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The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

March 25, 2014

TheLeftHandOfDarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969)
Review by Chris White

“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

So begins Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. The story is one of an ice-planet named Gethen (Winter), and the arrival there of an Envoy from a vast human empire (although that’s an odd way of describing the Ekumen League of Worlds), sent alone to invite the humans of Winter into their collective. After all, “One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion”.

The Envoy lands in the kingdom of Karhide, where all kings are mad. The inhabitants of Winter have evolved in a singular (or rather, a binary) way – no Gethenian is male or female. They are neuters, until they reach kemmer (which is analogous to animals being in heat), and they rapidly change gender (or gain gender, I suppose.) Which leads to great sentences like “The King was pregnant”.

It also leads to a near-complete misunderstanding of social cues, and even between the two humans – “Ai was exhausted and enraged. He looked ready to cry, but did not. I believe he considers crying either evil or shameful. Even when he was very ill and weak, the first days of our escape, he hid his face from me when he wept. Reasons personal, racial, social, sexual – how can I guess why Ai must not weep?” It is a fantastic exercise in the social and psychological snags between two alien minds, even when so similar.

Ursula Le Guin writes beautiful science fiction, my favourite style of science fiction: anthropological science fiction. From the Kingdom of Karhide to its rival, Orgoreyn, she explores different political extremes as well. Karhide, an aristocracy, torn by power struggles at court and with a complex system of honour and social positioning, is dysfunctional, “Karhide is not a nation but a family quarrel”, especially when seen alongside Orgoreyn, at least at first. Orgoreyn is a socialist nightmare, is dystopian.

“He was a hard shrewd jovial politician, whose acts of kindness served his interest and whose interest was himself. His type is panhuman. I had met him on Earth, and on Hain, and on Ollul. I expect to meet him in Hell.”

With Estroven exiled, the Envoy departs for Orgoreyn with the King’s words still in his ears: “…you’re not a traitor, you’ve merely been the tool of one. I don’t punish tools. They do harm only in the hands of a bad workman”.

This review originally appeared on Chris White Writes.

Shadow on the Hearth, Judith Merril

March 20, 2014

shadowonhearthShadow on the Hearth, Judith Merril (1950)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

The 1950s were chock-full of science fiction novels on the horror of prospective nuclear war and Soviet attack, after-effects of Hiroshima and Potsdam that rattled the collective consciousness for decades. Merril was one of the Futurians, a “family” of New York science fiction fans; she collaborated with fellow Futurian Cyril Kornbluth, and for a few years was married to another Futurian, the late Frederik Pohl. While she’s best remembered for her series of SF anthologies in the mid-1950s, Judith Merril had a long and distinguished writing career that dates back to the late 1940s.

When her maid calls in sick, Westchester housewife Gladys Mitchell is forced to stay home and do the laundry and chores herself – a fact that saved her life, given that New York City is obliterated in a surprise atomic attack. Urged to stay indoors by radio announcers, Gladys struggles through the day despite crushing uncertainties about the fate of her husband Jon. When her daughters – teenage Barbara (“Barbie”) and toddler Virginia (“Ginny”) – arrive home from school, Gladys must overcome the obstacles of living in a post-nuclear United States. Isolated and with only themselves (and an ever-growing, rag-tag group of neighbors and acquaintances) for support, Gladys must keep her family safe from radiation and hostile looters until they can be evacuated from the danger zone.

In our age of news saturation – twenty-four-hour cable news, social media, RSS feeds, the internet – it’s strange to be thrust back to a time where radio and newspaper was the primary news source. With no papers being delivered, Gladys must rely on over-enthusiastic radio announcers, who read off status updates and casualty lists, along with trite updates of retaliation by remote-control planes. Her obnoxious neighbor is convinced it’s all propaganda, but the Mitchells remain confined to their home, giving the book a constricted setting that Merril thrusts tension and conflict into. Barbara’s possible radiation sickness carries a lot of the burden, as does her teacher, a blacklisted atomic scientist hunted (?!) by the authorities for predicting an atomic attack. Gladys’ maid is a suspected enemy agent, one of the human targets (!?) used to direct the incoming atomic missiles. There’s a gas leak in the cellar, threatening to blow the house up. And there’s the fear of looters and contaminated survivors mobbing the suburbs…

