Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Classic Sci-Fi Meetup: Foreigner

Whence the pointy ears, Whelan?
For the last convocation of the Classic Sci-Fi Meetup, we discussed C.J. Cherryh's 1994 novel "Foreigner", which is the first of an on-going series. Cherryh had come up as a potential Classic read, and I pushed for Foreigner as a better introduction than her big award-winners, "Downbelow Station" (1981) and "Cyteen" (1988).

Cards on the table: I adore Cherryh's work; I've written and presented critically on it, and I continue to revisit and re-read much of her body of work. So I tried very hard not to jump to "Foreigner"'s defense at every moment--besides wanting to share what I think is an excellent and appropriately classic/influential novel, I also genuinely wanted to hear what other people thought on reading it for the first time. Cherryh isn't quite an author that "you love or you hate", but she perhaps is an author "you become obsessed with, or perhaps it just doesn't click". Which perhaps explains her status within the SF community--award-winning, prolific, best-selling, but one also encounters a lot of serious SF fans who have never heard of her, or didn't finish the one book of hers they've started (often "Cyteen" or "Downbelow Station").

Good discussion, lots of criticism, lots of tangents & recommended works, and possibly SPOILERS BELOW:

The core story of "Foreigner" is of Bren Cameron, the human ambassador/translator to the Western Association of the atevi race, a humannoid alien species on whose planet Bren's ancestors were stranded generations ago. A central concern of the novel is how to deal with radical otherness--though the atevi look basically human, and in many ways think like us as well, they also have aspects of their intelligence and emotions that don't sync up, that may be ultimately untranslatable, that make cross-species communication fraught with danger. "Foreigner" also has two short introductory sections, the first detailing the interstellar mishap that started it all, and the second giving us a brief glimpse of first contact between the atevi and the first human landers.

All of which just confirms our dream-casting
of young Richard Chamberlain as Bren.
Alice started off our discussion with a comparison of "Foreigner" and a certain Western tradition of writing about Asian cultures, explicitly comparing it to the plot and style of "Shogun", James Clavell's 1975 novel loosely based on the actual story of an Englishman immersed in feudal Japanese culture (and in turn the base for Jerry London's successful miniseries in 1980, starring Richard Chamberlain, Toshira Mifune, and Yoko Shimada). Like "Shogun" and similar tales, "Foreigner" uses inscrutability/stoicism, powerful but somewhat obscure hierarchies, and lots of tea-drinking to communicate the "exotic" nature of the host culture (Japan/atevi). Other possible Asian signifiers include the constant honorifics in the language, an unusually strict set of customs (particularly kabiu, which is sort of like kosher/halal but based on ecological/economic principles), and some of the material details--atevi architecture, theatre, ceramics, paper & writing. Perhaps also the amount of deference in the culture?

[By the way, utter pedantic aside, but "tea" is the beverage produced from a particular plant, the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, which is certainly not what they're drinking here. Or in a great many SF/F works. Tea-like beverages made from steeping other, not-tea plants in water are "tisanes" or "herbal infusions" or "just call it by the name of whatever the actual plant is you're using". It's an uphill and perhaps hopeless battle, but I have to point it out. End aside!]

I've seen the atevi:Japanese comparisons and references come up before--it's an interesting point, but one I also have a bit of skepticism for, since when you start hunting actual textual points and trying to explicitly match things up, it's a bit harder to justify that any of these signifiers actually "are" Japanese (or of some other Asian culture). Most human cultures at some point used honorifics, ceramics, hierarchies, drank tea-like substances, etc. Nonetheless! It's a good point, and makes me want to read/research/write something about Orientalism as a tactic for writing alien cultures in SF.

I think someone pointed out the race issue here, too--white normative--because the Bren/atevi color contrast only works as such a hard binary because he's white, while atevi seem to have, uniformly, a dark black skin tone. Are all Mospheirans white? We just don't know.

Alice also had a good point about this being one of the works coming out of the American multi-cultural revolutions of the 1990s, which tend to have a certain flavor.

