Thursday, March 5, 2015
Fluency by Jennifer Foehner Wells - Excerpt & Guest Post!
“So, when should I tell them to arrange the flight for you?” he called after her.
She stopped and turned, an incredulous look on her face. “What?”
“To Houston—the Johnson Space Center—for the interviews. You’re the top candidate. There won’t be much competition. It sounds like it’s yours, really.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. He shouldn’t have said that—but it was true—so, what the hell.
“I’d be glad to consult from here, but I’m not the right person for that job. I can give you a few referrals of people who would be better suited.”
That wasn’t the reaction he expected. “You’re wrong. I had a chance to look over the other files. You’re the only person for this job. You’re the only one with the kind of stamina, talent, and sheer guts it will take to do this.”
Her expression was skeptical. “I’m sure it looks like that on paper—”
He let his frustration bleed through. “Look, they’ve spent months looking at linguists—we’ve been working with plenty of linguists already, on another, similar project—and none of them can match your level of natural ability and experience. Come on! You’re a goddamn living legend in your field—and you’re what? Thirty-five? Do you know what we’ve been calling you at NASA? We call you Indiana Jane.”
The smile snuck back, just for a second.
“Well, okay—I call you that—but it’s fucking true!”
She snorted softly and looked away.
He rolled his eyes. They’d warned him not to curse. “Sorry. You were right when you guessed I don’t spend much time around women.” He eyed her, and dropped the exasperation. But he couldn’t stop sounding perplexed. “I don’t understand—why wouldn’t you want to do this? You’ve already seen most of this planet, why not go see part of the solar system and an alien space ship, too? I mean, I’d expect you to be salivating to get into that rocket!”
“You are.” It was a flat statement, an observation.
“Are you going?”
He rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. “That depends.”
She shot him a shrewd, evaluating look. “On what?”
“There are five slots plus a linguist. They’ve got us narrowed down to twelve. That’s out of an original 108 possible astronauts. They’re still testing us, quizzing us, deciding. It’s down to the psychs now. The final decision will be soon. Then the training starts. We have a little over a year to get ready.”
He watched while a variety of expressions flickered over her momentarily unguarded features. Some he couldn’t name. Some he recognized. Indecision, for one. Longing, for another. She hid it quickly, but he’d seen it. She wanted it. She wanted to go.
He smiled at her, a slow, rakish smile, in recognition of a kindred spirit.
Her face went blank and she pushed by him. “I’m sorry you came all this way, Dr. Bergen. I won’t waste any more of your time. I’ll drive you back to your car and let you get back to your work. It sounds important.”
“What?” Damn it—he was chasing after her again and totally clueless about what was going on.
She didn’t reply. She was marching, fast, back toward the parking lot.
Heels and that skinny skirt weren’t made for the kind of flight she was trying to take on the gravelly path. She stumbled a bit and he caught her arm. She pulled herself upright and wouldn’t meet his gaze.
“What’s holding you back? You were born for this mission.”
She laughed without humor. Her golden-blonde hair was starting to unravel from its tidy arrangement.
He still had a hold on her arm. He squeezed it. “That little trip you took to South America took balls.”
She cocked an eyebrow at him.
He shrugged helplessly.
She shook her head and more hair came loose. “That wasn’t supposed to be me.”
She seemed steady now, so he dropped his hand away. “What? Your file doesn’t say anything about that.”
“I study endangered languages, yes, but mostly among the remnants of the native tribes of Canada. I wasn’t the one slated to go to Brazil three years ago. It was one of my students. She was the perfect candidate—excellent language skills, fearless, always ready for a challenge. But she turned up pregnant two weeks before she was due to leave. The project was funded. It was important work. It is so rare to find a tribe so untouched by the modern world. We knew that the things that could be learned there could potentially rock the foundations of what we thought we knew about how language forms in the human brain. We hoped it would—and it did—overturn entrenched ideas about recursion…” She stopped herself, probably realizing he didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.
Her lips were tight as she spoke, “She wanted to go anyway. She wanted to… I couldn’t let her! The only way to keep her here, to keep her safe, was to go myself. That’s why I went. My hand was forced. So, I went. I—”
“You proved what you set out to prove.”
She shuddered. “Yes, but at what cost? Was it worth the lives that were lost to prove some ancient, pedantic academic wrong?”
When I sat down to write Fluency, I had several different things going on in my mind that had converged to set the concept. First, I remember daydreaming extensively about the elements that I liked about different science fiction books, movies, and television shows that I had read or watched in the past.
One of my favorite SF franchises is Stargate, and an element that I enjoyed about those shows was that they took place in the present day. Having our world just outside the Cheyenne Mountain doors made the show extraordinarily relatable and accessible and allowed the writers to throw in snarky cultural references. I decided I wanted to be able to do that too.
So, early on I began thinking about a Space Opera set in the very near future. The next step was to figure out how to bring aliens into contact with humans when our space program is in its infancy. I thought about what was within our reach, here in this solar system, and decided that, unless the timeline I created diverged from our own more than I wanted, we really couldn’t have ventured much beyond Mars. But what is just beyond Mars? A huge asteroid belt! Could there be a more perfect hiding place for an alien space ship?
Then I had to work backwards. Why was this alien ship there? What was its purpose? I knew already that I didn’t want this to be a story like Independence Day or Oblivion--with Earth at war against a technologically superior alien adversary. That story may eventually come, but I wasn’t ready to write it yet. I wanted to write something of a mystery, instead. I wanted it to be unclear, to the reader and to the protagonist, whether whatever was aboard that ship was a friend or a foe or something else. So, now that I had my premise, I needed to work on character.
Shortly before I started development work on the novel in earnest, I happened to be listening to the radio in the car and there was a story on NPR about an insanely talented linguist. It was one of those times when you get home, pull into the driveway, and then just sit there in the car, still listening, unwilling to miss a moment of the story.
I scribbled the name of the linguist on a piece of paper, got out of the car, went inside, and immediately looked him up. I found an extensive article about him in The New Yorker. He’s the kind of language savant that can learn a new language, from scratch, with no words in common upon which to base any linguistic foundation. I based Jane’s character on this guy, and his adventure in the Amazon basin, with a tribe that had no outside contact with civilization, was the seed I grew her backstory from.
The other characters fell into place as I continued to ruminate on the dynamics of groups. I knew that these couldn’t be typical astronauts, because typical astronauts are unflappable and there wouldn’t be enough conflict to move the story forward. They’d just handle everything sanely and professionally and react in cool, considered, deadpan fashion, and I’d have a fantasy NASA TV transcript. I needed explorers who were only bolted together as well as the rest of us. Also, there was an element in the story that would bring out the worst in them, just to make things more interesting. I’ve gotten some flak for that, for building a mission that is a bit different from one that NASA would have assembled, but honestly, it’s fiction. It’s meant to entertain, not to be a primer on the real space program, though, to be sure, I did spend a great deal of time researching capsules, space suits, astronaut food, sleeping in space, and a million other things about NASA to give the book a flavor of authenticity.
All in all, I spent months working out all these details as I finished up another writing project. Then I took a year to write the book, which isn’t too bad considering I had a four-year old and nine-year-old keeping me busy at the time. (I’d say, “Don’t try this at home,” but the reality is, you have to try it at home, and I did.) Then I took another year to edit, revise and prepare the book for sale. The rest, as they say, is history.