C.J. Cherryh

It is not often that I think of leaving a book half unread, but I was sorely tempted by Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh. Normally I am an admirer of her work, especially her science fiction - Downbelow Station, for example - but I was disappointed by her new novel.

cover Foreigner is a 'first-contact' novel, concerned mainly with the interaction between the alien Atevi and humans effectively shipwrecked on the atevi planet. The start of the novel gives us the background: the space-ship's accident; the initial politics surrounding the debate about whether to make planetfall; the first meeting between man and atevi; and then skips two hundred years to when humanity has lost a war with the atevi and lives apart on an island, their only ambassador to the atevi a human called the paidhi.

The initial section of the novel, while not disastrous is not good either: while fairly short it suffers, as does the rest of the novel, from a lack of proper editing: Cherryh's writing is at times overblown, elsewhere merely dull, always too verbose. To its credit, it manages to convincingly set the scene, drop in a few clues to puzzles which become clearer during the novel and introduce the atevi, but interesting ideas are not followed up and it is difficult for the reader to become interested in a novel with such a long section of what is, effectively, a prologue.

The bulk of the novel concentrates on the paidhi, Bren Camerson, and events surrounding him after an attempt on his life. There is a convoluted plot which emerges slowly but, when it does emerge, is neither surprising nor exciting: atevi act and Cameron reacts and ponders his situation: it is so padded out that it is hardly capable of maintaining the reader's attention and yet it all looks rather thin by the end. This might be excusable, even, if there was something else but here too Foreigner falls short.

Crucial is the characterisation of the paidhi, Cameron, and here lies the crux of Cherryh's problem: to make a realistic character who is able to cope in the alien environment of the atevi yet remain sympathetic. Cameron is, indeed, for the most part, sympathetic, but he was not convincing as an ambassador. In a court where assassination is the norm, where humanity is at best distrusted, at worst loathed, he falls to pieces when an attempt on his life is made, and he does not recover thereafter: he is constantly whining and moaning and complaining, forgetting diplomacy, panicking at the slightest thing. Now while this would be acceptable in a normal man, a little even acceptable in a paidhi, for him to be completely unable to cope after so many years of training is simply unbelievable. Unfortunately for the reader much of this whining comes in the form of unspoken metaphysical angst and after a while I found myself skipping paragraphs after paragraph of this 'thoughts' text which primarily focussed on his relationship with the atevi and conveniently summed up the plot every so often for readers of lower intellect who couldn't keep up.

Creation of alien races is another dangerous game: so many authors find it the most difficult thing of all and often fall back on the 'Star Trek' solutions: either humanoids with different lumps/skin colour/physical size, or twinkly energy beings. In Foreigner, Cherryh settles for the former: the atevi are humanoid but much taller and stronger; they have ebony skin, yellow eyes and like braiding their long, black hair. She relies on the psychological, societal and mental differences to make them alien. Primarily, they are less emotional that humanity: they do not form friendships but rather are ruled by man'chi, a sort of compulsive duty to an 'aiji' or lord, or to a place. This, of course, provides for much angst from Cameron - bemoaning that fact that they will never understand his affection for them - but apart from that is neither terribly alien nor interesting. Much of the 'alien' nature of the atevi seems to relate to some caricatures of asian and 'alternative' earth cultures, as if anything alien from 20th century North American Christian culture is alien enough for Cherryh's readers. Not so. I found that, while Cameron found it difficult understanding the mindset of the atevi, I was able to make fair guesses about what was going on with little difficulty. I felt, reading this novel, that Cherryh had spent more time thinking up names and pronunciations (there is a pronunciation guide and a glossary of atevi terms at the back) than thinking a more convincing rationale to make the atevi more original.

To Cherryh's credit, the pace does pick up a little towards the end and I did manage to finish Foreigner, but verbosity, sloppy characterisation and dull aliens meant that when the plot was concluded I didn't really care, and felt that reading this disappointing novel had been rather a hollow and pointless exercise.

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