Friday, September 2, 2016

Decades of Atevi and Paidhi

Review: Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh

I set about originally with a sketch—I draw—of Banichi, which actually ended up in [cover artist] Michael Whelan’s hands. Novels start all sorts of ways, and this one had been a fragment that nagged me… it was just so interesting to write that I kept going… —C.J. Cherryh, Spokane 2004.

The 10th anniversary edition of C.J. Cherryh’s brilliant Foreigner came out in 
paperback a dozen years ago now. Although I already had the original paperback edition in my library, I had reread it so many times that a replacement was in order. I bought the Kindle edition just over two decades after the initial publication, but tucked it into my TBR(ead) Collection. 

Earlier this week I noticed it there, and realized it was time to read this perennial favorite again.

Cherryh writes truly alien characters. From the atevi of this series, with their instinctive grasp of mathematics, and their Japanese-style courtesy (and the bedroom fascination some ateva have with the human paidhi), to the bear-like Hani sapients of the Chanur ships, her aliens are only superficially the same as most science-fictional attempts to describe an alien. 

Many other writers' efforts seem more like B-movie monsters, best suited for portrayal by a human in an alien suit. Cherryh succeeds by revealing, through the interaction of her aliens with humans, just how unknowably other these intelligences can be. In this, her aliens resemble the Thranx of Alan Dean Foster’s Commonwealth novels. Like “two nations divided by a common language,” however, the differences in how they think supply a minefield of potential misunderstanding for the humans they encounter.

The humans in this story have gone disastrously off-route on their trip to a new colony. Where they actually wound up they find no familiar stars, and barely make it to the home world of the atevi. The colonists decide to abandon their ship in orbit, choosing a one-way trip to the surface. In the short prologue, Cherryh sets the scene for their first encounter with the native sapients, then flashes forward to “present-day” and continues the tale.

What happened when the two races made first contact—war, the quarantine of all but one of the humans on the island Mospheira, and the subsequent shaky treaty between the two races—is told through reminiscence by Bren Cameron, the single human paidhi or interpreter permitted off-island to mingle with the atevi. 

His job is much more complex than simply supplying definitions for words. Because of their past conflicts, the paidhi must walk a tightrope between human and atevi culture, and find the narrow path between limiting the human knowledge he passes on to the atevi and actively lying to them.

Bren has developed a relationship with the local ruler, the aiji Tabini, which his human heart insists on characterizing as friendship and mutual trust. The problem is, the atevi language has no word for trust—and fourteen words for betrayal. When Tabini abruptly sends Bren to a remote castle to stay with his mother, the dowager-aiji Ilisidi, he warns the paidhi that he will need all his diplomacy to survive.

Bren stumbles from one life-threatening incident to another, seeking a trust he cannot count on. Is his security chief Banichi trying to kill him? Is the major-domo of Ilisidi’s house, Cenedi, an assassin? Did Tabini send him to Ilisidi so that she could kill the paidhi without involving his court?

Can he even trust the human government he works for?

Even as a stand-alone novel, this would be a complex and fantastic read. As the opener for the series, it provides a solid foundation for the whole multi-novel set (16 in all). 

I recommend it highly.