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Literature / Foreigner (1994)

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Peace at a price.

The Faster Than Light starship Phoenix is sent off to construct a self-sustaining Space Station, carrying as passengers the civilians who will build and then operate the station. However, while travelling through Hyperspace a should-be-impossible accident happens, sending the ship a much further distance than should have been possible, so far that no known star is visible through the telescopes. After mining fuel at the deadly star they arrived at, they travel to the nearest star system which might have a life bearing planet. While the system does have a life bearing planet, it's already inhabited by the sentient atevi, so the humans stay in space, living in a Space Station they build in orbit around the atevi's planet.

Two hundred years later, there are two factions of the descendants of the original humans, and tensions between the factions have reached the breaking point. One faction builds jerry-rigged landing vessels and use them to land on the planet on the island of Mospheira, while the other faction takes the refueled Phoenix off into space, intent on finding long lost Earth. The humans who landed make contact with the atevi (who were just entering their Steam Age) and the humans and atevi seem to be getting on well.

However, each species makes the mistaken assumption that the other species has the same general form of government and interpersonal power structures as they do, leading to lots of misunderstandings. Twenty years worth of misunderstandings lead to the War of the Landing, which almost wipes out the Lost Colony. Fortunately, the leader of the largest atevi government struck a deal with the colony, which came to be known as the Treaty. According to the treaty:

  1. All atevi would evacuate from the island of Mospheira, leaving it entirely to the humans.
  2. The sole point of contact between humans and atevi would be the newly created human office of the paidhi, who would receive extensive training in the cultural and psychological differences between the species so as to avoid any further misunderstandings.
  3. The paidhi would be the only human allowed off the island.
  4. The humans would slowly hand over their technological knowledge to the atevi, faster than the atevi themselves could develop it, but not so quickly that it would cause any societal disruption.

Bren Cameron has the job of the paidhi, the sole point of contact between the human Lost Colony on the island of Mospheira and the alien atevi on whose planet the humans are living. While Bren enjoys being a diplomat/translator/linguist/xenologist, it's not what you'd call an exciting job. Some excitement is added when the aiji, the head of the atevi government, gives him a handgun as a gift, even though it's highly illegal for the paidhi to posses a gun.

It then gets much more exciting when, two weeks later, an assassin breaks into his apartment and he's forced to use the handgun in self defense. The attack leaves Bren baffled, since although there are plenty of conservative atevi who hate humans enough to want him dead, the conservative atevi have always hated humans, but no one has tried to have the paidhi killed in the nearly two hundred years that the office has existed. And thus begins C. J. Cherryh's book series on inter-species politics and intrigue.

For the rock band, see Foreigner

These novels contain examples of:

