FOREIGNER turns Twenty
I first read C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner (a 1994 pub) last year, on the advice of my agent Cherry Weiner, a fellow Cherry. I know – what took me so long? I was immediately drawn into a world as intoxicating and alien as the title suggests, and fell in love with sf all over again. Foreigner is a first-contact story between humans and the atevi, but with a decided twist: we’re the intruders. Cherryh’s book and series of the same name are masterworks of the genre, and one of the longest running series in science fiction. Peacemaker, the 15th installment, is due out shortly (April). If you're a binge reader and just discovering Cherryh it's your lucky day.
I’m giving a copy of Foreigner away. Share this post on your FB page or in a tweet to throw your name into the hat. I'll announce the winner in a week (3/14/2014).
Here’s my recent interview with her:
WCB: Foreigner turns twenty this year. Congratulations! When/where did the storyline for it first turn up?
CJC: I sketch for amusement. I drew a face. It was Banichi’s. I began to think, well, stranded starship for a scenario. But what happens if you have to invent the space program in reverse? What if you’ve been in space so long you’ve forgotten how to fly in atmosphere? And what if you’ve been stranded on a planet so long you have no one trained to fly in space?
And then I added my sketch and said to myself—you’re not going to make it in any fast time frame without manpower and resources, advanced refining, etc...
WCB: Bren Cameron, your main character, is a translator/diplomat and the bridge between the humans and the atevi. Keeping the peace between the races is largely on his shoulders. Would you tell us a bit about him and the genesis of his character?
CJC: I’m a linguist, somewhat: masters study in things like Comparative Philology of the Indo-European Languages... and I’ve traveled in places where I had to communicate without much more than a dictionary—in some places where it really wasn’t safe to be—and where you really didn’t want to be misunderstood by the local authorities. So, yes, I know the problems you can get into, and when a joke is not a good idea.
WCB: Who’s your favorite ateva? Why?
CJC: My two favorite really are Banichi and Ilisidi—both for their dry sense of humor. Honestly, I don’t always know what they’re going to say—in that strange multiple personality that is a writer’s brain. They often make me laugh.
WCB: The atevi have no feeling of love, only man'chi or loyalty to an association or an individual. How hard was it to create an alien society based primarily upon that?
CJC: You have to get into an alien skin and remodel your drives and instincts. Would you react like a human in this instance? You might do the same thing. But would you do it for the same reason? I also tried to build the instincts/drives right down into the non-intelligent species. In the early days of science fiction, there were experiments with aliens who were recognizable species merely translated into upright bipeds. Personally, I think nature and evolution may sculpt bodies into the same efficient design, just as we can find ‘human’ features on a sloth...but the mind, I think, is another story. There are more models of behavior on this planet than there are models of where eyes go relative to mouths. In other words, I think when you start working on a combination of cultural overlay on mental process and nerves—you have far more than green skin and pointed ears for possibilities of alienness. Hardwired, yes; and cultural; and with individual differences and personality: internal consistency on one level, and idiosyncratic difference on the other. Man’chi is an urge we don’t feel in the same way, and it contains a hierarchical element—which is why Bren’s bodyguard has a fit when he tries to protect them.
WCB: Many in the sf community consider your world building second-to-none. How do you keep myriad details straight, particularly after so many books?
CJC: I have notebooks. And I occasionally ask my readers—I have a blog, and I can ask them to find something for me. Someone will have read that book recently. This doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes. But I try to keep the internal consistency.
WCB: I’m midway through book two, Invader, but I did peek and was relieved to find Bren Cameron alive and well fifteen books later. Ten years from now, what do you envision Bren doing?
CJC: I think he’ll still be trying to keep Tabini’s young heir out of trouble. He gains more ability to *do* things unilaterally—but his real forte, the source of his success, is building consensus.
WCB: I heard that early in your career, some of your manuscripts were misplaced by various publishers. Would you tell us about that?
CJC: Back in the days of hand-typing, it would take 2-3 months to completely retype. I sent off one book to a publisher. No answer. I retyped. Resent. No answer. Did it again. No answer. Got really vexed and then didn’t know (never even having met a writer) whether I could legitimately send it elsewhere. So I wrote another book. And sent it elsewhere. Later I did sell to Don Wollheim, and asked him about the book that I’d had disappear—was I in some way obligated to that other company? No, he said. So I rewrote from carbon copy, and he bought it. Years later, I received a copy of the manuscript in the mail, from the company in which it had gone missing. I couldn’t figure. I thought, “Is it some reader? With a really weird gift?” And I told the story at a convention, on panel. A person in the industry stood up and said, “I know the rest of the story.” He was reading for that publisher—he had found the manuscript fallen down behind the shelves, read it and wanted it—but when he checked with his editor, as I recall—he found the book had already been published, not only in the US, but in translation. That was Hunter of Worlds. And it was not an easy book to type in the old-fashioned way, I can tell you. We both had a laugh about it, for sure.
WCB: What authors have most influenced your work? Do you have a favorite?
CJC: I’m not kidding when I say Jack Williamson and Publius Vergilius Maro. Jack for obvious reasons—and Vergil because I was a Latin scholar, and translating that man’s work into English is a real problem. He was a master of sensory description: his descriptions always start with the senses as a scene would impact the person arriving on the scene: the impression of sight, sound, then the details, then the emotional impact—he was incredible; but he can’t be translated, not well. Doing it as well as I could taught me an immense lot. I never had a creative writing course. But I had Vergil.
WCB: What are you currently working on?
CJC: Well, finishing the current Foreigner arc, and opening a new can of worms. Doing a book on marine tank-keeping. And doing some e-book work as well, on a site I share with two other authors, at closed-circle.net. I’m thinking about some sf books of another sort. I’m full of notions.
WCB: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
CJC: Just to let people know they’re welcome at my blog page, and that I’m going strong and happy in it.
I’d like to thank C.J. Cherryh for being with us today.
I’d like to thank you as well. Be sure to read Foreigner if you haven’t already (or read it again - it's that good), and check out C. J. Cherryh’s other titles everywhere books are sold. The fifteenth installment in the Foreigner saga, Peacemaker, goes on sale April 1st.
C. J. Cherryh is the Hugo and John W. Campbell award-winning and best-selling author of over 60 books and numerous shorts.