Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 has the basic elements of a space opera: interstellar travel, a multi-talented captain, a ragtag crew, a brave pilot, space skirmishes, a few stop-offs on a couple of different planets, high-level espionage, romantic entanglements, and even a James Bond-style battle during an elegant dinner.
It’s where the story subverts a typical space opera that things get really interesting. The captain? A telepathic Chinese woman who happens to be the most famous poet of her age. The espionage? Comes in the form of a language, Babel-17, that reprograms people’s brains as they learn it. The pilot? A man who’s had enough surgery done that he stands ten feet tall, and has the head, paws, and fangs of a Saber-toothed cat. The romantic entanglements? Occur between a variety of people, but never in quite the form you’re expecting.
The most important narrative thread of Babel-17 turns out not to be the ramshackle plot, which bounces us across a couple of different planets and ships, but rather the question of whether communication between two people is possible.
Babel-17 is a precise language, each word layered with meaning, and those who learn it find that it allows them to think so quickly that their perception of time slows. This fun hack allows Delany to describe action sequences—like the dinner that turns into a battle—in luxurious detail without straining credibility.
Adding to the novel’s thoughts on communication is Delany’s use of class markers. You see, in order to get her crew together, Captain Rydra Wong has to have all of her potential crewmembers approved by a military wonk from “Customs.” The crew will all be members of “Transport”. Customs and Transport are work designations, but they’re also seemingly unbreachable class lines. Rydra, as a Captain, can flow between the two castes, and we spend an evening with her as she conducts a member of Customs into the Transport underworld. She leads the nice, polite, by-the-book Danil D. Appleby through a nondescript door, and suddenly the young man is presented with a swirling fantasy world. To start with, everyone strips as soon as they’re inside—wearing clothing is considered impolite. You have to lose your armor to be worthy of an authentic experience. But once the clothes are off, you can see more clearly how people have used cosmetisurgery to express themselves. People have small dragons embedded n their skin, roses growing from their shoulders, cock spurs jutting from wrists… you can even remake yourself as a ten-foot-tall manbeast with a Sabre-toothed cat’s head, fangs, and paws.
But all of the countercultural flourishes serve the larger theme. The characters strip to be more honest with each other. Captains watch potential pilots wrestle so they can see how they react during a fight—there isn’t any way to hide behind charm or reputation when you’re naked in a wrestling match.
In order to find Navigation team for her ship, Rydra has to hire a Triple – three people involved in a complex marriage/psychological bond. Their ability to steer the ship and think their way out of tight spots is directly connected to their ability to communicate with each other, and foster a healthy and loving three-way-relationship. When she finds Callie and Ron, the two remaining members of a former Triple, she takes the time to find them a new One at the morgue. (In Delany’s future, people who are depressed can cryo-freeze themselves for a while) Rydra finds a woman, Mollya, who had herself frozen when her previous Two and Three died. After she’s resurrected, considers the two men before her, and decides to take another shot at love—but there’s a catch. Rydra has specifically found a Callie and Ron a woman who only speaks Ki-Swahili, because the three will need to find more direct ways to communicate than speech alone can provide.
For the ship’s sensors, Rydra hires Eyes, Ears, and Nose – three ghosts, or, as they’re known in the future, “discorporate” entities. Only they can sense potential dangers in space, because they can interact directly with their environment, without needing suits or equipment. But, being dead has its own complications. The words of the dead are literally like dust on the wind—living people forget the dead’s words almost immediately. Rydra overcomes this by programming a communication filter that translates the Eyes, Ears, and Noses speech into Basque before she hears it. Having to translate from Basque back into her native English helps their words stick. By meeting them halfway she’s able to communicate with them effectively.
Delany constantly shifts the book’s focus away from what we’d expect from a space adventure yarn. The ongoing war between The Alliance and The Invaders is described not through battles but through the starvation and horror of blockade. The fact that humans have made contact with aliens (and that they’ve taken sides in the Alliance/Invader War) is mentioned offhandedly in half a sentence. When Rydra needs to think of military strategy, she imagines the pressure points of the netting used to hold people in their beds in Zero G; when she needs to battle an assassin, she does it through coded poetry that reveals a plot against another captain.
