Volume 1 | 2000
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Continued -- Military Command in Women's Science Fiction:
C.J. Cherryh's Signy Mallory
Camille Bacon-Smith

Mallory As Soldier

Mallory is forty-nine years old, terrible and beautiful, her hair silver from the effects of drugs that defer the effects of aging. Ruthless in combat, she is third in command of the Earth Company Fleet behind Conrad Mazian who commands the Fleet and his second in command, Thomas Edger. In Downbelow Station[28] Mallory first appears as a figure of dread to the inhabitants of Pell Station, the focal point of the action. She brings in a convoy of refugees from a Union attack. The refugees strain the capacity of the station, and her news, that Union is but one step away from Pell, throws the station into turmoil. But Mallory's history begins much earlier in C.J.Cherryh's notebook:

   She was a merchant captain, or at least a merchant officer before she got into this mess. And she's a survivor of two shipwrecks in the war, and was in one group of survivors where only twenty eight, [or] thirty six people survived out of the entire ship. She was running one of the life pods that got through.[29]   

This information, that Mallory has her origins in the Merchant fleet appears in none of the books as yet released in the station universe, but it goes far to explain the decisions the character makes to protect Pell Station. For Cherryh herself, Mallory's history begins earlier still:

   I actually created her--in another form and under another name--when I was about fifteen, sixteen years of age. I was writing a story that had to do with a complicated political situation. And at the time she came on the stage, or her original form did, as an experienced, older officer who has simply broken with the powers that be. They can't call her to heel, they can't get her to do anything, it's a case of 'catch me first.' And as I got older I began to understand a lot better what would create a character like her, what kind of political situation, what kind of operational situation. And I've also talked to people who've come, say, out of Viet Nam and they've said that there were certain situations in that book [Downbelow Station] that really touch on memories.   

Here Cherryh reaffirms both her sympathy with the contemporary combat soldier, and the link her character set in the future has with contemporary issues of command, particularly as it might be practiced by women in combat. Readers who have come out of real military situations valorize the representation as one they recognize out of their experience. Cherryh goes on:

   I didn't touch it again until I was thirtysomething. And then, I needed a character to fill this niche and the character could have been any gender, any sort. I thought, well I've done a character like this.   

On a conscious level, Mallory could have been any gender. But she is not a man. Rather, Mallory, and Elene Quen, who together save Pell from destruction, represent the new freedom in science fiction to embody the heroic in one's own image, even when that image is female. Cherryh, who consistently presents women as protagonists, does not demonstrate a feminism brought into consciousness as a result of a political moment. Rather, as Caroline Heilbrun describes herself, Cherryh was "born a feminist."[30] As such, it seems "natural" that images of power should be represented as female. And Mallory is female, with a command style that is feminine:

   Cherryh:   I think one of her particular signatures in command is the fact that there is not a man or a woman on that ship that doesn't feel like she regards them as family. "You mama" is nothing you would ever say to her and expect to get out of the room alive. On the other hand, if there is such a thing as a feminine instinct in the situation, it's to take up these people, who are the toughest, meanest sons of bitches in the known universe and to love them. And the fact that she does is not saying that she can't say, "you, you and you," knowing two out of three are not going to come back alive. That's the position she's in, but it doesn't mean she can't bend every effort to keeping them alive as long as possible, bucking the odds and getting them back. Which is back to the "why the ship has all its riderships" part.

Norway's riderships, small, single pilot fighter craft that ride through jump attached to the carrier ship much as fighter planes ride the seas on aircraft carriers today, represent Mallory's female style in a number of ways, and in our interview, Cherryh mentions them in a variety of contexts. Here she demonstrates that Mallory's loyalty to her riderships is distinctive among the jump carrier commands:

   If you take a good look at all the other ships you will notice that their ships are ethnically mixed in nomenclature. These ships started out with ethnically indicative names. In other words, the four riderships belonging to the warship Africa were all named after major rivers of the African continent. The four riderships of the warship Norway are all named after mythical creatures from Norwegian mythology. And she is Captain of just about the only ship out of the original fifty--there are at the time of Downbelow Station only eleven of the original ships left--[that] still has all its original riders. She cares personally to make sure that they are never in a situation where they have to leave a (rider)ship.   

