Thursday, March 22, 2012

Review of "Foreigner" by C.J. Cherryh

“Sometimes the clothes do not make the man…” sang George Michael.  Fortunately the cover of C.J. Cherryh’s literary sci-fi offering Foreigner can boast the same.  The story contained within is (pun intended) light years from the throwback sci-fi cover.  And the back cover is only slightly better.  The Publisher’s Weekly quote reads: “Cherryh’s gift for conjuring believable alien cultures is in full force here, and her characters… are brought to life with a sure, convincing hand.”  Copy often overstated, this statement is only partially true. The first part is a twisted untruth (or an insult to traditional Japanese), while the second strikes the truth, square.  In other words, ignore the publisher’s contribution to Cherryh’s 1994 Foreigner and focus on content.

Plot thin but well motivated, in Foreigner Cherryh’s focuses more on character and quality writing.  The only human, Bren Cameron lives amongst an alien race, the atevi, after his race is stranded on an unnamed planet.  Bran an emissary, his life consists primarily of struggling within the unfamiliar modes and channels of the atevi social system to pacify hostile opinion regarding humanity.  The position challenging, he must come to terms with the two cultures’ differences while assaying diplomacy in a manner that respects both human as well as his alien host’s interests.  An assassination attempt or social faux-pas always just around the corner, the story is never dull.  

Students writing theses on E. Said’s “Otherness” take note: as the setting of Foreigner is Shogun with sci-fi window dressing, cultural interaction is the thematic nebulas of the novel.  While some readers may complain that the atevi seem alien and plural, not an individual among them, the more discerning reader will appreciate Bran’s introspective monologue as he tries to work out their behavior, motives, and the implications surrounding the awkward relations.  Like Bran, distinguishing between the atevi must be done with care by the reader.   By portraying the love-less atevi as a more nuanced society, Cherryh thus accomplishes a goal: to give the reader a realistic understanding of what meeting the Other may be like, whether they be alien or simply foreign to the reader’s culture.  

Deft but subtle, characterization is the strength of Foreigner.  For the less culturally aware, Bran will be easy to sympathize with.  The uncertainties he faces daily in an unfamiliar environment are easy to imagine.  The well-traveled (read: culturally sensitive) will find Bran whiny and obnoxious at the beginning - a Western tourist who complains when a Buddhist temple won’t allow entrance them wearing shorts.  Fear not, transitions occur which satisfy all involved – and not in tones even approaching proselytizing or the politically correct. 

With regards to the cultural aspect, Cherryh has done no more “conjuring” than to visit her local library for Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword or Varley’s Japanese Culture, then magnify a few aspects.  Despite being ebony seven-footers, the humanoid atevi of the novel follow strict protocols of etiquette and social rigor, bow upon entrance and exit, believe in hierarchal duty, remain forever concerned about preserving their own and other’s reputations (i.e. “saving face”), practice zen building and street alignment, condone samurai-esque blood feuds, and maintain strong links to their religious and traditional past while developing their world into a modern civilization.  Post WWII Japan, Cherryh’s aliens feature little originality from a sci-fi standpoint.  

That being said, it was never Cherryh’s intent to dazzle and wow with cultural inventiveness a la Jack Vance, rather to hold a mirror up to Western society.  Readers looking for fast, action based sci-fi should then avoid Foreigner (though perhaps their lives would be enriched for investing the time and thought).  Despite that the last 100 pages wrap up the book in breathtaking fashion, the first 300 are used to develop Bran’s relationship with the atevi, as well as begin digging into their cultural mindset.  The book is thus written for those interested in the sociological and anthropological side of the genre.  With characterization and human interest the themes of the day, fans of Le Guin’s Hainish series will undoubtedly find something to like about the novel.  The book that follows, Invader really unearthing atevi culture, Foreigner is really something to be savored en route.

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