yacht trapped in jumpspace by an anomaly, where all aboard, azi and born-men, have to become nightwalkers pretty quickly just in order to survive. And then they have to deal with the other things trapped by the anomaly...
    • In the back story of Rimrunners, N G ("No Good") Ramey was wrongly accused of being at fault in a fatal accident, and was denied tranquilizers during a jump as punishment.
    • Downbelow Station describes a scary incident involving an overloaded refugee ship, the Hanford, which has had an onboard riot; there were not nearly enough tranqs for those onboard during Jump.
  • Hyperspace Lanes: Each star system only has a limited number of other star systems which can be reached via hyperspace. Anyone trying to go anywhere else is never seen from again, presumably trapped in hyperspace. Even trying to stop partway between two connected systems is impossible. Some lanes are only open to ships with low mass, while the Knnn, being incomprehensible methane-breathing Starfish Aliens, can use lanes that are inaccessible to other species.
  • Immortal Procreation Clause: Rejuv, the drug made from Cyteen life that more than doubles human lifespan, has a side effect of causing sterility. However it's standard procedure in Union space to freeze gamete samples before starting rejuv and Uterine Replicators are a popular method for reproducing, along with cloning.
  • Indentured Servitude: Azi have the rights of minors (Reseune is their guardian—a policy meant to prevent abuse, since it means Reseune can reclaim any azi at any time, but that doesn't always work) and are completely conditioned to obey whoever holds their Contract, but they can be made citizens under certain circumstances, and their children are citizens. Considering the original point of azi was to increase the Union's genetic diversity, this makes sense.
  • Insignificant Little Blue Planet: Out of the three main human polities, Earth is the third most powerful—it lost most of its fleet when Mazian went rogue, its First Contact overtures keep blowing up, and it can't get itself together as a unified whole.
  • Intrepid Merchant: The Merchanter's Alliance is made up of families of interstellar merchants that formed an alliance and became both a major power and the sole means of commerce for the other two powers.
  • Libertarians IN SPACE!: The loosely tied Alliance of independent merchants and traders split off from the technocratic Union that declared independence from Earth. Cyteen, the capital of the Union, was originally colonized by a group of scientists and engineers fleeing increasingly oppressive Earth.
  • Limited Advancement Opportunities: In Merchanter's Luck the seniority-based promotion system on the Dublin Again means that ambitious junior officer Allison won't come anywhere near a bridge position before she goes on rejuv unless at least fifty command officers die in a freak accident. This leads her and a few of her equally ambitious cousins to transfer to another ship depopulated by a Mazianni raid.
  • Longevity Treatment: Rejuv doubles the human lifespan but causes sterility and white hair. It's made from a lifeform native to Cyteen and is the only reason the Union halted terraforming efforts.
  • Lost Colony: In Forty Thousand in Gehenna, Gehenna is a planet colonized by the Union in secret (even from most of the Union government) in Alliance space, so that when the Alliance attempted to colonize 60 years later they'd find an entrenched population of Union citizens. In the ensuing diplomatic fiasco the planet is left to live under medieval conditions for centuries.
  • Mayfly–December Romance: Jim, as a Serpent's Reach azi, is programmed to die at forty, so he expects to only have nineteen years with Raen, who's immortal. But in the end Raen's pull with the majat gets him the same gift they gave the Kontrin, so they actually get Eternal Love.
  • Megacorp: The Sol Corporation (otherwise known as the Earth Company) developed a monopoly on space travel, and on all resources produced by interstellar colonies, and the colonies were dependent on them to supply food and other organic materials. It wasn't until the discovery of Pell and Cyteen that it was even possible for any of the colonies to try and become independent, after which they did try. The Company's response was to manufacture a giant fleet of space battleships and go to war with the Union.
  • Mêlée à Trois: The Company Wars produce, by the end, four sides: Earth and Union being the original two warring sides, while those in the middle get tired of being kicked around by both and form the Alliance. Meanwhile, the Earth Company Fleet goes rogue and is disavowed by the home planet, which starts building a new fleet under closer control.
