C. J. Cherryh, 1994
I enjoy thinking about the link between language and cognition, and this work manages to delve into this subject on a deeper level than the back-of-the-book-copy would have you believe. "...one human's fondness for a species which has fourteen words for betrayal and not a single word for love?" I'm glad I didn't actually read that before picking up the book. In fact, Foreigner does a nice job not playing into that "Eskimos have x number of words for snow" silliness, instead subtly exploring the fundamental differences between two sentient races, reflected in their language.
The aliens, called atevi, aren't less moral, or less good, or less or more anything than humans, but they are irrevocably different. It's actually refreshing for a sci-fi piece not to go with the easy out of 'we are all the same at the core'. It's a completely separate sentient species, developed on a different world, and all bets are off.
Foreigner is also a nice exploration of a diplomatic (non-action-guy!) protagonist, who does his best to sympathize and understand the atevi, but has to always watch his human instincts, and always has to think of his own people. In the most moving passages, Bren constantly realizes anew he can't really understand or be understood by even his closest atevi companions. It's almost like playing ambassador to dolphins or gorillas, once you fall back from communicating on their terms and ascribe human motivations to their behavior, you'll never really understand what's going on. And even if you don't, maybe you actually can't understand.
Okay, so that's all well and good, but the first thing that struck me about this book was the beginning.
Foreigner is divided into three books.
Book one is pages 9-23, book two is 27-61, and book three pages 65-423.
You don't meet the main protagonist until book three.
The first two sections set up the situation of the humans on this world. The first is how the ship ends up in that system, the second the first contact between the species. Not knowing what I was getting into, I was a bit surprised when, 20 pgs in, getting intrigued by the characters, the storyline jumped several generations. I was growing very interested in the second story, when again, 200 years skipped ahead. I didn't fully trust that Cherryh was going to stay put in her final time until a few chapters had gone by.
So, my opinion is complicated here. Showing the story this way saves Cherryh from many awkward exposition possibilities, the dreaded "he remembered when he had learned how humans landed..." style info-dump, the interaction with a supernumerary whose purpose is to be explained to, or many other cringe-worthy strategies. I know it's often a struggle for science fiction and fantasy authors to present their world with style.
I'm conflicted about this approach. It certainly gave me as a reader a clearer and more personal feel for the history which backs up the main story to see it through the people who were there. Also there's some opportunity for subtle humor with later characters misunderstanding the same events. However, I did feel slightly disappointed once it became clear that I would never get the full story about the protagonists in Part 1 or 2. (Of course, at this point, she's written a ton of books in this series, maybe some of them fill in the gaps.) I'm not categorically stating I need every detail of every character for a book to be good, just that in this case it was jarring to be flung forward in the timeline. So, is the bait and switch justified in the name of clearer exposition? I'm undecided.
4 Stars - A Really Good Book