Tue
Jun 23 2009 1:07pm
More dimensions than you’d expect; Samuel Delany’s Babel 17

Babel 17 was published in 1966, the year in which I learned to talk. I didn’t read it until I was a teenager, and it’s been in my regular rotation ever since. It’s set against a background of galactic conflict, huge wars between sections of humanity and their various alien allies. “Babel 17” is a code, or an alien language, that the military can’t break. They call in a retired codebreaker-turned-poet called Rydra Wong, who goes off with a ship of misfits to adventure near the front lines, be captured, find allies in unexpected places, and discover the truth about Babel 17.

The thing about the description in the paragraph above is that it’s all true and yet it’s really so not that kind of book. All those things happen, but they’re not what the book is about. It is about the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the (now disproved, but cutting edge linguistic theory at the time the book was written) idea that language shapes perception to such an extent that thinking in a different language gives you a different perception. It isn’t true, but it’s a lovely speculation for science fiction, and in Babel 17 you have people whose brains are literally reprogrammed by language, and moments where changing language to think about it shows you the weak points in a structure. It might not be the case that speaking a language without the word “I” gives you no concept of self, but how very interesting to play with a character like that.

But it isn’t the kind of science fiction that’s all about the ideas either. There are exciting adventures and wonderful characters and fascinating worldbuilding and testing scientific ideas to destruction, which as a set of things is pretty much a definition of science fiction. But it’s a very unusual book.

There are a lot of common tropes of SF in Babel 17 that are treated in a way that’s not just unusual for 1966 but which remain unusual now.

I mentioned there’s a war. Later in the book there’s combat and even action scenes. But the first mention of the war we have, the first image of it, is of the blockade of planets and the consequent starvation and cannibalism. Everyone in the book has lived through that. It’s part of all their histories, whether they’re talking about it or not, it’s always informing their actions and motivations. This is so like real war and so little like the conventions of writing military SF that I can’t think of anything else like it. And this is part of the background, not the focus of the book.

Rydra is telepathic, which is a fairly common attribute for a science fiction heroine. But it’s a weird form of telepathy that makes her unhappy and which she denies for as long as she can. She’s also a plausible great poet—Delany uses some of Marilyn Hacker’s poetry as examples, which helps. (Generally with a character who’s presented a great poet, it’s better not to show their work unless you have some great poetry at hand.) Delany makes the choice to show us Rydra from the outside and from several different points of view before we get into her head, which works astonishingly well at giving us a picture of her complexity. She’s a surprisingly three-dimensional character. Also, and I almost didn’t say this, she’s a woman. She’s the protagonist, she’s a space captain and poet, she’s competent and active, she makes her own choices and rescues herself and saves the world, and she’s a woman, and it was 1966.

There are interesting family structures. Triples, marriage-close work and living relationships among three people, are common. Rydra is a surviving member of one, other members of her crew are in one. This is never anything but an accepted piece of background. There’s also a scene where a very straight man has a sexual encounter with a (technological rather than supernatural) ghost. There’s a clearly implicit background of a complex set of sexualities and relationship shapes that fit within the future culture.

The background is unusually dense, as always with Delany, with layers and implied further layers and texture. There are multiple cultures, even within the one side of the conflict we see, there are people of all colours, shapes and sizes and social classes. There are castes and classes, there’s also the sense that working people actually work, with a notion of things they actually do. There’s also body modification for fashion and lifestyle reasons (solid roses growing from your shoulder, like a tattoo) that have social significance as class and status markers. It’s projecting the sixties, but not at all as you’d expect, and it falls into its own shapes and makes a unique future.

If Babel 17 were published now as a new book, I think it would strike us an great work that was doing wonderful things and expanding the boundaries of science fiction. I think we’d nominate it for awards and talk a lot about it. It’s almost as old as I am, and I really think it would still be an exciting significant book if it were new now.

17 comments
René Walling
1. cybernetic_nomad
Babel 17 was my first Delany book, I think I was 10 or 11 when I found a French edition at the library (Kids weren't allowed to take books out of the adult section, but my mom knew better and she'd take out one book a week for me).

I totally missed tons of subtleties (unless it was the translation that dropped them -- though somehow I doubt it), but I clearly remember the body modification, and the language thing.

It blew my mind, and in a good way. I've re-read it many times and always enjoyed it since. It's one of Delany's strengths that you can read his books at different ages and read an entirely different book each time and every time it's a great book.
Liza .
2. aedifica
One of the things that has stuck with me from that book was the psychiatrist's statement that body modification is a healthy activity, an assertion of control over one's circumstances. Reading that tapped the side of my head and shook things around inside a little bit.

