No matter what Captain Kirk might say about Mister Spock, I have to say that it is Jennifer R. Povey’s Transpecial that, out of all science fiction I have read in recent memory, strikes me as “most human.”

A tale of alien first contact and the struggle to coexist, Transpecial probes the ages-old question “What is human?” with satisfying depth and nuance yet without delving into cumbersome overphilosophizing. The Earth is taking its shaky first steps into the galaxy via interstellar travel, and humanity encounters our first alien race, the ky’iin–a race very like humans, save that their evolution has led to body language so alien and predatory that it triggers an immediate fight-or-flight response in most humans. Thus we meet our protagonist, Suza, a linguist who, due to her autism, is not even treated as a legal adult on her home, Mars Colony. Yet, her autism also renders her immune to the profound effect of ky’iin body language, meaning that she may be the only human who can negotiate peace–a peace that becomes very necessary when the ky’inn respond to human hostility with deadly force.

The narrative challenges comfort by putting biological imperatives and cultural norms under pressure, pitting them against the ultimate measure, which the ky’iin call “myoran.” That is, is a species capable of being anything more than beasts? Do they have–as Suza translates the term–a soul? Negotiating the difference and sameness of Self (human) and Other (alien) runs through the novel at every level, following the characters through dramatic action and interpersonal relationships alike. Somewhat contrary to my initial expectations, this is not an adventure story in space with a diplomatic plot thread–this is a story of prejudice versus understanding, of friendship versus xenophobia, and perhaps most universally of fear versus hope. Despite this, the struggle that could so easily be overwritten and melodramatic is grounded by restrained, almost even understated prose.

The prose itself serves as a fitting lens for the novel’s themes; it can be terse, even minimalist, told in openly confessional third person, and can seem at times almost clinical, a dispassionate report of the characters’ motivations and actions. Perhaps most notably, it serves to create understanding, granting the reader access to characters who might too easily have been treated as “alien” or “abnormal.” For instance, the text almost entirely translates “alien” language to a very natural, human way of speaking. We do not get stilted, hyper-formalized verbiage or indecipherably transliterated “alien language” littered with excessive consonants and apostrophes. Instead, the aliens speak like people, and we are allowed to “hear” them as they might understand each other.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the writing is the removed, distant tone. Like the autistic protagonist, the reader is not granted the measure of free emotional disclosure that one might expect from a novel that reveals characters’ inner thoughts. Instead we are given details, facts, and points of reference–we are largely led to use them to work out what emotions the character feels rather than feeling always fully immersed in the characters’ emotional worlds. I found the effect quite impactful, serving to draw me in to the odd struggle of it all. This reserved style is mirrored in the plot structure, about which I will say only a few things.

The story does not overcomplicate the plot, instead focusing on key moments, their significance, and showing the struggle of reaching any kind of resolution; neither does it belabor the backdrop or resolution, instead creating and resolving the situation without pretending that the real “story” begins on the first nor ends on the last page. The novel is simply one segment of the ongoing tale of intertwining lives, time, and space. The ending, I will suggest, offers a kind of satisfaction, but it refuses to indulge in drawn-out, often-synthetic “resolution.” I will offer no spoilers, but I will say that I found the ending both pleasing and effective.

So, I recommend Transpecial to any reader of introspective science fiction. I recommend it to anyone concerned with the issues of cultural contact zones, imperialism, or the complex problem of perceived cultural superiority. Perhaps most of all, I would recommend it to anyone who has ever encountered or asked the question, “What is human?”

You can purchase Transpecial for your computer or mobile reader through Musa Publishing.