Today we have an annotated excerpt from Eddie Robson‘s latest novel, Drunk On All Your Strange New Words, which is described as “a locked room mystery in a near future world of politics and alien diplomacy.” I’ve been really looking forward to this one, ever since I learned about it from a publisher’s catalogue. Check out the synopsis:
Lydia works as translator for the Logi cultural attaché to Earth. They work well together, even if the act of translating his thoughts into English makes her somewhat wobbly on her feet. She’s not the agency’s best translator, but what else is she going to do? She has no qualifications, and no discernible talent in any other field.
So when tragedy strikes, and Lydia finds herself at the center of an intergalactic incident, her future employment prospects look dire — that is, if she can keep herself out of jail!
But Lydia soon discovers that help can appear from the most unexpected source…
Now, over to Eddie…
When Lydia was a kid, of course she’d heard that communicating with the Logi made you drunk—everyone heard that—but she honestly wasn’t sure if it was just a stupid urban myth. On her first day at the London School of Thought Language (LSTL) they told her that processing the language in your brain didn’t make you drunk but it did make you feeldrunk, a distinction Lydia found hard to grasp: drunkenness is a feeling, so what’s the difference between feeling drunk and being drunk? They explained that from a biological perspective it was very different because your body wasn’t dealing with toxins, and the process didn’t damage your body in the same way alcohol did. So it was like getting drunk with no downside? Awesome.
At least, that was what she thought at the time.
This idea that communicating with the aliens would make humans feel drunk was one of the very first ideas I had for the book. My starting point was that aliens have made contact with us, they communicate telepathically, and only a small number of humans have the kind of brains that can do it. My main character would work as a translator for one of these aliens. I didn’t want my characters to be able to do it perfectly, or without cost to themselves. It should be like a dog walking on its hind legs – you might be able to train one to do it, but it’s not designed to do it, and it can’t do it for long. And that’s where the drunkenness came from.
A big influence here was Max Barry’s novel Lexicon, which focused on how language creates reactions in our brains that we can’t control, we see a word and, if we understand that language, we automatically interpret it. He used that to create a brilliant pseudo-rational basis for magic, which I loved. The idea that an alien language could mess with your brain chemistry suggested itself to me very quickly when this story came together.
As part of their education, pupils at LSTL were given weekly sessions where they had to complete tasks while “drunk.” These were not nearly as much fun as everyone imagined they’d be. They weren’t allowed to have real alcohol (they did ask, of course), and were instead given a nasal spray which (apparently) more accurately reflected the type of intoxication they would feel while working. They were then given basic comprehension and memory tests, or they’d be told to prepare a meal from a recipe or issue a complex set of instructions to a service terminal, that sort of thing. Lydia had plenty of practice at doing things drunk from when she lived in Halifax (the one in Yorkshire, not Nova Scotia, as she explains to New Yorkers on a regular basis). But it was different when you were being watched by humorless tutors assessing your performance, rather than sitting on the floor of a kebab shop at 3:00 a.m. with chili sauce in your hair while your mates laughed at you.
Another thing I decided very early was that Lydia would be British and the book would be set in an American city. I wanted her to be cut off and out of her comfort zone even before she finds herself at the centre of a murder investigation. I wanted the setting to be a major cultural centre, and I’ve visited New York a couple of times so I’m reasonably familiar with it. So that was an easy choice – it immediately worked for the story.
And I decided Lydia would be from Yorkshire – partly because it’s where I’m from. Another book influenced me here – Jane Rogers’ Body Tourists, which partly takes place in a huge estate in Northern England where most people are unemployed. Lydia coming from such a background means she never expected to end up where she does. Halifax isn’t my end of Yorkshire – it was actually the TV series Happy Valley that made me think of it. My wife pointed out that Americans would first think of Halifax in Nova Scotia, so I added the line about Lydia having to explain this to people in order to clarify this for the reader.
Towards the end of Lydia’s time at LSTL this training progressed past basic competence while intoxicated and focused on the trickier skill of appearing sober. Lydia asked why this was necessary since everyone would know they weren’t, what with drunkenness being an inevitable consequence of the job. But the tutors just told her it was important for those in service to maintain a “professional” manner at all times. The problem with being intensively trained to act like you’re not drunk is it leads you to do things you shouldn’t do when you’re drunk, such as standing up too quickly on a balcony.
In the novel’s opening scene, immediately before this, Lydia accidentally falls off a balcony at the theatre due to “drunkenness”.
* * *
Lydia stands on the sidewalk outside the Shubert Theatre sipping from a bottle of Coke Lo! she bought from the machine on the way down.
I chose the Shubert Theatre for this scene purely because I’ve been there – I saw Matilda there on a trip in 2016. Also I liked the quirkiness of them using the English spelling of “Theatre”.
