Agency in the Foreigner Universe

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?

Here is a fabulous response by Ann Leckie about that. Ann Leckie, btw, is the author of the debut novel ANCILLARY JUSTICE, which is getting rave reviews all over.

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.”

Yes, this.

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.

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17 thoughts on “Agency in the Foreigner Universe”

  1. I’m afraid I’m also one of the people who bounced off the Foreigner series. I read the first few books (2? 3?) when they came out, since I love a lot of Cherryh’s work, but I just didn’t care enough about Bren or the atevi to keep going. I agree with you and Ann Leckie that Bren does have agency, but it can be hard to read about a character flying desperately down a ski slope he can’t see, even when it’s done well.

    If you ever have space in your reading schedule, I highly recommend ANCILLARY JUSTICE. It does a nice job of what Jo Walton called incluing: telling the reader a lot about the world without stopping the story for infodumps. The world itself is very interesting (though pretty unpleasant), and there are some great characters. I’ll definitely be nominating it for a Hugo.

  2. I just this weekend reread the first Foreigner book for …. the first or second time? I think second, but it was probably 10 years ago I read it the second time, when I got the 10 year edition after my old cover had worn out.
    I’d been on an e-Bren binge this summer with the later books (and the first one) already out in e from DAW. I reread from when they return from space and that whole exhilaration avalanche of developments which Bren at that time is much more skilled and self-assured in dealing with.
    Reading the original Bren (I jumped right to his story) let me feel his insecurity much more (… I read a comment somewhere that said the reader could no longer quite believe in the menace of Banichi and Cenedi after knowing what happened later – I had NO PROBLEMS with that, in fact I wonder how he managed to get their respect what with all the cursing and hitting – later disagreement is MUCH more civilised and kabiu).

    I can totally understand Jo Walton talking about how hard it is to read the part where Bren is tortured and then basically in pain for the whole end of the book and it keeps getting worse and people die right and left… gah. I’m happy I reread the triumphant bits before and had that in mind. I hope DAW will eventual ebook the whole series (but then they’re a tiny team and there are so many other classics to turn into ebooks, heh).

    tl; dr: I agree with your assessment and love the series, too. As long as Cherryh has more ideas of what else is happening I would be happy to just read slice-of-life Bren, for that matter.

  3. Hi, Linda — I’ll definitely move Ancillary Justice up my get-to-it pile if you liked it — I was afraid it might have something of a self-conscious Gender Studies tone, but it must not, then. It definitely sounds ambitious enough to be worth looking at for major awards.

  4. Hi, Estara — after reading this discussion, I went back and re-read parts of the first book, too. Very intense there at the end, no question. I definitely did not have ANY issues with Cenedi being menacing. Now I’m going to go on and re-read bits of the latest book.

    My favorite part of the whole series comes in the middle, though — when Bren really hits his professional stride dealing with the kyo.

  5. I know what you mean about shying away from books that want to say something Very Important about gender, but I wasn’t bothered by this in ANCILLARY JUSTICE. It’s true that there’s a culture that’s very carefully gender-neutral, but it isn’t exactly a happy place where everyone has a sparkly unicorn friend. Leckie definitely isn’t trying to sell the gender-neutrality as some kind of solution to all the world’s problems, or anything like that. Really, I think the central issues of the book are the things Leckie discusses in the quotes above: agency and choice, especially in situations where it’s not clear whether anything you do will actually matter. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I thought it was an impressive book.

    And speaking of recommendations, thank you so much for recommending Tanya Huff’s Valor series. I bought the second one thinking it was the first (oddly, the first doesn’t seem to be available in Kindle format yet), then tore through the whole series one after the other. It really is lots of fun, and the protagonist is wonderful. I hope people who would like it aren’t turned off by the military SF category; it’s really only milSF in the sense that Bujold’s Vorkosigan books are. I actually like a lot of military SF myself, but I generally skip the loving multi-page descriptions of weapons systems and battle strategies. Huff didn’t write anything I felt the need to skip.

  6. Linda, so glad you loved the Valor series! I hope Huff goes on with it! Yes, in some books, it’s like the author wants to include a technical appendix about all their ships and weapons types, only instead of an appendix all that is dumped into the story itself, and PLEASE SPARE ME. Though I know that some readers probably like that!

    Leckie’s book is sounding better and better. I ought to have picked it up at Archon when I saw a copy, now I will have to decide whether I’d rather have it in e-format or print. At this point I’m honestly not sure which TBR pile is larger!

  7. I really appreciate Lecke’s analysis of how the apparently powerless Bren still has enormous impact on events. It makes me want to go back to the first trilogy again. In fact, I think I will.

    i do wonder who is going to replace Bren eventually. At this time he looks like a truly irreplaceable man. But he’s going to age & die or quit if Tabini bites the dust. I don’t see anyone in training. Maybe one of Cajieri’s buddies from the station? I hope she’ll write it that far.

    someone in one of the comment threads compared Bren to Sten Duncan of the Mri trilogy. I think it’s just that they are both men who go into an alien culture to learn it and translate humanity to the aliens and vice versa. CJC likes that scenario. (I chortled when someone tried it in FINITY’s END and the aliens sent him home.) She’s being much more ambitious in FOREIGNER, and Bren has to be much more flexible and intelligent and on the ball. The scope is much broader.

