Fluency: in space, we all speak the same language

Book cover: Fluency - Jennifer Foehner Wells - a spaceship in violet cloud)NASA has known about the alien ship in the asteroid belt since Roswell. But now they’re ready to send a small team to investigate it, including linguist Jane Holloway. When they find an empty ship, the military assume command: but someone – or something – still lives in the empty corridors. And it wants to talk.

I was all set to love Fluency, and not just because of the gorgeous cover art. It’s a first contact story with a linguist protagonist, which is a combination I’ve liked in the past. And Dr Jane Holloway evolves as a kick-ass heroine. She’s smart, she’s dedicated, she’s passionate and she believes in fairness and the best outcome for everyone. I can relate to that really hard. Plus she’s got curves and stubbornness. All the points for the good doctor, then.

However, the book gets off to a bitty start, splitting timelines between the team’s arrival on the alien ship and a flashback to Holloway’s recruitment by Dr Alan Bergen, the team’s engineer. This was a problem for me largely because I found Bergen an asshat: almost incapable of looking at a woman without assessing her sexually and given to interior monologues that register sexual attributes in every situation, however inappropriate. If I enjoyed Jane’s narrative, I had to work to keep my teeth grinding through Alan’s.

This made the romance subplot (although thankfully it is just a subplot) really problematic for me, because I couldn’t find much to like about Alan Bergen beyond his loyalty to a woman whose pants he’s desperate to get into. For the first half of the book at least, his explosive temper is matched by unexpectedly caring moments; he’s not unaware of other people’s emotions, and if he fancies them he can be compassionate. Well done him. In the latter stages, however, he’s just belligerent or sulky and I had no sympathy for him or his childish behaviour. It was hard not to think less of Jane for being attracted to him, especially when part of her interior narrative included insecurity about why such a handsome stud would be interested in little old plain Jane. And that was before we got to:

He was just being friendly and that felt awkward because he probably didn’t have a lot of practice being friends with women

Even if I’d been inclined to be forgiving, this line would have damned Bergen on the spot. The age-old excuse wheeled out to defend men who rarely deserve it, to convince women that they’re being unreasonable in feeling uncomfortable. RED ALERT DR HOLLOWAY.

Thankfully, the romance isn’t the main plot.

The core of the novel is an entertaining thriller that channels well-trodden space disaster / horror tropes. The team split up (NOOOO DON’T DO THAT), get into absurd scrapes (WHY WOULD YOU EVEN DO THAT YOU NUMPTY), and our heroine is almost immediately alienated from her colleagues by a manipulative telepathic alien entity (LET ME TELL YOU ALL THE THINGS MY SPECIAL ONE). We all know how well straightforward military men react to civilian women who faint and wake up claiming to Have All The Answers – especially when those answers challenge military authority. It goes about as well as you’d expect.

This is all fun popcorn fare, and my only regret was that the military commander’s entirely appropriate paranoia was undermined by the fact that he’s painted as a James Cameron-esque military goon. Given we see events from Jane and besotted Bergen’s points of view, this is inevitable, but I would have got more mileage from Jane having a bit more cynicism regards her new telepathic friend.

For my money, the book is at its best when it embraces its tropes whole-heartedly and serves up tense action sequences with corrosive parasites. Even Bergen gets to be heroic. It’s hard not to think of Ripley by the time Holloway dons alien battle armour and goes off to wreak vengeance on space bugs, and frankly I was absolutely fine with that. Gung ho space action heroines have a special place in my heart.

I’m a bit of a simple soul in this regard, so I think Fluency would have benefitted from a bit more restraint – everything gets thrown in by the end. We start with first contact with telepathic aliens, but by the end we get galaxy-threatening space locusts; a creator race; an ur-language (and while I know little about linguistics, this was just too silly for me – even before it became Rowling-esque cod Latin); the inherent vicious awfulness of humanity (hey, we were bred that way); and Holloway has become the last hope for an alien race in a clear bridge to a sequel.

It’s pulpy, it’s daft and the supporting cast are made of cardboard – but as long as you get on with Jane (and I did) it is fun, and I am going to read the sequel in due course.