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Explorer by C. J. Cherryh

Cover art by Michael Whelan

Published by Daw Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

C. J. Cherryh brings the second Foreigner trilogy to a rousing close with this novel of interspecies negotiation. Bren Cameron has built a solid, if sometimes difficult, career out of facilitating relationships between marooned humans and the atevi, a race with fourteen words for betrayal and not a one for love.

It's a delicate balance he maintains, complicated by the dangerous ways in which the points of similarity between humans and atevi can lead each side to assume that the other things the same way in places where they most assuredly don't. But now a new force has entered the mix, mysterious aliens who assaulted the station established by the starship Phoenix in a distant system. The leaders of the ship are hoping that Bren, with his long experience dealing with the atevi, may be able to sort out the issues and establish some form of relations with these aliens, if only a modus vivendi based upon strict segregation of their respective species.

Now Bren is aboard the Phoenix, racing toward that distant star system with no certainty that the situation has not undergone drastic change in the ten years since the ship was last there. Accompanying him is a delegation from the atevi aiji or leader, Tabini: his grandmother Ilisidi, the aiji-dowager and a very formidable woman with deep roots in the traditionalist east, and her great-grandson and ward, the aiji's heir Cajeiri. Because of peculiarities of atevi biology which relate to the formation of social hierarchies, atevi lords generally do not raise their own children, instead fostering them to a series of important relatives in order to establish powerful associations based upon man'chi, the instinctive drive to attach oneself to a herd alpha.

But Cajeiri is still a boy, however different his species may be, and as such he is still curious and impulsive. In a culture such as that of the atevi, very prim and traditional, such qualities are a protocol disaster waiting to happen. In Defender he embarrassed himself during a formal memorial ceremony by dropping his program in full view of everyone present. Since that day Ilisidi has taken special measures to drum into his young head the notion of his obligations as a future lord of the Western Association, the largest and most powerful not-nation of the atevi. But however much time Cajeiri may have spent memorizing lists of rules and genealogies of powerful lords, when the opportunity for mischief strikes, he's still apt to follow his impulse rather than social expectations.

And then there is the matter of humans. Given the close quarters aboard the ship, it is virtually impossible to maintain the strict segregation of human and atevi that has been the rule ever since the War of the Landing, the disastrous conflict that resulted from humans' unwitting transgressions of atevi relationships which they lacked the hardwiring to understand. It may not be so important for the adult atevi, their minds and characters firmly settled into mature forms, but Cajeiri's mind has the plasticity of youth and nobody has ever allowed a child of either race to be exposed to the other species' culture. Even the paidhiin, the human ambassadors to the atevi of whom Bren is the last of a long line, begin their training after puberty and do it entirely as an academic exercise, interacting with actual live atevi only after they have reached a satisfactory level of mastery. There is serious concern that exposure to human culture could subtly warp Cajeiri's thinking such that he will not possess vital responses natural to an ateva, or at least possess them imperfectly, such that he will be effectively insane, incapable of functioning in atevi society.

And the atevi aren't the only ones worried about cultural contamination, as Bren discovers in the course of his discussions with the leaders of the ship. The hardliners among the Pilots' Guild, the original leadership of the humans, had come to regard themselves as the sole guardians of all things human. They had feared that contact with the atevi might contaminate human culture with alien ideas, creating a mongrel culture unworthy of the high tradition of spacefaring humans. An attitude that leads to a reflexive suspicion of the Mospherians, the humans who descended to the atevi earth, as second-class humans. A suspicion that goes double for Bren as a result of his professional association with the atevi, and which ignites in him a mirror reaction that he has to fight lest it impair his ability to fulfill his mission. A mission on which the future of both human and atevi may depend.

However, it appears that Ramirez was opposed to the Guild's stranglehold on the lives of the ship-people, and was hoping to found another colony somewhere else, where humanity would be free to develop diversity, to have lives that weren't regulated down to the minute by Guild orders. And in the process of his search for a suitable planet he apparently stumbled upon aliens who strenuously objected to his presence in what they regarded as their space, and theirs alone. Aliens who registered their displeasure by attacking Reunion Station.

All these rifts make the approach to Reunion Station a very apprehensive one. Even if the two hundred humans who were left behind aboard it still survive, they may well not be willing to accept the authority of the captains of the Phoenix. Worse yet, they may not be willing to accept Bren's efforts to mediate with the aliens, and may even attempt to sabotage it. And that's not even discussing the question of how they will react to the presence of atevi on a ship that has previously been the prize possession of humanity alone.

In his efforts to ease some of the distrust, Bren arranges a special dinner that will bring the key human and atevi leaders together around a table. It's a delicate proposition, particularly given the atevi need to have all the numbers balance properly. And by including the heir, they expose Cajeiri to human influences.

Influences that first make themselves felt by his sudden interest in building and racing model cars. It seems harmless enough, but then the atevi, starved for entertainment, begin to watch movies from the human Archive. Movies that deal with human relationships, human values, human emotions and affections. Again an intellectual issue for adult minds, but Cajeiri is still in his formative years, and as a result of the exposure, combined with his boredom, he develops a determination to have more. A determination that leads him to break all proper protocol and enter Bren's cabin to make his appeal.

Finally the two-year-long journey comes to its culmination as the ship arrives at Reunion station. There is the anticipated tension with the Guild, but it goes surprisingly easy. Too easy in fact, and they realize something is amiss. There is another ship in the system, an alien one. Although it makes no hostile gestures, its very presence is menacing.

Slowly, tentatively, Bren establishes communication with the ship, seeking to reassure the unknown aliens that Phoenix seeks only to remove the humans from the aliens' territory and return to whence it came. But the answer is disturbing -- the aliens sent a probe only to have it attacked, and worse, they believe that the station captured one of their dead. When the leaders of the station are questioned, they seek to lie, and only when pinned to the wall do they finally admit the truth -- they have captured one of the aliens, and not merely a corpse to be dissected, but a living alien whom they have kept prisoner for years.

And thus begins the climax of the novel, the delicate negotiations with the captive alien, seeking to develop enough common language to establish some kind of communication. And it is this at which Cherryh excels, refusing to give us the obvious solution, making Bren and his atevi allies work through the problem in slow and painful steps. And furthermore, she refuses to give in to any hint of human supremacy, but instead suggests that the alien may find atevi thought processes more comprehensible than human.

In all, it's a triumphant ending to the second Foreigner trilogy, but leaves room for plenty more stories now that relations with the kyo have been established, and there are hints of yet another race further out in space, a race whose rapacious actions they fear. The alliance of two races is about to become felicitous three, and somehow Cherryh makes our human minds appreciate that fact in spite of lacking atevi numerical hardwiring.

Review posted March 8, 2009

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