C.J. Cherryh, |
It's been an axiom among devotees of science fiction and fantasy (collectively, SF) since at least the 1950s that the two genres are an ideal format for satire and/or social commentary. Indeed, satire as a form operates from the same basic question as SF: "What if?"
There are many examples, ranging from the sharp, Swiftian barbs of Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth in such classics as The Space Merchants and Gladiator-At-Law to the moral allegories of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. What is relevant here, in a discussion of the first of C.J. Cherryh's atevi trilogies, is the kind of fine-grained social commentary that SF does so well.
Cherryh, certainly one of the most capable writers in the genre, also has a gift for examining cultures. Foreigner, Invader, and Inheritor, which turn on a vivid portrayal of the difficulties of cultural interfaces, also provide a merciless commentary on the rise and fall of societies.
Cherryh has developed a single story that arches through three volumes packed with intrigue, adventure and the kind of multilayered politics that is one of her trademarks. The first two books of Foreigner give us the set-up: a colony ship from Earth, on its way to build a station at a previously surveyed star, is knocked far off course by an interstellar mishap, arriving at the world of the atevi, who have just entered the Steam Age. A faction of the colonists then decides to leave the station and land on the planet, while the ship leaves on further explorations. All seems to be going well as the colonists make first contact with the natives. Book three, which begins the story of Bren Cameron, brings us into the present, some 200 years after the Landing. The humans live isolated on the island of Mospheira; Cameron is the only human allowed on the mainland, as a translator and interlocutor between the human government and that of the Western Association, the atevi entity that had concluded a treaty with the humans after the War of the Landing, which occurred because the two groups, although they apparently interacted very well, simply didn't understand each other's cultural constraints.
Cameron plays a dual and sometimes very uncomfortable role as paidhi: he is in truth the sole diplomat on the planet, whom the aiji, Tabini, considers an officer of his government even though he reports to Mospheira. Cameron becomes a game piece in the contest between Tabini-aiji; a faction of conservatives, who may or may not be in league with Tabini's grandmother Ilisidi, twice passed over as aiji, and who do not relish the idea of humans or their technology; the government of Mospheira, inept and largely inert; and the human conservatives, who consider themselves naturally superior and truly believe that they are in control of the planet -- or should be.
The first crisis sees Cameron sent to Ilisidi for a "holiday" at the aiji's eastern estate, Malguri, after an illegal attempt on his life (assassination is an integral part of the atevi legal system, regulated by the Assassin's Guild, but there has been no filing against Cameron). Cameron is subjected to after-breakfast rides with Ilisidi and her security, life in a historic monument, complete with a historic "accommodation," as the atevi call it, and ultimately kidnapping and intense interrogation. He is, however, returned to Ilisidi's care and together they escape Malguri, under attack by dissident elements. Unknown to Cameron until his final conversation with Ilisidi before they depart Malguri, this has all been occasioned by the reappearance of the ship, which has returned to find the station mothballed and a thriving human colony on the planet.
The story continues through Invader and Inheritor, with the addition of Deanna Hanks, the paidhi-successor, sent to replace Cameron when the Mospheiran government was unable to contact him, and who is this story's bull in the china shop -- her political backing, from the Human Heritage Party, far exceeds her abilities in cross-cultural contact; Jason Graham, sent from the ship to be another paidhi between the ship humans and the atevi; and more intrigue, culminating in an attempted invasion of the mainland from Mospheira set up to coincide with a rebellion by the atevi conservatives.
While this trilogy is Cherryh's normal tightly plotted adventure story (albeit with an overdose of "psychological" introspection, which seemed to plague her novels of the '90s), the real richness comes from her depiction of atevi culture and Cameron's growing understanding of what makes atevi tick. Based in some aspects on Japanese society, it reflects atevi biology: the atevi are hard-wired for group loyalty that flows upward toward the leader. Their relationships and alliances are based on man'chi, the loyalty owed to superiors, which becomes very complex when one factors in family, professional and political relationships: they have no words and no concepts for "trust," "love" or "friendship"; they do, however, have 14 words for betrayal, the most common of which translates as "taking the obvious course." The atevi are intensely social; even a plumber will have his assistants or apprentices, if no more than a young relative of a relative to serve tea to the customers: they are never alone. One knows how "reliable" someone is when one understands where man'chi is owed -- thus what humans would consider nepotism is the only reasonable method among atevi for filling vacant positions.
There are disappointments. Cameron's minute dissections of his relationships with his family and romantic liaison on Mospheira come across as heavy-handed, not usually one of Cherryh's faults. Cameron grows as a character, his initial bumbling ineffectuality gradually giving way to decisiveness of heroic caliber, but his interminable ruminations on his family history don't really add anything. We really spend too much time in Cameron's head without learning anything new.
The contrasts between the mainland and Mospheira can easily be taken as a commentary on the rising economies of Asia versus that of the U.S., which is losing its industrial base to foreign competition; Cameron's thoughts on the Mospheiran government amount to a scathing examination of our own; and references to the Mosepheirans as a people are uncomfortably close to some of the more mordant descriptions of the American middle class.
In spite of my objections, this is one of those series on my "re-read" list. I enjoy Cherryh, her strengths are in full evidence here and, even though I feel that there are large sections of each volume that could have been cut without loss -- well, one learns where to skim. (She also manages the best use of a dream sequence I've ever seen.) Fortunately, the quality of Cherryh's writing -- her use of language and her ability as a wordsmith -- is such that what is left after skimming is well worth the effort.