Foreigner

Not a review exactly, but I've just finished Foreigner by C.J Cherryh and would like to discuss/ramble about it, and this seemed the most appropriate place to avoid cluttering the 'what are you reading' thread.

In case anyone hasn't read it, it begins with a bunch of spacefaring humans getting marooned on a world inhabited by Atevi, a race of big scary humanoids with roughly medieval technology and ostensibly no concept of friendship, although they have a complex hierarchy that allows them to maintain a quasi-global feudalism. They get into a war with the intruders, and eventually agree to a truce on the condition that the humans share their tech. The main body of the story follows a couple of hundred years later when the Atevi are up to 20th century levels with television and commercial flight. The main character, Bren, is a human diplomat sent to live amongst them and help preserve the fragile peace.

It's an interesting style, quite different from the science fiction I'm used to, and it does quite a lot of things I've been told repeatedly to avoid. At the start, it introduces named characters, then immediately discards them in large time-skips. It has a lot of events that don't really fit into the 'plot' or foreshadow anything, they seem to just be there to contribute to the atmosphere and realism. The protagonist has very little power or impact on the overall course of events, and the majority of the text is devoted to his paranoid introspective obsession that he could or should have done more, or that he's not living up to some kind of standard, either professionally or personally. All other characters lack key human social emotions, so there was less room than normal for conventional emotional drama. It should have added up to a dull and annoying read, but it didn't. I actually found it both relaxing and intellectually engaging, with a satisfying arc of tension that flowers into action near the end. It's clearly designed to be one in a series though, with the slow pace, intricate worldbuilding and unresolved hooks of an epic, and judging from the massive pile on the shelf it came from, Cherryh lived up to that goal.

It loses points a little bit for having excessively humanoid aliens, which is something that always annoys me in scifi, but they're there to explore a possibility, so I can forgive it. Essentially I see the main theme as loneliness, the attempt to fit into an intimidating and ruthlessly rigid society composed of beings that are deceptively similar yet fundamentally emotionally incompatible, and the strain that puts on a person, which I think just might be something I relate to.

Despite that grimness though it's incredibly gentle and optimistic compared to, say, M. Banks. There's very little in the way of mutilation or cannibalism and almost nothing sexual at all, and for all the aliens' supposed lack of compassion they almost all come across as honourable, polite, patient, attentive and frightfully likeable, to the point that it's sometimes difficult to maintain the idea that they're any more emotionally inhuman than I am, but I think Cherryh just about pulls it off. Likewise for all Bren's self-doubt, he has a lot of admirable qualities and is no tragic hero, at least not in this book. He does get badly beaten up at one point but he spends more page-time in the bath, drinking tea or reading about history than in fistfights or dashing across rooftops. It's also notable for having the only instance of first contact I think I've ever seen where the initial communication barrier is overcome by the representatives of both sides being extremely careful, brave, curious, and patient, and the war isn't caused by some silly miscommunication but comes later due to a combination of the fundamental social barrier and legitimate political grievances.

It's a book I found myself looking forward to returning to, which is really the highest and only praise I have for anything. I think I'll take a break before moving onto the next one though, one can only take so much of that sort of thing.

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