Cherryh weaves the female character of command in the details. In her interview Cherryh emphasizes a part of Mallory's past that appears only in passing in the book, but that makes clear that the relationship of Mallory to the riderships is not just that of mother-child, but of mother-girlchild, mother's childhood:

   She started out as a ridership captain. Now, that requires hairtrigger reflexes, but she was a lot younger. And it, the ridership position, is a young person's game. And as she got older, she could not do that anymore.   

Like most background information in Downbelow Station, this description appears in passing as Mallory moves through the ship to reassure her crew and complement of marines in the aftermath of battle: "She walked into the dark limbo of the forward hold, round the cylinder rim, into the eitherway world of the ridership crews, a place like home, a memory of other days, when she had had her quarters in such a place..."[31]

In spite of the one line of print in which the reference to her own history as a ridership pilot occurs, the detail ties Mallory to her crew as to her own youth. In her loyalty to her crew, Mallory reaffirms the importance of her own history. At the same time, we understand that Cherryh's personal vision of the individually heroic operates along an age, not gender axis. Mallory has taken the heroic role, but now, like male counterparts in today's military, she plays to different strengths, with consideration of her responsibilities, which include delegation of the heroic to the young under her charge. Ultimately, it is the riderships, abandoned at Pell Station as Union ships move in, that draws Mallory back to negotiate a path of salvation both for Pell and for her troops.

Cherryh defines Mallory's character not only in relation to her ship and crew, but in contrast to her male counterparts: "What I need[ed] is somebody who is going to be a thorn in the side of people who are trying to run this war like a lifelong career, who believes that peace is the ultimate objective, and who is not willing to compromise certain ideals." Unlike Mazian and Edger, Mallory views the war with Union as temporary. It may be too late for her to return to the merchant fleet--Downbelow Station makes it clear that once impressed into the service, no one comes back-- but her goal remains one of defense, not self-perpetuation as a soldier.

Cherryh situates Mallory's actions of command integrity in the context of a degenerating war:

   This is a fleet that has operated at the outside edge of piracy for years. They have raided merchant ships. They have impressed crew. They have torn families apart. They have done all sorts of things to survive. And she has been backed into an narrowing circle of drawing a moral line and drawing it a little closer inward, and a little closer inward until it finally encompasses her ship. And remember this woman, who is a part of this system, was a merchanter herself. So she knows what this is doing, that they are tearing apart the society they are trying to protect. And the little incident that is quoted, where she orders part of her crew to fire upon crewmates is something that some of the other ships don't understand.   

In the passage to which Cherryh refers here, Mazian is reprimanding Mallory for the death of Lt. Goforth cited above. The fleet commander reminds Mallory of her past actions:

    "We go back a long way, Mallory. You've always been a bloody-handed tyrant. That's the name you've gotten, you know that."
"That's quite possible."
"Shot some of your own troops at Eridu. Ordered one unit to open fire on another."
"Norway has its standards."[32]

As Cherryh points out, "People under her command do [Understand]...One of the things I'm exploring with this is military morality, inside the unit as well as outside." Downbelow Station never tells us what happened at Eridu, why Norway fired on its own troops, but the clue is in Mallory's response, "Norway has its standards." The contradiction seems uncomfortable to us, as readers. Mallory's discipline is deadly. But the fleet suffers from a breakdown of morale, while the Norway's morale remains high, her troops devoted to their leader.

Mallory's concern is for her command, as Cherryh points out when she describes her exploration of the character:

    To what extent can a military officer opt to protect her command versus the greater good, supposedly, of the entire unit? And at what point dare any military officer assume that the commanding officer in charge of the whole [combat fleet] does not have the authority to send them into a suicide mission? It's a difficult moral choice, and at some point, Mallory has had to make the mental assessment that survival, long term survival of somebody with striking capacity outweighs the politics, outweighs everything else.   

