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Defender by C.J. Cherryh

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In the fifth volume of the series begun with Foreigner, Bren Cameron continues to navigate his way through the tangled webs of relations between humans and atevi. At every step lies peril, made all the worse by the new necessity for close co-operation between the two species, a co-operation that is exceedingly perilous because of fundamental biological differences in the neurological hardwiring of the two species.

Atevi have no word for love, no word for friendship. They are physiologically incapable of understanding those human drives, but their outward behaviors can seem deceptively similar enough to human ones, enough to lure humans into believing that they share those feelings. That has already led to one disastrous war, and in order to prevent a second, humans were moved to the island of Mospheria and contact between humanity and atevi was restricted to a single ambassador, the paidhi. But that arrangement ceased to be workable when the long-lost starship Phoenix suddenly returned with word that there was a third intelligent race out there. A race implacably hostile to humanity, who had destroyed their station in another system.

Tight co-operation between humans and atevi has been working astonishingly well for the past several years, yet Bren remains constantly aware that it could all come apart far too easily. This time the stakes are even higher, since failure could leave the earth of the atevi defenseless to the depredations of the unknown alien race out there. And while it is probable that there are still humans living, perhaps even in abundance, in the stellar vicinity of the human earth that was lost when the Phoenix underwent its navigation error, atevi have nothing but their one planet, and if it were attacked, they could become extinct.

Just to underline how alien the atevi are in their patterns of thought, Cherryh begins this novel with a formal ceremony led by Tabini, the aiji (leader) of the Western Association, the largest and most powerful of the nation-equivalents of the atevi. We see it through Bren's eyes as he struggles to interpret the complex number-symbolism that Tabini invokes as part and parcel of his speech simultaneously swearing his loyalty to the traditional virtues of the atevi -- the code of conduct known as kabiu -- and his determination to continue carrying his people forward into space and the future. Yet at the same time he is painfully aware that he is only understanding it at an intellectual level, not the emotional one at which the atevi do. He simply lacks the hardwiring to respond instinctively to the infelicitous two that Tabini invokes to hold the attention of the audience, or the felicitous three by which he relieves the tension at a key point in his speech.

In this chapter we also gain one of our first glimpses of atevi childhood, in the form of Tabini's son Cajeiri. He is in the company of Ilisidi, who is taking over his upbringing from his great-uncle Tataseigi, clan leader of the traditionalist Atageini. Bren knows that something significant is going on -- among the atevi, leaders are marked by their lack of any upward loyalty, and as a result they do not raise their own children, but instead have them fostered out to various relatives in order to establish critical links of man'chi, which is not precisely loyalty, but an instinctive emotional attachment to a herd alpha. However, given the very prim and proper attitudes of atevi society, Bren can only ask questions about Cajeiri's situation with extreme caution, weighing every word to avoid giving offense, and sift every word of the responses for unspoken information.

And then it's back up to the station for Bren, where he must see to the ongoing preparations for the long trip out to the distant station at which hostile aliens may or may not be waiting. These preparations are complicated by the atevi adherence to the strict code of kabiu. The most obvious effect of kabiu is upon provisioning, and, which gives a sense that kabiu is like kosher in Jewish practice or halal in Islam, although the specifics are quite different -- rather than having a list of permitted and forbidden foods, atevi believe that foods should only be eaten during their natural season, and adamantly refuse to keep animals for slaughter, eating only game. However, kabiu is a much broader system than merely dietary prohibitions, and is a guide for proper behavior and the way of leading one's life. Eating slowly and with ceremony, mindful that one is consuming life, is kabiu, while grabbing meals in haste at random times with one's attention on other tasks is not. Hand-crafted dishes passed down through the generations are very kabiu, while manufactured ones are at best suspect.

