C. J. Cherryh Reread

Aliens and Power: C. J. Cherryh’s Atevi Books

C.J. Cherryh has an enviable ability to make her worlds seem real enough to bite.

The Atevi series is nine books long and comes in three sets of three: Foreigner, Invader, Inheritor; then Precursor, Defender, Explorer; and, finally, Destroyer, Pretender and Deliverer. It isn’t finished; there’s another book, Conspirator, on the way, starting a new trilogy.

The basic premise is that at the very beginning of Foreigner a human ship, on its way to build a space station at a new star, fell out of hyperspace in the wrong universe. Instead they built their station in orbit around a planet of alien atevi; much follows. The books explore the relationship between humans and atevi, and between the humans on the planet and the humans on the ship. They are written (apart from the historical prologue) from the point of view of Bren Cameron the paidhi, the one human who speaks the Atevi language fluently and whose job it is to mediate between species.

Bren starts off as a typical Cherryh hero, young, helpless and out of his depth. One of the joys of the series is seeing him develop agency and competence.

The atevi are wonderful. They have deep black skin and are a head-and-shoulders taller than humans. When the humans got to the planet, the atevi were at steam-engine technology. Their basic psychology is very different from ours. Their language is very difficult. All the same, humans got on very well with them and unwittingly provoked a war through misunderstandings. The humans lost, and ever since, they’ve been living on an island and slowly handing over their technology at a rate that won’t destabilise the atevi society or destroy their environment. They don’t understand the word “like” except as expressing a preference for one food over another. Their emotions are real and strong and differently wired.

You know how people complain about SF worlds that only have one texture—the desert world, the world where all the aliens think alike? These are the antidote to that. The atevi have ethnicities and regional differences and priorities, they are hierarchical in the way they follow leaders, their superstitions and expectations are alien but consistent, and their planet feels like a planet with real history and geography. It’s fractal the way real things are. Nothing is neatly edged.

Cherryh’s real achievement here is the way she puts this over slowly. It’s an immersion course in living with atevi.

In the first book you learn that the language is very hard. You learn certain concepts such as “kabiu,” which means eating only the game hunted in that season, but extends to other kinds of appropriate behaviour. In the second book you start to learn that their language requires a lot of math to form correct plurals. By the third, you know there’s something almost like numerology going on. You haven’t learned to speak Ragi, the atevi language of the part of the planet nearest to the human island, but you really feel you know how it works. You’ve also laughed at other people’s mistakes, such as, for instance, the person who asks for a pregnant calendar instead of an urgent meeting.

One of the ways she creates the illusion of a whole language is by judicious use of unusual but entirely comprehensible English words and constructions. “By no means” and “infelicitous” and “scoundrel” and the use of “one” give the powerful impression of a translated language and a mindset.

The first trilogy concerns the relations between the atevi and the humans on the planet. In the second trilogy they get into space and deal with a different set of aliens. (I wanted to say a third, because humans are aliens to atevi. From their point of view, they had an alien invasion.) In the third trilogy they come home to chaos. The third trilogy especially concerns Cejeiri, an atevi boy who has come to be close to humans. In Deliverer we even get his point of view. It’s fascinating going from Bren, human in the midst of atevi, to Cejeiri, atevi who has spent years with humans going back in the midst of atevi terribly confused.

I love coming back to them knowing what’s going to happen and exploring the nuances and complexities of the betrayals and shifts in alliance. I love the little details of dress and food that say so much about the society, the starched lace cuffs, the formal meals in zero gravity, the introduction of the concept of pizza. I love the way it all feels so solid a web.

You may find these books too alien or too long or too complicated. For me, those are the good things about them.


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