Visions of Paradise

Saturday, May 14, 2005


I was a big fan of C.J. Cherryh starting with her debut novels Gate of Ivrel and Brother of Earth in 1976, followed by another twenty-two books over the next two decades. When I took a year’s sabbatical away from reading science fiction starting in mid-1995, she had the nerve to release the first volume of what eventually has grown to 7 volumes, with 2 more planned for future publication. That first novel was titled Foreigner and, like the subsequent novels, was well-regarded critically.

Since the novels in the series are not endless, but fall into groups of three, I decided recently to read the first trilogy (Foreigner is followed by Invader and Inheritor) and decide from there whether I wanted to read the subsequent trilogies as well.

Suffice it to say that Foreigner finds Cherryh at the top of her form. The basic premise is that a colonizing starship from Earth jumps into normal space and realizes that it is totally lost and in dire trouble. Eventually most of the would-be colonists decide to emigrate to the nearest habitable world, which happens to be inhabited by a race called the atevi.

The atevi do not welcome the humans, and the unexpected invasion eventually leads to war between the two races. The atevi win, but the humans have considerable negotiating chips in the form of advanced science which they dole out to the atevi slowly and carefully in exchange for the humans being allowed to live autonomously on a secluded island.

All of that is background and the plot of Foreigner takes place two hundred years later. Atevi culture has changed considerably due to interaction with humans, but there are considerable differences between the two races, especially in their overall attitudes. The main character of the novel is Bren, a human who serves as intermediary with the atevi. His role is that of a diplomat, interacting mostly with aiji (ruler) of one country which is a monarchy with a powerful legislature as well.

Some quotes from the novel might give you a flavor for the tenuous relationship between humans and atevi.

That was why humans preferred their enclave on Mospheira. Mospheira was an island, it was under human administration... and laws didn’t have bloodfeud as an alternative.

Sane, law-abiding atevi simply avoided argumentative people.

The atevi hadn’t quite mastered steam when the humans had arrived on their planet, uninvited and unwilling.

Not in a system where assassination was an ordinary and legal social adjustment.

As the main storyline begins, an assassination attempt is made against Bren, which causes a whole lot of political wheels to start spinning. While no cause for the attempt is known either by Bren, or seemingly by his atevi patrons, there are many potential enemies who either fear or hate humans, and wish to drive them off their planet. To make matters worse, no member of the guild of assassins registered an intent to kill Bren, so he was the target of an apparently-illegal assassination attempt.

Much of the first half of the novel is taken up with Bren’s striving to avoid being assassinated, while also learning who his potential assassin is. While his atevi security also strives to achieve both goals, they are so typically close-mouthed and stoic that Bren receives absolutely no information from them either as to the progress of their investigation, or any subsequent attempts against him.

As is typical of Cherryh, Foreigner is very slow-paced as she explores both the culture of the atevi and its relationship with humans, while studying Bren in-depth, both his character and his own activities as “paidhi” (which describes him as a combination diplomat and intermediary). Tabini, who is the aiji dealing with Bren, mysteriously sends him off to his country’s royal hunting lodge where Tabini’s grandmother is in residence. Except she is no harmless old lady, but another political figure who had been passed over as aiji twice by the ruling legislature in favor of her son–Tabini’s father–the first time, and Tabini himself the second time. In effect, she and Tabini are mortal enemies, yet Tabini sends Bren into her hands during a time when his life is seriously endangered.

The entire middle portion of the novel takes place at Malguri, the lodge, and involves Bren’s dealings with Tabini’s grandmother. It is the most fascinating part of the novel, and it gradually builds into a complex and fast-paced thriller the last hundred pages. Probably the most intriguing part of all is Bren trying to determine the atevi’s motives in the assassination plot. Who exactly was on his side? Who was serving the rebels trying to overthrow Tabini? And, most importantly for his own survival, who could he trust?

In some ways Foreigner has the structure of an entire trilogy: the first third is sets up the pace and background, the middle third is slow-paced development, and the final third brings all the previous strands together in a rousing conclusion. In some ways, it represents the best of both styles, being a slow-paced analysis of cultures and society wrapped around a thrilling plot. C.J. Cherryh has proven to me at least that she has lost none of her edge as a writer, so I await the story's continuation in Invader eagerly.


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