I wouldn’t say that the book is tense or thrilling due to its isolation, though, existing in a vacuum outside of space and time. Some parts read like Civil Defense literature, urging calm and patience until some semblance of government can restore order while explaining the basic details of radiation poisoning and the threat of atomic attack. A pair of rescue workers arrive on occasion to do just that. Merril’s writing is very good, but her plotting is merely competent. Some of the crises stretch the realm of credibility – the “wanted” high-school teacher/physics professor, and her “sick” maid/survivor of the New York holocaust, are character backgrounds I found nigh on hyperbolic.

I expected a female protagonist, written by a female author, in a world relatively devoid of men, would be an exemplary character and rise to the challenge. Instead, Gladys is a hot mess of emotion. She’s often confused, and will panic or become overwhelmed; that’s somewhat realistic given the extenuating circumstances she finds herself in, but it’s more pointed when several bit characters badger and berate her (such as when she calls asking for the fire department, due to the gas leak, and is savaged by the telephone operator). She does take charge and do what needs doing for her family’s survival, and she does learn and grow during the novel; she exists in a world where men are either missing or acting against her best interests. But I’ve seen stronger female characters by CL Moore and Leigh Brackett, and found Gladys overwrought and disappointing – not quite the feminist paragon some reviews had me believe. It’s a shame when the teenager daughter Barbara can hold her own better than her mother.

Gladys’ naivete about “radiations” and post-war hazards brings to mind the elderly couple in When The Wind Blows – Gladys also soldiers through government-issued mimeographed sheets to comprehend the attack’s after-effects. This naiveté reveals the era’s limited scientific knowledge of radiation poisoning and fallout. Which, to be honest, is nowhere near as comprehensive or advanced as it is now, making the novel less grim than if it were written in the 1980s. The characters make several comparisons to Hiroshima – a recent memory for 1950 readers, as would be the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949. But the authorities are more worried about “clouds of hot stuff” blowing around and take a duck-and-cover, “stay inside and you’ll be fine” approach. Rescue crews are scouring New York for (seemingly unaffected) survivors, seemingly unaffected by a radioactive rain; Gladys’ maid survives because she was swaddled in several blankets.

Granted, there’s a running undercurrent that the authorities are overwhelmed and lying to prevent a panic, and the weapons used are Hiroshima-scale and not Reagan-era MIRV ICBMs, which would have flattened New York and saturated lower Westchester County in radiation. The novel is a good case-study of the limits scientific knowledge had about atomic attack. Some elements remain valid, others foreshadow Civil Defense educational films… which this book was made into, for ABC in 1954.

The titular shadow could refer to a number of things: the shadow of atomic attack, the shadow of enemy agents used to direct the incoming missiles, the shadow of Gladys’ missing husband, the shadow of strange men – potential looters, dubious Civil Defense squadmen – looming at her front door. But most clearly it’s the shadow of radiation poisoning, something which may or may not be afflicting Barbara. She was outside and exposed to potentially radioactive rain while on a school field trip; her teacher already knows he’s suffering from radiation poisoning—though it doesn’t seem to affect him in any way – and he and figures Barbara may have taken a strong dose of rads as well. It’s the fear of radiation sickness afflicting her children that drives Gladys to the novel’s darkest point, a hospital used as emergency triage for Manhattan’s survivors. It’s the only time Gladys leaves the security of her home, and it’s a memorable scene.

Merril had a very good idea for a book, which turned into an interesting and well-written novel. However, some of the story elements are chintzy or downright implausible, such as several of the unrealistic characters and their convenient back-stories. As a character piece in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war, the domestic life thrust into the front-lines, I found the novel partially succeeds. Rather than following a general, scientist, or politician, the book views the aftermath of atomic war from the isolation and fear of a housewife, her daughters, and an oddball cast of friends. That down-to-earth perspective makes it more unique, even realistic despite its aforementioned failings. Yet it falters with Gladys’ portrayal, and is now a bit dated.

