While Eddie Robson claims to have had the inspiration for his new book Drunk on All your Strange New Worlds from watching the translator as director Boon Jong Ho received his Oscar. But there have been plenty of science fiction books and stories about translators. Some great examples of translators and language in science fiction include The Story of Your Life (aka Arrival) by Ted Chiang, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell and Embassytown by China Miéville. In these cases the language itself, or the need to speak it, changes the human doing the translating. And this is also part of Robson’s scenario. Robson quickly establishes that when humans translate for the alien Logi, the process causes them (among other things) to feel and act drunk. This makes his main character’s quest to find out who killed the Logi cultural ambassador who she works for, just that little bit tougher.
It is sometime in the future. Humanity has made contact with the seemingly benevolent Logi. There has been no invasion or destruction but rather a cultural and, to some extent, technological exchange between the two species. The Logi communicate telepathically and only few humans have the capacity to understand and communicate with them. So a specially designated cadre of interpreters has been created. People with not only the skill to communicate with the Logi, but the ability to deal with the after effects of the job which include seeming drunkenness and increased weight due to unchecked insulin production.
Robson explores his world using the tried and true framing of a murder mystery. Lydia is an interpreter who works for the Logi cultural attaché, who calls himself Fitzwilliam. Fitzwilliam is killed in an essentially locked room mystery in his house and Lydia is initially implicated. When the police do not seem overly interested in investigating the murder of Fitzwilliam and his disembodied voice encourages her to probe deeper, Hamlet’s ghost style, Lydia takes it on herself to try and solve the murder. This leads her down a rabbit hole of academics, game designers and dissidents in what seems like a fruitless quest until it suddenly isn’t and Lydia finds the plot that she has discovered is something else altogether. At which point (about half way through the narrative), the book becomes much more interesting.
While the book is mainly set in New York, Eddie Robson is British and has a long history of writing for Doctor Who, so it is no surprise that his main character Lydia is not a local but comes from the North of England and always feels a little bit like an outsider. She does spend some time at home but the majority of the action is set in a futuristic but realistic New York with a thriving arts scene but also self-driving cars.
The best crime genre novels of any sort use the crime and its investigation to shine a light on the world, the characters that live in it and their concerns. And Drunk on All Your Strange New Worlds is no exception. Lydia is not a professional investigator and it often feels like her quest is a wild goose chase but it does allow her to explore Robson’s post-contact New York and other parts of the world. And then as the murder mystery starts to resolve, she delves deeper into human/Logi politics and tension points. So while this is a novel that might well attract people just by its title, there is plenty going on here, including a fascinating future world and a feisty but flawed heroine that is bound to keep them hooked.