Honoring the Heroine: Ilisidi

Yeah, this month I am doing a fourth post, and my very first which honours a book character. I won’t do that regularly, but the theme is science fiction, and I think there is no better time to talk about my favourite science fiction author, my favourite science fiction series, and one of her best characters.

C. J. Cherryh started writing fantasy, but at this point most of her books are science fiction. So called “hard” science fiction, meaning that she tries to make the technical aspect believable. Thus said, technic is not the focus of her books. Interaction is. Most of the time her stories are about someone ending up in a different culture from his own. It can be an alien culture, but it also can be a human having to deal with an unfamiliar human environment. If Anthropological Fiction were a genre, C. J. Cherryh would be the queen of it.

Most of her books are in one way or another set in the so called Alliance/Union universe, which is arguable her longest running series. Arguable, because you can easily read the books independent from each other. Which is why I personally consider her Foreigner series her true longest running series, and in a way the pinnacle of her work.


The basic premise of the book is that a human space ship full with settlers gets lost in space. Not being able to find the way back home, or the planet they were originally headed at, they discover a habitable planet. Problem: There is already a species living there, the Atevi, a feudal society which has just discovered how to use steam technology. The humans don’t agree if they should disturb their way of life, but finally a group of them visits the planet and makes contact.

That is only the set up. The actual plot is set a few generations later. The reader learns that in the meantime, there has been a war between humans and Atevi, which ended with a treaty. The humans got one island to live on, isolated from the Atevi. In exchange they send an interpreter, the so called Padhi, to the mainland. His job is to protect the peace and introduce the advanced technology carefully into Atevi society. A task not as easy as it might sound. Because the Atevi are not humans. They don’t feel love or friendship but manchi, something which is more like an instinct be part of a flock, with a leader on the very top, the Aiji. They life in a society with strict rules and traditions. They follow a religion of numbers and even their language requires high mathematical abilities. Oh, and they consider assassination as acceptable solution for problems.

Bren Cameron, the padhi, is the main character of the book. It is kind of sad that Cherryh opted for a male protagonists this time around, but on the other hand I think she deliberately went for the exact opposite of what I consider  the second most important character, Ilisidi, the aiji-dowager, and grandmother of the current aiji, who might or might have not killed her own son only to see her young grandson being elected to the throne instead of her.

If you create a new world, you have every freedom possible. Most books dealing with fantasy or science fiction nevertheless gravitate towards a patriarchal society, and I somehow doubt that the writers even notice. With Cherryh I get the vibe that she does put a lot of thought into it. In the foreigner series, the humans have what seems to be something close to an equal society…very similar to ours, but you have female characters in every position imaginable. There are female politicians, scientists, captains, though there might be a slight favour to male characters in positions of power. The Atevi on the other hand have patriarchate and matriarchate regions.

Thus said, the actual centre of power is a patriarchate, which makes Ilisidi’s position so much more impressive. Despite never getting elected, she is in a way more powerful than her grandson. Her marriage was not motivated by love, but by political reasoning – in her husband believed that he could gain control over the east through her. But Ilisidi is too smart to be used that way, instead she hold on her power and built on it, outsmarting her rivals at every turn.

But she is not power hungry. Her motivation is to protect her people, to protect Atevi tradition from the influence of the humans but without being fanatic about it, and ultimately, she stands for a peace.

Quote: “Pish!”

If you want science fiction which goes all out on the crazy science stuff, this is not for you. Neither are those books particularly action heavy. They usually have a climax which involves some kind of fighting, but all in all, they spend more time on diplomatic negotiations. But exactly those are very fascinating and convincingly written. So if you like intelligent writing, layered characters and Aliens which are different and stay that way, then you should give it a shot.

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