C.J. Cherryh on her Foreigner Universe


Multiple Hugo award-winning author C.J. Cherryh is embarking on a new frontier: movie-in-audio. A project is underway (soon to hit Kickstarter) to turn each of the first three books of Cherryh’s legendary Foreigner series into 6+ hour audio dramas, complete with a full cast, total soundscape and original score, and I was lucky enough to get the chance to ask C.J. all about it.

Byrt: For those who have never read the Foreigner series, could you give us a quick introduction to the world and story?

C.J.: Scenario: a human-origin colony ship has a deep space accident bringing it ultimately to an alien world as their last resort. They’re welcomed at first. But cultural mistakes trigger a war that strands the human population, disarmed, in an island enclave with no access to space. The native authority allows one human to come to the mainland as interpreter and official contact, and as the price of their survival, he has to mediate the slow, sensible turnover of human tech to their government. This is the background.

The story is the evolving relationship between the newest appointee to the job and the ruling family…he begins with the job of adding words to the official dictionary. He is the first to become fluent in the difficult language. And he receives an invitation from the ruler of the world to go shooting with him…and he also gets the present of a firearm. That is illegal. It is also a warning. Or in the ruler’s words – watch yourself. And beware of my grandmother.

CJ Betrayer 2Byrt: How did you come up with your alien culture? Was there anything in particular that inspired you?

C.J.: It’s Earth, where, ultimately, the space program has to be invented iin reverse…in this case in the 1950’s, culturally; but lightyears away, in terms of the culture, the planet; maybe the Borgia court, for the politics.….I just build as I go. I have a background in linguistics, Mediterranean archaeology, and a hobby in space science.

Byrt: Foreigner was first published 17 years ago – how has the SF genre changed since then? Do you think SF is more in the zeitgeist these days, or less?

C.J.: People are less scared of science, they’re quite okay with life on other planets, but there’s still a lot of education to do…which good SF does better than any other form of literature.

Byrt: This audio-movie adaptation will give us all the chance to experience your story in a different way – so what are you most looking forward to hearing? Is there any sound effect in particular you’re dying to hear?

C.J.: I’m most interested to hear the voices. This is a novel that’s about relationships, intrigue, and bridging the gap between cultures that have previously been at war. It’s a novel about plot, counterplot, and alien mindsets, one of which is human.

Byrt: There are also some challenging names in your series – are you at all worried about pronunciation?

C.J.: I work closely with the team. And once you get onto a few of the names, pronouncing the rest is a lot easier – there are a lot of frequently used particles.

Byrt: If you could pick any actors in the world (salary considerations aside) to voice your characters, who would you choose?

C.J.: Probably James Earl Jones for Banichi, and if I could have Katherine Hepburn for the dowager and young Peter o’Toole for Tabini, that would be good. Dunno who I’d cast as Bren.

CJ DecieverByrt: Would you also like to see your series on-screen someday?

C.J.: They managed to get the Hobbits on screen: getting humans and atevi on the same stage would be a similar technical challenge, given the atevi average about 7 feet tall – humans are NOT at a size advantage in a hand-to-hand conflict, and there are moments Bren, the translator, has trouble making a high step, say, onto a bus. But with the plot – film would have a far easier time than with most sf, because the tech is OLD human tech: the series starts with the atevi culture having reached the human 1950’s. Television is new and controversial, and all transport is by rail. Could Hollywood handle the court intrigue? If they realize that’s where the story is, yes, and play it with the acid humor and tension that goes with it.

Byrt: Can you tease a little bit about what’s coming up next in the Foreigner series?

C.J.: I’m on volume fourteen – and we are finding out a deeply buried plot that’s been operating all along, accounting for a problem everybody thought they knew the source of.

Byrt: And do you have an ending in mind for your series, a grand finale? Or is this a series that never has to end?

C.J.: Depends on whether I go with some of the younger characters, but it all depends on how the next few books play out. If I feel it’s reaching an ending I will. One of the most popular characters, the aiji-dowager, is getting more fragile with the years. But reader interest has not flagged.

Thanks again, C.J., for taking the time!

For more on the Foreigner movie-in-audio project, check out their Facebook and Tumblr pages

And you can learn more about the team behind the project here