When we last left our heroes, they had brought a handful of Reunioner kids from the station to the planet to visit Cajeiri. During their visit, all hell breaks loose (because of course it does), and Tatiseigi, the notorious human-hating curmudgeon, develops a fondness for the human kids when they admire his collection of artefacts.
At the beginning of this duology (Tracker, Visitor), the kids and Jase go back up to the station, where politics awaits. In the middle of an extremely messy intra-human conflict, the kyo show up. Because they know so little about the kyo, everyone decides that it’s best if they send the same three people as last time up to the station to meet the envoys, so Bren, Cajeiri, and Ilisidi venture up to the station. The human conflict comes to a head while they’re there, and they have to fix it before the kyo arrive. They do so, and Bren can get back to the important task of figuring out how the kyo language works.
One of the things Bren has to consider is how the people at Reunion acted when the kyo ship first arrived, so he interviews former stationmaster Braddock and his secretary (who happens to be the mother of Cajeiri’s associate Irene). Braddock is hostile toward Bren’s line of questioning, and he says he didn’t see any pattern in the flashing lights, so he ignored them. The series of events Bren hears from these two and what information he can suss out of the ship’s records (left by the late Captain Ramirez) conflict with each other. He then realizes that they’d been assuming so far that the humans had caused the conflict through their actions, based on the fact that the atevi conflict had been largely caused by human actions. But what if the kyo had made a horrible mistake, and it wasn’t originally a communication problem at all?
Before the start of the series, Ramirez had taken the ship toward the kyo home planet, then ran away when he saw their ship. The kyo are at war, and thinking Phoenix was one of their enemy’s ships, they followed its back-trail and blew up the station they found there. But the station didn’t return fire, so the kyo ship remained, sitting there and watching them for many years because it didn’t make sense. They even sent a person, Prakuyo an Tep, to investigate. The disaster at Reunion was possibly a terrible mistake that resulted in thousands of deaths among people who had no idea what they’d done to deserve it. It was doubly a tragedy, in that case.
The kyo have more than one reason to visit Alpha Station, as it turns out. First, they told Bren they would come visit, and they kept that promise. This part is a continuation of the first contact scenario they had at Reunion, where they’d been able to work out vocabulary and grammar by talking to each other. Bren has a brilliant flash of insight, and he creates an electronic dictionary with pictures and videos of objects, activities, etc, and recordings of them speaking the words, which Cajeiri takes to readily, and the kyo do, too.
It’s this part Bren is terrified of messing up. So much is riding on their being able to communicate with the kyo and explain that they’re peaceful. The kyo have vastly greater firepower, and they could easily wipe out the entire planet. Once the kyo envoys are on the station, the reader learns more and more about various aspects of the kyo language as Bren works it out. It’s interesting, but it’s not the most interesting linguistic conflict in this duology.
The second and main reason for the kyo’s visit is that they have a human POW on their ship, and they want to see how Bren reacts to seeing him. Bren is completely shocked at his existence, but he realizes that the kyo’s mysterious enemy must be humans, which explains why they thought Reunion was an enemy outpost (because the technology is similar and their sensors pick up similar readings). Bren now has an internal conflict: if he tells Cullen, the other human, about the society they’ve built on the atevi planet, he could then tell his humans about it, and they might come claiming ownership. But it doesn’t seem fair to Bren to keep this secret; it’s deception, and he doesn’t want to deceive this poor guy. He also doesn’t want to tell the Mospheiran government about the existence of these humans on the other side of kyo territory, because that might create a further division, where some Mospheirans and ship-people want to go back to the Earth they’ve been looking for for 250 years and others don’t. He ultimately decides to keep Cullen in the dark and to tell a select few people back on the planet.
When Bren first meets Cullen, he notices that Cullen’s speech is slightly off and some of the syllables are barely voiced, but the two men can understand each other. This may be the most Linguist sentence ever written in this series: “A part of him wished he had a recording of Cullen to analyze, because the degree of change […] offered clues, a clock set on the time of separation from the point of common origin.” We are just Like That, you see—even those of us who eschew formal linguistics.
This is also a real thing that some researchers (mostly evolutionary biologists) are doing. They use mathematical models to determine separation from a common point of origin, and they draw it in a clade diagram. This is called glottochronology, and, of course, it’s controversial. The assumption is that language changes at a constant rate over time, and it doesn’t really work that way. As a first-order approximation, though, it’ll get you in the ballpark. In 2003 Gray & Atkinson used this methodology to posit an earlier origin of Proto-Indo-European than is generally assumed. A discussion of the original article is available here, but the article itself is unfortunately behind a paywall.
So, anyway: Bren has encountered a human who is held captive by the kyo, and he sees in this human an opportunity to end their war. He decides to make Cullen into a paidhi for the kyo. He teaches Cullen what he knows so far about the kyo language, along with some basic diplomacy, and, most importantly, how to learn/teach himself. He only has a week to do it, and he also has to work out a treaty with the kyo that says the peoples of the atevi world will leave them alone, and vice versa, and if they want contact, they can go as far as Reunion, but no further.
Bren sees the conflict between the other humans and the kyo as similar to the human-atevi conflict, which they solved through learning to communicate with each other, and this included gaining intercultural competence. He believes that having an envoy between the two species—one who understands why both species do what they’re doing and who can explain it to the other in words they understand—is crucial for peace. We don’t see whether his hypothesis works out in this book, but he’s hopeful.
So, what do you think about Cullen and Bren’s decision to keep their planet secret? Do you think Cullen will succeed at being a paidhi? What about Cajeiri and his human associates and his association with Hakuut, which I didn’t even talk about here? Or are there any other thoughts you had? Do you think the other humans could be part of the Alliance-Union universe? Discuss in the comments!
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.