Lots of comparison to other SF works, particularly ones where aliens and humans have trouble communicating/have to cooperate anyway. Michael had a good list, including the famous Star Trek: TNG episode "Darmok" (1991), "Enemy Mine" (Barry Longyear's 1979 novella, Wolfgang Petersen's 1985 film). He also brought up the 1956 radio play "The Map Makers" (Frederik Pohl) as a sort of ur-"Utterly Lost in Space" story that resonates with the opening framework of "Foreigner". (Also I found a few places you can listen to that.)

We also talked about how well characters stick or don't stick with one--referencing Le Guin's essay "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown" (1976)--and what people thought about Bren. A lot of readers weren't into him, but a few of us (myself included) really dig him as a non-standard kind of protagonist--he's a bit neurotic, often powerless, very introspective, over-thinking kind of character, which some of us found realistic and relatable. This also gave me a chance to gush for a bit about Cherryh's style, which, while third-person, approaches stream-of-consciousness, and is one of the top things that brings me back to her work. Some people don't dig it!

Zaid pointed out that Bren is basically trying to retain his humanity via the Skymall catalog, which is kind of great.

The atevi are very math-and-number focused, with their language utilizing some set theory and algebra just for basic constructions, and various numerologies in their societies playing roles analogous to religion. We talked for a bit about how that would work, and also about math in general--math dyslexia/dyscalculia, and the difference between "real math" and "symbol manipulation", with I believe Alan quipping that "some mathematicians talk about symbol manipulation as the kind of trivial thing you make your PhD students do." [Edit- originally claimed that Alan himself took this view of symbol manipulation. Not so!]

That brought us around to hard math and science in SF--gave a plug for Stephenson's new book, "Seveneves" if you're kind of excited about low-orbit mechanics (also he just gave a talk here in Chicago). I also got to hate-gush about my absolute FAVORITE BAD SF MATH, which is how Hubbard approaches different bases in "Battlefield Earth" (1982). NOT SUGGESTED.

Although, curiously, as Michael & myself & a few others at the table confirmed, Jonnie Goodboy Tylor actually passes the "Mrs. Brown Test". Huh.

A lot of folks' critiques of "Foreigner" revolved around wanting to see other parts of the story--the War of the Landing, more of the initial contact story, what's going on on Mospheira as they realize they're running out of technological bribes. There should be a word for this, by the way--criticizing a work for where the narrative is focused, when the reader feels like something far more interesting/worthy is happening off-page. It's a common type of criticism, particularly for SF/F I think.

I tried to keep my Cherryh defenses fairly brief--one thing I did want to point out, that I like so much about this novel in particular, is how she's approaching alien Otherness. Aliens in SF are very often not deeply alien at all--Star Trek's very guilty of this--or else they're completely, unapproachably, incommunicably alien. Lem's "Solaris" (1961), which Classic SF discussed, is a good example.

But in this case are neurobiologically incapable
of knowing what love is. Doh!
By contrast, the atevi are fleshed out as deeply alien, but still people we can talk to, try to understand, come to certain kinds of agreements with even if their deeply-felt, lived experience remains alien to us. The first 3 books in this series are particularly good at this, and I really dig Bren's interactions with Jago & Banichi where both sides are trying to understand the other--intelligent and well-meaning characters, with common goals, but running up against real biological difference. I think that's pretty cool.

Good discussion! And, despite how folks might personally feel about Cherryh, she's arguably a very "classic" representation of a certain thread of SF--space opera-y, very alien-focused & multi-cultural. Michael brought up David Brin's "Uplift" series (1980-1998) as another example of this type of SF, and I agree!

Had a really cool list of books we did not wind up picking for August, including:
  • "The Intuitionist" (1999) by Colson Whitehead (probably would have been picked but didn't quite make the 20-year "Classic" cut-off).
  • "Deathstalker" (1995) by Simon R. Green
  • "Logan's Run" (1967) by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson
  • A lot of us were interested in reading either something from the Utopian tradition (we mentioned "Walden Two" (1948) by B.F. Skinner, among others) or classic Horror--we talked for quite a bit about what Lovecraft selection would be best. And I suspect we'll return to those two themes!
But what we wound up picking was Marge Piercy's "Woman on the Edge of Time" (1976), which is a "core feminist SF" work, often considered alongside works by Le Guin, Atwood, Russ, etc., and also contains some utopian stuff. So that's August.

For July, Classic SF is discussing H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" (1895), which should be fun! Check out the Classic Sci-Fi Meetup page for more info.

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