Most of the books I read, I end up liking, for the simple reason that I don’t read books I don’t expect to like, and my judgment and sources of recommendations are pretty solid these days. But every now and then, I still read a stinker, like Sheila Finch’s The Guild of Xenolinguists .

This is a collection of loosely related short stories about, well, xenolinguists. This sounds great in principle — puzzle-shaped SF stories with linguistics as the science instead of physics? Sign me up! But no. Finch barely even touches on linguistics, instead treating it as a drug-fueled hippie mystical thing. Like, taking LSD can like totally erase the boundaries of the universe, dude, and that’s how you can like learn to talk to aliens! Trippy!

Ugh. And the related ugh is that the protagonist of each story is usually a burned-out loser addict of some sort, so in addition to wifty mysticism, we also get bleak despair. These are not my favorite story flavors, so if I’m going to read something that’s both wifty and bleak, it has to have a lot there to back it up, which these stories don’t. They do have plots, but only simple ones that aren’t enough to hold one’s interest if one hates everything else about the stories.

It’s not a surprise to see that these stories were first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. There’s always been this weird/bleak/mystic feel that I think of as the house F&SF style, and I’ve never cared for it. Really, the only thing that’s surprising to me is how recently they were published. There’s the whole LSD-fetishization thing, which is very retro, but that’s not the only dated part. I mean, take a passage like this, wherein our linguists are served coffee before getting down to serious business:

When the coffee arrived, a young intern set the tray on a low table. Jamal made eye contact with her and she smiled. Coppery hair in a short, bouncy cut and bright blue eyes. Nice perfume, too. Sweet deal to have eye candy like that on your staff, he thought, watching her pour the coffee. From the deliberate way she bent over, letting her white silk blouse drape away from tanned cleavage, he knew she was aware of his attention, enjoying it.

“Eye candy?” You read a paragraph like that, and you think, okay, Heinlein in the ‘60s, right? But no, this is Sheila Finch in 2007. Just utterly baffling. At any rate, I strongly disliked this book, and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Avoid.


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