Written by Scott Westerfeld in 1998, Fine Prey is a short science fiction novel set in an alternate future in which Earth has been nonviolently dominated and colonized by an alien group called the Aya. The Aya are not a single species or race, nor do they originate from a single planet. Rather, much like Arabs on Earth, the Aya are a linguistic group, with their single defining characteristic being that they all speak Ayan. The Aya have made it mandatory that Earth provide translators from among its children, so the protagonist Little Rose "Spider" Stone and her friend Alex attend the Aya School, which focuses exclusively on training human kids to speak the alien language.

Throughout the novel, Ayan language itself acts almost like a discrete character with its own personality and complexity. The language can only be spoken by humans if they are given "glottifacient" drugs that modify their vocal chords and glottis. The kids are also constantly drugged with substances that modify their perception of the world to be more in symmetry with Ayan philosophy and ideology. Ayan language takes possession of those who speak it, entirely altering how they comprehend reality.

Ayan is not, however, the only important pursuit in Spider's life. During summer breaks, she is also a professional freelancer in the Fine Hunt, an equestrian pursuit only available to the highest social strata. In the Fine Hunt, Spider controls a genetically engineered beast in pursuit of test-tube raised prey animals. The Fine Hunt has many teams and houses, and each house has several sponsors, grooms, and riders who all participate in manipulative intrigues to gain the best social advantages. Eventually, in defiance against being owned and controlled in every area of her life the way she is at the Aya School, she breaks away from the Fine Hunt circuit and begins to participate in the popular proletarian Claw Hunt. The Claw Hunt circuit is to the Fine Hunt what NASCAR is to Formula One racing; it is associated with a very different social stratum, and often a rider receives a snub from whichever type of Hunt she has "abandoned" for the other. Spider struggles to reconcile her deterministic life path with her recent irreversible decisions and her developing identity as a free agent. She also copes with challenging romantic and sexual relationships, drug addiction, and living without parental supervision in an environment where her age impacts her freedom of movement.

Eventually, Spider encounters Ayan-speaking humans who learned the language outside the institutional environment that Spider knows so well, and from the fusion of their disparate backgrounds, Spider and her Ayaphone friends begin to develop a new dialect, a "human-Ayan creole" intended to reconcile the cultural gap. As this is happening, they are swept up in international warfare between the last remaining uncolonized nation-states on Earth.

The overall structure of the book seems meandering and disconnected at first, but in reality the structure is designed deliberately to mimic the Ayan language itself: many seemingly-unrelated elements are brought together early, so that in the final moments they can all resolve into a single cohesive understanding that breaks gradually across the reader's mind. Ayan language has no literal mode, and all things said in Ayan can only be said indirectly, metaphorically, and through ancient cultural allusions. Westerfeld offers the reader a sense of the experience of hearing Ayan spoken, through the use of allusions from many Earth cultures, all of which resolve into a final portrait of the real events of the story.

The characters cross gender norms frequently, and even Spider's gender is not known to the reader until the last third of the book. Spider is canonically bisexual, a drug addict, and the submissive partner in a BDSM relationship; these are all taken in stride by the story, rather than treated as focal points or primary sources of conflict. The story addresses parent suicide, divorce, class warfare and wage inequality, and religious violence, treating them all frankly and showing a clear understanding of how different conflicts can intersect with one another. Above all, this story embraces the state of an identity that crosses lines which refuse to be reconciled: bilingualism, class and gender and national divides, being human and alien at the same time, and struggling for loyalty two groups who mutually exclude one another and demand that their members take sides.

Fine Prey currently only exists in print version, with no legal e-books available at the time of this writeup. It can be found through online booksellers, used. It is 288 pages long and is only printed in English. It is one of my two favourite books, and I enthusiastically recommend it to other linguists and language fanatics.

Iron Noder Challenge 2014, 12/30

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