"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
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
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
Read the Publishers Weekly review
Read Rick Kleffel's commentary in The Agony Column for 08-10-07 [scroll down
to the heading "Talking to the Aliens"]
Read the review in the Midwest Book Review's Bookwatch
View the wraparound dust jacket art by Bob Eggleton
Cloth, ISBN-10: 1-930846-48-7
Out of Print!