The evening air is like a warm bath. A security drone hovers at her left shoulder, Fitz stands at her right. She looks up at the drone to see which one it is: When she started in this job she dubbed them Arthur and Martha (they are not coded male or female — Lydia chose the names arbitrarily). The one with them right now is Martha, a slightly newer model than Arthur, the most obvious difference being her Taser is top-mounted rather than side-mounted, and her spherical surface has more of a matte finish. Arthur must be guarding their seats.
Lydia doffs her jacket and hangs it on one of Martha’s coat-hooks, then rolls up her shirtsleeves.
Like all the Logi stationed on Earth, Fitz chose a name for himself that humans can actually speak. Their names simply don’t translate: they are effectively a separate language, unconnected to the words they attach to objects, concepts, actions, etc., and while Lydia could describe what she thinks of when she hears his name (pale violet; ice slowly cracking over the surface of a pond; the scent of lemon; and then just a bunch of numbers), that’s not actually his name, and also it would take ages to say.
Fitz’s full Earth-name is Fitzwilliam, which is drawn from Pride and Prejudice – I wanted to imply he’d drawn the name from our literature, but never actually referred to this in the text. Readers may also be aware that one of the Bennett sisters in that novel is called Lydia, and this is where I took her name from too. Maybe it’s more than a coincidence that they came into each other’s orbit – maybe Fitz had a choice of translators from the agency and picked Lydia because of her name?
One early reviewer pointed out that technically Lydia is an interpreter, not a translator, but also noted the two terms are often conflated these days. I felt it was fair to assume that in the future they’d become even more conflated – software tends to say “translate” rather than “interpret”, even when doing it verbally. Certainly if someone says “interpret” to me I don’t think of language but of divining meaning from a text, but maybe that’s just me.
Fitz is still saying nothing, leaving her to recover. His huge hands are plunged into the pockets of his dark blue coat as he stares across the street. He always wears stuff like that — very tailored
and plush, with a distinct Earth influence. Most of the other Logi she’s met don’t dress like him, they wear clothing with a more meshy look to it — but they all cover up, all the time, regardless of the heat. And hats, they all wear hats: Fitz has a wool cap that matches his coat. The small, narrow spikes that cover the top of his head poke out through the weave.
The Logi’s bodies are long and slim, evidently not built to retain warmth because their natural habitats don’t require it, and even in weather like this they’re capable of feeling cold. Lydia has rarely seen Fitz — or any Logi — without their face wrap, but she’s seen pictures, obviously, because at LSTL they did modules on being able to tell them apart, to avoid causing offense. Lydia always enjoyed that, it was like a puzzle game. She latches on to certain elements of appearance — for instance Fitz has a more pronounced nose than most Logi (which still means it’s barely there at all) and a slimmer, whiter face. Many Logi have more rounded, cream-colored faces which put Lydia in mind of a cartoon she used to watch about a guy with a skull for a head who worked in an office. She used to love that show, but it’s a good thing Fitz doesn’t remind her of it, it’s quite distracting.
I imagined this show as an adaptation of Jamie Smart’s comic strip Corporate Skull.
Of course, Lydia knows him well enough now that she doesn’t need to make an effort to recognize him. She knows his mind, and can tell when he’s there even if her eyes are closed.
The theater district is one of Lydia’s favorite parts of the city. She’s seen old photos and it’s not much changed from how it was a hundred years ago, though that’s true of most of Manhattan. Mrs. Kloves, their neighbor at the cultural attaché’s residence on the Upper West Side, has many, many opinions on how the area has changed. She told Lydia that when they put up the sea barriers the mayor’s office started slapping protection orders on everything and turned Manhattan into a theme-park version of itself: no life, no change, no danger, just heritage. When Lydia heard this she felt a little bad for liking it here, as if this meant she had really basic taste, but she can’t get on board with the idea it’s such a terrible thing if a place stops being dangerous. Were any of your childhood friends stabbed to death, Mrs. Kloves? Because that gives you a different perspective on the appeal of dangerous places.
Gentrification and hipsterism are topics I come back to in my writing – I find it really interesting how the past gets refashioned, and formerly functional things become aesthetically desirable. But I also wanted to suggest New York City has become a real tourist town by this time, a bit like Venice. It’s dismaying how the vitality is being sucked out of some cities today because it’s so expensive to live there – it’s definitely happening in London, and the things that made them exciting and desirable to live in are at risk of getting lost. The phrase “a theme park version of itself” became the key to how I thought about the city.
Even so, Lydia often finds herself in quiet moments like this searching the city for evidence of this decline, that a once great and vital place is now hollowed out and trying too hard to be itself, like a rock star who’s done too much coke for too many years.