Fluency, by Jennifer Foehner Wells (6:23)

Today we see that if you promise hard SF on the tin, implausibilities by the pound are not what you should pack inside.

What I gleaned about the story: Dr. Jane Holloway is about to board an alien vessel that NASA has been watching since the 60s. Apparently she’s elected herself Earth’s ambassador to aliens that nobody knew were there. Because she’s got a good ear for languages?

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This is another book taken “From the Firehose,” meaning that I’ve pulled it from the steady stream of book recommendations that cross my inbox each day. These titles are chosen because something in the marketing content caught my eye. Then, in addition to the normal IOD immersion test, I also comment on what aspect of the marketing drew me in, and whether or not the book delivered on that promise.

The Marketing Appeal: In this case, I was immediately drawn to the strong cover design. It’s a classic look that, to me, harkens back to the fairly hard SF stories and covers I grew up with – stories with strong SF themes, exotic aliens, and premises that stood with their feet firmly on the science end of the spectrum. These were contrasted against the softer kind of SF stories that usually featured a prominent human character on the cover, standing in front of some vaguely SF backdrop. And just as those latter covers implied, those softer stories tended to be more about the people than any specific tech premise. People who just happened to live in an SF world. It was a subtle signal, but a fairly reliable one. Tech-dominant cover = tech-dominant story. Human-dominant cover = human-dominant story. So I’m in good hands here, because there isn’t a single living creature anywhere in the cover at all. This looks like pedal-to-the-metal hardcore SF.

Hooked by the cover, I then went in for a closer scan of the blurb. Yup. Drifting alien vessel. NASA’s been studying it for years, from afar. Now we’ve finally got the tech to send humans there to check it out. Sounds like Rendezvous With Rama. Just the kind of thing I like.

The only thing that threw me about the marketing was the slight awkwardness of the full title: Fluency: Book 1 of the Confluence series. Fluency-Confluence seemed a bit clunky, so maybe I won’t be getting any strong word-play (or dare I say, melifluence :-) in the prose, but the cover and blurb were more than enough to counter it. So buckle up, kids. I’m going in.

Note: Hmm. I’m about three sentences in and I’m annoyed to find that we’re starting in media res. This is a first contact story and what makes this trope so delicious to me is the building sense of anticipation. That first moment of discovering a signal; of seeing a blip on a telescope or hearing a sound in the radio distance. Could it be? Then there’s the slow, steady buildup as, one by one, rational explanations are pared away and the truth becomes more clear. It just might be. This is followed by weeks or months of intensive study and logistical planning. Yeah, it looks like maybe it is. Then a launch, followed by the achingly slow approach, the docking, the waiting for air pressures to equalize, the creaking hinge of an ancient door that hasn’t been opened in a thousand millenia… and then, at last… Oh my god. It is!

But instead of all that, Confluence drops us in with the initial exploration crew about 4 minutes before docking with the alien ship. Oh no! That entire rich tapestry of potential drama is already in the rearview mirror! Sigh. There might still be a wonderful story to come, but starting here sends a shudder through my bones. I’m already worried that this author doesn’t share my sense of what’s exciting about a first contact story.

WTF #1: Implausible logic

Analysis: The crew is approaching the alien vessel. They’re about four minutes from contact when a light snaps on outside the alien ship, illuminating the docking port our heroes are aiming for. Let’s take a peek at how our brilliant linguist POV character reacts to the docking light:

She adjusted mentally to this development. She’d play the role of translator, then, presumably learning an audible language rather than deciphering symbols of text left behind.

WTF? A light came on, and that means the ship isn’t abandoned after all? It means there must be living aliens aboard? Has this woman never experienced grocery store doors that open automatically? Never driven a car and had traffic lights change in response to her approaching vehicle?

That seems an enormous and entirely unjustified leap of logic. Bad enough that it undermines any sense that the protagonist is even functionally intelligent, let alone brilliant. It also casts grave doubts on there being any plausible “sciency” invention to come.

WTF #2: Implausible scenario

Analysis: From what we’ve been given, NASA has known about this ship since the 1960s and has been working feverishly in secret to develop the technology to take a human crew out to investigate.

My first reaction to this is, “What? Why would we have sent the Voyager missions to the outer reaches, or the Pathfinder to Mars, or bothered exploring any of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn? Why would we have mounted any of these expensive and low-probability missions in the hopes of detecting some small fragment of protolife in the universe if we knew there was a hulking great spaceship floating around out there all along?”

But maybe those other missions were all a smoke-screen. A duck blind to keep humanity from panicking while NASA secretly included experiments on those missions that developed the real tech we needed to finally send humans out to the ship. I’m grasping at straws here, trying to throw the plot a bone, but… maybe?

Only, then the commander of the mission tells somebody to, “Open up a channel to Houston.” We then wait for what seems to be about a minute or two of narration before said channel is open and the commander can send his terse report to mission control about the porch light coming on.

Think about what that little exchange means. It means that humanity has finally sent a crewed mission to investigate this strange alien presence after fifty or more years of planning and preparation. They don’t know what they’re going to find or how long the crew will even remain alive. For all anyone knows, they’ll all be vaporized by automated defences systems before they even get close enough to knock. Yet despite all that, there doesn’t appear to be a single dedicated comms feed sending data back to Earth. Not even an audio-only feed to record the crew’s comments for posterity and/or troubleshooting if the mission goes sideways. The commander has to actually ask for a channel to be opened. And then he has to wait several minutes for said channel to be ready.

I’m sure there are people for whom these kinds of plot holes don’t matter, but for the kind of science fiction I crave—the kind I thought was being promised by the cover and the blurb—this kind of implausibility is a cardinal sin. SF fans are willing to suspend all kinds of disbelief: aliens who speak English, time travel, FTL drives, artificial gravity… You name it. But the one thing we will not glide happily past is an implausible story point.

WTF #3: Implausible logic

Analysis: After another page of drama about the unexpected presence of living aliens aboard and the excitement of waiting for that tell-tale thump of docking clamps, our protagonist shares her nerves:

In minutes she’d be stepping up to do her thing with no idea whatsoever of precisely what or whom she’d be facing. Dr. Jane Holloway would be Earth’s ambassador.

Really? Who made that decision? For some reason, she’s decided that she outranks the mission commander just because she has an ear for language? Even assuming she can figure out the alien speech in a day or two, alone, without any help from Earth or her crew mates, why would she assume that such an achievement would make her any more than the official translator?

Final Note: Unfortunately, the cover was a bait-and-switch for me. It lured me in with promises of a particular kind of story and then delivered something…else. The take-home lesson? Be sure your marketing promises the kind of story you actually deliver. Otherwise you’re going to pull in a lot of readers who were expecting something different. And then they’re going to write reviews.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

The Apples of Idunn: Eschaton Cycle, by Matt Larkin (40:00)
Sliced and Diced: A collection of dark and twisted short stories, by Joan De La Haye (40:00)

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.