Back in my earliest days of blogging, when nobody including me had any idea where Via Meadia was going, I used to write occasional literary notes about books I’d been reading. As Via Meadia turned into something bigger and more complex, the time for that kind of writing seemed to disappear. I regret that, and hope that in the future I can find a way to get back to that kind of blogging.
But this week I’ve been reading a book from an author who is well known and well respected among science fiction fans (a group that includes me) whose work is very useful for people who think about or practice foreign policy. The author is C. J. Cherryh, and the book I’ve been reading is Visitor, the latest in her long running sequence of novels about a planet which human settlers share with the indigenous atevi species. Bren Cameron, the central character in the series, is a diplomat; his job is to manage the interface between the human and atevi inhabitants of the world. That requires him to understand the languages, psychology and cultures of both species and the plots turn on his ability to do so.
Ms. Cherryh, whose books can be found on her Amazon page, is perhaps the most accomplished living novelist of diplomacy. Most of her books revolve around the efforts of characters to make sense of complex situations involving different cultures and mindsets. She’s also interested in the impact of technology on culture and politics and has written some brilliant books that illustrate how different technological changes might reshape basic assumptions about human nature and politics.
I’ve learned an immense amount from Cherryh’s work over the years. One of the most fundamental lessons that a person must learn in order to understand the world of foreign policy, much less to act effectively in it, is how to step outside your own native mindset in order to appreciate and grasp the often very different ways that other people from other cultures and countries may think about the world. Yet to be effective you have to be able to do this without losing touch with the assumptions and ideas that shape the people it is your job to represent. Cherryh’s novels show many characters in many situations learning and trying to use this skill; any young person wanting a career that involves lots of contact with foreigners would benefit from meeting some of her characters and watching them work.
Overall, next to history, I continue to believe that literature is the most useful study for anybody wanting to be effective on the international scene. Culture and history are vital to the interactions between peoples and states; reading Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy will do more for anybody planning to work in Egypt than all the political science texts in the known world. (Apologies, Dan Drezner, for that statement; I’m not saying polisci is worthless; I’m saying that without cultural and historical insights into particular countries and cultures, theory is only of limited use for practical work.) My sadistic French teachers dragged us through lots of Corneille and Racine in high school; what I learned from reading those texts continues to help me understand French society today.
Cherryh won’t help you understand any particular culture, but she will help you understand what it means to step out from the comfort of your own background to engage with others. For beginners, I’d suggest any of three novels as a good first look at Cherryh’s work:
Foreigner is the first book in her longest and most elaborate series, and it shows Bren Cameron taking the first steps to learning how to operate effectively in atevi society.
The Pride of Chanur introduces a series that follows the attempts of the members of a species that came late to interstellar travel and politics to find their way among rival and sometimes hostile species.
Cyteen will introduce you to yet another Cherryh timeline, one in which cloning has created an entirely different type of society where the traditional rules of politics and power continue to operate with rather surprising consequences.
One of the most dangerous things about American establishment today is the degree to which so many of its members have been educated entirely within the world of received conventional wisdom. They have attended ‘diverse’ universities where everybody is taught to think the same way. They travel the world, but never get out of the bubble. Vulgar materialists and vulgar technocrats, they cling to ideas of liberal determinism (“the arc of history” is making the world what we want it to be), and they fail to appreciate just how radically open the human future actually is—or how many of the people they encounter, including many citizens of the United States, simply don’t share the assumptions they assume must be universal.
C.J. Cherryh’s work is an excellent antidote for this kind of blindness; the more people who read her, the better off the world will be.