  8. Elaine, yes, I think one (or all three) of Cajeiri’s young associates are going to turn into paidhin. Just as long as nothing happens to Bren for another decade at least!

    I agree that Foreigner is about as ambitious as anything Cherryh’s ever written. I really enjoyed the mri books, but for me BROTHERS OF EARTH was practice, the Mri trilogy was a big step up, and the Foreigner series is the masterwork that both of the previous were leading toward.

  9. I read some books from later on in the Foreigner series (maybe around books 5 or 6?) years ago. It was interesting but I wonder whether it would be worth going back to the beginning – it seemed to catch the new reader up pretty well. I also was never interested enough to read more.

    About agency though, interesting point. What bothers me about lack of agency is when someone has no choices or makes no choices. Marissa Meyer’s Wicked Lovely is one example where the MC (I don’t remember her name) has extremely limited choices: basically comply or turn into a happy, brainless slave — more horrible because she wouldn’t even care about what she lost at that point. Another is the climax of RJ Anderson’s Knife, where the MC (Knife, of course) is saved only because of something she happened to do earlier, without any idea of the consequence. These kinds of situations suck compared to ones where, say, you may be powerless physically, but you have moral strength: no torture or imprisonment or magic or threat is going to make you do something wrong or hurt those you love or whatever. Or you choose to change, as an actual choice, a sacrifice of something you are (maybe something precious, or something evil which nevertheless is hard to give up) instead of having your will robbed from you.

  10. Joshua — yes, having the main character in that kind of bind where they can’t or don’t make any choices that matter — well, one wonders what the author was thinking. I mean, having the protagonist do something or choose something that resolves the Problem in the book is kind of the *point.* Jack Chalker was also an author who sometimes put a main character into an unwinnable situation and then had him, you know, lose.

    Or, spoiler here, Chalker’s Flux and Anchor series was a bit like that, where the ultimate conclusion involved the protagonists retreating from the wider world into their own pocket universe because the overall problems were just too hard to solve. So they didn’t solve them. They just gave up on solving them. That is one hell of a disappointing ending. I think that is also a problem with lack of agency.

  11. I’ve been thinking about this, as I read (Sinclair’s DARKBORN trilogy & McKinley’s PEGASUS). The McKinley is driving me batty – the main character isn’t DOING ANYTHING. She knows she needs to do something but keeps whining that she doesn’t know what to do. gaagh! so she just sits. Give her some of Harry’s (Crewe from early McKinley) gumption.
    Whereas in the Sinclair we have several women, all different, all with different goals, each of which makes choices, shifts things, even when at least one wants only to continue her comfortable happy married life (with kids! Family, in a fantasy novel!).

    Bren grows hugely over the course of the FOREIGNER series. He is himself, and as this discussion started, just by being true to himself he made choices and shifted the course of events. And then, as he learns more and Tabini & events conspire to push him, he becomes a great man. It’s fascinating to look back on his development.

    Now, however, I want to reread the series and watch the atevi – they seem to be becoming more human and I’m not sure it’s familiarity or if CJC is writing them differently. My teen has been reading FORTRESS a lot recently and chattering about all the ways Tristen shows he isn’t human. I’ll borrow her observations and try to apply them to the atevi. Because while I recognize what she sees in the one series, I’d never verbalized it myself, so couldn’t quite look for it elsewhere.

  12. I’ll be interested in your observations. The only character that seems to me to change more than he should over the series is Lord Geigi — whom Cherryh decided to use in a quite different way after she had already established him as a minor character. Which is fine, the author sometimes does just feel compelled to change her mind about something like that.

    To me it seems that the atevi become better understood, but not necessarily more human.

  13. Ignoring all previous comments since I’m still so early in the Foreigner books, but had to say that “I never would have seen this [book/article/etc] except for you” is totally the most flattering thing you can say to a library person. So, thanks. :)

  14. Great discussion of one of my favourite series – I was totally hooked on Foreigner from the first book, I enjoyed being immersed in Bren’s continuing discovery about the atevi around him and vice versa. The series is intimidatingly long if you think of all 15 books, but each book is a nice bite, each one adding layers of development in the action and in the relationships. Cracking action at the denouement of most of the books as well. I don’t think the atevi are getting more human; it’s just that with each book, more facets of atevi society and the atevi character are revealed to Bren and the reader. I went back to the first book after reading Deliverer (Book 9) just for the pleasure of re-living the beginning. Complex, subtle, introspective – Cherryh’s books are always a delight to read and re-read.

  15. I’m just re-reading the second-most-recent book now . . . and that scene where Cajeiri is putting pins in his map to represent his allies and pins for his unborn sister’s allies? Yeah, his thoughts there are not human thoughts. It’s really well done.

  16. I’m thinking that is probably is that the atevi become better understood, not more human, but I want to look at it. someday… soon….
    Cajieri’s actions, frex, struck me as odd but reasonable for a politically aware teenager.

    But it’s more that I seem to recall atevi being ‘inscrutable’ and now they are very very scrutable, so to speak, and while I suspect it’s just that Bren is reading them way better than he used to I want to watch CJC handle it.

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