Fluency focuses on the premise that our interaction with alien species is all about communication and those who have a sympathetic ear to language have a sympathetic ear to the heart and mind of those who are utterly “other.” This leads us to a naturally-gifted linguists as our protagonist; not typical of most SciFi and not boring, even if it sounds that way. Who better to have first contact than someone trained in the first contact of other human people-groups with previously unmapped languages? It is an ingenious premise that’s well executed by Jennifer Wells (it’s a little hard to believe this is Ms. Wells’ debut novel) and leads to some luscious tension between the military commander running the show from the command ship, the Providence. Theoretically, Jane Holloway, the linguist/scientist, takes command once onboard the alien vessel, Speroancora. However, things don’t go as expected and the resident alien communicates exclusively with Jane Holloway and only within her mind. Due to this intimate communiqué provided by the alien (Ei’Brai), on top of an already jaded military mindset, the commander doesn’t know if the alien has taken over Jane Holloway’s mind, is simply misleading her or is telling the truth. The “don’t go as expected” part goes south quickly. As you might expect (although a number of reviewers don’t seem to, about which more later), the others and especially the commander, are more than a little suspicious that Ei’Brai is the source of their woes. This leads to bad decisions and the fun begins.
While there is one coherent story, there are a number of side trails that enrich our knowledge of Jane Holloway: why she relates to her crew, her love interest (yes, that too), her commander and Ei’Brai she does. These memory-walks Jane takes enrich the story (and clarify her motives) without throwing off its pacing.
What do I love about Fluency?
- Its brilliant premise that first contact is all about communication and understanding
- Our growing understanding of Jane Holloway, Ei’Brai, and the crew.
- No one is perfect and nothing is easy.
- Dialog and pacing are spot-on while descriptions of the vessels, characters, and remembered worlds are good without ever bogging down the story, and the relationship between Ei’Brai and Jane is particularly well developed.
- The Gubernaviti/Qua’dux relationship is smart; it provides a balance of power but needs a backup plan (not really a spoiler since you have to read it to get it).
- Stephan Martiniére‘s rock-a-lockin’ book cover.
What did I find intriguing?
- So often, where you start is where you end (Walsh can’t get past his military training and natural skepticism)
- Ei’Brai seems to epitomize much of current political thinking – it’s all political correctness until it’s time to move toward something you want, then the ends justify the means ‘cause you “know” you’re oh so right.
Of what was I less fond?
- I’m not quite sure I buy the Coelusha Limax/Nepatrox story of surviving because of moral compunction on the aliens’ part to not needlessly kill.
- Commander Walsh, but hey, I’m not supposed to like him. Also, he’s a bit of a stereotype.
- The narrative movement towards troubled times seemed a bit rushed, especially for the actions of Ei’Brai and Walsh. While the smoothest and most carefully constructed arguments would not have had things going smoothly, both seemed to rush to judgment sooner than was reasonable.
As I often do, I went between the Kindle and Audible version of the story. Susanna Burney beautifully narrates the book. Not only was she a natural for Jane Holloway, but she handled all characters with aplomb. She had great vocal pacing, good enunciation, and clear demarcation amongst the characters. Her portrayal of Ei’Brai as formal and oddly paced was perfect for the alien.
I commend the book for your reading pleasure.
***Spoiler Alert – spoilers below ****
I want to comment on a theme I’ve noticed of some reviewers who didn’t care for the book. Essentially their complaint was that the crew were immature, daft, or both because of how poorly they assessed the situation and didn’t follow Jane. Now, as I indicated above, the pacing was a bit quick moving toward conflict, but not in a heavy-handed way. Most of the reviewers who made this point struck me as judging Walsh and crew as if they had Jane’s full knowledge and should have known better. The crew clearly had to make their decisions based on external behavior and past experience. It seemed more than reasonable that they would worry that Jane Holloway was taken over by the alien. Given Walsh’s background and his lack of willingness to listen, I just don’t see it being obvious that he would view her as safe to trust. In fact, while Ei’Brai wasn’t taking over her, he was misleading her and more intimately inculcated in her thinking than she knew.
Now some may say that it’s an even worse over-reaction on the part of the crew because of the technological advantage of the alien. If he had ill intent, he could kill the crew. Since he didn’t kill the crew, he was safe and, by extension, so was Jane. However, despite that advantage, he was stranded and his ship was in trouble. So, he still had the motivation to manipulate them or pose a danger. Also, Walsh isn’t the type to roll over and give up. So their reaction was reasonable and it was only Jane’s inside knowledge, empathetic gifts as a listener and natural disposition that saved the day. In other words, I don’t buy this criticism.