While a decent novel, Shadow on the Hearth is not a perfect one; its domestic perspective is a brilliant idea, and Merril’s prose keeps the reading moving along despite the straightforward plot. But I think I’m biased in favor of darker, grittier apocalyptic novels. On top of that, it’s a hard book to find; it took me a while to get a copy at a decent price. Shadow on the Hearth may be of interest to the serious completist, but for the average sci-fi reader it’s probably too much effort for too little reward.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.

A Sense of Shadow, Kate Wilhelm

March 18, 2014

shadowA Sense of Shadow, Kate Wilhelm (1981)
Review by Kev McVeigh

Frequently in Kate Wilhelm’s best fiction memories and dreams become entwined with and are influenced beyond the norm by the protagonist’s social environment. The reader familiar with these stories will recognise much in A Sense Of Shadow that was previously seen in ‘Somerset Dreams’ for instance. At the same time as Wilhelm’s story is familiar her development of tension makes A Sense of Shadow an effective psychological mystery.

When the dying patriarch John Daniel Culbertson summons his estranged children to his wealthy and sprawling Oregon ranch it is to inform them of his will and condemn them to his final psychological torture. Each child must undergo EEG recordings, then on Culbertson’s death they must remain in the house for seven nights before further EEG recordings are to be compared. One will ‘pass’ the test and inherit all, or none will and the ranch will go to the university. Almost immediately after this Culbertson does die.

The four children, all full grown (if not exactly mature in some cases) are joined by the youngest son Lucas’s wife Ginny and research psychologist Hugh Froelich. Culbertson has become intrigued by a paper Froelich wrote about brain waves and has taken these ideas a grand and despotic further step. For the next week they are effectively trapped in the house by the ruling of a crazy old man and their own issues.

The gothic haunted house aspect of this short novel is it’s initial strength, as Wilhelm delicately hints at doors mysteriously closing, lights being turned on and so on, without explicit supernatural involvement. Without overdoing descriptive passages she creates a brooding environment in which her story plays out. In contrast the deaths of each of Culbertson’s three previous wives in manners that seem to point suspicion back at him seem slightly contrived. That each death was witnessed by one or more of the children, but never clearly, may account for some of their individual and collective psychological damage and their feeling haunted in the old house, but it also raises questions of what is really happening now by querying what previously happened.

Froelich’s theories are the SF element here, there is brief discussion of chemical process and electrical impulse in axons causing synapses to fire, leading to his repeated assertion that there is ‘no mechanism for possession’ that true metempsychosis is scientifically impossible. However he also observes later:

Bluebeard’s sons, he thought with a shudder. They were all in a state of heightened suggestibility. Not hypnotized, but so suggestible that any stimulus, even self-induced, made them react. And their reactions were not their usual ones, but what they believed his would have been. (p 126)

As the novel reaches its inevitable climax the characters are rapidly overwhelmed by their fears and apparent memories. The penultimate chapter flashes through an explosion of multiple distorted viewpoints as Culbertson’s influence seems to peak with potentially tragic consequences.

A Sense of Shadow is both evocative in its physical descriptions and intensely creepy in its playing reality and imagination against each other. Whilst the differences between the characters can be hard to see, particularly older brothers Conrad and Mallory, there’s a growing realisation that maybe Wilhelm intended that. The daughter Janet is similarly indistinguishable, although self-defined by her body image perhaps, and even outsider Ginny increasingly is absorbed into the coalescent group. The power of the patriarch to discomfort, to influence and to enforce conformity are the heart of a disturbing feminist short novel on the fringes of SF, Horror (in this case more accurately, Terror) and the literary mainstream.

This review originally appeared on Performative Utterance.

Requiem for Anthi, Jay D Blakeney

March 13, 2014

jdb_requiemfRequiem for Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1990)
Review by Ian Sales

Five years after The Children of Anthi (see here), Jay D Blakeney returned to the world of Ruantl with a sequel. There was nothing in that first novel which required another book and indeed while Requiem for Anthi does reveal more of the world, its plot is a follow-on rather than a consequence. As Requiem for Anthi opens, civil war among the Tlar houses rages across Ruantl. During the events of The Children of Anthi, Omari/Asan had switched off Anthi and now the lack of the life-support computer has very much worsened the situation of the Tlar’n – their capital city, Altian, is mostly in ruins, they have no electricity or working technological devices, and food is in short supply.

