I recently rediscovered in my bookshelf a book I loved as a teen, C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner. It’s always interesting to re-read books as an adult that I devoured when I was young. Just like Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion, or Joan D. Vinge’s Catspaw, I recognize more of my context now. I see why certain aspects appealed to me, and even more interesting, what aspects I forgot.
The main character in Foreigner is an interpreter for humans on a world where they don’t belong. Stranded due to ship error on a planet so far out of charted space that they could not even recognize the most distant stars, humans settle on a world already populated and technologically already on its way to trains, firearms, and electricity. They meet the atevi, the people of this world, and at first it seems like they are very much alike. That they can be friends.
Yet therein lies the critical flaw. Atevi cannot have friends. They cannot like or love or become attached to people. Their loyalty lies on a very clear, to them, track. And it is not one that humans, with their preferences and irrational attachments and liking, can understand. A war is sparked, one that the humans had no warning was coming, and despite their technological advancements it is a war that the humans are vastly outnumbered for. They lose, and as part of their surrender they are allowed to live on one island, with one point of contact with the atevi world. One single interpreter.
The book mostly takes place two hundred years after the war has finished, when the current interpreter, Bren, realizes how little the two species still understands each other when a crisis makes his seemingly friendly associates turn on him in a web of intrigue. Not a safe situation in a culture where assassination is a common way of resolving disputes.
The context I have on the book now is how familiar I must have found the setting. It is an environment where every word must be watched, because it is so easy to offend with no intention of doing so. Where Bren is never quite sure if someone is angry or not, truthful or not, dangerous or not, safe or not. Where he feels exceptionally isolated from other human beings. Where all emotion must be hidden, subsumed, and buried. It reminds me very much of my life growing up.
The part that I forgot, but find interesting as a result, is how angry Bren is. The emotional core of the book is Bren realizing just how mad he is and the depths of that rage. He’s a character that thinks himself very in control, very aware of his actions. And yet his mind is a minefield of worry, of second-guessing decisions mere moments after they’re made, and under it all there is a fury. Atevi cannot meet his emotional needs…and humans engage them only to manipulate him.
As someone who is still afraid of her anger, and still trying to accept it and even to identify the things I even angry at, that’s also something I can relate to. And something that, at the time, I probably couldn’t dare keep in mind when I was a teen. I couldn’t let myself think too hard about it, because my survival in that space depended on not allowing that rage to surface. So instead it sat inside me, and I turned that anger on myself, and I’m still working on untangling that knot. I may be untangling it for my entire life.
And maybe, just maybe, re-reading old books can be a piece of that process.
I certainly hope so. As a teen, I only read about four or five books in the series? I looked up the series on Amazon, and C. J. Cherryh is still writing them! The 19th book comes out January of next year. 19 books. 19 books. In just ONE of MANY series.
I hope one day I too can claim to be so prolific.
I ought to write to her and thank her for her work. It’s been an important piece of my life so far.
Have you ever re-read a book and found something new in it? Same goes for movies, shows, etc. What did you love as a kid, and rediscover as an adult with new insights?