Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review of Explorer by C.J. Cherryh

Inheritor, the concluding volume of C.J. Cherryh’s first Foreigner trilogy, was something of a disappointment, particularly the final sections.  What had been a staid, considered three volume series, in a few moments resolved itself in a flash-bang of prototypical pulp hash, complete with human-alien sex happiness.  Precursor and Defender, the first two novels in the second Foreigner trilogy, likewise lay down a staid, considered storyline, thus raising the question whether the third and concluding volume, Explorer (2003), will follow in the footsteps of Inheritor?  (Spoiler: no.)

Cherryh using the gap between novels to traverse the length (and boredom) of space, Explorer opens with space ship Phoenix arriving in Reunion Station space.  A couple of surprises await.  First is an alien space ship parked quietly to the side.  The second is somehow more surprising.  Communications opened with the Pilot’s Guild on Reunion Station and its general, Braddock, there is an unexplained reluctance to allow Saban, Jace, Bren and the remainder of the Phoenix crew to board Reunion and get the fuel they need to make the return trip to the Atevi home world.  Saban’s tough manner not making things easier with Braddock, the situation quickly escalates when it’s learned that the alien attack that supposedly occurred years before has ongoing repercussions, meaning the Phoenix’s return, let alone survival, is anything but certain.

Explorer begins with a rather lengthy exposition on what has transpired to bring matters to the state in which they stand.  But afterwards, it settles into a pace that, when put in context with the entire Foreigner series thus far, is positively breakneck.  Communications with the alien ship, action aboard Reunion Station to find an alien, stealing aboard Reunion to steal fuel—the book kicks into “high gear” and doesn’t really slow down until the end.

From a thematic standpoint, Explorer, particularly with the introduction of a second alien species, continues to be an exploration of the Other.  From the alien perspective, this is perhaps the weakest point of Explorer, however.  For example, the speed with which the new language is learned and transmitted shows little knowledge of philology, and feels more like an 80s cut scene than anything that can easily be believed. 

Where Explorer does it hit its Other stride, however, is in the inter-human tension, particularly that between Reunion and Phoenix.  So long separated from the rest of humanity in space, Braddock is afraid to allow Phoenix crew to board, wants to protect his resources, and in general beats his chest in diplomatic fashion, indicating sometimes the Other is right next door.  Through Braddock, Cherryh does a great job presenting the detrimental self-interest associated with positions of extreme power, particularly the control of knowledge and access, as well as the paranoia fueling unwillingness to forego this control—to let people in or share, in turn creating barriers between people.  Conversations between Braddock and Saban, and he and Bren, feel drawn from real world diplomatic negotiations where one side has no interest in opening, or making themselves available in the slightest.

In the end, Explorer is a more consistent, enjoyable conclusion to the second Foreigner trilogy than Inheritor was to the first trilogy.   Cherryh having settled in to the Foreigner universe, the story arc begun in Precursor concludes itself over the whole of Explorer (rather than the final few chapters), which benefits any problems with pacing that may have existed, as well as creating organic (rather than pulpish) excitement.  (Though, there remain moments with the Empress Dowager that seem a little cartoony.)  Cherryh having since pumped out more than a dozen additional Foreigner novels, it nevertheless gives the reader reason to jump into the third Foreigner trilogy.

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