Also, I liked how Rydra's language abilities made it possible for her to remember what the ghosts tell her. But beyond that, I don't remember the book well at all, I just remember liking it. I've been meaning to re-read it soon.
Kurt Lorey
3. Shimrod
I always liked this book, but have never re-read it. Now, I'll be digging into my old piles of paperbacks to try and retrieve it.
DemetriosX
4. DemetriosX
Wonderful book. And speaking as someone who speaks two languages with at least some fluency, while language may not alter perception, there are concepts that simply cannot be expressed or expressed as well in one language as they can in another.

Also, I never got this before, but Rydra Wong is obviously "right a wrong". I'm not sure if that's Delaney subtlety or unusual heavy handedness.
Liza .
5. aedifica
DemetriosX @ 4, first paragraph: Yes, certainly, and that goes with the weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Only the strong version (you cannot think things for which your language has no words) has been discredited, not the weak version (your language influences how you think).

(Can you tell I used to be a linguistics major? By the time I graduated I wasn't in linguistics anymore, but I still enjoy it.)
DemetriosX
6. Susan Loyal
Babel 17 contains several of my favorite scenes in science fiction, including but not limited to, the banquet scene and the scene where the accountant gets his shoulder dragon. (I love the warning that the dragon may do nothing but burp until he gets it truly integrated with his nervous system. It's representative of the level of detail that Delany simply throws away that makes the world seem so convincingly dense with sensory input. And I haven't reread the book for at least fifteen years, since my poor paperback copy mostly disintegrated. The way the elaborate ambassadorial dinner dissolves into chaotic James Bondian melee, complete with crystalized-honey-coated-bananas underfoot, just begs to be a movie scene.) More than any other novel I've read, Babel 17 convinces me that all the minor characters are fully realized individuals, living their lives just outside my focused vision.
Oscar Nelson
7. oscar.nelson
cybernetic_nomad's experience from post #1 so clearly mimic's my childhood experience with Babel-17(although I read it in english) that I no longer need to make a post :)
Peter D. Tillman
8. PeteTillman
Jo:

Just how many of these have you turned out for Tor? Do you have a stockpile or something? No other life?

Not complaining, mind, just a little boggled at how far behind I'd fallen in reading your output by taking a couple of weeks off.

Re Delany: I reread his "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" and enjoyed it, but have never reread Babel-17. Perhaps it's time. Regardless, another entertaining & informative review.

Thanks & cheers -- Pete Tillman
walter tingle
9. wjtingle
Every time I reread a Delany book or short story (with the exception of Dhalgren) I find something new, and yet his books are fairly short. Most current authors should be ashamed of their performance compared to SRD and his ability to imply an entire world of detail with a few words. For a variety of personal reasons, I always link him with R.A. Lafferty, who had the same talent. I haven't read anyone recently with the same ability to astonish me, nay, overwhelm me, with so few words. I'm beginning to think the word processor is not such a good idea. Maybe authors need ... I don't know, brevity processors?

Regards,
Jack Tingle
Blue Tyson
10. BlueTyson
This is easily his best I think. A standout.
Arthur D. Hlavaty
11. supergee
It was sf's first cross-sex Mary Sue, which some people say as if there were something wrong with it. I love it.
Bob Blough
12. Bob
Jo, you love many of the same novels that I love. I've re-read BABEL 17 many times and enjoy it each time. It is intriguing and beautiful all in one sentence. And each sentence unfolds into an intriguing and beautiful story. This and NOVA are my favorites although I like all of his early stuff. One of the greats of the genre.

That banquet scene is one of my favoites, too, Susan!

Jack - Lafferty, Zelazny and Delany are forever in my mind sitting at a little table over drinks and schmoozing. And I agree about today's writers. Brevity is the soul of wit - and good fiction writing should apply that maxim much more often.
DemetriosX
13. Qtip the Sixth
Wow, I have not read this book in more than two decades, but this review brought it shockingly back to life! I suppose what I most rembered were how well the author understood three dimensional piloting and thus utilized a zero-g wrestling match to evaluate a pilot's skills. Also, the first time I heard the idea of using pregnant women as fighter pilots because of their heightened reflexes.
Yes, the elaborate banquet with the various weapons hidden here and there and that wonderful lazy susan serving device. Also the body modifications struck me as very memorable. An excellent work, and now I want to locate and re-read this novel.
I have to confess, the linguistics debate went right over my head, except using Basque to translate the ghosts' speech so as to remember what they had said.
Great post!
DemetriosX
14. Dee2011
Has the hypothesis been disproven? It seems to me I've seen recent writing about it but I cannot find specifically what I remember, only this:
http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html
Robert James
15. DocJames
One of the greats. Delaney's criticism is also first-rate stuff.
Nancy Lebovitz
16. NancyLebovitz
One more thing about Babel-17, it was short. I think my paperback copy was under 200 pages, and it might have been under 150. Even granting that they tended to fit more words on a page back then, it's amazing how much Delany fitted in.
DemetriosX
17. thnidu
OK, time to put this on my to reread list.

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