Thursday, October 22, 2009

JD's Take: Foreigner Series [Books 1-3] (C. J. Cherryh)

I have now read something like six C.J. Cherryh books, and have yet to write a single review. This is a shame, and since I just wrapped up reading Inheritor, I thought I'd rectify this failing. The books covered here are Foreigner, Invader, and Inheritor. These stories are all set in the same world, and follow the same character. I've read them over the course of 3 years... so I'm not going to pretend that I remember a lot of specifics. Instead, this will be a sort of holistic review.

First: the world. A human colony ship jumps into a distant galaxy and is promptly lost. It manages to find an inhabitable planet, builds a space station and eventually colonizes the planet thanks to a political rift between the pilots and the passengers. This planet has intelligent life already, a race called the Atevi who are tall, ebony skinned humanoids with golden eyes and a steam-engine level of technology. At first things go reasonably well, but what with one thing and another the ship leaves orbit in search of home (leaving the humans on-planet stranded) and war breaks out between the Atevi and the humans. The Atevi win quite handily and the humans frantically make a treaty that leaves them control of a large island off the mainland but nothing else. The treaty's basic idea is that a single human will live amongst the Atevi, learn their language, and act as a interpreter and diplomat to ensure the peace (he is called the Paidhi). In return, the humans will slowly release their technology to Atevi hands, in a way that is carefully calculated to not overturn the economic stability while still advancing their technology level to eventual parity. Fast forward 200 years and we meet Bren Cameron, the young new Paidhi and our protagonist.

These books aren't about things happening. In general, only two or three things happen in the entire book (and they aren't short books). They aren't about romance, as Bren is totally isolated from other humans and Atevi don't feel love. They aren't about action either. Though violence happens it is just as often off-screen as on. These are books about a smart and a good man trying to understand an alien psychology well enough that he can prevent the violence that always lurks just under the surface... a goal that often puts him at odds with his own species. This psychological understanding is primarily driven by an understanding of the Atevi language, and musings on the language fill a large portion on each book, along with explorations of the complicated political structures that make up Atevi society (which, because of their alien psychology, don't translate well into human thinking).

Reading this books is intellectually engaging, and you need to be prepared to actually think while you read. Previous description aside... they aren't boring books at all. Although very few big events happen in them (in fact, the goal is often simply to prevent big things from happening), there are small things happening all of the time. I think I could best describe reading these books as becoming wholly engrossed in a masterfully played game of chess. It becomes your world, and you spend as much time as you need to understand the implications of each move. As the game progresses, every motion ripples outwards and forward as pieces are moved into extravagantly complex arrangements... each piece protecting another, or blocking some gambit, or maneuvering for an attack. Your heartbeat speeds up every time a player picks up a piece, your shoulders tighten, your palms sweat... not because the move itself is explosive or surprising but because you can feel the game building to a crisis point and once the tension builds too far everything is going to tip and all of the structures are going to collapse. When the crisis finally comes, the casual observer might see very little to react to. A piece or two is taken... and the players continue to stare impassively at the board. But you, who are totally absorbed in the game see something else entirely. You see a power structure that shifted irretrievably. A mistake! Someone slipped, and his opponent moved to take advantage and now the tone of the board is completely shifted and it's all just careful mopping up from now on. Unless, of course, it wasn't a mistake at all...

And nobody who wasn't totally absorbed even noticed that anything happened. By the end of the game the board is totally changed. Someone will look at it and ask you "how did he win?" and you will shrug, unable to find the words. They will think "what a boring game", and in a sense they are right. Until you commit there is very little for you in the game, it is only in engrossing yourself that you see the drama and the excitement and the slow buildup of tension. Cherryh makes it easy for me to become engrossed... I imagine that is not true of everyone who picks up these books, and I imagine many people will walk away thinking "what a boring game".

So yeah. These are challenging books, they require you to think and to be willing to feel your heartbeat raise and your shoulders tense for five or six hundred pages. The writing is solid, but the first fifty pages will feel weird to you each time you pick one up. I'm not sure why, something in the way sentences are phrased perhaps, but the feeling always fades (at least for me). The Atevi, and the Atevi world, aren't all that different from humans and earth... it isn't world building on a grand and original scale. Rather, the focus is very much on understanding the way a similar but alien race thinks and reasons and lives. It's subtle and certainly not for everyone. I can only handle one of these books a year or so, and there are something like seven more waiting for me. This might actually be the only long series of books that I read more slowly than they are written, but I'm basically totally fine with that.

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