May 5 2010 11:50am

Alone among aliens: C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner

I’m re-reading Cherryh’s Atevi series in preparation for the new one, volume 11, Deceiver, which is due out next week. I re-read all of them when there were nine of them and did an overview post but this time I’m going to be looking at them one by one.

This is an open series, by which I mean that each volume is relatively self-contained but leads on to the next. You never get half a book, but they are all part of the same thing. They also fall into trilogies, which means that every third book has even more of the conclusion nature—that’s true of the first six anyway. What they tend to do more than conclude is open up at the ends, which works pretty well for being satisfying. However, it would be a terrible idea to start reading them anywhere but in the beginning. They occasionally make a faint concession to catching you up, but really it’s not much more than a reminder. You need to read these books in order and from the beginning, and that means starting with Foreigner.

Spoilers for Foreigner only.

Foreigner is a book that doesn’t do itself any favours. Even though I like these books a lot and have read them all multiple times, I find the beginning of Foreigner offputting. It starts with two “books” of background, comprising about seventy pages total. Phoenix is a ship from Earth, off to found a new spacestation, that gets lost in hyperspace and finds itself somewhere dangerous, utterly unknown, and in another universe as far as anyone can tell. So far so good, I’d be delighted to read a Cherryh novel about these characters and this problem, but then suddenly you’re a hundred years in the future and their descendants are going down onto the habitable and inhabited planet and meeting the aliens. OK, well, I’ll happily read a first contact story either—but then with another jerk we’re a hundred and fifty years later still. The humans are all on an island and relations with the alien Atevi are touchy to say the least, and Bred Cameron, the translator, is being shot at. The Atevi are fascinating. Bren Cameron’s problems are immediately overwhelming. But is it safe to start to care about them? Well, it is, as you’re going to be with Bren for the next ten volumes at least, but it always strikes me as an unnecessarily bumpy beginning.

The “foreigner” in Foreigner is of course Bren Cameron himself, the paidhi, ambassador-interpreter, the only human on the Atevi side of the strait, foreign to the Atevi, to the planet (although humans have been there for a hundred and fifty years) and perhaps even to the universe. Throughout the book Bren feels foreign in the widest sense, and the Atevi feel foreign to him. Even though he speaks their language he never quite knows where he is with them.

Going right back to the beginning like this, it’s startling how helpless Bren is and how uncomfortable he is with the Atevi. There’s a general pattern in the series for antagonists to become friends—if I can use that word—in later volumes, but in this one Bren doesn’t have any friends, can’t trust anyone, is isolated, surrounded and poisoned by tea. It’s difficult to read—I can never face reading it if I’m ill, because of the poisoned tea. This is the introduction to the Atevi, and at this point I know so much more about them than Bren sees, sometimes even about the individuals, that it reads oddly. With Ilisidi, and especially with Jago and Banichi, I can’t really engage with them any more as dangerous and potentially treacherous in the way this volume requires. I was also looking out for any clues as to Algini’s nature as revealed later, and found absolutely nothing.

What’s brilliant is the creation of a whole alien species that has been getting human tech handed to them slowly over a hundred and fifty years, while staying separate and distinct. We see their hierarchical nature, especially as illustrated through the mechieti. We see Bren’s problems with wanting to like them and wanting to be liked. He isn’t yet the person he becomes. He’s very young and unsure and much less fluent—and we see him reading human catalogs to stay human. The best bits are to do with Bren’s discovery of Atevi culture—the wikitiin, the guest book at Malguri, and the conversations with Jago about heretics who thought you were supposed to associate with everyone.

The plot of Foreigner is that the Phoenix has come back and the presence of the ship in the sky is stirring everything up. But Bren doesn’t learn that it’s there until almost the end—this is the excellent opening out ending. Bren spends the book being tested and confused about what is going on, tested to the point of torture, because the Atevi suddenly can’t trust the humans and he is the only one within reach. We don’t see anything of Mospheira, the ship is nothing but a point of light, the book is entirely planet-bound and concerned with the planet and the Atevi.

I like these books much better once Bren gets his feet under him and space starts to be in the equation. The first time I read Foreigner, fifteen years or so ago, I wasn’t at all sure about it and I certainly couldn’t have imagined how eager I’d be for book 11. The series has definitely grown on me, and I think the series really does get better and more enjoyable as it goes on.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

This article is part of C. J. Cherryh Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Marcus W
1. toryx
I read Foreigner a few years ago and had much of the same issues with it that you shared. The result was that though I generally enjoyed the book, I wasn't interested in reading the next one. But I've always wondered if they get better.
2. Nentuaby
Hmm. I found Foreigner offputting enough that I was officially put off.

Maybe I need to go back and pick up the series again, if it gets less- oppressive, I guess is the word- later on.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
The later volumes are much better and much less oppressive, and you should absolutely read them.
Declan Ryan
4. decco999
"Foreigner is a book that doesn’t do itself any favours"

Couldn't agree more with that statement. And what a shame for anyone who didn't feel the desire to read on to the next volumes. I hold the belief that CJ Cherryh's style of writing has changed (eased, perhaps) a little as the series developed, to the benefit of the reader. I find I can enjoy the twisted plots more nowadays and have less struggle understanding characters and storyline.

