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Foreigner by C. J. Cherryh

Cover art by Michael Whelan

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Foreigner is the first in a trilogy by C.J. Cherryh which does not belong to her Union-Alliance universe. These books are set on the world of the atevi, a species of tall, dark-skinned humanoids who have fourteen words for betrayal but not a single one for love. They have no concept of nations or territories, instead forming associations based upon man'chi, a semi-instinctive bond of loyalty that is apparently derived from the behavior of herd animals in their evolutionary history. Into that society came a lost colony ship of humans, unable to find their way back home to worlds that they knew after a disastrous navigational error, as told in a brief but engaging double prolog..

The humans are led by the Pilots' Guild, the descendants of the brave men and women who risked, and in many cases lost, their lives mining desperately-needed fuel for their ship in a stellar system of deadly radiation. They build a station over the one life-bearing world, but forebear to descend to it when it is discovered to be the home of a civilization. But in a move reminiscent of Larry Niven's The Gift from Earth, the Pilots' Guild becomes overweeningly proud and lords it over the ordinary colonists, denying them opportunities for the most desirable jobs and generally exerting undue control over their lives. At the end of their tether, the colonists finally rebel against the Pilots' Guild and descend to the planet in one-way capsules.

At first, contact seems to be going smoothly, and human and atevi work together freely. But trouble is already in the offing, for the simple reason that the atevi's patterns of thought the product of a very different evolutionary biology. They not only do not understand the human concepts of "friend" and "love," they literally cannot, save intellectually by analogy to their own system of man'chi. In time the stresses of those misunderstandings lead to a rupture, the short and brutal War of the Landing..

The total annihilation of the human refugee settlement is averted only by the atevi leader realizing the long-term value of the humans and their technology, and agreeing to permit them to settle upon the island of Mospheria, whose indigenes are removed to some of his most valuable estates. There will be no further random interaction between untrained humans and atevi. A single human, the paidhi or "interpreter," is permitted to interact with atevi society and serve as the go-between in technology transfers. This person is selected from the finest of human scholars of atevi society. However the sheer alienness of their culture makes this job incredibly difficult, since the paidhi is constantly forced to remember that many human concepts simply cannot be translated into the atevi tongue. And this is made worse by the political upheavals among the atevi that he must deal with.

Having read and re-read Susette Hadyn Elgin's Native Tongue series, I quickly noted that one of the reasons that the paidhi and his predecessors have so much trouble with the atevi tongue is that they study it as adults as an academic discipline, and apparently not from realtime interaction with native speakers. By the time they study it the critical period for language acquisition has long since passed with the hormonal changes of puberty.

Of course after the War of the Landing humans are probably reluctant to expose helpless little children to the atevi, but they could set up something similar to the Interface used by the Lines, with one section for the human child and the other for one or more atevi adults, with a window between and some provision for sound to get through, so that the child can interact enough for language acquisition without physical contact and the dangers it would represent. So long as the child's day was split to allow enough human contact for acquisition of human language and social expectations as well, within twenty years one would have a person who spoke the atevi tongue natively and understood their mindset as well as anyone with human brain hardwiring could possibly do.

The main part of the novel takes place two centuries after the War of the Landing and the segregation of humanity to Mospheria for its own safety. When Bren Cameron arrives on the mainland as the new paidhi, he is targeted by an assassin who enters his apartment in the middle of the night. He narrowly escapes this attempt on his life, only to fall into more trouble when well-intended gestures have dangerous consequences for human biology.

To safeguard Bren's life, the aija (leader) of the Western Association (the biggest not-exactly-a-nation on the atevi homeworld) sends him off to Malguri a historic castle on Lake Maidingi far from the Western Association capital of Shejidan and its intrigues. However, Bren is uncertain about just how much safety this historic monument actually represents. There the aija's grandmother, the aija-dowager Ilisidi, resides in a sort of exile since she was turned down twice as successor to the aijiship, first when her husband died and a second time when her son was assassinated by a rival. She is reputed to be something of a dragon-lady, certainly not someone to lightly cross.

However, Bren charms this dignified old woman, and after one attempt at poisoning (although it is ambiguous, since the alkaloids that are tasty condiments to atevi biology are deadly to humans) she places him under her own protection. Ilisidi even takes Bren out on a hunting expedition as a special treat. This involves riding on mecheiti, beasts that fill a role roughly equivalent to horses in atevi society. But mecheiti are nothing like horses, being aggressive omnivores closer to the size of camels or even elephants, with long rooting-tusks that can tear an ateva to pieces, and were used thusly in executions during earlier periods of atevi history.

They also have a social order very different from Terran herd animals, and more like that of the atevi themselves. The high-spirited beast ridden by the dowager, a creature by the name of Babsidi but nicknamed Babs by her, is a sort of aiji among mecheiti, and all the mecheiti of the herd at Malguri will follow -- a fact that puts Bren in some very awkward positions during the course of the outing. But he survives, if a bit sore, and wins further respect from Ilisidi, not only for himself personally, but by extension for humanity as a whole.

But Ilisidi's opinion is not the only one active at Malguri, as it turns out during what seems to be a pleasant encounter with a group of tourists visiting the public parts of the castle. It seems that the assassin who attacked Bren in Shejidan was only momentarily confused by the shift of venue, and has tracked him down. Fortunately Bren's security is able to protect him, but it makes painfully clear that his enemies are far more persistent and resourceful than either he or the aiji Tabini had suspected. The incident is followed by a sudden power outage that encompasses both the castle and half the nearby village, a problem that goes beyond mere inconvenience to arouse further suspicion.

The upset is followed by a period of uneasy peace in which Bren explores atevi culture and history at leisure, having lengthy philosophical discussions with the dowager Ilisidi and trying to sort out his own feelings. Yet the underlayer of menace never completely goes away, for every conversation has its potential traps in which he could say the wrong thing and cause offense, even on the most seemingly innocuous subject. After a television interview, he endures a very uncomfortable visit from Cenedi, Ilisidi's chief of security, who grills him intensely on things that would seem absurd in a human setting, but are of critical importance to atevi, including such abstruse mathematical concepts as the nature of infinity. An encounter that forcefully reminds Bren that Ilisid, for all her seeming accommodation with the Western Association and its eager embrace of human technologies, is still a child of the sternly traditionalist east, suspicious of outsiders, treasuring the old ways.

And then, just as that particular ordeal is over, the disaffected faction who had sent the assassins strike in force. Suddenly Bren is fleeing for his life, his only hope for survival lying in the dowager's security and his own slender skill in riding a mecheita. And the entire world's future may well rest upon his survival.

Cherryh's characterization of an alien civilization is superb, built through the accumulation of the details of daily life from the foods on the table (atevi of the Western Association believe it immoral to commercialize meat production, and confine the consumption of even vegetables and fruits to particular seasons deemed appropriate) to the number-awareness that is innate to the workings of the atevi mind but even such a highly-trained human as the paidhi must struggle to grasp. The casual dropping of the mention that the castle of Malguri was built in the atevi forty-third century, and Bren's quick calculation to realize this predates human presence in space, makes us realize just how old and how stable atevi civilization really is. And the surprise at the end clearly sets the stage for the next book, with the return of old rivals and the reawakening of a bitter old feud.

Review posted March 8, 2009

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