Friday, 11 August 2017
Reading the Bones by Sheila Finch
I had a very up and down relationship with this little novella. At the beginning, I was irritated with it, then I mellowed and decided it wasn't that bad, and by the end of the book, had gotten thoroughly aggravated again. In the end, it feels like something with a lot of potential, but with a trick ending that undermines most of what has gone before, and some troublesome colonialism to boot.
It's not great. It's not terrible either, and there are some good ideas here, even if they're not always executed well.
The novella is set on the planet that colonization forces have named Krishna, which is a good sign that Indians are the colonizing force here. This was the first thing that irritated me - it's very hard to lift what is essentially British colonialism, wholesale, transport it to another planet, but make the colonizers Indian and therefore...what? Less colonialist? Not really. It made me angry, that she just substituted Indian names into a setting with amahs, native markets, and rebellions that take place in prose that matches so closely fiction I've read set in British-ruled India, without real thought given to it. (Or at least, thought isn't evident.)
It doesn't suddenly make it okay, if you just replace the British with British-acting Indian colonial powers. It doesn't make it something you can not pay attention to - you want that in your story, you'd damn well better grapple with it honestly, not just state it and try to move on. It's enough to derail what you're doing, and it took me a long, long time to get over it. Add in the drunkard linguist looking at the 16-year-old daughter of the governor and remembering his dead wife, and I had a very hard time getting into this. And the casual description of watching a rape that shocks the viewers, but has no effect on the woman raped. I'm not sure the later explanations of biology make this any clearer. (And we all know how I feel about the overuse of evolutionary psychology.)
It got better, though, when the action jumped forward a few years, and we were with that daughter of the deceased governor as she attempts to become a linguist (lingster) as well, too old for most of the training, but taken under the wing of a lingster looking for universal sounds between alien languages that arose on different planets.
In this case, we got her story juxtaposed with that of her younger sister, who had grown much older because she had not travelled relativistically, left on the planet in a hurried evacuation. The younger sister had been adopted into the alien (Frehti) female priesthood, and sought to solve a problem of a racial split that had lost half the males and much of the possibility of procreation, through recovering and codifying a language the Frehti had brought with them from another planet.
Of course, both sisters end up on the planet at the same age, the older scarcely aged from when she left, the younger nearing her death from old age. The crisis of the Frehti nears, and the younger ancient sister is bound and determined to be the one who solves it, having struggled for her place in Frehti society.
But of course, when they come face to face with a new language from the fallen/altered Frehti, the one who can learn to speak it in barely moments is not the one who has spent her life with the unfallen Frehti, it's the one who has been off-planet for years, but has been educated. This didn't sit that well. Particularly when it all shakes out, and then the older offworld sister shrugs and says "well, it wasn't a problem of linguistics at all. Too bad she wasted her life."
Which...this whole book is about linguistics. Most of the characters are lingsters, or Frehti elders obsessed with language. I mean, I'm fine with not everything having a linguistics answer, but when all you get is a hammer, over and over, it doesn't feel like an unreasonable expectation that there will be a damned nail somewhere.
So, the middle was pretty good, but the beginning didn't show enough thought, and the end was all about giving a middle finger to the characters and the readers, who hadn't been given any hints of any other options all the way through. And this is a plot problem that could have been solved so easily. Have one scene, a couple scenes, where another one of the Frehti elders questioned whether it was about language, who came up with a different idea. Use it as a way to show how orthodoxy works or doesn't in Frehti culture, and then you've at least left the possibility that lifelong obsession might be wrong.
But as a "Psych!" moment right at the end, it's more frustrating than it is interesting or intriguing.