Eddie Robson was inspired to write Drunk on All Your Strange New Words the night that Bong Joon Ho accepted his Oscars for Parasite. As he watched the director on stage, he observed Sharon Choi, Ho’s translator, as she worked. In a world that is constantly pushing towards automation, even automatic translation, what would the act of in-person, immediate, interpretation and translation look like in the future? Drunk on All Your Strange New Words is Robson’s indelibly unique answer.
The book stars Lydia, who was identified as a person with a talent for translation when she was in high school. A graduate of the London School of Thought Language, she now serves as the translator for Fitzwilliam, the cultural attaché of the Logi, an alien species that made contact with the earth about 30 or 40 years ago. The Logi have difficulty with digital technology and require an in-person translator, which is where Lydia comes in, communicating telepathically with the Logi and allowing them to interact with human society.
That is, she was a translator for the cultural attaché before he was found dead in their apartment. Imagine Knives Out meets A Memory Called Empire, and you have a good idea of how this investigation goes as the police, radical anti-Logi groups, and artists with personal grudges try to pin Fitzwilliam’s murder on Lydia, despite the fact that she was far too drunk at the end of the keynote speech/banquet to have done much more than pass out. That’s the catch here — translating for the Logi gives humans the feeling of being drunk.
So when Lydia hears a voice inside her head after the murder, she’s sure it’s just an echo of Fitz… until she starts to feel drunk. Convinced that she’s not experiencing a nervous breakdown, Lydia launches her own investigation into Fitz’s murder, running all over Manhattan to try to find some coherent reason for her employer’s death.
What happens is a slow unravelling of the nature of truth and understanding between cultures. Enmeshed in futurism that is both fascinatingly like and unlike our own, Lydia’s search for the truth is an elusive and alien thing in a world where truth is rated via social media algorithms, and anything that needs to exist can be faked, implanted, or re-recorded. A lot of this book relies on Lydia trusting herself, and not what she’s being told, resisting the urge to verify things, else something gets picked up via the algorithm, and content begins to churn itself to the top of her feeds.
There’s an indistinct prescience to the world of this book, where we explore a near-future that has evolved from the modern-day politicization of “truthiness” and the blurring of the lines between online and offline. There are slight critiques of capitalism and middle-management, the kind that makes you realise with a gut-punch that nothing ever really changes, does it? There is always going to be someone dealing with the busywork, no matter how advanced the tech gets; when there is work to do and when all that work just sits around it creates more work no matter how much work you get done.
Taking turns in between absurdly gruesome and softly nascent, Drunk on All Your Strange New Words observes social media, public journalism, academia, and obsession while enmeshing the audience in Lydia’s voice. Sarcastic, vaguely annoyed at everything, and desperate to find the truth, Lydia is a sympathetic fuckup who’s just trying her best in an impossible situation.
Robson has done a remarkable job making Lydia feel like your best, messiest Libra friend, full of smart-arse remarks and bad decisions, but who really wants to do the right thing at the end of the day. With recognisable slang that seamlessly integrates into the fast-forwarded future of the novel, the line writing feels lived-in. We get terms like clouded, idee, facerec, inkout, and enpeecees, which are easily understandable, translated from our contemporary experiences into something that feels possible.
As the closed-room murder investigation goes on, the book picks up its pace markedly by the second half. When the walls are closing in, Lydia doesn’t let the self-driving car of the future just take her for a ride. Her practical, impossibly determined search for truth, pushes her onward. Justice and righteousness take a backseat to the simple desire to know what happened — to objectively, without any kind of truth filter or digital filter, understand why Fitz was killed and who is behind the murder.
With a darkly tongue-in-cheek comedy and soft science-fiction premise, Drunk on All Your Strange New Words is a conspiracy theory gift wrapped up as an exploration of our own culture’s obsession with ourselves. As Robson develops the mystery, honing in on the whodunnit at the centre of the book, he also expands outwards, translating small truths about our own world through Lydia’s filters. And, in some cases, without any filters at all.
Drunk on All Your Strange New Words is available now for preorder, and will be published on June 28.
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Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.