Rating: 4 out of 5
In Jennifer Foehner Wells’ Fluency (Confluence Book 1) (also available in a collection of the first 3 books in the series plus 3 shot stories: Confluence Codex 1: An Omnibus of the Scifi Series, Books 1-3), a team of people has been chosen to take a small shuttle to dock with a mysterious alien ship that’s been sitting, unmoving, in our solar system since at least 1947. It’s believed to be derelict, but no one knows for sure. In addition to a couple of engineers (Alan Bergen and Ron Gibbs), the pilot (Tom Compton), the mission commander (Mark Walsh), and the flight surgeon (Ajaya Varma), the crew includes an extremely skilled linguist (Jane Holloway), an expert at learning new languages. When the shuttle arrives at the ship, Jane experiences something very strange–she discovers she can read their language, and something connects with her mentally. It provides her with things like maps and schematics of the ship, as well as warnings of when her teammates are in danger. Unfortunately, Walsh believes this means Jane’s been compromised, so he doesn’t want to hear what she has to say.
There’s a touch of horror to this sci-fi story: there are some vicious creatures out there in the alien ship. This does lead to some good fighting and mild blood-and-guts scenes.
There’s also a bizarre creature that is the navigator, called Ei’Brai, a Kubodera. It’s what’s connecting with Jane. There are layers and layers to their interactions, and it’s fascinating. However, the flow of information between them is too often used to provide info-dumps in the middle of other things that are going on. I wish the details had been a little more sparingly provided.
My other complaint is that Walsh is totally a toxic masculinity stereotype with no depth beyond that. I would have liked even a little bit of extra detail to him. He’s bound and determined that Jane will not usurp his position, even though under certain circumstances she is supposed to be in charge. There’s one event that comes up that shows his feelings toward what humans might do to aliens, and it’s one-sidedly abhorrent. Given their instructions to try to make peaceful contact with aliens, and the fact that they all had to undergo a number of psych evaluations, it’s hard to see how he could have made the cut.
The ship is really interesting, and some of the characters have nice depth to them. (Gibbs and Compton aren’t heard from much.) This is one of those sci-fi worlds where an old alien race seeded the possibility of sentience on multiple worlds, which always makes a great excuse for having aliens not be too alien.
I’m looking forward to learning more about the aliens and seeing what they think of humanity.
Content note for explicit sex, mild gore, and rape-by-deception (although it’s put down as a “cultural difference” and not handled nearly as seriously as it should be).
Short Stories: In the Omnibus version, there are two short stories that follow book one. “Carindi” takes place on another alien ship. There’s one child who has survived the plague, and the ship is trapped near a sun that will go nova. The relationship between the Kubodera navigator (Ei’Pio) and the child (Carindi) is very poignant. “The Fall of the Percedus” introduces us to the Swarm, a race of voracious insectoid aliens.