In order to read Kaia Sønderby’s science fiction, I finally gave in and accepted that in some circumstances I might condescend to acknowledge Amazon Kindle exists. (You may make fun of my allegiance to Kobo and publisher websites: I do.) I believe I first heard of Failure to Communicate, Sønderby’s debut novel, via a discussion on Twitter—and I wish I could remember who mentioned it on my timeline, because I’m very glad to have read it.
And once I’d read it, I immediately went out and got the sequel, Tone of Voice.
Failure to Communicate is set in a science fictional (space operatic) future where humanity is part of an alliance of multiple sentient species—but not the most important part. This alliance has previously been at war with an aggressive enemy (but isn’t, currently) and is still doing a lot of first-contact and exploration work. In the general political outlines, it resembles, at least in part, Star Trek’s Federation and its predecessors and emulators.
This is a world where neurodiversity is all but unknown, thanks to political decisions that see such traits corrected for in utero, but a handful of neurodiverse humans still exist, including Xandri Corelel—an autistic woman whose personal history makes her very good at consciously picking up cues from body-language (especially non-human body-language) and building an intellectual, rather than instinctive, understanding. Xandri is the head of the xeno-linguistics department on a ship that does a lot of first-contact work, but she finds it hard to trust her own competence, due in part to a history of trauma. Some of her colleagues doubt her ability to do the job, since they’re not used to her autism.
Failure to Communicate sees Xandri thrust into a stressful, high-stakes diplomatic negotiation that plays to very few of her strengths. Although she has people on her side, she feels that the lives at stake rest on her shoulders. Her success brings her face-to-face with ableist discrimination as well as personal grief, since her successes show up some of the Powers That Be’s failures.
Sønderby’s Xandri has a distinct and compelling voice, and though this novel occasionally lags in terms of pacing (and doesn’t always give its large cast of named characters space to breathe as individuals), it’s engaging and deeply entertaining. So much so, in fact, that when I finished I didn’t wait more than, oh, about five minutes before picking up Tone of Voice, the next volume in what I hope will be a series of several.
Tone of Voice introduces a second narrator alongside Xandri, a character who’s one of Xandri’s love interests. His voice is less distinctive, and Tone of Voice’s pace lags a little at the beginning, but once it gets its feet under it, it gathers a very tense head of steam, one that involves diplomatic negotiation, alien anthropology, and military conflict.
Negotiations with a very alien ocean-dwelling species who want to join the alliance of sentient races would be complicated enough on their own, but then human supremacists turn up with military hardware to try to disrupt the process. Xandri’s at the centre of efforts to keep diplomacy on track and to help protect the ocean-dwellers. Meanwhile, the reader is learning a little more about Xandri’s past and how it continues to affect her. I recommend both of these novels a lot.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.