Asan’s putative mate, Aural, is now his enemy and she has allied herself with the Galactic Space Institute. She invites them to the world to help her, but the GSI, of course, wants the mineral wealth of Ruantl for itself and plans to subdue the locals and take control of the entire planet. The first hurdle they must overcome is Asan. Which proves surprisingly easy – Asan continues to be as ineffective a protagonist in Requiem for Anthi as he was in The Children of Anthi. In short order, he is a prisoner on a GSI destroyer, tortured for information while they are en route to Central. Also captured was Zaula, the mate of the Tlar’n ruler Hihuan who Asan killed at the end of the earlier book. She has no psychic powers – ie, rings – to speak of, is smaller than is typical for Tlar’n, but very beautiful – and, of course, Asan responds to her vulnerability and beauty. This is in contrast to Aural, who is also very beautiful – although similar in stature to Asan; but Aural is also powerful and arrogant and ambitious.

The GSI destroyer, however, is waylaid by pirates before it can reach Central. And it transpires that these pirates are in the pay of galactic gang lord Martok. Who employed the vat-born boy, Tobei, who became Blaise Omari and was later transformed into Asan. But Tobei was not willingly let go by Martok, who has hunted him ever since. But even the transformation to a Tlartantlan proves no disguise, as a “thwart” had been placed in Tobei’s subconscious and this is detectable. So Asan comes clean as to his real identity and attempts to save his skin by promising the mineral riches of Ruantl to Martok. (While privately he’s determined to save the planet for the Tlar and Bban, he has so little effect on events that he can only swap one invader for another.)

Then an old friend from Asan’s days as Tobei – who, of course, believes that Asan was Tobei (he was, but it’s still believed a little too readily) – helps Asan and Zaula escape Martok. Asan has learnt more of his past and that of the Tlartantlans, and he has determined on a course of action that will save Ruantl from the depredations of the GSI or Martok: he will call the Merderai. In The Children of Anthi, “Merderai” was an invented swear-word. But it actually proves to be the name of Asan’s personal army from the days of Tlartantla. It proved so effective a force that, like King Arthur’s fabled knights, it was hidden away sleeping until needed again. There are also hints that it was too effective and instrumental in the destruction of the Tlartantlan empire…

Blakeney hands Asan his deus ex machina on a platter, then whips it away… only for it to do the necessary in the last few pages. In that respect, Requiem for Anthi‘s plot is much like The Children of Anthi‘s. And Asan is remains mostly ineffective, even though he is the protagonist and saves the day, in both books. While much of the second book’s story takes place off Ruantl, Blakeney does reveal more of the world’s and its peoples’ history. Again, it’s there, in the world-building, where the Anthi books “arouse interest” (as the SF Encyclopedia has it). Asan, the protagonist, is a cliché, the gutter-rat made good, who learns nobility when a noble purpose is thrust upon him. He’s a staple of science fiction – as are the chief female characters, Aural and Zaula, both of whom harken back to the princesses of Barsoom. The secret behind Ruantl, and its relationship with Tlartantla, provides an interesting twist, but the two books rely a little too heavily on science fiction’s inexplicable liking for feudalism, and such stories’ reliance on hand-wavy science and technology, to stand out much above other similar midlist sf novels.

Amusingly, one of the more annoying archaisms in The Children of Anthi was the use of “thou” and “thee” in formal speech. Someone must have told Blakeney she had this back-to-front, because Asan remarks to Zaula at one point:

“Did you know, Zaula, that in the old days of human history they considered ‘thou’ a familiar usage and ‘you’ the formal one? Just the reverse of the Tlar way.” (p 120)

The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney

March 11, 2014

childrenanthiThe Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985)
Review by Ian Sales

US author Deborah A Chester began her sf career as Jay D Blakeney, writing four novels between 1985 and 1990, before then adopting the pseudonym Sean Dalton for two sf series, and finally using her own name from 1996 onwards. The four Blakeney novel began with The Children of Anthi, the first of a diptych that was completed in 1990 with Requiem for Anthi. The other two novels are The Omcri Matrix (see here), set in the same universe but is unrelated, and The Goda War (see here), set in an entirely different universe.

