Foreigner is a novel of first contact told in trademark
C.J. Cherryh style. Cherryh has a gift for conveying the aloneness of
the individual, and that gift is as apparent here as in any of her novels.
The constant peril of being singly human amidst a bigger, stronger population of
beings whose minds work along patterns utterly alien to the human mind
is conveyed absolutely. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the
few, but in Foreigner, the fate of the many rests on the
shoulders of one man. For an isolated, accidental pocket of humanity to
survive, one man must survive ambassadorship to
humanity's tentative ally and potentially devastating enemy.
The starship Phoenix left Earth two centuries ago to continue
a successful program of colonization. Targeted for a promising star
system, the crew of the Phoenix and their descendants would
establish a human presence in a profitable new zone. Carefully planned
to a fault, Phoenix's mission nonetheless ended in a terrifying
failure. A miniscule miscalculation in hyperspace dumped the vessel in
uncharted space. The Phoenix had no points of reference and no
way to get back home. Finding an habitable planet nearby was the only
option. Finding that planet occupied could very well have been the unequivocable
end of the ship and her crew.
Now, two hundred years after that fateful trip,
the descendants of the original Phoenix crew are confined to
exile on a tiny island called Mospheira. The atevi, the
intelligent humanoid inhabitants of the planet, have a society frighteningly
different from humanity's. Order is kept through registered assassination;
geographical boundaries mean nothing in the complicated web of atevi
alliances. A war has arisen around the issue of the alien humans and of
the human relationship with a particular atevi faction. The
Phoenix-descendants walk a knife's edge, averting utter extinction
by feeding their atevi allies carefully rationed bits of
technological information. The atevi grow impatient with the
human reluctance to share all their knowledge, and the human population
on Mospheira is in the most tenuous position they've been since the
accidental arrival of the Phoenix.
Only one human is allowed off Mospheira into atevi society.
The paidhi acts as interpreter
and liaison for the leader of the most powerful atevi faction.
Right now, that human is Bren Cameron, a man painfully aware of his
fulcrum position, a man who knows that he must walk the razor thin line
between honesty and secrecy, diplomacy and forthrightness to maintain
humanity's slight toehold on this planet. When Bren is nearly killed
by an unregistered assassin's bullet, he finds himself whisked out of
contact with Mospheira and embroiled in the deadly intrigues
of a species nearly devoid of emotion. The fate of two peoples rests
squarely on Bren's being able to build a bridge of understanding between
two kinds of sapients who might in the end be completely, fatally incompatible.
C.J. Cherryh outlines an all-too-possible result of first contact,
whether planned or no. There are no guarantees that any other sapients humans
encounter will think in any fashion as we do. The daunting
task of establishing a line of civil communication with such an intelligence
has by no means a certain outcome. Multiply the fragility of any
accord established by two differing human cultures a thousand-fold. Such
a balance often relies on a single person on either side of the divide.
History will be and often has been writ large on an individual's success or failure of one person in such
a case. Cherry's Foreigner is a thoughtful speculation on
that whole notion.