  • Merchant Prince: The Alliance was created by the heads of powerful merchant clans who didn't want to be controlled either by Earth or by the newly-formed technocratic Union, so they used their wealth and power to create a new independent government headquartered at Pell which they basically control (after having fought Union to a standstill).
  • Neural Implanting: The Union makes extensive use of "tapes" that play some sort of audio, video, and/or bioelectric feedback to rapidly educate a drugged up student. They're particularly used for azi who get very little traditional education to speak of.
  • Numbered Homeworld: Alpha Station, Beta Station, and Omicron Point. Gehenna is also officially known as Zeta Reticuli II.
  • Older Than They Look:
    • FTL travels slows down physical aging by around 25% due to a small amount of Time Dilation. So spacer teenagers look like middle school kids, twenty-somethings look like teenagers, etc.
    • Also there is a drug called Rejuv which is made from something native to Cyteen and freezes aging (except for turning your hair completely gray) until approximately 140, at which point your age rapidly catches up to you.
    • The majat gave the Kontrin family immortality, both as a gift and because human individuality disturbs the majat, who are themselves an example of this. Majat units only last about eighteen years, but they're not people; the hive is the person, and the oldest hives count their age in the millions.
  • One-Night-Stand Pregnancy: The merchanter tradition of "sleepovers" is intended to produce these for the purpose of preventing inbreeding. Inter-ship marriages are uncommon as they deprive one ship of a crewmember while sleepovers add crew to the mother's clan.
  • The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: For the powerful, immortal Kontrin clan, assassinating each other is a standard Tuesday. But if anyone else tries to get in on that game, the entire family unites and then things get ugly.
  • Powered Armor: The Earth Company Marines (and, presumably, their Union equivalents) wear Powered Armor. The only really detailed description is in Rimrunners where ex-Marine Bet Yeager, late of the carrier Africa, has to repair and recondition a pair of suits and then teach a neophyte to use it.
  • Raised by Natives: In Finity's End a merchant spacewoman's orphan is raised on a space station by the local humans and also the Downers from the planet below. Just as he is getting settled into that society, his mother's ship returns and forces him back into their very different society. Drama ensues.
  • Really 700 Years Old: In Serpent's Reach, the two oldest Family members in the Reach are effectively immune from assassination, as their younger relatives want to know what the practical limits are on their rejuv technique.
  • Settling the Frontier: In 40,000 in Gehenna, the Union sends 40,000 people, mostly Azi, off to settle a new world, the secret colony of Gehenna.
  • Sleep Learning: Tape, combined with drugs, is a common means of learning quickly in the Union. Azi get most of their education (and conditioning) from Tape.
  • Sole Survivor: The entire plot of Serpent's Reach hinges on the fact that Raen, our heroine, is the sole remaining member of the Sul sept of the Kontrin and wants some good old-fashioned vengeance for it. Whatever it is Moth does at the end of the book is heavily implied to be a mass murder-suicide, which leaves Raen this twice over.
  • Space Cold War: With three factions: Sol (Earth)/Alliance/Union. All are capitalist, though it is noted that Union citizens mostly descend from eastern bloc and Union has several socialist elements.
  • Space Cossacks:
    • The Mazianni (formerly Earth Company Fleet). Conrad Mazian's fleet become pirates after the Earth-Union-Alliance war ends and the Earth Company abandons them.
    • The Merchanter's Alliance may also count, comprising a number of nomadic merchant families and one station (plus one of Mazian's ships who defected) who got tired of the war between Earth and the Union and formed their own faction.
