Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Fluency, by Jennifer Foehner Wells

NASA discovered an alien spaceship in the asteroid belt in the 1960s. Fifty years later, they send a bunch of idiots to investigate it.


Self-Published, 2014, 283 pages

NASA discovered the alien ship lurking in the asteroid belt in the 1960s. They kept the Target under intense surveillance for decades, letting the public believe they were exploring the solar system, while they worked feverishly to refine the technology needed to reach it.

The ship itself remained silent, drifting.

Dr. Jane Holloway is content documenting nearly-extinct languages and had never contemplated becoming an astronaut. But when NASA recruits her to join a team of military scientists for an expedition to the Target, it's an adventure she can't refuse.

The ship isn't vacant, as they presumed.

A disembodied voice rumbles inside Jane's head, "You are home."

Jane fights the growing doubts of her colleagues as she attempts to decipher what the alien wants from her. As the derelict ship devolves into chaos and the crew gets cut off from their escape route, Jane must decide if she can trust the alien's help to survive.

With a lot of buzz, and a zillion 5-star ratings, I was expecting and hoping for this self-published novel to be one of those gems discovered in the Kindle slushpile.

I was wincing at the writing within the first few pages. By the end of the third chapter, I was recognizing tropes and writing styles redolent of fan fiction. (Yes, I'm throwing stones. Throw them back if you wish.) I was unsurprised when I discovered that Jennifer Foehner Wells also writes Stargate fan fiction.

Her heart galloped in her chest. 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. Why her? Because some accident of birth, some odd mutant gene, some quirk of brain chemistry, gave her the ability to learn new languages as easily as she breathed. Did that mean anything once she'd left the safe embrace of planet Earth? She was about to find out.

To put it bluntly, this is not a good book, and I was vastly disappointed, because the premise was awesome, and there just aren't enough science fiction novels starring linguists!

Besides breathless, amateurish prose that drips with cliched phrases and two to three adjectives wherever one or zero would do, the main character, Dr. Jane Holloway, is the sort of character who reads exactly like one of those Mary Sue OCs who gets plopped into the middle of a fan fiction story to draw the spotlight onto her own awesomeness. Since Dr. Holloway is the star of her own novel, I suppose technically I can't call her a Mary Sue—

That wasn't the reaction he expected. "You're wrong. I had a chance to look over the other files. You're the only person for this job. You're the only one with the kind of stamina, talent, and sheer guts it will take to do this."

Her expression was skeptical. "I'm sure it looks like that on paper-"

He let his frustration bleed through. "Look, they've spent months looking at linguists-we've been working with plenty of linguists already, on another, similar project-and none of them can match your level of natural ability and experience. Come on! You're a goddamn living legend in your field-and you're what? 35? Do you know what we've been calling you at NASA? We call you Indiana Jane."

The smile snuck back, just for a second.

"Well, ok-I call you that-but it's fucking true."

She snorted softly and looked away.

He rolled his eyes. They'd warned him not to curse. "Sorry. You were right when you guessed I don't spend much time around women."


"Indiana Jane" Holloway isn't just a super-linguist, she also witnessed her parents' tragic death on Australia's Barrier Reef, and then survived a tragic expedition to the Amazon jungle where she singlehandedly led her fellow survivors of an attack by hostile tribesmen out of the jungle while feverish with malaria.

Can I call her a Mary Sue yet?

Dr. Alan Bergen, who is a Bad Boy because he swears around ladies, is the love interest. Now, some people might dislike this book because large portions of it get derailed by throbbing purple prose about unconvincing chemistry between Bergen and Holloway. But I'm okay with some romance being mixed into a science fiction novel. What I'm not okay with is stupid characters and stupid science fiction and bad dialog.

These are Dr. Bergen's thoughts when he meets Dr. Holloway for the first time.

This could be an interesting afternoon.

It was an old-school name, Jane. It brought to mind all kinds of interesting word associations. He'd been wondering, the whole drive up from Pasadena, what kind of Jane she would turn out to be. Jane of the Jungle—that was for sure. He wouldn't mind playing Tarzan to that Jane, but that would be pretty unprofessional and could screw up his chance of going on the mission. Not worth it.

He cleared his throat to get her attention.

Jane Goodall. Hm. Maybe. She'd lived all over the world, in a lot of remote places.

She didn't look much like a Calamity Jane, just now.

Jane Fonda? Eh. Nope.

The other chick would be more of the voluptuous, Jayne Mansfield type, if she'd just loosen up a bit.

The throat clearing didn't phase them, so he moved forward, extending his hand to the taller, dark-haired woman. He might as well rescue her. "Dr. Holloway. We spoke on the phone. Dr. Alan Bergen."

Our very mature and professional Dr. Bergen sees two women talking and proceeds to assume that the one not dressed like a college professor is the college professor.

He is there to recruit Dr. Holloway because they need a linguist to help them talk to the presumed aliens. (Keeping in mind that the alien ship has been floating in the asteroid belt for half a century and hasn't made a peep, so it seems like a pretty big assumption that there are actually aliens still on board for them to talk to. It is never even mentioned whether they tried to establish radio contact!)

