C. J. Cherryh
C. J. Cherryh has structured her very-very long series of Foreigner novels into trilogies. I'm going to discuss #16 and #17 here, and no doubt will return to this series again as we expect one more novel in this 6th trilogy in the Foreigner Series.
It is a study in worldbuilding as well as Relationship driven plotting.
Here is the complete Kindle collection up to #16 on Amazon:
Here are the books so far, in publication order:
Foreigner, DAW Books, 1994.
Invader, DAW Books, 1995.
Inheritor, DAW Books, 1996.
Precursor, DAW Books, 1999.
Defender, DAW Books, 2001.
Explorer, DAW Books, 2002.
Destroyer, DAW Books, 2005.
Pretender, DAW Books, 2006.
Deliverer, DAW Books, 2007.
Conspirator, DAW Books, 2009.
Deceiver, DAW Books, 2010.
Betrayer, DAW Books, 2011.
Intruder, DAW Books, 2012.
Protector, DAW Books, 2013.
Peacemaker, DAW Books, 2014.
Tracker, DAW Books, 2015.
Visitor, DAW Books, 2016.
If you haven't read #1-15 of this series, you can still read #16 and #17 easily and understand what it is all about because the salient facts of "what went before" are filled in where needed.
C. J. Cherryh would never be considered a "Romance Writer" -- but if you are writing Science Fiction Romance, studying her works will give you all you need for springboards and themes that morph the typical Romance into real Science Fiction.
Of course, you can't just copy what she's built. But you can see how she's brought her real-world education and background into the process of worldbuilding to create a convincing environment for stories that inspire study of her favorite topics.
To understand how she's used her background to generate her sprawling and complex Universe (the envelope title is "Alliance-Union" Universe), you do need to know something about her, and to read most of her novels. Cherryh's professional background is in Languages, especially Latin, and her interests encompass all human history, pre-history, and cultural anthropology.
Her Aliens are Alien because she knows what "human" is, where it comes from, and how humanity develops and uses language. That is the science behind her science fiction that produces such believable Aliens.
Here are some reference pages where you can see the sprawling, complex, background universe she's built for her Characters to explore.
And here's Wikipedia on the Foreigner Series:
In the Foreigner Series, we have a human linguist confronted with an Alien language based on Alien physiology that is treacherously close to human biology. That closeness leads to inevitable errors in understanding because of the human trait of taking assumptions as facts.
Originally, such misunderstandings led to a human-alien war, which was resolved by a bit of more accurate communication. Two hundred years pass after that war, and the FOREIGNER series starts with a linguist trained in that long tradition now tossed into the Alien culture which is thirsting for human technology, and resisting that technology for religious reasons.
Over the coarse of these novels, Bren, the Linguist, brings his world, humans and aliens alike, into a space age, then takes them out into interstellar space where they meet a new alien species that has space-ship mounted weapons and is not reluctant to shoot first and ask questions later.
Why are they not reluctant?
These two novels, Tracker and Visitor, begin to answer that question in a way that makes the Kyo (the new Alien species with big guns) seem easily comprehensible. It is so easy to assume the obvious answer is true that one grows suspicious.
Also, over the coarse of these 16 novels, there is a kind of love-story woven into the linguist's life as Bren is isolated among Aliens. And yes, he starts sleeping with the female whose personality bonds easily with his own. They have a physical relationship, and a mental one, but emotionally not exactly satisfying since these Aliens can't "love."
They trust each other. They seem to communicate well. In Tracker and Visitor, they are at the "taking for granted" stage in a settled Relationship. But the Alien female does not quite follow human conversations.
Think about the ideal Romance, the Soul Mate Couple meets, fight their attraction, reach an understanding, have their good times, have some bad times, and finally reach an HEA. By then, every reader understands why these specific two people need each other, and why the world is better off because they are together.
The key to crystallizing a Soul Mate Relationship is communication. Beyond that comes emotional satisfaction built on Trust.
Marriages can function without much overt communication as long as there is Trust.
The Relationship between Bren and his Alien lover (who is also one of his Security Guards) exemplifies and personifies the essence of Trust. His life is literally in her hands, daily. Her strength and reflexes, and her Will to place herself between him and danger, are at the root of this Relationship.
Their trust in one another is mirrored, thematically, in the growing trust between the human community stranded on the Atevi planet and the Atevi themselves.
Part of the appeal of the first 15 novels is the gradual unraveling of the Atevi language, and how it is at odds with (and yet akin to) any language humans use. Since there are factions of humans, there are several human languages to keep matters churning.