Those portions of Downbelow Station that deal with the character of Signy Mallory seem to chart the dissolution of Mallory's loyalty to Earth Company and the Fleet, ultimately into mutiny. In practice, however, we see Mallory test her primary purpose--the survival of the stations, at the point of the major action meaning Pell Station--against the changing goals of the structures of command under which she serves this purpose. In this, her devotion to the purpose of the fleet rather than to its command hierarchy, we see Mallory develop as a feminist soldier.

Mallory begins to question when Mazian pulls the fleet out of its engagement at Viking Station, the last before Pell: "It was possible Mazian's nerve had broken...Everything had worked according to plan. And Mazian had aborted it. Mazian, that they worshipped."[33] Her confidence in the command structure is further undermined when she discovered the black marketeers, and when Lt. Goforth refuses to be taken under arrest (cited at the beginning of this section).

The reader gradually discovers that Mazian likewise distrusts Mallory, who operates with her own style of command and her own sense of honor. When Mallory breaks up the black marketeering ring mentioned above, she is reprimanded for holding her own crew to a higher standard of discipline than the other captains, who allow their crews unlimited license while on liberty. Mazian gives her a direct command to put her troops on the same schedule as the other ships:

   She sat back. "I find a policy which gives us mutiny, and now I'm ordered to imitate it?"
"...There's one commander over this Fleet...[author's elipses] or are you setting yourself up as the opposition party?"[34]

When she announces Mazian's orders that they maintain liberty and duty schedules like the other ships, her troops demonstrates its loyalty:

   "Vent'em," a voice muttered audibly in her wake. She stopped dead, with her back to them.
"Norway!" someone shouted; and another: "Signy!" in a moment the whole ship echoed.[35]

"Vent'em" is a standard epithet in this universe. It refers to the act of venting materials, particularly garbage (or in this case, metaphorically, officers who hand down unpopular commands) into the vacuum of space. Mallory does not command that her troops continue as they have, to take short liberty only, and that in full battle dress, but she does not stop them when they continue to abide by the Norway's contested policy. This is the first step in Mallory's journey into mutiny.

Later, her troops again fall afoul of another ship's company on liberty. This time the Norway takes prisoners held by drunken soldiers from Australia, the ship commanded by Edger, second in command of the fleet. Cherryh explains Mallory's position at this point:

   She is now down to the point where she has lost a lot of respect for her commander, but one of the things that sends her over the edge is that little thing between him and Edger. Where she directly assesses that the interpersonal relationship between Mazian and Edger is affecting military decisions. This is the point at which something snaps. But that little scene, you know, where she basically mentally categorizes Edger and by implication her commanding officer, is the point at which she makes the psychological break.   

In the scene, Mazian calls both officers to account for the confrontation between troops of their two jump carriers. As Mazian talks, Mallory completes the puzzle of the fleet's direction. Mazian will abandon Pell--already nearly destroyed, without leadership, and in chaos, to Union forces. He will take the fleet back to Earth, where he will attack for loot and plunder. As Mazian talks, Mallory further assesses the situation:

   "Edger and Mazian had always been close...[author's elipses] were close, she had long suspected, in a way in which she could not intervene...It was war; it was as narrow a chute as ever Norway had run, the straits of Mazian's ambition, and Edger's. 'There is something vastly amiss,' she said, 'when we start shooting at each other..."[36]   

Cherryh specifies the relationship when Mallory leaves Mazian and Edger together on the Europe: "Bastard, she thought...Whore."[37]

