Guest Post by Ann Leckie: Skiing Downhill, or Agency in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner

LeckiePhoto-220x331My recent review of Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh led to a seriously in-depth discussion with author Ann Leckie about the agency or lack thereof in the novel’s main character Bren. We started off in the review’s comments section and then got into a long and wandering back-and-forth on Twitter when I (not so innocently) asked to what extent intention and awareness are required for agency.

(In the process, I believe I may have discovered the perfect way to motivate busy authors to contribute guest posts: continuing an argument that’s limited to 140 characters or less until they give in and want to rant long-form.)

I’d like to thank Ann Leckie for an enjoyable and enlightening discussion and for this wonderful guest post. Ann Leckie’s excellent debut Ancillary Justice (my review) is available now from Orbit.

ForeignerThe other day in his excellent review of C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner, Stefan asserted that Bren was in many ways the worst possible POV for the story, given that until late in the book he has no agency.

So. Just so everyone knows where I’m coming from, this isn’t an argument so much as a friendly discussion–but it happens to be a topic on which I’ve done some thinking. And this happens to be a book that I’ve given a lot of thought to. Cherryh may not have taught me everything I know as a writer, but she sure as heck taught me a lot.

And since writing fiction is basically my job (how freaking awesome is that????) these are issues I think about a lot.

So. Agency. In the course of a twitter conversation, Django Wexler said, “Dramatic agency = ability to have a significant impact on the plot/story via decisions.”

@Nerds-feather also said, “But agency generally refers to the ability to engage in conscious, deliberate action w social consequences.”

These comments basically lay out the idea of agency within a story, in its most basic form.

Massive spoilers for Foreigner ahead. If you haven’t read it, well, I’m not about shoulds. So I will say instead that I strongly, emphatically recommend reading it. You may bounce off it–a fair number of people have, and that’s the nature of things. But. My advice is, if you haven’t read it, go read it, and then come back and read this.

So. Spoiler warning in place, off we go.

Bren Cameron is, through the entire novel, in over his head. There’s no question of that. From the very start of things–someone tries to kill him, and he can’t figure out why. The whole week has been disturbing, and he’s been worrying at it. He knows something is going on, but he doesn’t know what. He also knows that if he doesn’t figure out fast, or if he mishandles things, the consequences will be disastrous–up to and including the death of every human on the Earth of the Atevi.

As it happens, Bren is hypercompetent. Ragi is a difficult language for humans to get their heads around, but Bren is quite good at it. His information has been restricted, both by Mospheiran officials and by the atevi around him, for political reasons, even before the events of the novel, but he’s actually got a pretty good handle on how things stand (and who’s standing there) in the Aishi’ditat, the largest atevi association, the government with which Mospheira has made its capital t Treaty. But let’s face it, Bren is brilliant. In typical Cherryh fashion, he’s not entirely aware of this fact–spends a lot of time, actually, terrified of the ways he’s sure he falls short, the ways he might fail, and the likelihood of his failing, given the potential consequences–and he spends pretty much the entire novel in situations where even his hypercompetence might not be enough.

The return of Phoenix has precipitated a political crisis among the atevi.  There have always been suspicions of human motivations in what technology they’re turning over when, and how honest or dishonest Mospheria (and the translator through which Mospheira and the Aishi’ditat communicate) might be. The arrival of the ship–and atevi ideas of association–suggest that the humans have known this whole time that Phoenix would come back, that it’s part of some plan, that Mospheira has been dishonest and working against the atevi all this time, and, importantly for Tabini-aiji, that the aijiin of the Aishi’ditat have been fatally mistaken to place any trust at all in the paidhiin. To make things worse, Tabini and Bren get along very well, and Tabini has put a lot of reliance on Bren, and on the benefits human tech might bring the Aishi’ditat. Given the implication of double-dealing by Mospheira, Phoenix’s return is politically disastrous for Tabini–and very possibly quite favorable for his grandmother Ilisidi, who is very much not in favor of humans or human technology, and who had in the past made a bid to be aiji herself, but lost to her grandson.

So, given Phoenix’s return, and the threat it poses to the political stability of the Aishi’ditat, Tabini’s move is to send Bren to Ilisidi. “You think I’ve misplaced my reliance? Try him and see.”

Bren knows none of this. His mail has been stopped. No one has told him about Phoenix. But damn if he doesn’t know something is terribly wrong. First of all, his mail has been stopped. Second, as I said, he’s a smart guy with a good grasp of current politics, and he knows what he’s seeing adds up to a pattern. He’s missing the key piece–he doesn’t know what’s caused it, but he can see the outlines of the problem, does, in fact, see them fairly well considering the information he’s missing. And he also sees, quite accurately, that it’s his behavior, his choices, that may well make the difference between war and peace, between survival or not for all the humans on the planet. Knows that he’ll have to make those choices with very, very limited knowledge.

