Breaking the Rules: C. J. Cherryh’s ‘Foreigner’ Novels

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Image from SF Signal

All writers have heard the adage “Show, don’t tell.” It’s one of the most ambiguous and frustrating pieces of writing advice I have ever received. After all, writing is all about words. How can you “show” something when the only way to communicate is by “telling” the reader what’s happening? You’re also supposed to make sure something is always happening to move the scene forward. You don’t start in a static or simple moment. You have to begin with a bang to get the reader’s attention! Where’s your momentum, people?

Now, I get what this advice is trying to say. “Show, don’t tell” encourages writers to not just give a play-by-play of the scene, a “Then she did this and then he said that and then they went here” style of story-telling. That’s acceptable for a four-year-old telling a story, but not for a novelist. You’re supposed to make it more dynamic, fluid, and engaging. And starting with a bang isn’t literal, but to avoid the cliche of having a character wake up in the morning or monologue to themselves. The devil, as always, is in the details of how exactly to do this.

It’s easy to then fall into the trap of thinking that these are iron-clad rules which cannot for the love of all that is literary be broken. Rules are useful as a framework, but it’s always nice to see how the rules can be bent or outright broken and still leave you with an engaging story. Enter the Foreigner series by C. J. Cherryh.

I picked up the first six books in this series at a book sale last year and finally got around to reading them. The premise of Foreigner is that a human colony ship exits light-speed way off course, so off course that they couldn’t find any reference points to get back to familiar territory. Fortunately, they end up in orbit around a habitable world. Unfortunately for the humans, it’s already inhabited by an indigenous species called “the atevi” who, to me, are best described as, “Dark they were, and golden-eyed…” Some of the humans stay aboard the colony ship, which eventually leaves the system, while some go down to live on the planet. After a war of misunderstanding, the humans are removed to an island to live separate from the atevi. A single representative remains to act as an interpreter between the atevi and the humans. This negotiator is known as “the paidhi.” All of this is covered in about the first two chapters before we get into the meat of the story two hundred years after Landing with the current paidhi Bren Cameron and his atevi bodyguards Jago and Banichi (I’ve pretty much been reading an entire book each day, they’re that good. I do love me some well-written space opera!)

Bren Cameron and Tabini-aiji by gerynh

I noticed right away that Foreigner has a lot of what would be considered “telling.” Bren does a lot of thinking and introspection about linguistics, politics, history, the atevi, the human population on the planet, and his own role in facilitating peaceful communication. These ruminations can go on literally for pages. In a lot of stories, this wouldn’t work. But it does here because it fits both the milieu of the story and the character whose perspective we follow. The author C. J. Cherryh is just so damned good at creating an interesting, complex alien world with multiple layers and facets going on all at the same time. Unlike a lot of science fiction where the aliens may look very different from humans but still operate from a similar baseline, the atevi are very clearly not human. There are superficial similarities, ones that Bren knows can trip him up into thinking they will react like humans. This temptation to “humanize” his alien associates out of sheer loneliness is one he has to battle constantly. Atevi don’t have the concept of friendship or love, and as Bren explains, it isn’t a cultural barrier (which could theoretically be overcome) but a biological one. They just aren’t wired for the same emotions. And because this is an alien world and culture, hearing about it and its different facets is fascinating.

The linguistic minefield that Bren traverses is also fascinating, and because of his position as a translator and diplomat, all of the introspection makes sense. Bren is a good person, but he isn’t perfect, so watching him evaluate and reevaluate his assumptions and decisions or second-guessing himself keeps things interesting. He’s also not an action hero; he’s a diplomat. While he does wield a gun on occasion, it’s usually out of absolute necessity. In fact, the seventh book Destroyer states: “He passionately hated gunfire. It always meant someone like him hadn’t done his job” (page 289). So everything moving at a slower, more thoughtful pace makes much more sense. We expect someone of his personality and position to be thinking about these kinds of traditionally “info-dump” type of topics. In fact, it would probably be weird for him to not ruminate so much!

As for starting out with a bang, C. J. Cherryh likes to flaunt that “rule” as well. The third book, Inheritor, starts out with Bren sitting on a seaside balcony drinking tea with an atevi lord and just thinking. The thinking goes on for over five pages before anything substantial happens. And it works! In the hands of a novice, it probably would have been utterly, mind-numbingly boring. But C. J. Cherryh gets away with it because it isn’t the first book; we’ve already gotten to know Bren and how he operates, so it feels normal. She handles it so excellently that you just keep reading and then someone talks and you suddenly remember that in physical terms, all Bren has done is drink tea and eat an egg!

You can see that, like with most of the so-called rules that govern creativity, they are more like guidelines… provided you know what you’re doing. The nature of the Foreigner series and main POV character make the slower pace, quiet introductions, and abundance of telling work to enhance the story rather than derail it or turn stagnant. It can be done and done well, but success depends heavily on the nature of the story and the skill of the storyteller.

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