Ossus Library Index
Science Fiction Index


A novel by C.J. Cherryh
(1994, DAW Books)

Foreigner, book 1

Humans and the alien Atevi maintain an uneasy truce when humanity lands their after an accident in hyperspace. After an assassination attempt on the human ambassador, he is sent to an isolated castle without news or communication.


+ -- First reading (paperback)
December 27th, 2017 to January 4th, 2018


Hugely repetitive in the middle of the story, with almost nothing going on through most of it. I’m not sure that entire section was worth the piecemeal delivery of the two hundred years of human history on this planet. Yet I did enjoy getting to know the main character. The start and end of the book were more interesting, at least. The author tries to present the Atevi as aliens who cannot be reasoned with using human values, but I found they were very human. Only Bren’s thoughts tell us that they are non-human, and the social order doesn’t represent physical boundaries. Some human cults do that, too. Add to that the use of so many familiar settings and technologies, and this could have been any non-science fiction spy novel. They have cities and country resorts, tourists, machine guns, busses and cars, toilets, telephones and light bulbs. They also sequester people away when they want to frighten them, use physical torture, and lay traps and drop bombs along the escapees paths. Sounds very human to me.

Spoiler review:

The beginning of this novel caught my interest; even when they landed on the surface and encountered the Atevi for the first time, it was interesting. But that’s not what the book is about. It’s about one man who is caught up in the Atevi world, in their politics, and in a power struggle between those who think humanity has things to offer, and those who probably want to destroy humans While also interesting, I found myself almost as bored as the main character Bren Cameron, who sits for chapters doing nothing -because there is nothing to do where he was taken.

The Phoenix arrives at the Atevi planet by accident, as their stardrive malfunctions, and they are stranded in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, an uncharted star is found within the range of their reserve fuel. Once there, they find a planet rich in the minerals that they’d need to refuel, but they also find an habitable planet with an infant industrial society. After observing for months, they decide to make planetfall. We find out later in the book that the officers of the Phoenix decided to leave this star system after refueling, in search of more information about where they are. The group that decided to make planetfall is left behind to fend for themselves.

In the time between planetfall and Bren’s story, there was a war between humanity and the Atevi, and the truce left humans with a large island called Mospheira, in exchange for the slow trickle of advanced technology. It has to be slow in order to allow the Atevi to mature into a peaceful and respectful society without overwhelming it or destroying it. Of course, there are factions, some of whom think humanity is holding back, and others who want to destroy humanity outright, thinking that humans are destroying their culture.

Bren, as liaison between humans and Atevi, is stuck in the middle. Unfortunately for me as a reader, the most interesting chapter after the ones on the Phoenix is the first one, where Bren fends off an attempted murder, and he goes to the leader Tabini, who offers protection. Everything happens so fast that Bren doesn’t get a chance to call Mospheira to let them know about the attempt, nor that he is about to be whisked off to an undisclosed location.

The political situation is interesting. As the chapters unfold, we learn more about the history of Mospheira and the Atevi, the peace and war, introduction of technology, and the different nations of the Atevi. The main distinguishing factor between Atevi and humans, we are told, is their sense of loyalty and justice. Atevi across borders can share loyalties, which the author seems to think makes them different. I realize that there’s more to it than that, but it seems that the Atevi have taken it to an extreme, compared to Earth groups, I guess.

Unfortunately, while we learn a lot of history, which is good, the middle of the book just has Bren stuck in this isolated castle, repeating the same endless tasks, complaining about the same endless things, and wondering about the same endless worries. His duties, strangely enough, fill less of his thoughts than I would think. But of course, he’s been the target of a murder, and is completely cut off from everything he’s known, deeper in Atevi territory than any human has ever been, so I guess that’s excusable.

It’s just that Bren repeats the same thoughts over and over. He’s stuck with no power for his laptop and no way to get it: he’s worried about the attempted murder. He meets with Tabini’s mother Ilisidi: he worries about her and the attempted murder. He’s sent out on horseback (or the Atevi world equivalent): he worries about an attempted murder. And so on and so on. It’s exactly the same thing repeated in marginally different ways throughout the entire middle of the book.

Not to mention how he always uses the same expressions as he’s going so. I’ll be happy if he never says “Oh God… blah blah blah” again, or “God he wished…”. Religious expression is normal and fine, and I’d feel the same about any kind of repeated profanity or any other turn of phrase -it’s just used so often that it actually became noticeable!

That might be okay if the horses weren’t the only thing that seemed to be alien in this book, which takes place on an alien world with an alien species. But they are described as having nice villas with tour busses, discussions about rail lines and roads, paved or gravel, airplanes, bathtubs, pistols and machine guns, bombs and electrical outlets, extension cords, and so on. Absolutely nothing about the setting is alien. Even the Atevi aren’t alien -they’re taller and stronger, blacker than humans, but they just have a slightly different worldview that could herald from another country on Earth.

If I ignored the stated fact that the Atevi and their world were alien, then once Bren got out of the castle, it became a mildly interesting political thriller. It turns out that the Atevi noticed that a second bright star has joined with the one they know to be the abandoned human space station. Isolating Bren is actually a plot to see what he knows, if humans have suddenly betrayed the Atevi.

When Bren is sent to the basement to be tortured, he resists, his loyalty to Tavini going beyond rational, as he knows that if he takes the easy path, war will break out again between the Atevi and humans. His human loyalties to his guards Banichi and Jago, not to mention Ilisidi’s bodyguard Cenedi, who goes from potential murderer to friend to torturer and to bodyguard, once he deems Bren trustworthy. The threat to Tabini is real enough; even his mother isn’t sure if she should support him. In the end, because of Bren’s loyalty to him, Ilisidi supports him, but they end up fighting rebels as they make their way to a tiny airstrip on horseback.

One of my favorite scenes was near the end as Bren is alone at the airstrip, it looks like Banichi and the others have fallen, and he hides from the rebel Atevi searchers. It’s so vivid as he leaves the body of his guard, comes back to it only when he remembers he should have taken the guard’s weapon, to find that the searchers have already taken it. Then he hides under the wing of an abandoned aircraft, but can’t watch as Cenedi is about to be killed, so he takes action and is discovered.

Eventually, they all escape, and make their way back to the capital, where the next book will presumably continue the story.

I wish the middle of the book hadn’t been so boring and repetitive. I could have handled Bren’s loneliness, and his feelings for Tabini and Banichi and the female Jago who seems to be romantically interested in him, if they weren’t so entrenched in his self-pity and the way he goes on and on about the same things. I’ll definitely return to this world, but I’m not sure I’ll take in all of the stories.


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