Foreigner / C.J. Cherryh

Foreigner is the first book in a series that as far as I can tell is just called “the Foreigner series”. Each book is usually described as the sequel to the one before it which makes figuring out the order somewhat time consuming if  it never occurs to you just to look it up online.

That’s something of a problem because Foreigner is less the first book in a series and more the first chapter of a huge romain fleuve, so reading them out of order is less desirable than usual.

It’s also one of my favorite books/series.

Plot summary

Foreigner tells the story of a colony ship knocked hopelessly off-course. In need of supplies and with no idea how to get home, the three major factions (officers, crew, and the colonists themselves) are unable to agree on the best course of action. Eventually, a space station is built around a habitable planet, home to a species, the atevi, that has just discovered the steam engine.

Over 100 years later, the human colonists are limited to a single island and only one human, the paidhi, is permitted to interact with the atevi. The paidhi is responsible for regulating the transfer of technology from the humans to the atevi, using years of study and immersion in the alien culture in order to avoid potential cultural destabilization. Bren Cameron is the newest paidhi and quickly finds himself the target of what appears to be an assassination plot. Bren is forced to decide who to trust in a culture that lacks even the concept of friendship as he attempts to make sense of the volatile political situation.

So how is it?

If you’d asked me that question two years ago, or even last year, I’d have said it was one of my favorite books. Now I’m les sure of that. It’s still great, and it is one of the most effective elucidations of Cherryh’s themes of cultural disconnect and the resulting challenges thereof, but it’s so long now that reading the whole thing is a major commitment.

For the average US reader, getting through this series would take years of reading nothing else. That’s a tall order, and to be sure the same is true of Aubrey-Maturin and sf readers, like romance readers, tend to read far more than the average, but still, for me, who generally reads at least 150 novels a year (more if you count comics and nonfiction) it ended up being excessive and I had to take a break. Which leads to the second pair of issues:

1) It’s really hard to tell what order these books are supposed to be read in

2) bookstores are horribly inconsistent when it comes to carrying the whole series, or even just a selection of consecutive books

For number 1, the internet makes this a little easier, and some libraries have taken to numbering the books themselves, but as it stands the only indication of the order of the books is generally a line on the cover that says “the sequel to [title]”. This led me to an entertaining reverse journey as I tried to find the first book in the series from the 7th or 8th. Some printings do feature a list on the inside, but as with historical romance novels that list isn’t always easy to find.

For number 2, this is where you’re better off checking your library. I have the advantage of living in an urban area with lot of public libraries. The libraries seem to have collectively decided: some will carry the entire series and some not carry the series but will carry all of her other books. We have a highly efficient ILL system around here so that works pretty well. Bookstores are really bad at it though (especially, I am going to call out the Oakbrook Barnes and Noble , for having one of the worst sf selections larger than 24 linear feet).

Now ow that I’ve wasted several hundred words on administrative junk I’ll talk about the book/series itself.

It’s really good. It features an incredibly complex storyline with close to a dozen different factions but no clear “bad guys”.  The length is a big advantage here, as no single book is tightly focused on a few events. Most books only cover a couple of days as Bren attempts to navigate the Byzantine power structures of atevi society. Anyone who has been an immigrant, or at least lived abroad for any length of time, will recognize the challenges he faces here. Returning  home is just as difficult, as Bren discovers that the changes he has made in order to succeed amongst the atevi have made him an outsider in his own culture as well. Many of the oning conflicts in the series stem from problems of translating between languages that don’t even share a biological context, let alone a cultural one.

It’s one of the most effective portrayals of a convincingly alien culture I’ve ever encountered, even if Cherryh isn’t always successful at completely hiding her inspirations (not that that’s exactly necessary). It truly is a work of anthropological science fiction in the best  sense of the label. Bren ends up attempting to balance the interests of half a dozen human factions and at least as many atevi associations. It’s a thoroughly complex work that does a good job of respecting the reader to be smart enough to figure out what’s going on, since the plots of each book are rarely explicitly laid out.


It’s a great book and series but to get the most out of it requires a pretty significant investment. As a result I’d probably recommend Cyteen or Downbelow station over this unless it was a really hardcore reader. The series is more or less broken up into trilogies that are more or less complete, so those who have already read those other books or who wanted to give this a try could assign themselves a “stopping place” at the third or sixth book and still experience some resolution.

As I mentioned above, Cyteen or Downbelow station are probably more accessible, so I’d recommend those first unless someone was explicitly looking for something lengthy.

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