THE GUILD OF THE XENOLINGUISTS by Sheila Finch, cover by Bob Eggleton. Urbana, Il; Golden Gryphon Press; 2007. 1st edition hardcover.
In essentially all science fiction, the problems of actually talking to and understanding a new alien race is usually glossed over, by resorting to the "universal translator" or by totally ignoring any difference in language. Our own human history shows that understanding a new human race is fraught with pitfalls; how much more problematic would be meeting and greeting, let alone trading complex thoughts such as peace and war with, a totally different species? Would this in itself be a story well worth telling?
Sheila Finch has addressed this issue in a series of stories that range from the first contact with an advanced alien species on Earth to the development of a galaxy-wide Guild of Xenolinguists that handle all cross-culture communication, and indeed help ascertain if a species is intelligent or not. Novices are trained for years, and then sent out to learn the alien languages and program the translation computers, so those that follow may communicate with relative ease. Of course, with a totally new culture, and culture being a large part of language, interacting with the alien species is far from routine, or even safe. Moral questions also arise; although supposedly neutral in all matters politic, a linguist may find himself (or herself, as most of the stories have female protagonists) involved in local politics, and forced to make decisions that are not based on his language skills. For example, in Finch's Nebula Award-winning story, "Reading the Bones," the hapless, alcoholic linguist, whose duties had mainly been translating during his employers' shopping trips, faces a native upheaval, a trek with two young children across a largely unknown jungle, and the opportunity to see a written language born. Alien parasites, alien viruses, a mysterious star-faring race that seems randomly violent, large tyrant moles, dolphin instructors and surrogate mothers, all this and more face the prepared and not-so-prepared linguists in these eleven stories.
An Afterword by Finch, discussing the difficulty in learning an alien language, and a Foreword by Ian Watson bookend the fiction with insightful visions on language. With wraparound cover art by Bob Eggleton.
" 'Reading the Bones' combines the best elements of the previous Xenolinguist stories. From the theoretical and abstract elements of linguistics to the characteristically brutal and savage violence marking several of the earlier pieces, all emotionally and artistically capped by the powerful denouement involving the redemption of the main character, Ries Danyo."
— David A. Truesdale, SF Site.
"Sheila Finch has been writing better-than-average science fiction since the 1970s . . . evidence of Finch's real power as a storyteller."
— David G. Hartwell, Year's Best SF 2.
"['Reading the Bones'] achieves moments of sudden emotional sweep, and offers some provocative ideas about language and culture."
— Gary K. Wolfe, Locus.
Table of Contents
by Ian Watson
First Was the Word;
A Flight of Words,
A World Waiting,
The Roaring Ground,
No Brighter Glory,
Out of the Mouths,
Stranger Than Imagination Can,
The Naked Face of God,
Communion of Minds,
Reading the Bones,
Berlitz in Outer Space.
Fine in fine dj.