However, where a problem exists, ingenuity will find a solution. Lord Geigi, a respected aristocrat with an interest in engineering, has developed a system by which one can create an environment for fish to live, but not technically cross the line to farming them. By a complex series of tanks interconnected in such a way to provide a multiplicity of escape routes from the one from which the atevi will take fish, they give each fish a fair chance to escape. In addition, they carefully choose a species that has no set migratory pattern, thus avoiding the problem of season and ensuring that atevi working on the station or riding aboard a spaceship can have access to an adequate supply of philosophically acceptable protein for good health.

But technical problems are often far easier to resolve than the interpersonal ones, particularly when they become political in nature. Ramirez, the seniormost of the four captains of the Phoenix, is elderly and not in good health, and the effects of the attempted mutiny in Precursor did not help his condition. When he takes a turn for the worse and dies, the delicate balance of power that was established after the mutiny's failure is in jeopardy.

Worse, the shakeup of his death leads to loose talk among the ship-folk who are normally so tightly disciplined. A rumor begins to circulate that the distant station was not so completely destroyed as the captains had claimed upon arriving at the atevi earth. That the crew that was supposed to have been slaughtered one and all in fact had some survivors that have continued to maintain the station. Survivors who could, just by existing, reveal the location of the atevi earth to the mysterious hostile aliens. Not only is it a public-relations disaster when Mospheria is still apt to distrust the Pilots' Guild, the elite of the Phoenix based on a two-century-old power struggle, but it means that the margin of safety that they had assumed in planning their mission to contact the aliens may be an illusion.

Bren advises drastic methods of rumor-control, keeping the workers on their shifts so they have no idle time to gather and speculate about the situation, while he seeks some kind of clarification from the surviving captains. At length Jason Graham, who was elevated to the status of juniormost captain to replace the mutineer, makes a formal announcement complete with a translation into the atevi tongue (although with a few embarrassing errors). Yes, two hundred survivors did remain aboard Reunion station, attempting to repair it and resume fuel mining in case Phoenix should find no assistance in the home system of the atevi. Worse yet, further questioning reveals that the those two hundred were by and large the most hardline of the members of the Pilots' Guild, those most adamant of their hereditary privileges.

So the Phoenix must go back to Reunion and retrieve the remaining crew, destroying anything that could possibly give away the location of the atevi earth to the mysterious aliens who have so far only been glimpsed. But just as the ship is about to take off, Tabini sends a personal delegation to observe -- his grandmother Ilisidi, the aiji-dowager, and his son Cajeiri, As if the protocol issues of dealing with the impulsive young boy aren't enough, Ilisidi reveals that Ramierez had been contacting Tabini directly, bypassing Bren and all established protocols for interactions between human and atevi. The possibility for disaster is almost unimaginable. It may well be all that Bren can do to keep some seemingly-insignificant misunderstanding from destroying everything that humans and atevi have created together.

This novel is the shortest yet of the series, and has the feeling of being a bridge, connecting the events of the first trilogy with the planned trip to sort things out at Reunion Station. Unlike the novels of the original trilogy, it doesn't really stand on its own. Rather, it seems as if Cherryh is shifting from a series of sequentially connected novels to a roman fleuve, a singe literary artifact that appears in multiple physical books as a result of the constraints of binding (if one allows a book to become too thick, it becomes too awkward for casual reading and the spine becomes unstable). As a result, this is not a book for someone to pick up as their first introduction to the universe, but Cherryh is a writer with a sufficient track record that publishers are confident she will continue to pull in sales.

The only other major problem I had was the way in which "Guild" was used both as a short form of "Assassin's Guild," an atevi institution that simultaneously provides security for important people and kill people perceived as being problematic, and as a short form of "Pilot's Guild," that human institution which caused the split between the ship and the settlers who descended to Mospheria. At times I had to think to remember exactly which Guild was being discussed, which did slow my reading a little. But on the whole it was a small enough flaw that, given my investment in the story of humanity's relationship with the atevi, I was willing to ride over it to find out what would happen next.

Review posted March 8, 2009

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