Were We Wrong All Along? Interspecies Relations in CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner Series

Bren is back from space, but he has to go to the human enclave of Mospheira to deliver a copy of the kyo treaty to President Tyers and make the arrangements for the first Reunioner families to land on the planet. For the first time, he goes to Mospheira as an atevi lord and diplomat, and that means his bodyguards and a few staff go with him. The majority of these four books (Convergence, Emergence, Resurgence, Divergence) is about atevi politics, but the first two show how Bren’s bodyguard reacts to Mospheira and how the structure of the atevi studies department at the university is, in fact, a hindrance to human-atevi relations.

I was a bit excited when the atevi went to Mospheira—the first time since the treaty was signed—because I hoped we might get some atevi observations of humanity. There were some, but I wished there were more. I like outsider perspectives on things I consider normal. Bren compares human things to atevi referents, like a particular politician, which is a pretty normal thing to do. His aishid is perplexed at the panel of pundits after a news report, and Bren has to explain that, no, they aren’t experts or lords, just people who have opinions. I loved that Tano really liked fried fish and the cake that Bren’s old friend Sandra baked, and I appreciated the evening that Bren got Mospheiran street food delivered to their swanky residence so his bodyguards and staff could get the Real Mospheiran Experience. It has nothing to do with linguistics, but it felt absolutely real and relatable.

One of the things Bren has to arrange for the Reunioners is finding tutors for the kids. He ends up with three students who run an anime club…er, a machimi club, where they dress atevi style and speak Ragi and watch fansubbed machimi plays. I decided to call them atevaboo. So Bren has to explain to these young atevi enthusiasts that they have to look “normal,” at least in the clothes they wear, because any eccentricity or scandalous behavior they display will reflect badly on the kids—and they really don’t need that complication. There are still humans on Mospheira who hate atevi and want no contact with them, and they’ve been known to cause a bunch of problems. (Remember back in the beginning, with Deana Hanks, her atrocious Ragi, and the entire Heritage Party plot? They’re still around, though they’re not in power.)

The thing that’s been bugging me through the entire series is finally brought into the open here: that the approach the humans took toward sharing technology with atevi was paternalistic and, as Bren put it, embarrassing. The university’s Linguistics Department focuses on the atevi language and believes that they need to be the arbiter of technology to the atevi so they don’t disrupt atevi society again and cause another war. They parse every word for meaning and display it like a butterfly under glass; they don’t see it as a living entity.

Everything about the way they’ve gone about human-atevi relations since the War of the Landing is wrong, Bren finally realizes. The station proves it. Humans and atevi live side by side, and they work together. Though still separated into their own sections, the precariousness of life on a space station makes them more compatriots than trading partners, like on the planet. To prevent another war, the first committee decided that strict segregation was the only way. But now, with a jointly operated space station, humans and atevi have to communicate with their counterparts in operations. Under these controlled circumstances, things haven’t gone to hell. As Bren notes, “it had taken nearly 210 years of foot-dragging on both sides of the strait before they decided to communicate—really communicate.”

Since the beginning of his tenure as paidhi, Bren has broken all the rules. Departmental regulations state that the paidhi cannot speak Ragi; they can only use select, approved words from a dictionary which have been deemed safe, and they can only use them in writing. On Bren’s first day as paidhi, Tabini talked to him and expected a verbal answer. Bren didn’t want to be rude, so he answered out loud. This sparked their collegial relationship: they were both young men, and Tabini was a technophile. He understood that the inventions being doled out to them by the committee would improve the lives of his people, so he took to it like gangbusters.

The committee hates Bren, and they would recall him as paidhi if they could. They tried, early on, but Tabini rejected all the replacements. So while he’s on Mospheira to deliver the kyo treaty and start organizing things for bringing the Reunioners to the planet, Bren is summoned to a committee meeting, where he basically has to justify his existence. Except he turns everything on its head, which pisses the committee off even more…

He explains to them that the job of paidhi as they envisioned it is over: there is no more technology to arbitrate. Everything from the ship’s archive is in atevi hands, and everything salvaged from Reunion will be, as well. He explains that the job of a paidhi, which is an atevi name for an atevi office, is to be a neutral negotiator for all sides of a discussion; the original committee interpreted it incorrectly, or imposed their own meaning on it, and there wasn’t anything he could do about that. His job now is to be the paidhi in the original sense. He negotiates on Tabini’s behalf, but he can also negotiate on Mospheira’s behalf or Ilisidi’s behalf, and he’s even negotiated on Machigi’s behalf. It’s the way the world is now, and the committee is going to have to catch up.

The statement that angers them the most, though, is that his successors will need to be fluent in Ragi, kyo, and the ship and Reunion dialects, and the department will need to train them to be ready for further potential first contact situations. The department wants to keep its hold on power and maintain its importance. Bren makes suggestions for additions that would keep them relevant for years to come: a professorship for Reunioner studies to document and preserve the unique language which developed out of their experience, and increased interdisciplinary studies, which must not be cloistered off in the ivory tower. The committee is outraged, of course, that Bren is dictating to them what to do, but they’re grasping at the last straws of their power.

The experience with the kyo, and the realization that both sides had done something wrong, makes Bren realize that the humans, himself included, had drawn the wrong conclusion about the source of conflict two hundred years before. The last group of settlers that came down from the station were the administrators and security, and they decided that they knew how best to manage the situation. Except the status quo had grown up around the humans and the atevi organically, and when the outsiders stepped in, they ruined everything. But atevi had also made mistakes in interpreting human behavior and in responding to human actions as well. Now Bren thinks that atevi and humans can learn to be good neighbors if they communicate—really communicate—with each other and don’t attempt to change the others’ societies, because they understand that it isn’t possible.

He knows this is going to happen regardless: the workers on the station are already breaking centuries of rules and conventions, and the bond between Cajeiri and the three Reunioner kids who will someday perform a function similar to Bren’s reflects a new development in intercultural relations. The peoples on both sides of the strait will have to adapt. This is how things work in our reality, too. When groups of people are brought together and need to interact with each other, they work out a way to communicate. As we saw a few arcs ago, the human and atevi operations crews figured out a way to signal each other at shift change that there was a problem that needed to be resolved or that had been resolved. Their interactions thus far are limited, but that is likely to change.

These are the last books (so far) in the Foreigner series. The way book 21 ends gives me the impression that the next story arc may end the series—it feels like the next bit of politics that they handle will tie off a lot of the loose ends, at least on the planet. I could be entirely wrong, of course! It just feels like the main narrative arc is reaching its destination, based on fortymumble years of reading experience. I’ll make a couple predictions, and we can see in another five years or so how well I did. The political situation Bren and Ilisidi are going into will be messy, but they’ll resolve it in their favor, and finally the aishidi’tat will have peace. Ilisidi will die…possibly before achieving her goal, but that would be unfair and out of tone for the narrative. There will be flare-ups of nationalist politics on Mospheira that have to be quelled and may result in the temporary relocation of Cajeiri’s associates to the mainland for their safety. Something will happen on the station. There will be a flash-forward epilogue where we see Cajeiri as aiji and his humans advising him, and we’ll see the evolution of a more open border between humans and atevi.

So, what do you think? Is the Linguistics Department wrong? How about that machimi club, eh? Is the conflict between Bren and the committee (and the paternalism of their doling out of technology) a retcon? Discuss and share your thoughts on this post and the entire Foreigner series below 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.

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