*Deep breath* Okay. I’m okay.
I’ve seen people raving about this book for quite a while now; many trusted sources from all over the place. I even picked it up at some point, but I didn’t get past the first few pages. I must have been in a weird headspace or something, because as well as being objectively a fan-freaking-tastic book, it includes so many of my favourite things that it’s kind of like Sønderby wrote it for me personally!
Suffice to say, I love this book. I bought the sequel and prequel – and Sønderby’s YA book Damsel to the Rescue – before I even finished it. I knew by the time I hit the halfway mark that I was going to have to devour everything by this author!
Xandri is a first-contact specialist in the far future; living and working on the spaceship Carpathia, she and her team of xeno-biologists discover new worlds, new sapient species, and figure out the best way for the intergalactic Alliance to reach out them. Part anthropologist and part biologist, she’s the very best the Alliance has – despite the fact that she doesn’t actually work for the Alliance, strictly speaking. Carpathia is owned and run by Chui, an ex-military human captain who has made it her mission in life to make first-contact as peaceful and painless as a process as possible for as many sapients as she and her crew can discover. However, their missions aren’t always 100% by the book, and so when the Alliance summons Carpathia to more-or-less conscript Xandri, Chui has to answer. It’s understood that this is the price they pay for the Alliance looking the other way on how the Carpathia manages their business.
Now, though, a non-Alliance species, the Anmerilli, has made a break-through that means they must become allies – because if they choose to side with the Alliance’s enemies, instead, all sapients everywhere would be in unspeakable danger. It’s up to Xandri to figure out how to convince the xenophobic Anmerilli to do what they’ve spent the last six years refusing to even consider – join the Alliance – and avert the threat of either a devastating galactic war, or genocide.
No pressure, or anything.
I love intricate worldbuilding, properly-alien aliens, and anthropology, so Failure to Communicate was just one check mark after another for me. It would have been a well-written, fascinating, and compellingly addictive book anyway – Sønderby really knows what she’s doing – but the fact is that Xandri is also autistic. And as someone still coming to the terms with being diagnosed as on the spectrum, that made her story far more personal than it might have been otherwise. Although Xandri and I aren’t identical, I recognised a lot of the struggles she dealt with every day, and while some made me laugh, and others plucked at my heart-strings, more than a few punched me in the gut. This is an #ownvoices book, so Sønderby knows exactly what she’s writing about, and it shows. In the hands of a lesser writer, even being #ownvoices wouldn’t have made this book so powerful, but Sønderby is, as I’ve said, an incredible writer. Several of my most-loved tropes make their way into Failure to Communicate, but it’s not the tropes themselves that made me stay up until 4am – it’s the execution. To take an example: it’s not the found-family trope that made me tear up, but how Sønderby used it, creating a wonderful cast of characters gathered around one of my favourite protagnists ever.
I was also surprised and delighted to discover that not only is Xandri queer (bi- or pansexual, I couldn’t say, but she experiences attraction to human men and women) but Failure to Communicate chronicles, among other things, the delicate development of a fledgeling polyamorous romance between her and two other characters. Polyamory has become a norm in some human sectors in the future, apparently. Yay!
Unfortunately, humanity has become much less liberal in other ways. Xandri is autistic, yes – but only because of a brief fashion that saw a generation of humans conceived and born without the pre-natal screening that would typically catch and detect ‘flaws’ like autism. (Whether the screening process would have involved ‘correcting’ the autism or aborting the ‘defective’ fetus wasn’t explicitly clear). The results of that fashion-trend so horrified, not just humanity, but all the Alliance, that in the aftermath it has become illegal to not use such pre-natal screenings. This means that Xandri is one of only a handful of autistic people in the Alliance – and likely that handful will be the last, at least for the foreseeable future. Much of the stigma Xandri faces for her autism relies on ‘Ancient Earth’ beliefs, cruel bs about how autistic people don’t understand or care about emotions and the like. It was simultaneously painful and validating to read about – even as a much more ‘higher-functioning’ individual than Xandri, I recognised a lot of the prejudices and misunderstandings she had to deal with – including well-intentioned gestures that aren’t nice or comforting at all for an autistic person.
Luckily, Xandri has a small cadre of people around her who understand, and work to develop that understanding when they occasionally make mistakes. Even if they hadn’t been fierce supporters of hers in other ways as well, that alone made me adore them – including her pet birds Marble and Cake, who brought a light-hearted adorableness to every scene they appeared in, often just when I as a reader most needed it!
The plot itself isn’t dull, but it is a little familiar; that’s not a detraction, though. Xandri’s autism makes the situations she finds herself in complicated enough that the plot doesn’t feel predictable or easily resolved at all – the first-person narration was an excellent choice in adding that layer to the story. A storyline that might have bored me in the hands of another author had my attention by the throat here – and judging from all the high-starred ratings, I don’t think it’s just that her thoughts and choices made so much sense to me as a fellow autistic person. I think she’s just an amazing character, and Sønderby is an amazing author, and honestly, it’s almost physically painful to sit here writing out a review when the sequel is waiting for me right by my elbow!
Tl:dr; neurodiversity, alien anthropology, and found-families combine with high-stakes sci-fi politicking for a read I couldn’t put down. Go and buy a copy already!