The SF Encyclopedia describes the two Anthi novels as arousing “some interest. It is a far-reaching and moderately complex vision of humanity’s future Evolution”. The cover to The Children of Anthi also boasts the puff “In the grand tradition of Dune… an epic of adventure and survival on a dying world”. And it’s true there’s a similar flavour in the Anthi books to Herbert’s magnum opus, although there are no obvious borrowings as there are in Blakeney’s The Omcri Matrix and The Goda War.

Blaise Omari is a crewman aboard a Galactic Space Institute scoutship. Except he’s not – he’s actually an escaped vat-born slave under an assumed identity. And when that identity comes under scrutiny, he hijacks the scoutship and makes a run for the Uncharted Zone. But the first planet he comes across orbits a black hole, and this causes the ship to crash. Only Omari and fellow crewmember Saunders survive. They are captured by masked natives, who seem to have some sort of post-technological semi-feudal militaristic society. Although the races of Ruantl – as Omari learns the planet is called – are humanoid, they are not human: the Bban have:

Hammered plates of thick scarred skin formed the rough planes of that hairless oblong face. The eyes glowed yellow in twin lights of phosphorous above a nose that was but a slit of bone and cartilage. Double-hinged and powerful, the lower jaw was similar in design to an insect’s mandible. (p 29)

The Bban’s rulers, the Tlar, however, are eight feet tall, golden-skinned and attractive. Everyone wears masks – partly as protection against the radiation from the black hole, but also as part of their culture, since only certain sectors of the society can look upon other defined sectors’ naked faces. Omari and Saunders have appeared on Ruantl just as a civil war is about to kick off. The high priest Picyt, who is the Tlar who captures the pair, is about to rebel against the cruel and arrogant Tlar “leiil” (ie, ruler) Hihuan. To do this, he needs an ancient hero, Asan, who has been kept in stasis, with three other ancient heroes, to be awoken. But the awakening process requires a mind as a catalyst, a mind that won’t survive the awakening process. Picyt intends to use Omari, although he does not let on that Omari will die, telling him only that he will be transformed into a Tlar. Even though Omari is on the run, he refuses Picyt’s proposal… At least until he is taken by Hihuan, who leaves him to die in Ruantl’s toxic desert. When he is eventually rescued by Picyt’s forces, Omari reluctantly agrees to be transformed into Asan.

However, the awakening process doesn’t go as planned – Omari survives, and it is Asan’s consciousness that is destroyed. This shouldn’t have happened – since Omari is vat-born he shouldn’t have a soul (a piece of weirdness in the novel which never quite makes sense); so plainly he wasn’t vat-born after all, just enslaved as a baby if he had been. Omari-as-Asan also learns that Anthi, the goddess worshipped by the inhabitants of Ruantl, is actually a sentient computer, responsible for life-support in the Tlar city of Altian and all the Tlar settlements outside the city, and also the care and attention of 800 ancient Tlar held in stasis. The Tlar, it seems, were once the Tlartantla and Ruantl was a colony world. But the Tlartantlan empire fell and now, thousands of years later, the Tlar are all that remain. As Asan, Omari also learns that the four ancient heroes are the only Tlarantlan survivors – the 800 stasis pods are empty. But he does manage to unite the Bban tribes for an attack on Altian to depose leill Hihuan. After several battles, Asan and Hihuan meet in single combat, and Asan kills the leiil.

