Thursday, August 18, 2011

Betrayer by C. J. Cherryh

2011 novel.

*Quite good, all in all, although it's only going to appeal to people already decently invested in the Foreigner series, who are also invested in the formula at play here--a political thriller rooted in conspiracy, intrigue, assassination and threats of anarchy in which the protagonist never discharges his gun, and works to enhance the alliance and power of who seemed the biggest threat two books ago. For my money the book does quite a lot that's effective and interesting. It has to be admitted that the advancement of the story and the wider setting is incremental--and I still wish Cherryh would followup on the plot points of Explorer and that book's greater pace--but the atevi are emerging as one of the most extensive, intricately designed alien species.
*The book isn't without problems. The leading one by far is the character of Barbara, consistently written as irritating, a danger to herself and those around her, a whiny plot-complication with continuing unrequited interest in Bren. Bizarrely, given the complexity elsewhere on display, Cherryh seems content to make Barbara a thoroughly one-note complication, who all the other character know no good can come of. She's portrayed as slightly more sympathetic and capable here than in the past, but it's still a pretty unengaging portrayal. At this point I also wasn't terribly interested whenever the perspective shifted from Bren, as it seemed to involve slowing down the action.
*The series as a whole also deserves commentary, now finishing it's twelfth volume and fourth trilogy. I found Foreigner itself somewhat awkward and unengaging, particularly around Bren, but it built up to be top-rate science fiction rapidly, each subsequent book shattering the past status quo, propelling structural change, disrupting expectations and forcing a wider network and state of perceptions. The second trilogy, Precurosr, Defender, Explorer, got very good, in multi-species negotiation-focused space opera with a fascinating focus on the way language and culture operate. The third trilogy was probably the least satisfactory, revolving around intrigue and atevi civil war. They were intimate, complexly crafted political scenarios, but the larger setup seemed like a divergence, an overly small-scale portrait that delayed the more interesting possibilities setup by Explorer. As well, the deeper drama of the series appeared based on a too stark division; in reading I never believed that Cherryh would break up the Western Association permanently or undermine the progression of atevi development, and the unwillingness to pull the trigger against any significant characters despite the continual flood of assassinations undermined investment in the drama. The fourth trilogy seems to have a lot of the same issues, but I found it more satisfying. Perhaps my expectations have changed at this point, but it also seems that the representation becomes more intricate. Conspirator, Deceiver and now Betrayar focus not on the familiar atevi political terrain but fragmented forces to the east, areas never brought into real acceptance of humanity, and with much deeper structural problems, ones that can't be solved in terms of thwarting individual powerlust. The recent books also encourage a greater degree of ambiguity towards longstanding atevi allies, an awareness of how fine-crafted their manipulation has been, of how dangerous they really may be.
*For all this effort, the world constructed seems oddly separate from our own climate, to a degree unusual for contemporary science fiction. Most works don't comment directly on current circumstances--and those that do are not terribly effective--but I've seen in most of the 2011 genre I've read and expect to find more of an underlying zeitgeist. In a lot of ways even more far-fetched work will show awareness of, if it does not directly comment on, the post-2008 economic situation, political fragmentation, impact of technological disorientation and ongoing geopolitical tensions. The Foreigner series is working off its internal timeline, setup in 1994, and continuing on without real adjustment to ways our world has changed since that point, it's the only long-running series I've followed that seems so disconnected from our own times. Which has value, certainly, escaping the short-sighted extrapolation or didactic settling of lessons that I've often found frustrating. And yet, this aspect gives me a bit of pause. Perhaps the pendulum has gone a bit too far in this
instance. While the series is certain attuned to the impact of structural poverty and grasping politivcal hierarchies, and has more of substance to say about the ways reactionary forces can fight on than most science fiction I've read, there are assumptions that seem a bit dubious. The notion of increased trade and global integration promoting a progressive moderanization of society, in particular. Of course the technology isn't our own and neither is the underlying psychology, but there are aspects of the series that feel a bit dated, or even tending towards an escapist alternative to the direction our planet seems to be taking. The Foreigner series certainly has a lot of grim elements, but I wonder in the end if it will fade towards a somewhat unfounded utopia of cooperation and effective political balance arranged by Bren, if it will tend to have less of substance to way than it's 3,000+ pages (and counting) could otherwise support.
*It's a pity that the larger series aren't going to get any award attentions, at this point despite a bit of introductory recap the whole venue is blatantly alienating for anyone not already a fan. Even if this book were perfection and the Hugo fanbase were a lot more conscientious than they are, you aren't going to have enough people drawn in. Perhaps if Cherryh were British there would be a chance that the series would get a nod at some point, but there doesn't seem a venue for that degree of off-brand nomination among major American-focused genre awards.
Overall assessment: A-. Unlikely to be a Hugo nominee for me, not just on the grounds of it having no chance at all, it's in the end not *that* good. If it were put up as some kind of Best Installment in a 4 Book+ Series I suspect I'd nominate it. In the past few years only the Psalms of Isaac and Culture series seem likely to give real competition.

After writing this I encountered the recent Strange Horizons review, which is worth a look. It's significantly harsher than I am, but it pretty well-formed and interesting.

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