Bridges Go in Both Directions: Humans and Atevi in CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner Series

When we last left our heroes, they had stopped another atevi war, at least for now. They uncovered some very distressing political goings-on, which they will deal with soon. This brings us up to the fifth trilogy (Intruder, Protector, Peacemaker), in which Cajeiri’s ship-associates come down to the planet and land in the middle of the aforementioned messy political situation.

If you remember, when Cajeiri returned from the two-year voyage to Reunion and back, his elders were somewhat concerned about his development of man’chi. He had been around humans for that whole time, and maybe the feelings wouldn’t develop appropriately. Ilisidi was confident that they would, and Cajeiri did indeed develop some “proper atevi” feelings when he returned to the planet. His elders generally disapprove of his association with the human kids and want to disrupt it by keeping them separate, but Cajeiri clings to his happy memories of playing in the tunnels and sees the human kids as part of his network of associations: people whom he must protect, as aiji.

As his fortunate ninth birthday approaches, he asks, even begs, for the birthday party he was denied when Phoenix returned to the planet. With Bren and Ilisidi’s help, Tabini and Damiri, Cajeiri’s parents, are convinced to allow the children to land. There are two possible outcomes: 1) Cajeiri realizes what a bad idea having human associates is, or 2) Cajeiri further cements his relationships with the humans. (Of course, it ends up being option 2.) In an earlier column, I talked about the possibility of Cajeiri acting as a bridge between humans and atevi and the Reunioner kids as sort-of paidhiin themselves, and the events of this trilogy strongly support this reading.

Most of these three books are about intense atevi politics, with a trio of human kids dragged along for the ride. Their adventure starts out normal enough: there are a few misdirections of where Cajeiri is going so people don’t find out about his human guests until they’re ready. Bren and company meet the kids at the spaceport, and Jase Graham, the former ship-paidhi and now third captain of Phoenix, is with them as a chaperone of sorts. Bren remarks that Jase’s Ragi now has an accent similar to Lord Geigi’s, which makes sense, because Geigi is the ateva Jase talks with the most.

For the past week, Cajeiri has been practicing his ship-speak and teaching his aishid some of the important phrases, but when they arrive, he finds once again that his ship-speak has a lot of holes in it, for things that are important to atevi culture and the planet but that don’t exist on the space station: house, rock, river. As the human kids experience these things for the first time, Cajeiri gives them the Ragi words for them, and they reciprocate as much as possible. The kids also get to try out their Ragi with Lord Tatiseigi, and when one of them calls the porcelain lilies “delicious,” Bren has to tell him they meant “beautiful.”

There are still cultural hurdles the kids face. Cajeiri calls for his tailor to make appropriate dress clothes for his human guests for a formal dinner, and the trio becomes upset. Cajeiri doesn’t know why until one of the humans asks who’s going to pay for the materials. He assures them that he’s paying for it, and they become even more dismayed: they brought him presents and don’t expect anything from him in return. Once Cajeiri understands what’s going on, he tells them that it’s the atevi way, and if he wants to give gifts for his birthday, he can. He seals the deal by saying the forbidden word: “Friends!”

Then the formal dinner comes, and the human kids learn the appropriate apology from Saidin, Damiri’s major domo, in case they spill something. One thing the group didn’t prepare for was Tabini asking them whether they enjoyed the dinner, but Irene, the youngest and the only girl, answers appropriately and then goes on a little bit later to have an entire conversation with Damiri. None of them expected that, because Irene is shy to the point of timidity, but, for reasons that become apparent in the next trilogy, she is highly motivated to learn Ragi well.

It’s not just the kids who encounter new words or have discussions about the meaning of the word friend. At the beginning of the first book, while Geigi is still on the planet cleaning up his nephew’s mess, he and Bren are sitting together with drinks, and Geigi asks, “Are we friends?” From any other ateva, this would be a dangerous question, because of the well-known pitfalls between friendship and Ragi association, but Bren thinks that, because he has to negotiate the human-atevi interface every day in the course of his job, Geigi is capable of understanding, at least on an intellectual basis, the human concept of friendship. He’s observed humans doing things like sitting together and talking over drinks, for example, and he wonders if this applies to his relationship with Bren. Bren admits that, even though he mentally closed off that word for use with atevi years ago, he considers Geigi a friend. This pleases Geigi a great deal, and the two agree that this peculiar word describes their peculiar association well.

Then they talk about the word love, and spend half an hour concluding that it was not quite man’chi. Humans can, to some degree, choose whether to attach themselves to a particular individual (and may choose wrongly), but with atevi, it’s instinctual. They conclude, “We are sure of nothing in our basic feelings. And that is what we have in common.”

One thing Cherryh gets really right is that it’s the kids who work together to create a bridge between the cultures. In situations in real-world human history, it’s considered most likely that children were at the forefront of the development of creole languages from the pidgins their parents developed to communicate with each other. Children’s language abilities, especially before puberty, are much more flexible than those of adults, so it’s easier for them to learn another language and learn it well. It’s not improbable that Irene was able to develop skill in Ragi to the extent we see in the text, as long as she had sufficient input. We aren’t shown the resources Irene had available to her, but it’s possible that she had a text in Ragi that Cajeiri smuggled to her, or a secret link to atevi TV. We can’t say for sure, obviously, but it’s still plausible from what we understand of human cognition as regards language acquisition.

Like the previous trilogy, the bulk of this one is focused on atevi politics and machinations, so the language aspects aren’t as much in the forefront as in the beginning trilogies. But don’t worry, if this seems to be getting a little repetitive: there’s a lot of linguistics shenanigans in the next three books, piled on top of plenty of human political shenanigans, so look forward to that next month!

So! Were you as surprised as everyone else that Tatiseigi took to the human kids? What was your favorite part of the kids’ adventure on a planet for the first time ever? And just in general, do you have a favorite part or section from these books?

CD Covington has masters degrees in German and Linguistics, likes science fiction and roller derby, and misses having a cat. She is a graduate of Viable Paradise 17 and has published short stories in anthologies, most recently the story “Debridement” in Survivor, edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj and J.J. Pionke. You can find her current project, a book on practical linguistics for writers, on Patreon.

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