The plot is a little more complex than the above summary suggests – Picyt’s motives, for example, are far from noble; and Saunders is used as a catalyst to awaken another of the ancient heroes, Aural, Asan’s mate, but Saunders does not survive the process. Saunders only agrees to the “transformation” because Aural is beautiful and she wants to be beautiful – a motivation which very much strikes a wrong note in a character that had up until that point been notable for her competence and the fact the narrative treated her exactly the same as Omari. But all of the women on Ruantl occupy very much traditional roles – they are consorts and wives and mistresses and serving women. Asan even falls in love with a Henan serving woman (a Henan is the product of a Bban parent and a Tlar parent). She is, of course, beautiful.

And yet, for all The Children of Anthi‘s heartland sf gender politics, Blakeney has managed some interesting world-building. The Galactic Space Institute and the polity in which it operates is pretty much a standard space opera setting, but Ruantl itself is quite imaginative. Perhaps it does owe a debt to Dune, with its harsh landscape and the way in which that has shaped the peoples of the planet, with its under-trodden Bban and noble Tlar, who are not only physically beautiful and strong but arrogant as well, and the hero Asan who unites the Bban to fight the Tlar…  But there’s more going on in the history of Ruantl than initially meets the eye – and some of it is not even explained until the sequel, Requiem for Anthi – and that lends the book a flavour all its own. Omari is, it must be said, a bit useless as a protagonist, often wrong-footed by his enemies, spending much of his time either imprisoned or injured, often reacting more to events or plans that have misfired than actively driving the plot… The prose is solid, although the construction “was but” appears annoyingly often, and the attempts at archaic phraseology (used to indicate the great age of Tlar’n culture) fall flat more often than not.

Much as I like the two Anthi books, I think the SF Encyclopedia was being generous to them – and their plot summary bears no resemblance to the actual story. The Tlar are not related to humanity, nor are they “guided by the eponymous AI, into a form that is half-flesh and half-electronics”. The Tlar have powers – referred to throughout as “rings” – which give them telepathic and telekinetic powers; and they can “seizert”, or teleport. While mentally linked to Anthi, these powers are much stronger – especially Asan’s, as he is Tlartantlan, not a debased Tlar’n. The Children of Anthi is a fun if undemanding read of no real meaning or importance. It’s a solid example of science fiction’s workmanlike midlist, and no more and no less worth reading than any other such book. If you like this sort of thing, you will like The Children of Anthi. But it comes as no real surprise that the book was never reprinted nor nominated for any awards – something which it has in common with the vast majority of sf novels.

Into the Forest, Jean Hegland

March 6, 2014

intotheforestInto the Forest, Jean Hegland (1996)
Review by Shannon Turlington

“People have been around for at least 100,000 years. And how long have we had electricity?”
“Well, Edison invented the incandescent lamp in 1879.”
“See? All this,” and she swung her arm to encircle the rooms of the only house I’d ever know, “was only a fugue state.” She pointed to the blackness framed by the open door. “Our real lives are out there.”

Two teenage daughters become stranded in their rural California home at the edge of a large, wild forest after the unexplained collapse of society and the accidental death of their father; gradually, the girls accept the reality of their situation and learn how to survive off the forest, which is the only resource they have in abundance.

This book revealed itself slowly, and it took me quite a while to really understand what it was all about. Once it did, everything clicked into place for me. Events that before seemed quite unbelievable became meaningful and even beautiful. The ending left with me with a sense of rightness, as well as melancholy, a tone that completely suited this story.

What I did not understand at first is how much of a feminist text this is. The story is not about the apocalypse so much as it is about women returning to their natural mother, the Earth, and relearning how to live in harmony with nature. The bear is an important symbol who teaches the narrator, Nell, that the forest is not threatening but can be nurturing, life-sustaining and protective.

The strong feminism of this book may turn off some readers. The three male characters all come across as inadequate, and finally the girls realize that they only need one another to survive. I was worried that there would be too much violence against women, but the novel avoids the needless wallowing in violence that most apocalyptic books depict, and the one violent incident that does occur is critical for the story.

