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Visitor by C. J. Cherryh

Cover art by Todd Lockwood

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Over the past several years I've been growing increasingly frustrated with the Foreigner series. Ever since Phoenix left Reunion Station with the promise that the kyo would be coming to visit the Earth of the atevi and see how two species lived in harmony, I'd been looking forward to second contact. Their first meeting had been so terribly fraught, given what had gone before. At the time, the most important thing had been to establish sufficient communication that the kyo would permit Phoenix to evacuate the residents of Reunion Station and leave peacefully.

And then Phoenix returned to the Earth of the atevi to find trouble. After a century and a half of slow and careful technology transfer, the sheer rapidity of the development necessary to reactivate the station had strained the Western Association to the breaking point. A usurper sat in the Bujavid, the ancient fortress-capitol in Shejidan, and Tabini-aiji was on the run, quite possibly dead. Bren had to re-establish communications with Tabini-aiji and return him to power.

And then there was one after another political crisis, to the point the story started reading more like a political soap opera. I began to seriously wonder if the author had lost control of the storyline and had no idea of what to do with the kyo when she brought them back on camera. Might she be just spinning all this political soap opera as a way of stalling for time while she struggled to figure out what she wanted to do with the problem storyline? Or worse, might she just be wandering forever in this hall of mirrors, producing one after another book that, however fascinating they might be on their own terms, brought us no closer to the return of the kyo?

And then, amidst the political soap opera in Tracker, the news finally comes: the kyo have been sighted approaching the system and will soon be arriving. Suddenly Bren has to wind up his negotiations on the surface and come up to Alpha Station ready to negotiate with an alien species, one with whom there is already bad blood. And before he can do that, he has to sort out an internal human problem.

A problem that is still echoing as this volume takes up. And it is being dealt with in a manner that would have been unthinkable even a decade or two ago, by Cajeiri and the aiji-dowager Ilisidi taking several key humans under their protection in the atevi part of the station. Only then can they begin the complex process of putting together suitable quarters for their kyo guests. They remember a little of the conditions they glimpsed during the brief visit to the kyo ship at Reunion, so they have some vague idea of the environmental parameters and furnishings they need to replicate in order to extend suitable hospitality to their guests.

Meanwhile, Bren must refresh his acquaintance with the kyo language, something on which he had only the most tenuous grasp even when he was talking with them. The time was simply too brief, the meetings too limited, to go far beyond concrete signifiers, a few verbs and terms of relationship. Even pronouns seemed tricky, with "we" provoking intense negative responses in their single informant, Prakuyo an Tep.

And then there can be no more delay for preparation. The kyo ship docks, and three kyo come over. One is "their" kyo, Prakuyo an Tep. His associates are more puzzling, but all three of them are friendly and happy to enjoy the hospitality of the special quarters put together for their visit. They also take a considerable interest in the tablet computers which Bren has specially prepared for them, hoping to elicit whole new classes of words that will enable him to move beyond simple concrete lexical items to the more complex ideas that he needs to work through an agreement between species.

And then Prakuyo asks him to go aboard the kyo ship. It's a tricky thing, especially when one is mindful of the role of treachery in atevi society, but Bren agrees. And there Bren makes a discovery that blows everything out of the water, both for him and for me as a reader.

Years ago, when I was first beginning to read the Foreigner series, I was wondering if it belonged to the Alliance/Union universe. The Phoenix has the same "four rotating captains" system of command that we see in the Alliance/Union system, and it seems very unlikely to have evolved separately in two different universes. All present-day crewed space programs (US, Soviet/Russian, Chinese) have used military pilots for their space pilots, and have carried the military tradition that there shall be one person clearly in command of a spacecraft. Even before Vostok and Mercury, most of the people involved in the Cold War space programs had enough familiarity with sf to be steeped in the Space Is An Ocean assumption that spacecraft would be run like oceangoing vessels.

And then Word of God came that no, the Foreigner series belonged to a different universe. OK, I now needed to re-evaluate. Given that the accident involved being unable to locate any of the usual long-range celestial landmarks, particularly pulsars, I took it to mean that they somehow passed through a quantum bridge, a gateway between worlds. This would explain their being so completely, utterly lost, yet allow them to be originally from the Alliance/Union universe.

Except if that were the case, it would be impossible for the kyo to be holding a human captive who knows absolutely nothing about Phoenix or Reunion Station. And Bren sees no evidence whatsoever that Guy Cullen is trying to deceive him with feigned ignorance.

So now we know that the Foreigner series belongs to a completely different universe, and for whatever reason, CJ Cherryh has chosen to use the "council of captains" system in both of them. It does make it just a little harder for me to suspend my disbelief, since it's such a breach from what has gone before in spaceflight that there must've been some major event leading to the change. But the rest of the fictional world she has created is so compelling that I can just not think very hard about that problematical element.

As Bren gains Cullen's trust and convinces him that the kyo want peace, that the war was in fact caused by lack of communication rather than any fundamental incompatibility, the storyline gains a certain poignance. It's clear that Cullen is going to be going back to the human society from which Phoenix was lost, but because relations between humans and atevi here at Alpha Station and the Earth of the atevi are still too delicate for additional factors, Bren has to make the hard decision not to allow him to know anything about Mospheria or the human side of Alpha Station. Bren's relationship with the atevi must remain a mystery to Cullen, lest the knowledge prove too dangerous.

And neither are the kyo ready to establish regular relations with the Earth of the atevi, at least not until they have formed a stable relationship with the human Earth and its colony worlds. Maybe not even for generations. So no, uneasy two are not going to become fortunate three.

However, given that this volume is the second of a trilogy and Ms Cherryh has at least one more volume contracted after the third of this trilogy, it would appear that the Foreigner series is not going to come to an end. However, given that the situation with the kyo has been resolved with an understanding that each species will avoid the other's territory and any further contact with each other, I just hope it doesn't degenerate into an endless political soap opera of atevi and human internal bickering.

Review posted December 4, 2017

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