But make them he does. Given where he is, and his lack of freedom of movement, the choices he can make look very small. But in sending Bren to Malguri, Tabini has made Bren absolutely central to the outcome of the situation.  Everything Bren says or does from the moment he arrives at Malguri is going to be fateful–is going to ultimately determine the outcome of the bigger situation, Phoenix. And he’s aware of that, even if he doesn’t ultimately know specifically that Phoenix has returned.

He’s going to spend the next few days chatting with Ilisidi and riding mecheiti, signing autographs for tourists, and having fraught conversations with his bodyguards. Not, you’d think, very dramatic or fateful. Just sitting around, right?

Well, no. Since the name of the game is convincing Ilisidi to react in a particular way to Phoenix, to humans, to Bren himself, every tiny interaction with her is of the utmost importance. Since Ilisidi herself values atevi history and heritage–something Bren explicitly thinks about, so he knows this–every tiny interaction with the staff of Malguri–a historic building, one Ilisidi allows tourists access to because she finds that important–every small conversation with the servants whose man’chi is to this site, is going to be crucial. Same with the tourists. And Bren knows all these things are connected, and knows that his life and very possibly every other human life depends on this. And so things like deciding to drink Ilisidi’s tea even though he has no way to be sure she isn’t trying to poison him look, on one level, like small, passive acts–but in fact they’re not only the extent of the action allowed to him, they also are of extraordinarily far-reaching importance.

This is where I go off on my rant.

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. Historically, for instance, women have had a lot of limits on their physical and political power, so if a woman needed to defend herself, or if she was ambitious, by and large she needed to get really good at using those very small, constrained actions to her advantage. This is still in many ways the case, as it happens.

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.

AncillaryJusticeYou 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.” For an example, I once ran across the assertion that writers of “passive” heroines ought to leave SF&F undisturbed and go write Romance, where such heroines belonged.

Yeah, all of you Romance readers are laughing wryly about now, aren’t you. I’m not much of a Romance reader, it’s not to my taste, but as a genre it’s crammed with feminine agency. It’s just that by and large, in the real world, women’s agency is severely constrained. It exists–absolutely. But it’s hedged around, by social convention as much as by outright physical threats.

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. And it means that stories about, say, women, that address the actual situations and constraints that women find themselves in, get classed as “passive” and hence (because everyone knows good stories have “active” main characters!) not really good stories, not really worth reading.

Now, Stefan hasn’t made that jump, here. He’s said explicitly (and correctly) that this is a fabulous book. But that is the implication of the basic idea here, its logical conclusion. This book might be an exception, but the rule (don’t get me started on rules) still stands.

I also don’t think Stefan is intending in any way to limit the kinds of stories told, or that he has anything against women (or any other less represented group–there are ways in which, for instance, Black people of any gender are constrained in their actions in analogous ways, at least in the US, and there are obvious class issues in this construction of agency). But the ways we define and categorize things have implications for the assumptions we’re making–and unexamined assumptions can make it difficult, if not impossible, to see certain things.

Interestingly, you could look at Bren’s position as being a feminine one. He’s physically smaller and weaker than the atevi around him. His well-being, hell his continued existence at all, is dependent on the generosity and good will of those atevi. If he’s going to get what he wants (in this case, survival and information) he’s going to have to manipulate things socially. That means tea and breakfast with the aiji-dowager. That means very tiny actions, on a very small scale. That ultimately, because of course we’re talking sci fi here, determine the fate of humanity on that particular planet. Imagine Jane Austen, where if the main character doesn’t marry she doesn’t just end up broke and homeless, but also the sun will explode.  (Well, Cherryh isn’t really anything like Austen. I’m just saying.)

Now, that’s not to say that Cherryh isn’t to some degree pushing at the idea of agency. Bren doesn’t, ultimately, know specifically what’s going on. He’s only got his (actually very formidable) understanding of Aishi’ditat politics. And he’s 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. Once again, Bren actually has a pretty good grasp on the outlines of what’s happening–enough to make very effective choices.

This does, however, strip things down to that old maxim, “Action is character.” Since Bren can’t see the ultimate cause of his situation, or more than the outlines of what’s going on, he’s forced to rely, in his decisions, on not only his imperfect understanding but also, ultimately, on what he himself values, what he’s ultimately loyal to.  Personally, I think this is part of why Bren is such an appealing character (for those who find him so, granted some don’t). You get through this book largely because you care about Bren, and while you see hints of this all through the book, it’s not made completely clear until that night in the cellar, when he won’t turn on Tabini to save his life. Not because he likes Tabini–at that moment, he believes Tabini has betrayed him, and doesn’t really understand why because he doesn’t yet know about Phoenix. But that’s where you see what he’s willing to do when his back is against the wall. That’s the ultimate implication of all his other choices so far, the ultimate proof that those choices weren’t meant to deceive or manipulate, weren’t anything other than his very own choices. Because that’s the kind of person he is.

TLDR, agents act, and act effectively, and if an actor’s choices are highly constrained, fenced around by other characters or physical or cultural constraints, or taken with incomplete information, that doesn’t change that fact. Insisting that it does just erases the very real, intentional actions of people who find themselves in constrained situations, and that’s something that’s all too common and could use some serious questioning, in fiction and in real life. That’s why I object very strongly to putting extra qualifiers on words like “agency.”

