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Precursor by C. J. Cherryh

Published by Daw Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Precursor by C.J. Cherryh is the first book in a new trilogy set in the same world as Foreigner and its two sequels, Invader and Inheritor. Apparently the puzzling final chapter of Inheritor was in actuality only a hopeful dream of the future, for when this book opens, human and atevi are still kept firmly separate, with only the tiniest of channels opening between them. Bren Cameron, the paidhi or interpreter, who had been the one human allowed to interact with the atevi, now serves the atevi leader as much as he serves his own people. Most of all, he serves the hope that both species may be able to work together to stave off an attack by the mysterious aliens who brutally destroyed an outpost in another system.

The shuttle, built according to plans provided by the humans of the starship Phoenix, is finally finished and flying. Now it is time for atevi to claim their two portion of the station that has orbited their homeworld since the arrival of humans centuries earlier. Bren and several humans, accompanied by a staff of atevi, take the shuttle up to the station. This will mark the first time that any sizeable number of humans and atevi will be working together. Careful strictures will govern their interactions, but there is always the possibility that even the most trifling matter could lead to a disastrous confrontation, because of the deep differences between their cultures, many of them biological in nature.

However, things are not so simple as they seem. There are divisions among the people of the Phoenix, and Bren's people have walked straight into a power struggle. The first sign is Jase, the ship-paidhi whom Bren so painstakingly trained to live among atevi without giving offense, being suddenly recalled back to the ship and replaced by a new man who struggles with the simple matter of adapting to a planetary enviroment. The simple sight of a horizon gives the ironically-named Trent Cope vertigo -- he cannot cope.

And of course there is the two-century-old bitterness of the Pilots' Guild and their feud with the rest of the ship's passengers. After the disastrous navigation error, the people with extravehicular expertise put their lives on the line in order to mine desperately needed fuel in the deadly environment of a powerful blue-white star. Desperately grateful, the passengers voted them and their descendants extensive rights and authority in perpetuity. But as the original crisis recedes into memory, the descendants of the original heroes began to use their positions in ways that denied the commons any opportunity for advancement, to the point that the common folk rebelled and descended to the earth of the atevi in parachute landers.

Two centuries later, the old grudge still colors every interaction between the descendants of each side, sowing suspicion of every word and action. The humans of Mospheria, the island enclave granted them by the atevi after the disastrous War of the Landing, are not eager to return to the ship and what they remember as a tyranny on the part of the Pilots' Guild, and the ship-people want reassurances that they can trust any of the descendants of the rebels to follow orders as needed in an emergency.

As Bren spends more time with the people of the ship, he learns that Ramirez, whom Jase regards something as a father and who had been presented as the primary authority of the ship, is not the sole captain of the ship, but only the first among equals. Breaking all tradition that goes back to the old wet navies of a long-lost human earth, the Phoenix has four captains, roughly co-equal but sharing power in a complex arrangement that is intended to ensure that one of them will always be awake and ready to deal with a crisis the moment it occurs. However well this arrangement may work in theory, in fact it leads to rivalries among not only the captains themselves, but also the factions that form around them.

One of the four captains, PratapTamun, is new to his office, his predecessor having died less than a year before. As a result, he has not developed the deep-rooted network of connections enjoyed by the other three, and is uncertain of his power-base. Another, Jules Ogun, is widely regarded as corrupt and most likely a human supremist -- quite possibly the one principally responsible for antagonizing the mysterious hostile aliens who destroyed the station they established around a distant star. There are serious fears that he may well be hostile to the atevi as well, and will work to sabotage any cooperative arrangement with them.

In addition there are the continual petty cultural frictions, magnified by the simple fact that the people of the ship, unlike the people of Mospheria, have not had to deal as equals with another culture in generations. They balk at the requirements of the atevi for their own diet, and Bren has to explain to them with painful patience the concept of kabiu, the tradition that one does not eat food out of its proper season, nor seek to commercialize the taking of the lives of animals, and that it is essential that the atevi be confident that all their food meets that stringent code of propriety.

But Bren holds out the possibility of using his expertise in interspecies relations to establish communications with the hostile race who attacked the station, to prevent future hostilities, even if only by establishing a system of separation so that two incompatible cultures do not constantly rub against one another. Although Ogun is hostile to the idea, the other captains see the possibility of reducing or preventing future losses, and want to look into the possibility of a return trip to the station.

And then a crisis erupts planetside and he must return to the earth of the atevi to sort things out. This time there is trouble on the island, as human bigots of the lunatic fringe have taken drastic action, and his entire family may be in danger of being taken hostage and used as levers. Bren's only hope is to get them to safety, but he cannot go to them and must rely upon indirect communications that may be intercepted by unfriendly ears -- or worse, given a dangerous interpretation by those who should be his friends.

Cherryh continues to deliver her fascinating exploration of a truly alien society, from the viewpoint of a human observer who can only struggle with fragmentary and often seemingly contradictory information. Often everything Bren knows only serves to underline just how little he knows, as when he muses upon the possible origins of the astounding facility with numbers that the atevi possess. He speculates that it may have something to do with the regulating of the mating urge, since children use a form of the language that does not involve the intricate system of plurals for different kinds of sets and groupings. However, he considers that humans know almost nothing about atevi child development, or about the evolution of the most common atevi language, and that any speculation can only be so much groping in the dark.

The details of how the atevi cope with the artificial environment of the space station are fascinating, including the use of various small accessories to create harmonious patterns of felicitous number-sets that are so critical to the atevi way of thinking. It almost reminds me of the Chinese art of feng shui, which is intended to create balance and harmony in a space -- except that the atevi system isn't based upon energy flows and their management, but upon creating stable patterns of numbers that are so critical to their ability to be comfortable in a space. To an atevi, seeing two of a thing is like hearing fingers scraped along a chalkboard is to a human (one wonders how they manage to look at another persons face, since they have two eyes, and it appears that they have forward-facing eyes for binocular vision rather than having their eyes set on the sides of their heads as prey animals do, such that only one eye would be visible at any time).

This novel may seem slow to people who liked the original for its chases and the ever-present danger of assassination. This novel is more of an intricate dance of interpersonal relationships, with Bren trying to keep multiple rival factions from destroying one another, whether from active malice or from misapprehensions about alien culture. But sometimes threading through the subtleties of what is left unsaid can be as fascinating in its own way as a frantic pursuit across hostile territory.

Review posted March 8, 2009

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