  • Aliens Never Invented Democracy: The atevi cannot conceive of any other form of governance than monarchy.
  • Bizarre Alien Psychology: The main character has to train himself to think like aliens in order to be an ambassador to them.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality:
    • The atevi can't understand the concept of friendship, but have their own biologically-based, hierarchical system of loyalty called man'chi.
    • If an atevi contracts with the Assassin's Guild to kill someone, the target is informed of the fact ahead of time. If, in spite of the warning, the target is killed, it isn't considered to be murder.
    • The atevi view some aspects of human society this way. As an example, when Bren's fiancée unexpectedly breaks up their longer long distance relationship and marries another man, Bren's atevi bodyguard considers it to be an unthinkable betrayal.
  • Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit": This is (unsuccessfully) defied by one of the first human biologists to land on the world of the alien atevi. The biologist argues that though there are things on the atevi's planet that look and act a lot like grass/trees/etc from the old Earth of the humans, calling them grass/trees/etc could cause humans to assume that they're exactly like the Earth lifeforms when there might be important, yet-to-be-discovered differences. The biologist is ignored and the human colonists wind up calling them grass/trees/etc.
  • Centrifugal Gravity: All starships and space stations use this, as the sci-fi is on the "hard" end of the scale.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: In Inheritor, Rejiri, "the boy from Dur" begins as a minor nuisance and distraction (he's a young amateur aviator who nearly has a midair collision with the plane Bren is on and insists on apologizing to Bren in person, which Bren's security and packed schedule aren't amenable to). Near the end of the book, he suddenly gains everyone's undivided attention when he notes that, as a resident of the isle of Dur, he knows the currents in the Strait of Mospheira and can predict where Yolanda-paidhi will wind up when she tries to cross it.
  • Fantastic Honorifics: A few.
    • nand- / nandi : very formal.
    • nadi : less formal.
    • -ji : familiar.
  • Fantastic Racism: Even the very progressive Western Atevi generally distrust Humans. The Eastern Atevi outright hate Humanity and if given the chance would start a second war.
  • First Contact Faux Pas: When humans first land on the atevi's planet they make the mistaken assumption that, just like humans, the atevi equivalent of governments have borders. The led the humans to think they were dealing with a single government when they were in fact double-crossing and triple-crossing multiple governments, a misunderstanding that eventually led to the War of the Landing.
  • Genki Girl: Played with Cajeiri who is in love with Human Culture, and hangs around human friends and has no idea about proper Atevi etiquette, because, he was in Space for 2 years without any other Atevi his age.
  • Going Native: Bren Cameron essentially does this. Which is not taken too well at first by the (human) government he was supposedly representing, or the people close to him he now is not able to see except very occasionally.
  • Good with Numbers: The other thing which distinguishes the atevi mind from that of humans (taking second place to their inability to understand love) is their facility with math. They can instantly and accurately count things, have a photographic memory for anything they count, the adult version of their language requires doing simple algebra to formulate grammatically correct sentences, and atevi cultures treat numerology with the same fervor that human cultures treat religion. Bren's chief bodyguard would be considered a mathematical prodigy by human standards, but chose a career having nothing at all to do with math.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The original crew of the Phoenix, needing fuel to leave the radiation hell (an O-class star system) they arrived at, went out to mine fuel, knowing they would die from the intense radiation outside the hull.
  • Humanity Is Infectious: Averted. No matter how much exposure atevi have to humans, they'll never acquire (or even understand) human emotions involving affection, because their brains are wired differently than human brains.
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: Well, actually it's a dull place, since hyperspace has the side effect of making everyone muzzy headed. When combined with the cabin fever of year long trips, this can lead to quite a lot of stress.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: All the titles in the series are one singular noun ending in "-er" or "-or".
  • Interspecies Romance: Double Subverted with Bren and Jago, since Jago is incapable of understanding what romance is. They still end up sleeping together.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Peacekeeper, the fifteenth novel in the series, centers around major character Cajeiri's ninth birthday party and wraps up a number of plot threads that have been dangling since about book seven. It has several remarks to the effect that "the next wholly auspicious number after nine is fifteen" in the numerology of the atevi. In-universe, it's Cajeiri noting — or someone noting to him — that this is the most significant birthday party he's going to get for quite a while. But it also reads as meta-commentary; since Cherryh didn't manage to wrap up these particular plots by book nine, she needed to drag them out through book fifteen if she wanted the structure of the series to respect its character's numerology.
  • Long-Running Book Series: C. J. Cherryh's longest single series. Her Alliance/Union universe is much larger and longer running, but consists of many different stories set in the same 'Verse rather than a single series.
  • Mid-Battle Tea Break: When two atevi are in a heated discussion, one of them may call for tea, to let tempers cool before the discussion continues.
  • Murder, Inc.: The atevi has a government sanctioned assassin's guild. However, in spite of the name, most licensed assassins spend most of their time being bodyguards and doing security work.
  • My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels: A not-quite-fluent professional translator between humans and the alien atevi says, in the atevi language, "pregnant calendar" when she means "urgent meeting", and "disintegrate and abase your weapons" when she means "surrender and throw down your weapons".
  • No Biochemical Barriers: Partially averted, partially played straight:
    • Aversions:
      • Atevi infectious diseases don't affect humans, and visa-versa.
      • Many atevi teas and seasonings contain alkaloids which are poisonous to humans.
      • The same alkaloids which are poisonous to humans are essential nutrients to atevi, so an atevi attempting to subsist entirely on human foods would suffer from vitamin deficiency, and eventually die.
