Friday, 2 January 2009

Foreigner by C J Cherryh

A lost colony ship, a desperate landfall on an unknown planet, and an intelligent native humanoid race with very different mental processes. These are the key elements of Cherryh's 1994 novel, the start of a series running to nine volumes so far (with more to come). I read a lot of Cherryh's books in the 1970s and liked them enough to keep them to re-read sometime, but I have neglected her work since then so I turned to Foreigner with interest.

The scene is set in couple of introductory chapters centuries apart; the initial catastrophic journey which caused the starship to become lost, and the first contact after planetfall between the human settlers and the natives (the atevi). The rest of the story is set six generations later, after a human-atevi war which had led to an accommodation being reached; the humans were allowed sole occupancy of a large island in return for gradually introducing their advanced technology to the atevi. Only one human was allowed off the island, the paidhi, who lived with the atevi in order to monitor and understand them while relaying technical knowledge as they were ready for it. The story focuses on one paidhi, Bren Cameron, at a time of crisis between the races.

The atevi are bigger, stronger and faster than humans, and had already reached the steam age at the time of the landing. Now they have aircraft and computer networks. Their similarity to humans had led to dangerous misunderstandings in the past, because their thought processes are decidedly different. They have no concept of friendship; they are bound to leaders or associations by a loyalty code which determines their actions. They have no word for trust, but fourteen for betrayal, and their standard way of resolving disputes is by an officially-sanctioned assassination system. It is a minefield for a human to work in, and the paidhi has to be very good to succeed.

Bren Cameron thought he had established a good relationship with the atevi leader but finds himself apparently betrayed, the target of rival associations who are opposed to the human presence. He needs all of his diplomatic abilities to survive as the situation rapidly slides out of control.

Cherryh is good at portraying the alienness of other races. The atevi are more than funny-looking humans, although perhaps not a lot more different from ourselves than were, say, medieval Japanese. As a result, Bren Cameron struggles to understand the nature of the relationship he has with the two atevi bodyguards on whom he has to rely. The author's story-telling skills drew me in and held my attention throughout. She is rather indulgent in allowing her hero long periods of introspection, with pages at a time filled with nothing but his thoughts, but despite this I found Foreigner absorbing and was sorry when it finished – a rare feeling for me these days. Whether I want to invest the time to plough through another eight volumes (and counting) I'm not so sure, but I might well try the next one and see how it goes.
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I notice that a couple more reviews of my alternate World War 2 novel The Foresight War have appeared on Amazon: one each on the UK and USA sites. I was wryly amused to see that one reviewer awarded it 1/5 and the other 5/5. Some contrasting excerpts:

"Good idea, but characters are one dimensional, too much detail on weapons sizes/capability etc. not enough tension created."

"What I liked about this was it didn't get too focused on personalities, love interests, or that sort of thing. Also, it was almost non-stop action. If you like Tom Clancy's novels - the ones where the Russians invade the West, for example - you'd love this. It's really 'techy'."

Which just demonstrates, yet again, that book reviews are decidedly personal, and can say as much about the reviewer as they do about the story.

I have rewritten my introduction to the book as well as updating the list of reviews (good and bad) HERE, where you can also read the first two chapters on-line.

9 comments:

Fred said...

"She is rather indulgent in allowing her hero long periods of introspection, with pages at a time filled with nothing but his thoughts.."

I find that this is typical of Cherryh's work, especially when her main character is alone among an alien race.

What I admire most about her work is the careful building up of an alien culture. I think there are few who can match her. Her "Chanur" series fascinated me, and I think I read all of them.

A second characteristic is her ability to build tension in her stories--sometimes excessively so. I sometimes find myself exhausted after reading one of her works--again, especially the Chanur series.

Anthony G Williams said...

I'll have to try the Chanur series: the ones I have are the Morgaine and Faded Sun series, plus some individual ones.

WCG said...

Tony, I'd certainly recommend the Chanur series. The first, "The Pride of Chanur," is a quick read, with none of those "long periods of introspection." The trilogy that follows basically tells the same story, but expanded (more details about the various aliens and their interactions). I really think it's a masterpiece.

I love the Foreigner series, too, but I think it's gone on too long. It seems to me that she's stopped having new things to say. Well, that's my typical complaint about long-running series (another example is her Fortress fantasy series, which should have ended at four).

Bill

Fred said...

WCG,

I agree. I think Cherryh was far more creative and inventive in her early days.

_Wave Without a Shore_ and _Port Eternity_ are much more interesting than the xteenth volume in her later series.

Fred said...

I thoroughly enjoyed the "Morgaine" series--an excellent mesh of Sword and High Tech tales.

Her fantasy works about the Sidhe, _The Tree of Swords and Jewels_ and _The Dreamstone_ were also interesting variations on the usual portrayals.

WCG said...

Fred, I'm not sure that it's a matter of being more creative and inventive earlier. I think it's more the effect of continuing for too long with established series (and there must be strong economic pressures to do that).

Meanwhile, I might mention another of her earlier books. "Voyager in Night" (1984) is an incredible book. I don't think it ever got as much attention as it deserved.

Fred said...

WCG,

You may be right about the "economic pressures," but the really experimental stuff disappears when the series get going and this is true for many writers.

Why can't Cherryh do a standalone once in awhile, between the series? Is it possible they lose that imaginative streak if they don't exercise it regularly?


_Voyager in the Night_--that was one I was trying to think of but couldn't come up with the title. That also was a very good work, even though it was set in the Merchanter universe, if I remember correctly. I think you're the only other person who has mentioned that one to me.

Anthony G Williams said...

Bill, how many books of the Foreigner series do you think are worth reading?

The stand-alone books I have by her are Hunter of Worlds (1977), Angel with the Sword (1985) and Paladin (1988). The last two are not SF, but are fantasies (without magic) set within alternate Earth histories. Both memorable.

WCG said...

Tony, keep in mind that I like series, when I care about the characters, because I want to see what happens to them. So I may read them, and enjoy them, despite thinking that the author should have moved on.

In this case, there are three trilogies in the Foreigner series (or pretty much one long story). It wasn't until the start of the third trilogy, the seventh book, that I began to wonder why she was continuing. But then, I thought the eighth book was just great. The ninth book didn't add anything to the story, and it felt more like a middle book than the conclusion, so I'm worried there are still more to come.

But I can wholeheartedly recommend the first six, anyway. But your mileage may vary.

Bill