It’s called Foreigner, and did I ever feel it whilst reading.
After a lot of fantasy, I wanted some science fiction. And after a conversation at RenFaire this past weekend, my vague sci-fi yearnings settled on a book that’s been in the pile for over two years; Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh.
It’s a lengthy series, with new books still coming out last I noticed. I picked up this first volume at the SFWA event in Chicago. That is to say, the Science Fiction Writers of America, who give out the Nebula awards. Cherryh was made a Grand Master, so she was obliged to be present, even if that meant traveling halfway across the country. And, of course, signing a number of books. She had a few on the table that we could take as freebies, and as Foreigner was the only one of the lot I didn’t already own, the choice was obvious.
You know, I never actually read the synopsis on this one. But it never really called out to me with interest, a feeling that hasn’t much changed since finishing the book. You can tell how much it didn’t engage me by how many days it’s taken me to read a mere four hundred twenty-three page novel.
I think my first problem is the fact that there are two prologues. Technically, the novel is divided into three books and the first two are very short. I feel like the events of one or both could have been summarized in an exposition dump and then things would be less…random? Confusing? Let’s look at the actual book.
The first section is that of the ship Phoenix as something goes horribly wrong on their journey to establish a space station by a distant star. They come out of…ftl, whatever it’s called in this universe…at a very wrong destination where they can’t actually stay. After refueling, they continue onwards.
Book two is some unknown number of years later. Enough for there to be grandparents at least. There is a space station above a habitable world, and people have just begun moving down to the surface. A surface which is already inhabited by sentient beings who have steam power. This is the story of first contact, although it’s very brief and abruptly cuts itself off.
Some two hundred years later are the events of book three. And it’s not until about forty-five pages into this third section that we get a brief overview of the events between – talking about the abandoned space station, humans limited to a single island on the planet, the treaty, the war, etc. I can understand the desire to throw a reader directly into action with the assassination attempt that seems to kick off the entire plot, but I was already flailing around with two time jumps and then to have a third combined with a very alien culture and mindset that our human protagonist Bren Cameron is surrounded by? It was a bit much to swallow.
And because the atevi remain so incredibly alien throughout, it remains difficult to read. Again, credit where credit is due, other sentient species have no reason to think as we do and their culture and instincts are likely to vary greatly from ours. It just makes it very difficult to get a grip on the people Bren is surrounded by. Let me make it clear: there are no other humans in the third book. It is Bren’s job to be an interpreter; not just of language but of culture and intent. As such he’s one of the very few humans to live off the island and he often walks a thin rope.
At the end of the day, I still have very mixed feelings about Foreigner. I can’t say that I liked it because it made me feel the foreigner to a point that I don’t know I can ever fully appreciate the book. I can’t say that I hated it because I could always follow what was going on and even if I didn’t always understand it, I knew there was always logic to it, even if I couldn’t see it. But I’m reminded of the unspoken rule: I never enjoy everything an author has produced, unless if they haven’t written much.
Usually, I add books to my database when I finish them, before I write the blog post. However, I’ve been known to put that off in cases like this one, where I’m not certain whether or not I actually want to keep the book. I was hoping that rambling on about Foreigner would help me clear up my feelings towards it. Unfortunately, nothing has really coalesced for me.
I will admit to a mild curiosity about the second book. I wonder if it picks up right where this one leaves off. If so, I might be interested to see what happens next. According to isfdb.org, book two is Invader, and the synopsis indicates that it probably does pick up roughly where Foreigner ends. So there I have it, what I asked for on a silver plate. I can go and see if the library has a copy and read it for myself.
But I don’t think I want to. I don’t think I want to struggle through yet another one of these books, even though there’s likely to be more humans in the next. And that’s telling. Subconsciously, I don’t think it’s going to be worth the time investment to actually find out what happens next…and I don’t think I care about those events.
I’m not certain I can say this is a disappointment, because I didn’t have much interest in this series in the first place. I picked up the book because it was free and I was there. I hadn’t had any interest in reading the books in all the previous years I’d seen them around, and I still don’t. I’ll put this in a pile to be sold at some point in the future, or given to a friend. May they have more joy of it than I did.