Were it not that Cherryh has written movingly of deep homosexual relationships elsewhere in her station universe (Cyteen), we might see this passage as a simple case of conservative homophobia. But Cherryh's work plays out against a broad political field on which sexual politics play a variety of complex parts. Mallory sees Mazian as a formerly brilliant leader falling into piracy, perhaps madness, as vanity turns to megalomania. Edger supports Mazian's position not as an informed commander, nor as an equal lover, but perhaps as an opportunist who uses a sexual relationship with Mazian to influence him on the path to the personal gain both men see as the outcome of their attack upon the now defenseless Earth that has abandoned them. This is a relationship in which Mallory, with her military purpose to protect Pell Station still foremost in her mind, has no place and against which her arguments have no power. At the end of her meeting with Mazian and Edger, Mallory is instructed to murder Damon Konstantin, the only person who could bring order back to Pell. Cherryh explains Mallory's position entering this scene:

   ...[A] person who is sincerely in the military is psychologically prepared for the potential suicide situation- -the greater good for the greater number, somebody's got to survive. But to have her essentially, at least in her mind, mutiny at this point is critical.   

Pell must hold against both the Union and the Company Fleet which has brought the station to ruin. To save the station, Mallory must turn against her own command structure and join temporarily with the Union against which she has fought most of her life. Finally, when the merchanters themselves return as a third force, a newly created Alliance to bargain with the Union for the neutrality of Pell station, Mallory joins with the merchanters in the capacity of protector under the command of Pell. Rather than vent him into space as ordered, Mallory returns Damon Konstantin to his place as leader of Pell Station and to a joyful reunion with the Merchanter Elene Quen, his wife and the station's savior.

In the new balance of power that develops between Union and Alliance, Mallory remains a figure of fear to the stationers, but she has also retained her honor and integrity as a soldier. The fleet against which she mutinies is renamed Mazian's Raiders, pirates now in name as well as in fact.

Mallory's Dark Side

In the forgoing pages I have shown that the character of a woman soldier can embody feminist principles and a feminist style of command. But C.J. Cherryh, who uses the station universe to explore the inner spaces of human beings under impossible stresses, does not give us a monolithic presentation of Mallory's character. Mallory has a dark side:

   Cherryh:   The thing that I tried to draw is, this is a woman whose hands would not be clean if it came to a court martial, a Nurenburg trial. She has a moral code and it's been drawn very very tightly, and there are times when she psychologically challenges it herself. When she toys, at least, with the idea of evil and wickedness and all sorts of things that are just, just the other side of where she stands.[38]

Mallory hides this dark side from her crew, but she expresses it on the body of prisoner Josh Talley: "There was a sordidness in her sometimes, a need to deal wounds...[author's elipses] limited murder to blot out the greater ones. To deal little terrors, to forget the horror outside."[39]

Josh Talley, as well, has a point of view in Downbelow Station. In his position, we experience his suffering:

    He was another item of salvage from Russell's and Mariner...[author's elipses] not for transport on the other ships. They would have torn him apart...He had no taste for the crew either, and understood his situation.[40]   

In these two passages at the very beginning of Downbelow Station Cherryh gives us another axis on which Mallory judges herself and is judged. Mallory is part of the violence around her. Even when she stands alone in her devotion to the ideal of soldier as protector of the weak, she tests the evil that she sees around her. She is not the first to torment Josh Talley.

Talley, his mind nearly destroyed in Russell's Station's efforts to find out if he is a saboteur, and further wounded in Mallory's possession, wants only to lose those memories in complete mindwipe, an ultimate restructuring of his mental landscape. But the memories are there, and through his nightmares we see his treatment by the crew, by Mallory:

   It was not even hate, but bitterness and boredom, cruelty in which he did not matter, a living thing that felt pain, felt shame...Want to go back to them? He could hear even the tone of Mallory's voice"[41]   

The Talley we see in the first half of the book represents the terrible way war makes victims of both winners and losers. Mallory rescues Talley from her crew's abuse to replace it with her lesser mistreatment. She uses Talley's pain to blot out her own. But Talley is more than a victim; he is a mystery:

   I try not to provide a neat, easy, clean way out in the whole situation. On the one hand, she could pretend something went on and send him off to his room like a fifteenth century nobleman in the romances, which I'm not sure actually held true in the fifteenth century. But on the other hand, here's a guy who's not sure what planet he's on or ever has been on and he's dangerous. He's highly dangerous if he's martial arts trained, and in her own little strange pocket of mentality, this is a risk she chooses to run. It's a case of, if you are what you seem you're harmless, if you aren't what you seem, we'll see you and raise the bet. And this partially self destructive, partially pushing the envelope all the time type of attitude is what characterizes her dealings with a lot of people, including her commander.   