The ending of the novel was the most beautiful section for me, as it expresses both a sense of loss and optimism. Nell’s elegy for books as she decides which ones she absolutely needs moved me. I’m not sure I completely agree with the underlying premise that returning to a pre-industrial way of life is the best path, which seems a bit simplistic. We have spent thousands of years constructing a civilization that offers our species a lot of advantages, and I don’t think we will turn our backs on it so easily. I also think that the root of our modern problems also offers our hope for salvation — that is, our ability to understand the world with science and develop new technologies to meet our needs. Perhaps the true answer is an amalgam of the two: looking back to nature for inspiration for technologies that will sustain us as a civilization but won’t eventually destroy us or get used up.

This novel reminded me a lot of another post-apocalyptic novel set in California: Always Coming Home by Ursula K Le Guin. The two books share a feminist context and the theme of remembering how to live harmoniously with nature. Indeed, the people of Always Coming Home could be the far-future descendants of Eva and Nell.

This review originally appeared on Books Worth Reading.

Foreigner, CJ Cherryh

March 4, 2014

foreignerForeigner, CJ Cherryh (1994)
Review by Stefan Raets

Foreigner is the opening volume of what has turned out to be CJ Cherryh’s longest series. When I first read it, some time in the early 2000s when the series only consisted of six books, I had no idea that this story would turn out to be five arcs of three books each, with the fifteenth novel due out in 2014 and the first book of a sixth arc reportedly in the works. That’s fifteen books going on sixteen, in case anyone else is in the mood for a nice meaty SF series.

My history with this series is a bit confused. I’ve read about three dozen of Cherryh’s novels. For some reason, it’s been a few years since I picked up one of Cherryh’s books. I read the first six books in the Foreigner universe practically back to back, then for some reason completely lost track of the series for over a decade.

When I decided to indulge and pick up one of her older books (“indulge” because there were about twenty new books I should have been reading instead), I was tempted to go for book seven of the Foreigner series, but quickly realized that I just didn’t remember enough detail from the earlier books. So I decided to treat myself to a reread of those first six books.

Foreigner is essentially a first contact story about aliens landing on a planet and having to learn to deal with its inhabitants. The big twist is that we’re the aliens. A human colony ship got lost in space after a bad hyperspace jump. The first two sections of Foreigner fast-forward through their journey, their arrival in the new system, the horrific challenges they face as they realize there is no way home. These two sections only account for about one seventh of the novel (about 60 of my paperback’s 420 or so pages) and should probably be considered something like a prologue to the entire series, because it’s only afterwards that the real story gets started.

As the third section of Foreigner begins, we meet Bren, the human paidhi who lives with the alien atevi. A combination of translator, observer, and diplomat, the paidhi position is an essential link between the two cultures and the only human allowed to leave the island where humanity has settled. About two hundred years have passed since the human/atevi war that created this delicate balance.

This third section starts, quite literally, with a bang, as Bren is forced to defend himself against an unknown assassin, using a gun he just received as a gift from Tabini, an important atevi leader whose association has benefited the most from contact and trade with the human colony. The assassination attempt sets off a confusing and complex set of events: who would dare to attack the paidhi, an important but essentially harmless human who lives under the roof and protection of probably the most powerful atevi?

It’s at this point that we should look at CJ Cherryh’s writing style, in case you’re not familiar with her works, because Foreigner is one of its finest examples and almost impossible to understand and appreciate without considering it in that light.

Cherryh usually writes in an incredibly tight third person limited perspective. In Foreigner’s case (once the “Prologue” is over) we see everything from the point of view of Bren. Even though the prose is written in the third person and fairly structured, it’s essentially a “stream of consciousness” narration that shows Bren’s thought patterns as they occur and as they are affected by events around him. That has two immediate effects: Bren’s (and so our) knowledge is limited by his often incomplete understanding of the situation, but, importantly in the context of this series, it also benefits from his unique cultural awareness.

As a result, Bren is both the best and worst possible narrator for this story if, as a neutral observer, you want to understand exactly why the atevi are in such an uproar. Worst because he just doesn’t know what set off the chain of events depicted in this book, until someone bothers to tell him towards the very end. He is clueless when it comes to the main driver of the plot of this novel. Partly because of this, he lacks any sort of agency until late in the book. He has no power to steer the narrative. He is physically weaker than the atevi. He is lost, off the grid, unable to contact any other human. And, to cap it all off, he just has no idea about what happened.