  • Space Fighter: Hellburner centers on a fairly realistic Space Fighter — the eponymous Hellburner. Being essentially a carrier launched missile-firing-missile it is exceptionally difficult and physically punishing to fly. Being such a pure chunk of engines and guns it is a mortal threat to starships. In the novel, human intelligence right at the controls justifies the performance penalty of a living pilot. The Hellburner is interesting in that it has a minimum of four people operating it: a pilot, a navigator, a gunner, and a fourth person who analyzes all of the ship's sensor data in order to figure out what the gunner should be shooting at. In operational trim, the fourth bod's data is pre-filtered by another thirty people, to avoid the problems caused by depending on lightspeed-limited radar when operating at a significant fraction of lightspeed. A big part of tactical success is outguessing the other guy on fragmentary and outdated sensor data.
  • Space Marines: Fleet warships have a complement of marines. As relatively hard sci-fi their armour is minutely described and plausible as technology. The marines are key to securing assets: getting into space is exorbitantly expensive enough, so an armed starship entering a system can own it by closing with other ships and stations to secure them with the marines. The marines are able and willing to blast and cut their way to control centers, even if it means exposing parts of the station to vacuum. Life for a marine is very boring 99% of the time, being excluded belowdecks from the ship's crew. When deployed, there is the terrifying prospect their ship might suddenly need to move, with no friendly ship in-system in a decade.
  • Space People: Humans are divided culturally into planetsiders, stationers (space station inhabitants), and spacers. Stationers tend toward conservatism (and a welfare state), as civil unrest can lead to Explosive Decompression. Spacers' loyalty is to no place but their ship, which is often home to their entire extended family. Families are matrilineal, as the incest taboo is strictly observed and so all reproduction happens on brief, rowdy shore leaves; few spacers know who their fathers are.
  • Space Pirates: The Mazianni (formerly Earth Company Fleet). When the Company decided that the war against Union wasn't cost-effective, Conrad Mazian and his captains felt that they'd shed too much blood to just be called back, and that they'd continue the fight on their own — and if a merchanter ship had resources they needed for that aim, they'd hand it over if they knew what was good for them.
  • Space Station: Most of humanity's exosolar colonies are torus stations built first as research stations and later as trading posts since inhabitable planets are rare and FTL travel wasn't developed for centuries after expansion started.
  • Terraforming: Cyteen had been partially terraformed before the colonists learned that some of the native lifeforms they had been exterminating would allow them to greatly extend human life.
  • Time Dilation: Jump drive causes some time dilation; jumps take a week or less for the crew and a month or two for planetsiders and stationers. In any case, humans have to be sedated for jump and most other oxygen-breathing species are knocked unconscious.
  • Took a Third Option: The founding of the Alliance was this, caused by stations and merchanters stuck between Earth Company and the Union during The Company Wars.
  • Uptown Girl: In Merchanter's Luck, Allison Reilly, a member of the rich and powerful spacer clan which runs Dublin Again, is initially this to Sandor Kreja, a marginer who lost everything to space pirates as a child and is only barely hanging on. However, eventually subverted, as they both end up being more interested in running their own ship together than in having a romantic relationship.
  • The 'Verse: Most of Cherryh's works fit somewhere in her Alliance/Union universe. Note that her website doesn't necessarily show all the linkages, considering only the novels on the "direct line" in that universe; afterwords and appendices link many of the others in, including some of the seemingly-fantasy works.
  • The War of Earthly Aggression: The Company Wars, a Mêlée à Trois between the Earth Company, the Union (based around Cyteen), and the Merchanter's Alliance (Pell and many freighter-based clans).
  • Will They or Won't They?: Raen and Pol Hald of Serpent's Reach have been doing this dance for decades even before the book's main timeline. He dies protecting her from his cousin before they get a chance.
  • Xenofiction: Cuckoo's Egg is partly from an alien POV and partly from the POV of a human who has only ever lived among the aliens.

Alternative Title(s): Heavy Time, Merovingen Nights, Downbelow Station, Serpents Reach, Forty Thousand In Gehenna, Cuckoos Egg, Rimrunners, Brothers Of Earth, Hellburner, Finitys End, Merchanters Luck