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Invader by C. J. Cherryh

Cover art by Michael Whelan

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When Invader begins, Bren Cameron is recovering from wounds sufferred in the climactic fight in Foreigner. However, he is to be given no time to convalesce. The human ship Phoenix, missing for two centuries, has suddenly returned to the world on which humans live in an uneasy truce with the native atevi, to whom Bren serves as paidhi, or interpreter. This development has radically changed the nature of the relationship between atevi and human, tilting the balance that had ensured neither could gain the upper hand -- neither the humans with their advanced technology nor the atevi with their overwhelming preponderance of numbers. A starship by its nature holds the ultimate high ground, and the atevi with their long tradition of treachery and intrigue cannot help but be aware of it.

Still weak and ill from his injuries, Bren must return to the mainland with its intricate web of loyalties and treacheries, all driven by an evolutionary imperative that humans can only study intellectually, but never truly understand. His problem has been made worse by the actions of his temporary replacement, a rival who now refuses to relinquish her position and return to the island. A rival who had hoped her powerful political connections would outweigh her weaker command of the atevi language, and was sadly disappointed when Bren was chosen based upon his technical command of the difficult grammar of a language in which numbers are encoded into almost everything.

As temporary paidhi, Deana Hanks has also complicated matters by offering faster-than-light theory to the atevi without authorization by the human government. Not only does this contravene the policy of doling out information in small lumps that won't disastrously affect the balance of power, it also offends the religious/philosophical sensibilities of a sizeable faction among the atevi, the Determinists. (For various reasons, atevi have an extraordinary aptitude for mathematics that may be born of fundamental differences in neurological hardwiring). There is a real danger that they may turn against the aiji Tabini and the entire Western Association could disintegrate into civil war, destroying everything humans have struggled to create and preserve ever since the War of the Landing.

While Bren is struggling with this, the ship's captain announces that the ship wishes to be represented, and will be sending their own paidhi into this volatile situation. However, there are two major problems with this plan. First, no one has a suitable shuttle. The atevi and human settlers neither have a space capacity. The ship has shuttles, but none of their pilots have the necessary experience in flying in atmosphere. Thus they decide to use one of the two-century-old drop pods that remain aboard the abandoned station. This will be a one-way trip, and their representatives will be stranded on the planet until either atevi or human settlers can build a working shuttle. Second, their candidate, Jason Graham, has only the most minimal background in linguistics, and that mostly from studying historical human languages that are now dead among the ship's community. He will have to learn almost everything about the atevi, their culture and their language, when he arrives.

Amidst these plans, a faction of atevi suddenly kidnap the troublesome Hanks. However, there is puzzling evidence that she may have gone willingly, and that she may have even suggested this as a means to get her into the hands of atevi allies on the fringes of power. And in a society in which assassination is an accepted means of dealing with difficult political problems and an agent may pretend a man'chi he or she does not possess in order to gain access to the target, Hanks' defection presents a major threat to the stability of the entire world.

Bren struggles to balance all the various forces, including having to communicate to the captain of the Phoenix the sheer importance of good relations with the atevi, combined with the absolute impossibility of ever breaching certain biologically driven boundaries. Not only is there the weight of the bitter history of the Pilots' Guild over-reaching the authority they had been given in the midst of the horrific emergency when the ship was first lost, but there is also a lack of history -- the ship's crew have no folk-memory of the War of the Landing. They did not go through their childhoods passing memorials to the war or observing the minute of silence each year on Treaty Day. Thus Bren cannot be sure how well their intellectual knowledge of the history he has transmitted to them will translate into emotional appreciation of why things must be done in a certain way.

And all the time he remains painfully aware that he is working with technologies that have profound numerical significance to the atevi, a significance that is built right into their brains. Ragi (the predominant atevi language) has numerical significance attached to almost every aspect of grammar, to the point that using the wrong form of the adjective for a set can produce an infelicitous number which will massively offend the person with whom one is speaking. And FTL travel involves mathematics of a sort that is maddening enough for humans talking with other humans, to the point that Bren despairs of ever being able to parse how atevi will perceive what he is trying to say. Given that a misstep in this field could lead to implacable and irrevocable hostility toward the ship and its people and permanently foreclose the possibility of the Mospherian humans' return to space, he cannot afford even the slightest of missteps, particularly when dealing with the hostility of the staunch traditionalist Lord Geigi of the Atageini.

Desperate for some sort of guidance, Bren approaches his chief of security with a request to speak with atevi mathematicians who have worked with astronomy. However, he is met with incredulity -- the atevi, living in a relatively unpopulated area of space with few bright stars, have had little interest in the heavens, save in terms of numerological prognostication. And their failure to anticipate the arrival of the Phoenix two centuries earlier, with all the felicitous and infelicitous numbers produced by the movement of its various shuttles and other sub-vehicles and its creation of the station, led to their falling into disrepute, regarded as little better than charlatans.

And as if all these political and strategic problems aren't enough, Bren's own personal life is in a shambles. Barb, his long-time girlfriend whom he thought he might marry, has decided that a relationship with a man who is absent more often than present is simply too frustrating. At the same time, Bren is getting signals from Jago, the junior member of his security detail and female, that look startlingly like romantic overtures. But given that atevi do not, can not feel human affection, he is at a loss to tell just what they mean. And given the great emphasis put on propriety in atevi culture, he is unsure how to broach such a delicate subject. The publicly available cultural indicators such as the machimi plays steer clear of the matter of the ways of woman and man, and even asking a trusted associate could put Jago's reputation in jeopardy.

Things come to a head as the drop-pod is about to land and various atevi factions are trying to turn it into a disaster. Bren and the atevi leader's people are able to both retrieve Hanks and safely land the ship representatives (there is also one who will go to the human settlement).

On the whole, this novel gives the feeling of moving more slowly than the original, at least partly because so much of the action involves meetings with various committees in which issues are hashed out by slow debate rather than swift strokes of violence. But the threat of violence hangs over every incident, and Bren's constant fears of having the entire Western Association come apart on his watch gives the storyline urgency.

Cherryh also continues to explore the inner workings of the atevi mind, albeit as seen through the eyes of a human. We are constantly reminded that atevi do not think as humans do -- they are constantly reckoning numbers and their relationships in a way that forces them to be precise where humans would use approximations. And as a new group of humans enters the delicate balance between the two species, we get to see how atevi deal with unexpected change.

Review posted March 8, 2009

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