It had been nearly five centuries since the starship Phoenix, lost in space and desperately searching for the nearest G5 star, had encountered the planet of the atevi. On this alien world, law was kept by the use of registered assassination, alliances were defined by individual loyalties not geographical borders, and war became inevitable once humans and one faction of atevi established a working relationship. It was a war that humans had no chance of winning on this planet so many light-years from home.
Now, nearly two hundred years after that conflict, humanity has traded its advanced technology for peace and an island refuge that no atevi will ever visit. Then the sole human the treaty allows into atevi society is marked for an assassin’s bullet. The work of an isolated lunatic?…The interests of a particular faction?…Or the consequences of one human’s fondness for a species which has fourteen words for betrayal and not a single word for love?
Ann Leckie, of Ancillary fame, has often cited C. J. Cherryh as the primary influence on her work; the Foreigner series in particular. Foreigner is also probably the most highly praised of all Cherryh’s science fiction work, and it seemed to me high time I actually read the book…
Foreigner opens with a series of sections that introduce us to the world the main body of the plot actually takes place in; humans, stranded on a colony ship impossibly far from home by some kind of navigational accident, make planetfall and contact with an alien species called the atevi, fundamentally humanoid but on a bigger scale and universally black. The real plot of the novel follows Bren, the human envoy to the atevi, the only one allowed contact with them, in the wake of an assassination attempt and the fallout from that; it’s a mixture of complex politics and interpersonal relationships that don’t work as a human would expect them to.
The core problem with this part of the book, which forms the bulk of the narrative, is that Cherryh doesn’t really give us a sense of the politics at play; for an apparently excellent diplomat (the paidhi is selected through vigorous competition amongst many humans), Bren is singularly bad at telling us what the politics in play are, and instead, Foreigner spends an awful lot of time telling us how uncomfortable Bren is with the atevi‘s different emotional life to his own, and how isolated this makes him feel. While this gives us a lot of insight into Bren’s emotional life – not, mind you, all of it very interesting – the lack of motivation for any of the other characters or factions in play feels very disconcerting. It’s almost as if Cherryh wanted to write about the atevi, and about how isolated a human would feel among them and how confused by their politics he would be, but completely forgot that for that to work they need some politics; we see moments when politics appear, but they’re specific issues, and there’s no apparent political models anywhere in play.
This is all the stranger because we know a surprising amount about human politics, for a novel where only one human really appears; Foreigner has Bren looking back on Mospheira, the human land on the alien world ceded to them by the atevi, and thinking about the different factions in his office, and the different factions among humanity on the ship before anyone landed on the world; we get a very clear picture of the human politics involved in giving technological information to the atevi, and the different attitudes to how humanity and the atevi should relate to each other, but this doesn’t even begin to be mirrored by a sense of the atevi factions. We’re also never really made familiar with how atevi society works; the key bond is a kind of loyalty, but what it means – how it is formed, what obligations (in all directions) it involves, and how it functions in a society – are utterly opaque and appear, seemingly, to be of no interest to the author.
As for Bren himself, as a character, he is a singularly frustrating one; an awful lot of Foreigner is spent going over the same ground, driving home time and again that Bren is projecting his emotions onto the atevi – that is, reading human motivations into their action. This almost feels like a bulking-out method, as scenes with extremely strong deja vu occur and reccur, telling us again about his emotions in identical scenarios to those we have seen previously. While this could have built up effectively, Cherryh instead just repeats them, almost without Bren seeming to remember prior incidents. Other characters are only ever seen through Bren’s eyes, and as such the atevi members of the cast, who as alien minds would have been fascinating to see and be made to empathise with, are only ever Other, inscrutable and unknowable; there’s not really any more effort made to understand individual atevi than there is to understand the culture of the atevi as a whole, unfortunately.
Foreigner is a novel about diplomacy, politics, and interacting with an alien culture, without ever really being interested in any of those things; instead it feels like a solipsistic journey into Bren’s anthropomorphic mistakes, with a few action scenes thrown in. Much as Ancillary Justice may have been inspired by this, the latter is a far better book; skip the inspiration, and go straight to what it inspired.