On the other hand, he’s also the best narrator possible for this story, because as paidhi, he has a more complete understanding of atevi psychology and society than any other human (and, obviously, vice versa). He’s devoted his life to understanding the atevi, who may look humanoid (though much taller and stronger) but have a completely alien mindset. Their emotions don’t work the same way. The way they perceive relationships and loyalty is entirely different.

Foreigner is essentially the story of a man who has devoted his life to trying to make sense of an alien culture and who now continues to do so during a pivotal time and under highly stressful circumstances. The crisis between the two cultures that is beginning to brew is mirrored in Bren’s own mind, as his mainly intellectual fascination suddenly turns into a life-or-death situation, forcing him to re-evaluate certain assumptions and habits that allowed him to function but also led to potentially costly misunderstandings.

There are only a few authors who could pull off a book like Foreigner. The level of nuance and detail in Cherryh’s prose is what makes it work, creating a slow, deliberate, multifaceted look at the thought processes of a character who doesn’t have the full picture but is trying to reason his way to it. There are paragraphs, pages even, of Bren trying to process recent events in light of the historical situation on the planet, his personal and professional relationships, and his own observations.

This creates a reading experience that’s the literary equivalent of shaky handheld camera footage accompanied by an internal monologue voice-over: yes, it’s sometimes slow, confusing, and obviously focusing on things that are less than important in the big picture. You’re forced to process raw footage, just like the point of view character. At the same time it makes for a uniquely immersive experience.

Steven Brust recently wrote a blog post entitled “Making the Reader Work”, including a quote from David Wohlreich: “When a fish explains what water is, I’m unhappy”. CJ Cherryh is the kind of author who should make readers like this happy: in her fiction, not only does the fish rarely explain what water is, but often the reader isn’t even aware that there are such things as fish and water, or that there’s anything but water to consider.

In Foreigner, Bren is (if you’ll pardon the pun) a fish out of water. The end result is a slow, often confusing but extremely rewarding novel. The limited perspective is sometimes difficult, yes, but it also allows Cherryh to introduce the many other aspects of this novel and series in a piecemeal fashion: culture shock, multiculturalism, colonial and post-colonial relations. The Foreigner series offers a broad socio-political tapestry, from the various factions on the human side to the complex structure and history of the atevi.

Unwrapping that “post-colonial relations” bit somewhat: the humans are in a unique position here, having more or less crash-landed in the middle of a Steam Age level-culture while carrying the knowledge of thousands of years of human science. They allow their advanced knowledge to trickle into atevi culture, constantly trying to balance progress (and profit) with preservation. One of the long term goals is steering the alien culture towards a space program. Some atevi are strongly opposed to any human influence on their society, while others are impatient for more advanced science. Humanity itself has all kinds of factions, including one that feels they shouldn’t have landed on the planet in the first place. There are many sides tugging in different directions, and again, the reader has to figure all of this out based on one character’s perspective.

If the book has one weakness, it’s that there isn’t any kind of resolution. If anything, you end up with more questions than answers. It’s best to consider Foreigner as part one of a three part novel and be ready to get to the next volume in the series. Cherryh does provide some closure at the end of each three book arc (or at least of the two arcs I’ve read so far), but that’s not really the point of this novel and series anyway.

Foreigner is one of the most in-depth, uncompromising examinations of the way cultures interact in science fiction. Rereading it after all this time and with the added benefit of having read some of the later books in the series, I discovered a whole new level of complexity that’s probably almost impossible to appreciate on a first reading—complexity on almost every level, from Bren’s personal life and the subtle interactions of the atevi characters on the micro-level to the incredible socio-political depth on the macro-level.

Rereading Foreigner was a pleasure. I’d forgotten that CJ Cherryh is simply one of the most unique minds working in SFF right now. I’m actually a bit annoyed that I let myself lose track of this author and series for so long, but fortunately, as I just learned, these books lend themselves to a second reading really well. I’m looking forward to reading through the next five books again and then treating myself to the other eight.

This review originally appeared on Far Beyond Reality.

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