Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reading C. J. Cherryh's "Foreigner"

Most of the science fiction I have been reading lately is disguised fantasy. The science, when there is science, is make-believe or wishful thinking. Space ships travel millions of miles in short-time increments. Human beings do not suffer the exigencies of space: radiation, bone loss, muscle deterioration. Instead, ships slip into voids, find worm holes, penetrate folds, and pop out somewhere on the other side of the universe. On their voyage, they discover ring worlds or a helix fit for human habitation, where they encounter ancient astronauts similar to ourselves but usually angry, psychotic, and definitely hostile.

This science fiction sans science is couched in modern adventure tropes: mystery in space, western in space, thriller in space, morality tale in space, religious allegory in space, political thriller in space. The true hard science novel is rare and can be boring to some. However, there are some novelists that take the science-based tale and surprise us with an interesting and an arresting story. C. J. Cherryh is one such writer.

I started reading Cherryh in the seventies. Her first novel appeared when I was teaching a course on science fiction at a mid-western university. My syllabus consisted of novels from the giants at the time: Asimov, Heinlein, Le Guin, Clarke, Herbert, Miller, Sturgeon, and Vonnegut. The first novel of hers  I read was The Faded Sun: Kesrith (DAW1977) and I immediately thought she was equal to the giants.  

The Faded Sun trilogy made such an impression on me that I often direct readers to it today. Her precise world building and the psychology of the characters impress me and fool me into thinking I am learning something even if it is only made-up anthropology. Like Le Guin her aliens live and breathe: think, plot and plan within the logical confines of their alien psychology and the basic rules of physics. She truly leads the reader to a suspension of his or her disbelief.

So lately, after reading a rasher of fantasy and a box  of modern science fiction, I decided to return to Cherryh to see if she was as good as I remembered. I had not read her since the Chanur novels of the 80s and I chose Foreigner (DAW 1994) simply because I had a copy of it mouldering on my bookshelf. But I was immediately charmed by what appears on the surface to be a dense story of first encounter between humans and an alien race known as the atevi. I say "dense" because Cherryh employs an opaque prose style. She uses a very limited third-person point of view that methodically and slowly reveals through repetition the internal ruminations of her protagonist, Bren Cameron.

Cameron is a paidhi, the only human interpreter and diplomat sent to live with atevi, the sentient humanoids that inhabit the world the humans call, Down. Because dropping down is what they did. They fell to Down in drop-ships without any way to return to the space station they constructed over the planet before their ship, the Phoenix, left them to explore the new universe they had discovered.

The novel begins with a crisis two hundred years after the first humans fell to Down: Cameron is marked for legal assassination by one of the planet's many atevi factions. And when he uses an illegal weapon given to him by his patron, the aiji, of the central association, Bren is swept up into a convoluted and murky political plot. Protected by his bodyguards, Banichi and Jago, he travels into the heart of the country and experiences the true mystery and history of the world.

The narrative structure of the novel is slight with only three or four dominant set scenes. On one level it is game-like but the games it resembles are chess and Civilization not Doom or Starcraft. However, the real thrust of the novel is in the interplay between Bren and the millions of aliens that surround him. Through his ruminations the reader is slowly drawn into the atevi world, where mathematics rule all aspects of life and legal assassins operate in the bright sunlight of the planet.

I highly recommend this book, which as it turns out is the first book in a long running series. (She is currently working on the fifteen volume).