Thanks to Ann Leckie for a great discussion and for this excellent post. If you haven’t yet, make sure to read Ann’s brilliant debut novel Ancillary Justice (my review).

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19 Responses to Guest Post by Ann Leckie: Skiing Downhill, or Agency in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner

  1. Thanks, Ann.

    Bren’s situation and set of choices kind of remind me of handling a non-sandbox RPG game where the GM is not railroading the PCs. The characters and players have agency to make choices, choices that matter. But they are not unlimited in their choices. There are constraints on them–but not so much as to de-power them. That’s Bren’s situation.

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  3. I read the first Foreigner and part of the second, until I realized this would be a semi-infinite series. Bren is a faded copy of Sten Duncan of the Faded Sun (Mri) trilogy. I think this series is the weakest of Cherryh’s efforts — she set the bar high with several of her Union/Alliance works.

  4. BDG says:

    Not at get to serious but the whole action=great characters if scarily similar to the argument a lot of colonial apologist like to make (to me at least). I’ve seen people argue that because African-Americans didn’t beat their oppressors they deserved their lot or the my peoples, the Cree, ‘gave’ the land to the British because they lost in a war that never actually happened (or in other words weren’t ‘active’ enough). So I’m just wondering if the colonial attitude has actually shaped what the mainstream audience acknowledges as a ‘good character’ or the dramatic definition of agency, which I fine extremely limiting. If it wasn’t for generations of First Nation children, who were sent to residential schools, whispering their own languages to themselves in the dead of night, keeping some part of themselves alive, we might be far worse off than we already are. It’s stuff like that, small agency’s that might give hope to entire peoples that I found to be overlooked in many mainstream descriptions of a ‘good’ character that is often to tied up in physical action which in turn is I believe actually based in colonial thought (physical action=agency=good, ‘passive’ resistance=/=agency=’had it coming’)…which might actually have origins in European patriarchy and religious thought.

    But nvm me, I’m a couple thousand words deep on a term paper for a social inequality class and it’s got me thinking all over the place. P.S. Just bought your book because of this article. Excited about it.

    • Just to be clear, when I wrote “best” and “worst” character it wasn’t meant as a value judgement or in terms of social status or gender. I’ve come to realize that “agency” is a bit of a trigger word, and I understand why, but when I originally (and incorrectly) used it in the review it was just meant as “Bren isn’t aware of the event that set off the chain of events and has less power to affect the broader situation than some of the people who are shuttling him around.” This is not tied to any real-world groups or events, just an observation about this novel–and probably, if I hadn’t used the loaded term “agency” and instead just summarized it the way I just did, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion now. But, I think it’s a good learning experience so I’ve left it as-is, so maybe others can benefit from the discussion.

      • BDG says:

        Just be sure I’ve read the original piece and that wasn’t a critique of you but rather an observation of a literary tradition overall. To often our ‘good characters’ as in interesting characters are ones with social and economical power (and of course the power of violence) and thus have the power the colonizers or settlers had and still have. Colonialism has pretty much shaped everything else in North America (and I would argue all of the World) for better or worst, why not how and why we read? And what is consider a well written piece? It’s just the mainstream (and not yours or Ann Leckie’s) definitions of an exciting character is one that mirrors the privileges of the colonizer. They can act upon the plot in a meaningful way, and usually is some kind of ‘official’ way, they are never driven by the plot, because that’d be ‘bad’, and must have interesting interactions with characters around them (or rather other white men), because not to have that would be bad. That mix certainly is entertaining but it is irreversibly connected to how colonizers acted and act and is sometimes not available to others.

        Again not an attack on you, or the original piece, just a few thoughts on how nothing exists in a vacuum, and how things, even traditional views on characters, can be viewed by outsiders (a.k.a. me).

        • You make great points. I just realize, thinking about what you said, that Bren is doubly interesting because humans are something between colonizers and refugees in this scenario — or, I guess, started out as colonizers and ended up as refugees. CJ Cherryh really puts several twists on the traditional roles in this story.

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  6. Kat Hooper says:

    I decided to stop reading this post as soon as spoilers were mentioned. This series has been at the very very top of my want-to-read list for a long time and I’ve been collecting them on audio (all produced within the last year) when individual books go on sale. I know there’s no way I’ll have time to sit down with all the books in print, which is why I’ve waited this long. As of last week I’ve collected the first 4 and one of the later ones. Then I see Stefan give a 5 star rating to the first book and I think I’VE GOT TO READ THIS NOW but I’m worried that I’ll end up breaking the bank by getting hooked and having to purchase all the others right away. Oh, what a hard life I have!!!

    Anyway, I look forward to the book and to coming back here to see the discussion.

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  8. J. Kathleen Cheney says:

    Well, said, Ann!

    I see this particular dynamic repeated often in Cherryh’s work (think Vanye or Josh Talley), and think it’s one of Cherryh’s points of brilliance.

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