Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sheila Finch at TTYU!

Please welcome Sheila Finch, Nebula award winner and author of eight science fiction novels, who has agreed to blog here as a guest and tell us a bit about the experience of developing and writing in the universe she explores in her stories about The Guild of Xenolinguists. Now, turning it over to Sheila...

I wish somebody had warned me, when I wrote the first lingster story, that I had just set out to create a whole series of tales about communicating with aliens, my own universe, let alone an entire Guild of Xenolinguists with all its rules and precepts. I might have taken the endeavor more seriously right from the start instead of having to make it fit as I went along, with too many occasions where I found myself thinking, Oh no! I didn’t say that in a previous story, did I? How on earth am I going to get around it?

The novel that came to be called TRIAD (1986) started as notes on African native cultures that quickly morphed into notes about an alien one. I was at UCLA for a quarter on a fellowship, studying South African literature, crafts and (dabbling in) language. It wasn’t the first novel that I’d written (actually it was the fifth – or sixth if we count a perfectly ghastly one that eventually went into the trash can) but it was published as my second. But somewhere in the writing the word xenolinguist appeared, and a Guild that trained them. The author hardly noticed.

“Babel Interface” was supposed to be a one-off story about alien communication (which I’d been convinced for many years wasn’t going to be as easy as Star Trek portrayed it). It’s a story whose birth pangs I don’t even remember – that’s how casually I dropped in details about the “Guild” back on Earth that Tomas worked for, or the fact that such communicators were called “lingsters,” or the field pack of interface drugs they relied on. But there they were.

I didn’t sell that story right away (several editors disliked it thoroughly), and I went on to write other stories. Meanwhile, I continued reading books about language, a major passion of mine. And somewhere along the line I started wondering what Whorf and Chomsky, Pinker – and all the other linguistic scholars whose books I bought as soon as they were published – might have to say about talking to aliens. I began noodling around with an article on how we might eventually approach the problem. I’m not even certain that I took the matter too seriously even then, judging from the title: “Berlitz in Outer Space.” But I had fun dreaming up the first class in
Xenolinguistics 101.

An editor finally bought “Babel,” and wanted to see “Berlitz” too. He finally printed both in the same edition of Amazing Stories in 1988. But even then I didn’t seem to understand the trap I’d laid for myself. “A World Waiting” was under construction about that time, and I was thoroughly distracted by the marvelous experience I’d just had of hearing my unborn granddaughter’s heart beat and seeing her ultrasound picture which I knew was going into the story somehow. Then one morning I realized that my lingster (the term had stuck) was
dragging her luggage into a tent and that the luggage had a logo on it – and the Guild of Xenolinguists finally made it into the author’s consciousness.

The rest is history, or maybe bibliography. There are now two novels and eleven stories about the lingsters, not to mention a couple of borderline stories where the lingsters themselves never appear.

What would I have done differently if somebody had warned me at the beginning what I was doing? Well, for one thing I wouldn’t have founded the Mother House of the Guild in Geneva. I had to do some hand-waving in “First Was the Word,” last written but first in the timeline, to explain that. And, if the reader notices, Triad is apparently set in a female-dominated world which had to be conveniently ignored in later stories. The role of Artificial Intelligence changed over the years too, from Earth’s warm and fuzzy CenCom to the Venatixi AI that acknowledges no loyalties. Little details like that. About midway through, I stopped and wrote myself a
“bible” of the Guild and its teachings; I wish I’d had it from the beginning.

So do I now know all there is to know about the Guild and the lingsters? Heavens no! At least, not consciously. I’m currently working on a longer story – maybe a novella – set at the very end of the cycle, and I’m constantly surprising myself with things my unconscious mind apparently knew that I didn’t. Such as why Humans and Venatixi fought a war in “Out of the Mouths,” or who the Sagittans were whose presence Gia experienced in Triad.

Maybe I had to hide the fact I was creating a series from myself in order not to scare myself off from writing?

Many thanks to you, Sheila, for sharing your thoughts.
For all those who would like to learn more about her work, her website is at .

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