Agency in the Foreigner Universe
November 17th, 2013
Okay! I know some people bounced off the Foreigner books pretty hard (Hi, Craig!), but for those of us who LOVE the Foreigner series, here is a great couple of posts. I’m grateful to Maureen E, because I only spotted this because of her tweet.
So, look at this, a review of FOREIGNER, by Stefan, over at Far Beyond Reality.
In case you are actually not familiar with FOREIGNER, here is the idea in a nutshell (from Stefan’s post):
As the third section of Foreigner begins, we meet Bren, the human paidhi who lives with the alien atevi. A combination of translator, observer, and diplomat, the paidhi position is an essential link between the two cultures and the only human allowed to leave the island where humanity has settled. About two hundred years have passed since the human/atevi war that created this delicate balance.
Okay, so there’s your orientation. This whole series is the best example of sociological SF ever written (and still in progress, as you may know), by the best sociological SF writer ever. Just as a reminder, though Stefan states that the first sixty pages of FOREIGNER are basically a prologue, I personally think you will have a more satisfying reading experience if you think of the entire first book as prologue.
Now, here is the bit of the review that got the discussion rolling:
As a result, Bren is both the best and worst possible narrator for this story if, as a neutral observer, you want to understand exactly why the atevi are in such an uproar. Worst because he just doesn’t know what set off the chain of events depicted in this book, until someone bothers to tell him towards the very end. He is clueless when it comes to the main driver of the plot of this novel. Partly because of this, he lacks any sort of agency until late in the book. He has no power to steer the narrative. He is physically weaker than the atevi. He is lost, off the grid, unable to contact any other human. And, to cap it all off, he just has no idea about what happened.
You see that about agency and Bren’s lack of it?
Okay, there are immediately issues with this, because a character being physically weaker than everyone else, that has nothing to do with agency, right? But how about that being in the dark and lacking the power to steer the narrative?
So here is Ann Leckie, in a nutshell: “It seems like sometimes we reserve words like “agency” and “action” for only certain sorts of agency and action. “Well, sure, they acted, but it doesn’t really count.” But sometimes–in real life, often–the only available actions are very small, very constrained. . . . And as it happens, those tiny things can have momentous consequences. Not just by accident, but by intention. It’s not that such actions aren’t really actions, or aren’t really important, it’s just that the space to make them in is very, very small. . . . You can tell incredibly gripping stories, in such a small space, with such (apparently) tiny actions. But often those stories get dismissed, their main characters described as “passive.” . . . But this is why I think it’s really, really important not to limit the idea of “agency” to situations where the characters in question have wide-ranging obvious power and/or knowledge, or can make large-scale decisions. It erases the very real agency of people who have to work on that very small scale–and who in some cases do some amazing things with it.
I think this is a perfect response. Perfect. And you simply have to get this about agency if you are going to read (or write) some kinds of stories about, say, slaves. Or women in a historically accurate setting. Or, for that matter, non-nobles of either sex in an historically accurate setting. Or anyone else whose ability to act is, as Ann puts it, constrained. A dog! Look at Sirius in DOGSBODY. One take-home message for the writer here is that constrained action does not mean that the character is not driving the action, because tiny acts can in fact have huge consequences. In Bren’s case, a decision about whether to have tea with the dowager may decide the fate of every human on the planet, which is about as momentous as consequences can get.
Ann provides a wonderful, wonderful analogy about this which I can’t really trim. Here it is in its entirety, and I hope you will love it as much as I did:
“And [Bren] is in a situation where things are changing fast. The frequent references to skiing are not, I’m quite sure, an accident. He’s flying downhill at tremendous speed, and the only control he can exercise is small movements that might mean success, or a broken neck. But he’s not just passively tumbling down that hill–he’s an expert skier, for all his agonizing over his ignorance and inability, and his every move, his every tiny adjustment, is part of his effort to avoid disaster. The fact that Cherryh has obscured his view of the slope doesn’t change that, it only makes the ride more thrilling. The fact that he’s only got a general outline of the slope to go on and is making those adjustments on the fly, very quickly, with little confidence in his choices doesn’t change that. For all a skier’s course is entirely dependent on gravity, she’s still acting, exercising control, making choices that could mean her death. Gravity’s pull is unavoidable, she can only go downhill, but she’s not passive. And Bren’s not in a situation where he has no knowledge of the slope at all–he actually knows the slope pretty well, and knows there’s an obstacle he can’t see that he’s got to avoid somehow. This is absolutely not the same, not even remotely the same, as his sliding downslope blindfolded only able to make random guesses because he doesn’t know what’s going on.”
But I get that when the whole first book is prologue, and when neither the protagonist NOR THE READER knows what’s going on until right at the end, and when momentous decisions are about things like drinking tea, of course this is not a series that is going to appeal to everyone.
Stefan’s original post is actually very positive, btw: Foreigner is one of the most in-depth, uncompromising examinations of the way cultures interact in science fiction. Rereading it after all this time and with the added benefit of having read some of the later books in the series, I discovered a whole new level of complexity that’s probably almost impossible to appreciate on a first reading—complexity on almost every level, from Bren’s personal life and the subtle interactions of the atevi characters on the micro-level to the incredible socio-political depth on the macro-level.
I didn’t want to leave anyone with the impression Stefan doesn’t like the Foreigner series, see. Because that is so not true, as is totally obvious if you click over and read his whole post. Plus, everything he says about FOREIGNER being impossible to really appreciate the first time you read it is perfectly true. But, for immersion into an alien culture — not entirely alien, despite other comments, or it wouldn’t work — but anyway, the entire Foreigner series is just one of SF’s masterpieces. But not if you stop with the first book.
I know this series is intimidatingly long if you are just now thinking of starting it. But if you love sociological SF, honestly, it is a must-try.
Posted in: Blog by Rachel on November 17th, 2013