So of course he spills everything to her - the alien ship and the fact that they also have actual aliens at Roswell, where another ship crashed in 1947. Then he forgets to make her sign the "non-disclosure agreement" he said she'd have to sign for him to tell her about this classified information. You know, I'll grant a little bit of artistic license here from an author whose research obviously does not extend beyond Hollywood movies and Wikipedia (in reality, if it's decided that an expert without a security clearance needs to be brought in on a classified project, you don't just send another guy on the team out to blab all the details while they stroll around the campus and then make her pinky-swear not to tell anyone), but the fact that this idiot, after ruminating about "Indiana Jane's" hotness, forgets to even make her sign the supposed non-disclosure agreement?

Sadly, this is the level of maturity, professionalism, and intelligence that all the characters display throughout the book.

The team spends ten months cramped in a rocket flying out to the asteroid belt to rendezvous with the alien ship. Almost as soon as they enter it, Dr. Holloway starts receiving mental communications from the ship. Thereafter, there is a series of encounters as they explore the ship, while Dr. Holloway finds out more about its occupants but neglects to share this information with her crewmates. (This is a classic bad writing device that never fails to annoy me: maintain tension by having the characters stupidly refuse to share information for no good reason.) The leader of the crew is a military officer who of course acts like every stereotypical military officer in bad first contact movies — he decides to assume everything is hostile and wants to shoot anything they meet. (And why the hell would they bring guns? Especially firearms in a spaceship? If they are going to send a small contact team to explore a big alien spaceship, they have to pretty much assume that if the aliens turn out to be hostile, they're fucked. Having them bring guns along is once again Hollywood logic, not science fiction novel logic.)

"Anybody else feel like Hansel and Gretel?" Gibbs joked.

Bergen rolled his eyes. "Birds ate the trail they left."

"Didn't a witch try to eat Hansel and Gretel?" Ajaya asked. She seemed to realize her gaffe and sent Jane a pleading look. "I wasn't raised on those fairy tales, you know."

This doesn't even make sense — it's like the author wanted to somehow signal that Ajaya isn't a native-born American, but she's a NASA Ph.D! Of course she's familiar with Hansel and Gretel! What "gaffe" does she realize? Why the pleading look? Little ticks like this throughout the book threw me off. Ironically enough, there is this passage later:

Ajaya watched as if in awe. "Do you feel anything, Jane?"

Jane shook her head.

The voice spoke again. "Genusis Terrano. Homo sapiens. Afirmeu opu neu."

Jane said, "Terran species. Homo sapiens. Confirm or deny."

Compton joined the crowd around the platform. "Terran?"

"That's the Latin term for Earth, is it not, Jane?" Ajaya asked.

Jane nodded, then said, "Afirme," and seemed to brace herself.

Bergen swallowed hard, his heart slamming into his rib cage.

So Ajaya, who earlier was protesting she didn't grow up on Western fairy tales, has to explain to another NASA scientist what "Terran" means? Really?

The language snippet above is about as detailed as the novel's "linguistics" get, which was a particular disappointment to me. I later read in an author interview that Jennifer Foehner Wells is not, in fact, a linguist, and it's obvious from this book that she thinks "linguist" means "Someone who has magical language translation abilities." (And most of the translation is literally magical, or at least, telepathic.)

They continue exploring the ship, which ends up being something of a dungeon crawl, or more like one of those old text adventure games ("Go left" "Go right" "Shoot slug").

The only light came through the doorway from the other room. The wall around the door, as far as they could see, was studded with some kind of animal ranging in size from a cucumber to a large dog. In the dim light against the dark wall, it was hard to tell what color they were-maybe grey, maybe purple. They had a wet look to them, iridescent, slimy, and they were moving. Some of the bigger ones moved alarmingly fast. Even so, they didn't seem terribly threatening. Bergen decided to keep his distance nonetheless.

"Big-ass slugs," Bergen replied in a leaden bass, shaking his head and smiling with disbelief.

He and Walsh exchanged disconcerted expressions. Walsh giggled for a moment, but it sounded low-pitched and distorted. He stifled himself and looked disturbed. "Ok. Let's go back."

So, the light is too dim to tell whether the creatures are gray or purple, but they are iridescent and wet and slimy. And they move "alarmingly" fast but don't seem terribly threatening.

The slugs aren't the only purple things. Of course, since this book is part romance, there is an inevitable sex scene between Dr. Holloway and Bergen. Sigh.

"This act was coveted by the pair of you, as individuals. It is much on Dr. Alan Bergen's mind-the sequence you enjoyed was lifted almost seamlessly from his habitual musings on the topic of copulation. It is clear he greatly desires to engage in these behaviors with you. You also cogitate on the possibility of coition with him, frequently. It seemed a natural departure point, given your subconscious maundering."

She clenched her fists tight, nails digging into her palms, the resultant pain fueling her fury. "I don't want you rooting around in my subconscious maundering!"

A consternated, probing purr was his reply.

If nothing else, this book is memorable for those two phrases in one dialog: "subconscious maundering" and "a consternated, probing purr"...

The writing of the sex scene isn't much better.

This book was a huge disappointment. And worse, there is no real conclusion. Dr. Holloway levels up and apparently the next book will take them to another planet, but the crew doesn't even get off the ship in this book.

Verdict: An awesome premise, horribly executed. Fluency showed signs of being one of those self-published gems, but the cover is about the best thing going for it. If you like fanfic-quality writing and research that consists of watching hours of Stargate, maybe you will like it. 3/10.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, books that fail, reviews, science fiction

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