Today’s Book: “Failure to Communicate” by Kaia Sønderby
The Plot: Xandri Corelel interprets alien behavior for a living. But her latest mission, to help with diplomatic negotiations on the planet Anmerilli, will test her skills to the limit.
Autistic Character(s): Xandri, the protagonist.
I like the trope of autistic people learning to communicate with aliens, and this is the first time I’ve seen the trope addressed at novel length. I was excited to see what would be done with it, and I wasn’t disappointed. There’s a refreshing nuance and subtlety to the way Sønderby handles her topic. Xandri’s skill at finding patterns in alien body language is partly due to good autistic pattern recognition – but mostly due to hard work and skill developed over many years because it was necessary for her survival. She’s genuinely good at it, one of the best in the Alliance – but that doesn’t make her automatically good at all the other skills that go with negotiation, nor at deciphering types of deception among humans to which autistic people are frequently vulnerable. And much of the conflict of the book comes, not from trying to puzzle out what the Anmerilli are thinking, but from these high-level, all-too-human interactions.
Although the novel has many fast-paced and action-y parts, and doesn’t dive needlessly into introspection, nuance is the name of the game when it comes to its characters and worldbuilding. Autistic people are rare in Xandri’s time, thanks to genetic modification, and individuals vary widely in how they treat her. Some are genuine friends, which Xandri treasures as a rarity; some are ableist and dismissive; some are manipulative; some are well-intentioned but clueless. Xandri’s alien friends (and the ship’s AI she’s befriended) are often more accepting than most humans, but the aliens are not a monolith either, and in particular, the Anmerilli have many political factions and different opinions. It’s hard to write a story about ableism with this kind of nuance and individuality; even #ownvoices stories often have a slightly cartoonish feel in their more ableist characters. But the variety of attitudes taken by different characters in “Failure to Communicate” really helps the setting feel real and lived-in.
The story is also really fun. I cheered in some places and cried in others, and sometimes had to step away when a plot moment hit too close to home. I love Sønderby’s aliens, especially the parrot-like Psitticans and the furry, taciturn Ongkoarrat. I love Xandri’s friendships with the people on her team who “get” her and are looking out for her (and there’s some setup that I’m hoping will lead to a queer romance, in a sequel 😀 ). There’s a definite found-family vibe to the Carpathia‘s crew, even though not everyone in the crew is equally accepting.
I especially like the way Xandri’s touch sensitivity is handled – like other aspects of “Failure to Communicate,” it isn’t black and white, but presents differently in different circumstance, and doesn’t desexualize her. Xandri’s autistic traits in general are present consistently and depicted through all the little details of her social environment, from the ship’s AI making sure there are satin patches she can stim with on her clothes, to her bodyguards having to remind her to eat, to the meltdowns she experiences several times at stressful points without losing her agency.
Xandri just feels relatable to me in ways that kept surprising me. Not every autistic protagonist – not even every well-written autistic protagonist – is the same, which is to be expected, since real people on the spectrum are so different. I often appreciate the way a character is depicted without identifying with them especially closely. But for whatever reason, Xandri as a character just kept on making me go, “Yep, that’s what I’d probably do. That’s how I’d react to that. …Yep.” This was an unfamiliar feeling.
I’m struggling to talk about the story’s plot instead of just listing all the mess of details that felt wonderful and accepting and real.
One other thing that I loved about it is even harder to talk about, and it also involves a PLOT TWIST, so I’m putting it behind a spoiler cut.
There is a big plot point in “Failure to Communicate” that revolves around Xandri being manipulated by another character. If you’re anything like me, you’ll spot who this character is long before Xandri does. He appears friendly and helpful, both to Xandri and to the rest of her crew. And it’s not that Xandri is oblivious to his machinations, exactly. With her great talent for spotting patterns, in body language and otherwise, she frequently notices something odd about him – but then immediately insists to herself that she didn’t actually notice it. That it’s just a sign of her brain being tired, or too suspicious, or otherwise faulty. He doesn’t need to gaslight her, because when it comes to humans, her own internalized ableism lets her do the gaslighting herself. She doesn’t begin to truly analyze what’s happening until it’s almost too late.
(And then, of course, she thinks quickly and saves the day because FUCK YES XANDRI.)
I am having trouble expressing what it means to me to see this aspect of my own experience depicted so accurately and understandingly on the page.
Moreover, although I saw this character’s betrayal coming for most of the book, there was plenty about the way it unfolded, and the secrets that were revealed, that did still surprise me.
In particular, the ableism of Xandri’s universe – something that has been clearly present, but more of a background element, for most of the book – plays an unexpected role. Not merely as an obstacle, nor as an excuse for anyone’s behavior, but in a way that unexpectedly adds more depth and meaning to the book’s already-complex conflicts.
To sum up: I love this book. I love so many things about it, and I can’t think of a single complaint to make. It’s wonderful, and you should go read it now.
The Verdict: Highly Recommended
Ethics Statement: I have never interacted with Kaia Sønderby. I read her book by buying an e-copy on Amazon. All opinions expressed here are my own.
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