Drunk on All Your Strange New Words – by Eddie Robson

Xenolinguistics is high up in the list of my favourite SF themes, so when I saw that Drunk On All Your Strange New Worlds dealt with interspecies communication, the main character being a translator and all, I was immediately hooked.

Title: Drunk on All Your Strange New Words

Author: Eddie Robson

Publication Date: 28 June 2022

Genre: Science Fiction – Mystery

Pages: 277

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Representation: Casually bisexual main character

Content Warning: Death – Murder – Suicide – Gore – Xenophobia – Climate Change

Synopsis

A locked room mystery in a near future world of politics and alien diplomacy.

Lydia works as translator for the Logi cultural attaché to Earth. They work well together, even if the act of translating his thoughts into English makes her somewhat wobbly on her feet. She’s not the agency’s best translator, but what else is she going to do? She has no qualifications, and no discernible talent in any other field.

So when tragedy strikes, and Lydia finds herself at the center of an intergalactic incident, her future employment prospects look dire–that is, if she can keep herself out of jail!

But Lydia soon discovers that help can appear from the most unexpected source…

Analysis

Form & Style: The novel is written in third-person subjective, following Lydia’s point of view and thus mirroring her limited, often dizzied understanding of her circumstances, as well as her inherent proclivity to sarcasm.

Robson’s writing is breezy and approachable; futuristic terms and concepts are seamlessly introduced and generally easy to comprehend in context, even when they don’t necessarily come with a substantial explanation; dialogues come across as natural and witty, well matched, in their choice of tone and slang, to each character’s background and personality.

Setting: Drunk on All Your Strange New Words is set between New York and Halifax, UK, in a future that feels eerily familiar. Robson’s portayal of enhanced social media streams that muddle the truth, of ubiquitous wearable technology, and of a Manhattan ravaged by insidious floods, only kept (mostly) safe by a massive seawall, isn’t perhaps a particularly inventive depiction of the future, however it definitely feels believable and lived in.

Oh, and of course, there are the aliens.

Specifically, the Logi: a peaceful species that’s only able to communicate telepathically, can’t use digital technology, and can only interact with us Earthlings through the help of specially talented humans such as the main character.

Such a process of translation is of course essential to interspecies relationships, however it comes with some tangible side-effects, as it gives humans roughly the same sensations as being drunk – and in fact, translators are trained specifically to function as well as possible while being necessarily dizzy.

The novel doesn’t dwell on the how’s and why’s of the Logi’s first contact, instead setting its story in a world where their existence is already common knowledge, and in which they entertain regular political and business relationships with humankind. As expected, not everyone is really enthused with their influence on Earth, and there’s no lack of prejudices, as well as conspiracy theories, surrounding their role and their very existence – in a way that, indeed, mirrors all too familiar social phenomena.

While I had great expectations on Logi’s language and culture, the specifics of their civilisation are more hinted at than thoroughly explored; which is understandable, given that our point of view character is very much busy with other concerns – even assuming that she knows much at all – but nevertheless a bit disappointing.

Characters: The main character, Lydia, is a working girl, North of England way, whose talent for translation was identified back when she was in highschool, and who was therefore sent to study and train at the prestigious London School of Thought Language.

At the time of the story, she’s working as a translator for Fitzwilliam, the cultural attaché of the Logi in New York. A paradigmatic fish out water among people so much posher and uptight than herself and her old friends, Lydia has mixed feelings about her job: on the one hand she’s ill at ease in her environment, and she constantly doubts her own skills and overall suitability to her assigned role, on the other hand she relishes in the status that comes with it – and, well, after some thoughful consideration, she’d rather not end up unemployed and drowning in student debt, thanks.

With her perpetual snarkiness and her relatable anxieties, Lydia is a very likable protagonist, and her personality is easily the most entertaining element of the novel, and as a reader I required no further incentive to care about her destiny.

Other characters are not all that fleshed out, however they do get enough development to fulfill their role. Of all people, the one that, in my opinion, should have deserved a more in-depth characterisation is Fitzwilliam, the murder victim of our whodunit: Lydia had shared a literal telepathic connection with him, and his fate seems to affect her well beyond her career concerns, however, all in all, we mostly see him as a plot device, with little chance to actually get to know him.

Plot: The novel starts out at a leisured pace, giving us the time to get acquainted to the setting and to Lydia’s narrative voice. We witness to some interaction and minor incident that may or may not relevant for future events, and that more importantly set the tone of the story.

The plot really kicks off only once Fitzwilliam has been murdered – in his home, while Lydia was nearby but way too incapacitated to be an even remotely useful witness. As a result, it’s no surprise that she ends up being one of the police’s prime suspects. What is, however, more surprising, is that she keeps on hearing Fitzilliam’s voice in her head, claiming such an occurence is indeed commonplace for his species, and prompting her to investigate to find out the real culprit.

Thus, Lydia starts following clue after clue, trying to get her bearings in what starts looking like a much larger conspiracy that she could have imagined. Her investigation makes for a fairly enjoyable read, even though most of it boils down to: Lydia talks to person – Lydia is sent to talk to yet another person.

Well, at least until the very last part of the novel, where Lydia finds out that all she had discovered up to that point has been nothing but yet another deception by yet a different conspiracy, and has to entirely reroute her investigation, in a fast-paced, last-minute attempt to save herself and also find out the truth since she is at it. It’s quite an abrupt and belated twist, that somehow left me with the impression I’d been wasting my time up to that point; nevertheless, once you can finally see how all pieces fit together, it’s also quite enjoyable in its own way.

Themes & Overall Thoughts: Drunk on All Your Strange New Words is, first and foremost, a murder mystery. The worldbuilding is rich with intriguing ideas, such as the Logi’s unusual means of communication, and their consequences on their own culture, as well as on interplanetary relations; such premises, however, aren’t really developed to their full potential, as they are mainly meant to work as a plot device to set up for the murder mystery – which is not to say it’s poorly done, just that it’s not as deep as I wish it had been. It is, on the other hand, a genuinely entertaining read, with a good amount of suspense and irony, an easy to love main character, and some passing touch of satire.

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