C. J. Cherryh's Atevi novels

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C. J. Cherryh's Atevi novels

Postby DavidTate on Saturday, 06 August 2011, 11:32 pm

C. J. Cherryh is listed on the site as a three-star author, with quite a few novels and series cited, and several more listed on the "Unrated books by rated authors page". Of the rated books, I am only familiar with the Chanur series.

Neither page mentions Cherryh's current ongoing series, the Atevi novels (also known as the "Foreigner" series, after the first book in the series). Books to date are:

Foreigner (1994)—Locus SF Award nominee, 1995
Invader (1995)—Locus SF Award nominee, 1996
Inheritor (1996)

Precursor (1999)
Defender (2001)—Locus SF Award nominee, 2002
Explorer (2003)

Destroyer (2005)
Pretender (2006)
Deliverer (2007)

Conspirator (2009)
Deceiver (2010)
Betrayer (2011)

Intruder (in progress)

The grouping in threes is deliberate; though there is a single continuing story line with one principal protagonist, each trio is a somewhat self-sufficient unit. This is something of an in-joke within the series, for reasons that I'll touch on below.

For me, the primary interest of this series is its novel exploration of the limits of inter-species communication, even between superficially similar species. The primary setting for the books is a world where a hopelessly lost human colony ship unloaded its colonists long ago, only to find that the world was already occupied by an intelligent industrial-age race, the Atevi. Catastrophic miscommunications between the colonists and the natives led eventually to a detente in which the humans occupy one small island off the coast of the main Atevi continent. All communications between species are mediated by the paidhi, a single human trained specifically and extensively to speak Atevi, and to understand (at least intellectually) how the Atevi think, and how they are liable to react in new situations. The paidhi is, perforce, something of an exile -- he lives among the Atevi, with an Atevi staff and an Atevi employer.

"Speaking Atevi" turns out to be more than unusually difficult, in part because the Atevi are natural numerologists. The grammar of their language requires speakers to perform various computations on the fly, in order to avoid infelicitous combinations or quantities in speech. Translating a sentence like "the two of us need to talk" directly from English could be disastrously offensive or even threatening to an Atevi listener. The Atevi manage these things subconsciously, from an early age. "Fortunate three" is a recurring concept; thus the three-part vignette structure of the series.

Our hero throughout the novels is Bren Cameron, a human who has the misfortune to be paidhi during Interesting Times. I shan't spoil the main plot; anyone who wishes a synopsis can visit the Wikipedia summary at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foreigner_universe.

The strengths of these novels are the subtle explorations of what it means to communicate with a species that is wired differently. Atevi do not feel love and friendship in the way humans do; instead, they are strongly driven by a relationship called man'chi, which involves a visceral feeling of feudal style loyalty, both upward and downward on the social scale. Lords among the Atevi generally feel man'chi only downward, which makes them practically sociopaths by Atevi standards -- but they couldn't rule if they felt fealty to other Atevi. Atevi drama tends to focus on stories of shifting man'chi, and has both an entertainment and a teaching function. Humans who attempt to understand Atevi behavior and relationships in terms of 'love', 'friendship', 'hatred', 'loyalty', or other familiar human emotions, will make grave mistakes.

The weakness of these novels is the same weakness I see in the Chanur novels, which is that Ms. Cherryh's protagonists tend to spend page after page in what to me looks like neurotic dithering. I understand that certain decisions are difficult, and that self-doubt and a feeling of debilitating ignorance can be effective plot features now and then. But dear sweet Jesu, she sometimes goes far beyond what I would consider 'normal' into realms of self-sustaining near-paralysis, which is not a trait I find endearing in a protagonist.

(Years ago, in a discussion on rec.arts.sf.written, I attempted to make this point. The woman I was discussing Cherryh with was startled when I complained that the endless circular fretting was unrealistic -- she found the debilitating dithering to be the most realistic feature of the novels, unlike other authors who all wrote what to her were unrealistically self-confident and effective protagonists. Ouch.)

All in all, I highly recommend these books. I've learned how to skim the more painful introspective scenes, and I no longer mind the fact that an entire novel might only deal with the events of a few days. It's a fascinating culture, presented in a clever way, with a number of other features that I wouldn't want to spoil for you if you do decide to read some of them.
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Re: C. J. Cherryh's Atevi novels

Postby owlcroft on Sunday, 07 August 2011, 3:22 pm

Just on a tangential note: I have often felt that a great difference between European (including British) and American fiction, at least of the sf variety, is that the European is heavily larded with just such--to me--excessive boatloads of self-paralysis in its protagonists (if not all characters). Sure, the sort of 1960s cheapo US sf, with Captain Zoom one-handed destroying monsters is too far in one direction, but even sober, realistic characters in sober, realistic US sf rarely fart around all that much, whereas European characters, especially in sober, realistic tales, seem to spend 90% of their lives trying to play Hamlet (possibly the ultimate fictive ditherer).

Cherryh is, of course, a 100% US author, but I wonder if some of her formative influences were British (or Continental) sf writers.
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Re: C. J. Cherryh's Atevi novels

Postby alton on Thursday, 04 October 2012, 3:38 am

Last edited by alton on Monday, 14 July 2014, 5:44 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: C. J. Cherryh's Atevi novels

Postby jimmyjack on Thursday, 13 December 2012, 5:32 am

recently begun to read his books. Mervyn Peake strikes me not so much a writer, but more a painter. A painter of scenes and he uses words instead of paint. In broad lines he sketches a room, scrutinizes it from a distance, advances like a predator with his fingers raised high to strike upon his paralyzed keyboard, but when he reaches the keys he puts a few well-chosen words where they belong with a loving touch and a twinkle in his eye. Such are his chapters built up.

His chapters are sometimes not more than a single scene, or a single conversation. You can imagine that the Gormenghast novels do have an elaborate plot because there is simply no time and space for it (but it is not a predictable story at all). But it does not matter, for it is the atmosphere that matters. The tale is set almost entirely within a claustrophobic castle of enormous proportions, Gormenghast, with its mysterious shadows and creaks from old age, howling drafts, twisting alleys and stairs. The characters are near caricatures, stretched to the grotesque but still very compelling and real.

Mervyn Peake created something wholly original by plunging the darkest chasms of his imagination and painted a surrealistic, macabre masterwork that somehow connects to deep roots of my subconscious. Reading Gormenghast is not easy. I cannot read for long stretches because the mood and darkness of the place becomes too oppressive, but I cannot stay away from it for too long
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Re: C. J. Cherryh's Atevi novels

Postby rocky111 on Thursday, 27 December 2012, 8:26 am

Also great: A trilogy carrying on the ideas first laid out in 'Hard to be a god', where humanity is subtly trying to steer more primitve civilizations away from self-destruction, a technique called progressing, while being progressed themselves by 'Wanderers', a mysterious super-civilization with motives you can't even guess at. All this taking place in the Noon universe, called like this after some kind of theory that all civilizations undergo a very similar evolution, starting from "dawn" and progressing upwards (if they don't kill themselves first). Humanity is at "noon" or at least it seemed like this.
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Re: C. J. Cherryh's Atevi novels

Postby DavidTate on Saturday, 13 May 2017, 12:21 am

The series continues unabated, with (to me) fascinating plot twists that have expanded the scope of the books considerably. The latest entries are:

14 Protector (2013)
15 Peacemaker (2014)
16 Tracker (2015)
17 Visitor (2016)
18 Convergence (2017)
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