But what a great corner of the universe that Ms Cherryh has created. The aliens remain alien; humans are humans. Interaction between the two is tense, nerve-racking and nail-biting. The clostrophobic scenes she creates are second to none. I urge everyone to give the whole series a read. You will not be disappointed.
5. joelfinkle
I disagree a bit that Foreigner is a hard read: Compared to some Cherryh, such as "40000 in Gehenna" or "Serpent's Reach," it actually hands you the backstory instead of dropping you neck deep in the middle of the story where you're *already* expected to understand the alien mindset (and their backstory really doesn't show up until you get to Cyteen).

The only one with a better "crutch" is probably "Pride of Chanur" because you've got a human to bounce viewpoints off of.

Even the human-centric books in the Union/Alliance tales such as "Rimrunners" or "Hellburner" deal with such odd cultures with their own mores and jargon, and people who are basically broken, that a lot of her work is very difficult to really empathize with the characters.
6. cabr1729
Foreigner reminded me in many ways of Gate of Ivrel - in both you find yourself following someone who is clueless (Vanye) or might as well be (Bren). In Gate of Ivrel's case the story put me off so much that it was years before I read the 2nd book and it even tainted The Faded Sun trilogy for me so that I shelved it away without even trying it. Thank goodness I knew better by the time Foreigner came out. I persevered through the instability of it and have been happy with every new installment in the series. Unfortunately it makes it nearly impossible to recommend the series to others - how can you tell people they have to slog through a lengthy, confusing, and sometimes difficult book before they get to the really good stuff? If they enjoyed Chanur I do try, but if Chanur was too much for them I don't even bother.
7. Apfullen
If I remember correctly Ms. Cherryh has stated that the two "intros" at the start of Foreigner were added at the request of her editor.
8. catcreature
I had my problems with the intros, too, so much that I find myself wishing for the dreaded intro prologue, where you know at least that it is transitory. However, I already knew that getting into a Cherryh story always needs some dedication for me.

Still, I like especially the first book of the series a whole lot, precisely *because* of the disconnect between Bren and the world, and how it forces him to decide who he is and what he wants. At the end, he might not yet know a whole lot more about the Atevi, but he knows a whole lot more about himself and his priorities, which makes all further developments possible and prevents him from going down the path of his predecessor.

Also, with the knowledge of the rest of the series, it is a fun game to construct how the Atevi have seen Bren -- the books are so much in Bren's head and in his only that getting an outside image of him is a puzzle played with mirrors.
Tony Zbaraschuk
9. tonyz
I'm one of the people who more or less bounced on Foreigner, and never really felt inclined to go beyond that.

What I've noticed about Cherryh is that different people seem to like different clusters of her books, and it's not like there's a split in the audience between Group A and Group B, each liking a different set of books -- everyone has their personal preferences which Cherryh they prefer.

Me: Paladin, Morgaine, Union/Alliance, Arafel: like. Atevi, Fortress, Rusulka et al.: don't like. Chanur: still thinking about it.
john mullen
10. johntheirishmongol
I tried to read this a few years ago and I just couldnt get into it In fact, its one of the few books I actively disliked.

It also annoyed me when i found out later than CJ added the H to make her name stand out.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Johntheirishmongol: What I heard was that she added the H to her name because there was a romance writer called C. Cherry and her publishers wanted her to be clearly distinguished from her. I think it does say something about how good she is at thinking like an alien that her response was to think of adding an H.
Clark Myers
12. ClarkEMyers
#10 - bluejo is correct.

IIRC correctly the name is traced to de Cerise but was long long ago anglicized to Cherry including perhaps some of the family sent to Australia. Family stories may include tales of the Boone's moving west among culture clashes.

The extra h was my publisher Don Wollheim's idea: he was afraid I'd get shelved with the romances.
Estara Swanberg
13. Estara
Oh thank you for doing an in-depth re-read. I should have waited to read my copy of Deceiver until you finished it, but oh well...

I was so fascinated by the alien aliens, man'chi and all (and I read the Lord of the Rings with its history of the shire at the start) that this was my introduction to anything Cherryh.
14. elsiekate
maybe i'm the alien, but i loved this book and this series from the get-go--i love the world building and the way the atevi are really different, not just humans with different bumps or something.
[da ve]
15. slickhop
Its funny, I started reading this book a few days ago on your (Jo's) reccomendation, and have been feeling nearly exactly the way others have described. "Oppressive" is definitely a good word for this book.

I'll persevere though, it seems the payout is worth it.
16. Donna Hawk
I have always felt a bit like the outsider looking in, so I immediately empathized with Bren, including his initial angstyness. I believe my first copy of Foreigner only had the Petalfall introduction. When I replaced that lost copy I didn't like the addition... I feel it belongs in the BACK of the book, as a little appendix to explain but not get in the way of the story.

I also enjoyed the fact that so much of the book (and subsequent series) plays out in Bren's head. I spend a lot of time in mine and his internal conversations were quite enjoyable, right down to the angry stuffed heads on the wall.

I can honestly say that mulling over the concepts in this series have shaped how I view the world and helped me to make some sense of it.
Jo Walton
17. bluejo
Donna: If your first copy only had the "Petalfall" then it's very unusual -- I read the book when was first released and all those stuttering beginnings were there. I don't think it's an "addition" I think you'd been lucky enough to forget.

It's a very strange way to start a series that takes nine books to introduce a second POV.

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