Tuesday, November 15, 2011


I don't often review books that I am rereading, not so much because of a lack of interest among potential readers, but because my impression is mostly based on memories of earlier readings, and those are difficult to write about. I could get around this sometimes with my little reviews of selections from my book group but we haven't met in months due to catastrophically clashing schedules. So without the input of new books to read from the book group, and because a lot of the books I am interested in reading have reached a format I want to have them in, I went back and re-read a book I have fond recollections of but about which I could not remember many details, Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany.

Babel-17 has an interesting place in my personal speculative fiction chronology: after taking a science fiction course in college—my first exposure to looking at the genre as a serious literary form—I decided to find all the Hugo and Nebula Award winners for best novel and read those. I figured this would be a tremendous jump start to reading the best the genre has to offer. Early on, I found a first edition of Babel-17 in a used book store and read it. My own interests in science fiction and linguistics provided a rich background for my enjoyment of the novel, but after decades all I could remember of the book was that it involved linguistics and that I had really enjoyed it. Pondering it recently as I searched the shelves for something to read, I wondered if it would still hold up for me.

That I am writing this blog entry may provide something of a clue for how it succeeded. And yet, I seriously doubt the book is very well known outside a small circle of older readers and critics (including wannabe critics like me). And yet a lot of people had to believe it to be a good book: it was a Hugo finalist in 1967, losing to Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and it tied with Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon for the 1966 Nebula award. But its reputation has not survived nearly so well as Heinlein or Keyes's work.

Part of the rationale may lie in the experimental nature of the novel, lying as deeply as it does in the New Wave that swept through science fiction in the 60s and 70s. The New Wave was interested in experimentation in plot and narration as well as the soft sciences, in opposition to the stereotype of most science fiction (and which indeed Keyes and Heinlein were a part). The protagonist of Babel-17, a poet-linguist named Rydra Wong, has been asked by the space forces of Earth to help them decipher what they believe to be a coded message that always arrives just as acts of sabotage are being performed on important military installations defending humans from the Invaders, a succinct if not very informative name for the aliens humans find themselves at war with. Wong figures out early on that it is not a code but a unique language, and her linguistic analysis of it gives her an indication of where the next act of sabotage is going to take place (plot quibble—tell the people who hired you so they can stop the attack!). It turns out she is correct, but she is unable to stop the attack with her hired ship, and then they suffer an attack of their own from a traitor amongst her crew. At a high level, this seems pretty stereotypical stuff, but a closer examination of the book indicates not only that the book is firmly placed in the science fiction tradition but is an important milestone for the books that follow it.

The description of Wong gathering her crew and the accompanying description of how humans travel through space is deeply indebted to Cordwainer Smith, who is among the first authors I know that apply a mystical element to travelling through space. Delany imagines that his ships' crews must include three "discorporates," essentially three ghosts that can see spacetime in ways that living humans cannot. Furthermore, navigation must be performed by a trio of navigators who not only are very good working together but also must be in love with one another, willing to die to keep one another alive by plotting the most accurate course through spacetime. Both are interesting conceits, but Delany builds on them and gives them solidity that might be missing if they were treated lightly. Such a construction goes hand-in-hand with Cordwainer Smith's ideas about a space pilot needing a companion cat to guide the pilot through space, forming a supernatural bond between pilot and cat. Again, it can be read as silly on the surface, but the writing takes it seriously and weaves it into the universe of the story so that the reader accepts it and only questions it after the fact.

The crowning achievement of Babel-17 is the development of the idea of language that shapes the perception of the users of that language. While it was a given in linguistic studies when Babel-17 was published that language shapes perception*, such an idea is not usually used as a tool in storytelling and especially not questioned when the language is an artificial one that is used as a weapon. For instance, Wong meets The Butcher, a young man whose language does not contain the concept of "I" or "you", and Wong has to figure out how best to communicate with him as well as understand his world-view (universe-view?) without such ideas that are at the very base of who we are as humans. And eventually Wong discovers that the language she has been hired to study is in fact the sabotage weapon itself because its very nature precludes certain ideas and thus forces its users into actions they might not otherwise have taken. Babel-17 is thus a predecessor of such works as Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and the more recent Embassytown by China Mieville, works that are generally accepted not only as stand-out science fiction but also works that are worthy of mainstream appreciation for the ideas they contain.

The crew of Wong's ship, Rimbaud, also partakes in outrageous cosmetic surgery, such that the pilot Brass is described as an eight-foot manticore with brass plates for armor and brass claws for weapons. Such surgery reminds me of Iain Banks's Culture books, where surgery and reconstruction have become so easy that bored and youthful people radically change their appearance and biology so that they can only be roughly described as human. Delany's universe also includes aliens that are so different from human that communication with them is near impossible, and humans end up mostly tolerating them as they try to understand them. This too is reflected in Banks's Culture books, filled as they are with indecipherable alien races (and AIs). In fact, the style of Babel-17 reminds me a great deal of Iain Banks beyond the plot touches as well.

So Babel-17 worked for me on two levels. On the one hand, it is an interesting story that goes places not often gone to by other authors. There are moments when it has not aged well, but they pass quickly and do not hinder enjoying the book. But on another level, now that I am far better read than I was when I first opened the book, I enjoyed making the connections from the history of science fiction through Babel-17 to current writing. Seen this way, Babel-17 is an important book, one that merits more attention than it currently gets. Finding a copy may be very difficult, but I think it rewars the hunter admirably.

*I should point out here that the idea of language shaping perception, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or linguistic relativity, has been refuted at the macro level by linguists in the last few decades according to what I can find with my Google fu. However, linguists believe that a "weak" version of the theory may be valid.

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