    • Played straight:
      • Atevi foods contain carbohydrates, fats and proteins which are digestible and usable to humans, and visa-versa for the atevi.
      • There's nothing in human foods which is poisonous to atevi.
  • Power of Friendship: Averted, or even inverted, since Bren will generally pay for feeling that way.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Tabini is pretty much this. Considering how merciful he is and how he's actually never lost his patience with the Ship-humans and their constant infighting. Human President Shawn Tyers is this as well.
  • Rock Beats Laser: The War of the Landing, relatively speaking. Human technology far outclassed the atevi's, but the atevi's superior numbers and determination meant their victory was inevitable. A peace was brokered that ensured the survival of humanity, and the gradual transfer of technological knowledge & material to the atevi (rather than the mad scramble of multiple atevi factions vying for dominance that might have resulted had the war continued).
  • Rubber-Forehead Aliens: The only visible difference between humans and atevi are that the atevi are taller, have gold colored eyes, pitch black skin (darker than even the darkest human skin, and shading to grey as it gets lighter), pointed ears, and no facial or body hair. Oh, and their sweat smells like petroleum products. This actually causes a lot of problems - atevi look human-like, but they think much differently. Assuming otherwise causes... problems.
    • Their hair is also a different texture than humans', to the point where they find it odd that human hair won't stay perfectly braided during physical activity, and their eyes are reflective in the dark.
    • The Kyo are also another example. They look like a larger and thicker version of humans, but they think very differently.
  • Serious Business: Numerology, to many atevi. Some examples:
    • Humans have delayed handing over computer technology to the atevi, since computer hardware and software is full of manipulating numbers. If a customer database assigned customer numbers to people, some atevi would take offense at being assigned an unlucky number. If the database was changed to only use customer numbers internally, those atevi would take offense at secretly being assigned unlucky numbers.
    • When the atevi first started using aircraft, each atevi would determine their flight path according to whatever brand of numerology they used, completely ignoring air traffic control. It took a serious aircraft disaster before the government could effectively force all pilots to obey air traffic control.
    • Atevi numerology is much more complex and wide-ranging than the human equivalent, since one of the more popular schools of atevi numerology includes "Faster-Than-Light Travel is impossible". Humans had to avoid revealing that they arrived in the atevi's star system via Hyperspace since that would have pissed off so many atevi it might have lead to another war, that's how seriously atevi take their numerology. When Bren's alternate as paidhi, Deana Hanks, is furthering the agenda of the conservative faction on Mospheira, she blithely reveals that humans arrived at the atevi homeworld via FTL travel and causes a major uproar; it takes an eccentric old atevi astronomer coming up with an entirely new mathematical philosophy to explain it for any of the atevi to begin to accept the concept.
  • Space Is Cold: The only notable science mistake Cherryh makes in the novels is that unheated portions of Space Stations and starships are extremely cold.
  • Tactful Translation: A central trope of the Foreigner verse, where Bren's tact and diplomacy has resulted in him being the paidhi, the only one allowed to translate between the humans and the aliens, even when he is no longer the only person who can speak to the aliens.
  • Teleportation Misfire: The Hyperspace version of this happens at the start of the series: some malfunction with the Hyperspace engine sends the human starship to a completely uncharted region of space.
  • Token Human: Bren Cammeron. Being a diplomat who's the only human allowed off the human enclave of Mospheira, he spends most of his time in the company of the alien atevi.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Bren Cameron's reaction to his temporary replacement turns out she's a Not-So-Harmless Villain.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Though it's not Bren's fault, and serves to underscore the fact that if an empathetic, mathematical and linguistic genius like Bren can't decipher the Atevi mind, overcoming an such immense communication gap would be simply impossible for 99.9% of the human population. The audience is told Atevi don't have words for love or friendship because they don't have those feelings, and it's accepted as an indisputable fact for several books. It's not until well into the series that Bren begins to question this, noting that while they don't have general terms like humans, they have very specific names for different kinds of relationships, and these relationships can be as binding as any human friendship or marriage. Even humans acknowledge there are many different kinds of love, despite using the catchall term more than any do the Atevi feel "love"? They would say no. Bren would say...
  • What Is This Thing You Call "Love"?: Atevi are completely incapable of feeling any emotion involving affection, since their brains are wired differently than humans. Having no common point of reference, they can't even understand it. The closest translation they have for "like" in the sense of affection is "like" in the sense of "I really like salads".
    • This is probably the largest cause of on-the-job stress for Bren: he spends 99% of his time surrounded by people who he likes who not only will never like him back, but who will never even understand what it means to like someone.
    • The reverse also applies, since the atevi feel an emotion unknown to humans, man'chi. Humans can sort of understand it, since it's sort of like loyalty and sort of like a flocking instinct, but humans can never fully understand it, never grasp it at a gut/intuitive level, and never ever actually feel it.
  • Xenofiction: The Foreigner novels are borderline examples, since they largely follow the human interpreter to an alien race, but the focus is the alien psychology. Later books add an alien as a second viewpoint character.
  • The Xenophile:
    • Bren has a rather large fascination and affection for the Atevi and their culture. So much so that he eventually drops any pretense of taking orders from Mospheira and openly becomes Tabini's agent instead, and begins living permanently on the Mainland. Certain humans are... not happy about this.
    • Cajeiri the 8 year old kid of Tabini is obsessed with Human Culture, and can speak fluently several languages. This is not however a good thing as Cajeiri has difficulty relating to his own kind, because he is going through the atevi equivalent of puberty.

Alternative Title(s): Foreigner