Getting deep into the Alien mindset via language is actually very Romantic. In any standard Romance, the key to keeping reader interest is how the writer unfolds the intricacies of the other's way of thinking. Hence the Romance with conflicts rooted in misunderstandings and secrets.
In Tracker and Visitor, Cherryh new secrets that Bren must keep (or not) as he finds out what the Kyo are doing here, why they shoot first and ask questions afterwards, and then (in typical Bren style) acts to change the Situation.
His action, in this instance, is to commission (without the authority to do so) a new Translator, giving that individual the few clues to Kyo language and mindset he's figured out and turning this hapless individual loose to fend for himself among Kyo.
Any reader will see immediately that Bren's action has altered the Balance of Power in the Galaxy in exactly the way his prior actions in this series have altered the Balance of Power on the Atevi home-world. Is it Luck or Fate that he's still alive after all the crazy things he's done either without permission, or against prohibitions.
In short, C. J. Cherryh's Alliance-Union universe novels, which may (or may not) co-exist in the same universe of the multiverse with each other, all exemplify the various principles we have explored on this blog. The world is built around a bundle of Themes, and a bigger bundle of related sub-themes. Various characters live out their personal Stories learning the lessons of those themes by running afoul of the driving force behind them.
The master Theme behind all the Alliance-Union novels may be about the Nature of what it is to be Human. Communication (usually via language) is a key element. Commerce (in ideas, goods, technology) is another. Put Communication and Commerce together and Civilizations get Created and also Crumble. The shards of dead civilizations become the fertilizer for new ones.
One of C. J. Cherryh's areas of knowledge (and opinion) is real-world Politics. On Facebook, she often explains current Events in terms of the underlying principles overlooked by most media commentators.
In the Foreigner novels, she has created political situations around centralized governments that work out (sometimes explosively) in very logical, and often relentless ways. The politics driving various (crazy) decisions that affect planets and interstellar affairs, are composed of Communication, Trust, and Commerce based on that Communication.
These vast, impersonal, ambient forces, historical currents and massive principles, are exactly mirrored in the close, personal Relationships the Characters use to make decisions.
The Aliens are truly Alien because biology and brain configure language to represent the concrete world in ways different from how a human would see that same world. We know because we see the Aliens through human eyes, and (as a child Alien grows up) we see the humans through Alien eyes.
The Aliens are believable because the vast, impersonal forces shaping the non-concrete world follow the same "laws" that human History and pre-History seem to follow. A well educated reader who is widely read and well informed will see these congruities immediately. To others, the Aliens may seem unique -- until the reader makes the acquaintance with human History (and pre-History) and discovers how fiction mirrors reality.
If you are studying writing craft, look at the vast, gigantic, immense tapestry behind the Alliance-Union Novels, and then read just one of the Foreigner novels. Note how a tiny chip off the edge of the Alliance-Union universe provides a huge, deep, wide canvas upon which to show how personal Relationships work out on a planetary scale.
The writer's ability to focus tightly on just one Character, who knows almost nothing about the universe he lives in, needs to be studied and replicated. It is the cornerstone of all Romance because that is our own everyday reality. We don't even know how ignorant we are.
The essence of the Romance Novel is the focus on the significant other. While reading a good Romance, everything else blurs and vanishes into the mists as the significant other becomes more vivid, three-dimensional, and consequential. The hot-ness of the Romance is proportionate to the tightness of that focus.
Each Series within the Alliance-Union saga has that kind of focus, and that kind of pair of characters who become "everything" to each other. Not all hot relationships are sexual or romantic. C. J. Cherryh rarely deals, square on, with Romance, but her plots are always driven by searingly intense, pin-point focused emotion.
Study how she achieves that effect.
The "science" in her science fiction is linguistics. The fiction is derived from human history and anthropology. The Conflicts are "ripped from the Headlines." The experience of "life" especially in what it's like to think in two non-cognate languages, is exactly as I experience it.
I particularly love the Foreigner series because, while Bren's crazy decisions and crazier actions, are driven by emotion, those emotions form as a result of careful study of a massive amount of data. He knows what he's doing -- he simply doesn't know that he knows. That is how real humans function in our everyday life.
C. J. Cherryh gets this effect with Space as her canvass, necessarily including Time as a property of Space.
Robert A. Heinlein did it with the multiverse, using Time itself as his canvass, necessarily including Space.
How will you do it?