In fact, when Pell Station is attacked, Talley's deeply buried training breaks through. He is the saboteur Russell's Station suspected him to be, responsible for the loss of thousands of stationer lives. But even in this knowledge, Talley's guilt remains ambiguous. He is an azi, produced and developed specifically for the task of destroying the stations. Until, as Pell's unwanted prisoner, he meets Damon Konstantin, he has no real existence outside of that deadly purpose. Whole again, Talley has learned a new loyalty, to the friendship of Konstantin. Programmed not to hurt Pell Station during the mindwipe he requested early in the book, he confronts the contradiction in his programming, and friendship wins; Talley negotiates with Mallory the rescue of his friend Damon Konstantin, the leader she has been ordered to kill.

Cherryh, a writer not only of complex historico-political situations but also of deeply complicated characters, views Mallory's ambivalent ethical position in relation to Talley as an outcome of the character's development in the context of her universe:

   She is a person in absolute power, and where she is sitting is very lonely. There are times that she does explore moral limits. She does it in a solitary fashion, and she does it, sort of, at the edge of what other people would call respectability or morality or anything else. But this is the territory where she constantly lives--the fact of possibly abusing a prisoner, but snatching him out of an environment where he was [more violently abused], and [putting him] where she can keep an eye on him, and just the very fact that he is a thoroughgoing space case--she is aware of the evil in the situation. She is aware of what she is doing. She is not out of control. There are ten thousand worse things she can do to him and to the whole situation, and she can think of them on a moment's notice. But in her own mindset, the way to operate on her ship and keep Talley away from the crew is to co-opt him into the officer's section. Well, why did the captain do this? Why not? And on the one hand it's evil, and on the other hand, well you have your own rough rules down there. Anyone who is tossed into the core as it were will go through the very rough initiation process. This is a guy who is in mental shreds before he gets there. And in a way it's a rescue.   

The rescue becomes symbolically complete at the end of the novel. During the battle for Pell Station, Talley recovers full consciousness of who and what he is, and his deadly skills come back to him at need. When the battle is over and the Alliance of Merchanters have won, he returns to Mallory's ship, as an officer rather than as a prisoner. He does not return as some Stockholm Syndrome victim, but with an awareness that only Mallory can offer what he wants--space, a ship, and that ship in alliance with the station to which he has developed ties of friendship and allegiance.


Cherryh could have written a more generically "good" character in Signy Mallory. Cordelia Naismith never strays into the arena of the morally ambiguous, not even when she commands her liegeman to strike off the head of her enemy with a sword. Sassinak may stretch the rules, using her command to achieve her personal goal, but that goal is an honorable one, the eradication of pirates who murdered her planet's population. Signy Mallory, honorable in combat, wages darker battles in her soul. In that sense, as a character in her universe, she represents the damage that war wreaks even on the powerful. At the same time, she represents a greater triumph for her author, who says:

   I've always said that female characters will arrive when they can be a villain without being the bitch queen, when they can be a heroine without being the pure noble maiden in the tower.   

In a commercial sense, Mallory, and Cherryh's other female characters have arrived: her books stay in print consistently, and she is one of those few authors who can command a shelf of her own in many bookstores. And yet, feminist critics of science fiction have ignored not only Cherryh's military women, but all such characters, limiting their scope to those characters who embody those traits that the critics find more "feminine." While healers and artisans and the inhabitants of all-female utopias are important aspects of re-imagining the world in feminist science fiction, we forget that other feminist women see the world differently, and see the roles and goals of women not as eradicating power, or subverting it, but of seizing it, or sharing it equally with men not only to heal but to preserve, protect, and defend it as well.

Copyright © 2002 Camille Bacon-Smith. All rights reserved