It’s easy to talk about how science is used in fiction when you can point to concrete objects as evidence of the importance of science to the story. With social sciences, it can be easier to overlook, but it can be done just as well and it’s no less important. With that in mind, I’m going to write this time about C.J. Cherryh and her Foreigner series (or “First Contact,” but I think most people just call it Foreigner).
(Yes, I’m doubling up on scifi posts, but I’ve been waiting so long to recommend these books! And this post will be pretty much spoiler-free, so you can get yourself excited to read them without ruining anything.)
From what I’ve read, it’s generally agreed on that Cherryh’s novel Foreigner kicks off an excellent series. What’s more debated is whether Foreigner itself is a great book, and I understand why it’s not for everyone. This first book of eighteen (and counting) introduces us to Bren Cameron, the official human interpreter for one of the leaders of an alien civilization. Having essentially crash-landed on their planet a few centuries before, humans live in an uneasy peace with the atevi, separated on an island to minimize cross-cultural misunderstandings.
Here’s one of the social-science aspects that grabbed me from the beginning. If you’ve never put much thought into how literally impossible it is to write characters who have non-human thought patterns, take a moment to consider it now. One common approximation of truly alien intelligence is to take one trait and amplify it, so that you have a species that’s all about honor, or logic, or violence. This is especially common when you have multiple alien species, and it usually turns out that humans are sort of jacks of all trades, able to contain any and all of these characteristics.
Cherryh goes a different route with her aliens; rather than having a defining personality trait, she sets them up with different biochemistry and resulting instincts. Instead of being ruled primarily by the feelings we think of as producing love for others, especially in family units, atevi attach instinctively based on a sense of hierarchy. This means that the atevi characters have great depth, with the same huge range of traits that the human characters have—they’re stubborn, cheerful, brilliant, stupid, selfish, irrational, curious, anxious, and anything else you can imagine, just driven at gut level by a different type of emotional attachment. It also accounts for the strict cultural separation, as Cherryh makes it clear that the similarities between atevi and human can be deceptive and have led to violence in the past.
This deliberate separation is the status quo, so it’s very alarming when our hero Bren finds himself drawn into deeper and more independent interactions with atevi. As a result, he spends most of the first book being timid (at best) and dumb (at worst), which is why opinion is divided. What can I say, some people just don’t like a bumbling protagonist.
I did, though. Bren’s problems don’t stem from stupidity, just trying to deal with an unprecedented and incredibly complicated situation. Not to mention the linguistics! This is the other fascinating science part for me. I make no secret of being a low-level linguistics nerd, and the atevi-human language barrier is unique and reflects the cultural and psychological differences really well. The atevi language combines hierarchical instincts with an intuition for numbers, creating different forms for different relationships and numbers, all of which must not only be used correctly, but also rounded to more fortunate numbers when necessary.
All of this adds up to what I love so much about these books, which is that the differences between atevi and humans are absolutely central to the series. It’s not a side note that occasionally becomes relevant—Bren spends more time with atevi than with other humans, so they increasingly account for his most important relationships, not to mention that his diplomatic and linguistic expertise is constantly tested.
On that note, Cherryh manages to make the sociological and linguistic challenges of Bren’s job interesting to the reader, which is good, since they so often drive the plot. It takes skill to make a character convincingly great at an incredibly complex job while staying at the reader’s level, but that’s how I feel reading these books. Cherryh goes into just enough detail to make us understand Bren’s problems and feel smart for keeping up with him, while still making him increasingly competent and formidable. (The cover art for the series has really gone with this “formidable” theme in a borderline-sinister way I don’t agree with, but that’s beside the point.)
Basically, I love everything about this series, even the interminable tea-drinking. It’s thoughtful and intelligent, the alien characters are every bit as developed as the humans without ever becoming too human, the contact and conflict of alien cultures and mindsets is handled incredibly well, and the occasional humorous moments are a joy. Try it out and thank me later!