As the galaxy’s most famous poet, Rydra is treated well by everyone she meets—even the space pirates. She’s an honored guest when she stops off to visit weapons manufacturer Baron Felix Ver Dorco, but, as a poet, she makes a point of noticing everything and everyone. First she allows the Baron to show her around his weapons showroom—which includes an introduction to one of his impossibly perfect TW-55 spy androids. But Rydra also gives just as much attention to the Baroness, who turns out not to be an annoying society matron but a creative, funny woman, who takes great pride in showing off her computerized dining table. All the Baroness has to do is program the table, and its leaves will fold back and present each course in turn. Having been an attentive guest to both hosts, Rydra makes time to talk one of her Navigators through some romantic troubles, even choosing to reveal her own past as part of a Triple.
Only after we see Rydra mingle with people, not working the room but genuinely connecting to people from a variety of backgrounds and class levels, do we get to the action. She sits beside the Baroness, who muses about serving dinner:
“I could be a tease,” the Baroness said, “and bring out the sherbets first. Or do you think I ought best to go on to the calo verde? The way I prepare it, it’s very light. I can never decide—”
But then her thoughts are interrupted by battle. “Vibra-gun” shots are zinging around the room, and people are falling dead and screaming in panic. But Delany focuses instead on The Baroness’ console; it’s blasted, and her wonder of a table goes haywire:
With the console smashed, along the table the fruit platters were pushed aside by emerging peacocks, cooked, dressed, and reassembled with sugared heads, tail feathers swaying. None of the clearing mechanisms were operating. Tureens of calo verde crowded the wine basins till both overturned, flooding the table. Fruit rolled over the edge…Spitted lambs rose to upset the peacocks. Feathers swept the floor. Wine fountains spurted the glistening amber skins which hissed and steamed. Food fell back into the opening and struck red heating coils. Rydra smelled burning.
Despite the absurd imagery, Delany makes us feel the chaos of the scene by introducing these characters through Rydra’s empathetic eyes. We care about both the Baron and Baroness enough that the scene has emotional resonance beyond a simple adrenaline spike. And we get the payoff of seeing the Baroness’ magnificent meal, but in a horrific and comic way as food shoots all over the room. Delany shows us those who have been shot, but also takes a moment to check in with the woman who’s been scalded by a soup tureen.
But the most thrilling part of the book is the romance. Rydra meets a gruff general, a naïve Customs official, her pilot, and a space pirate. Any of these could have been a romantic match in a different type of book. But Rydra herself was once part of a triple. She’s the only surviving member of the marriage, and her grief hangs in the background of the book. The person she falls in love with is named Butcher, and he is a brutal assassin who has no sense of self, because he only speaks a language with no concept of “I” and “you”. The book makes great hay from this idea, with Rydra trying to help him understand the idea of “I” and gently lead him into a different kind of life. But it doesn’t downplay the fact that he is a merciless killer when he needs to be.
Rydra attempts to teach the Butcher about self by teaching him pronouns, but he still gets “I” and “you” confused, and, even more disconcerting, refers to his own intelligence as “the brain”, further distancing himself from any notion of self.
Suddenly he put his hand on her cheek. The cock spur rested lightly on her lower lip. “You and I,” the Butcher murmured. He moved his face close to hers. “Nobody else is here. Just you and I. But which is which?”
He tries to understand his own emotions, but gets the pronouns tangled:
He looked at her closely. “I don’t really think you’re going to kill me. You know that. It’s something else. Why don’t I tell you something else that frightened me. Maybe you can see some pattern you will understand then. The brain is not stupid.”
Rather than being a straightforward sequence of two people falling in love, their romance also becomes a labyrinthine struggle through the concept of the self. Where does “I” end, and “you” begin? Does speaking another language change the way you think? Can one person ever truly know another? Refreshingly, Delany gives us a hero who can talk her way out of trouble, who succeeds through using her wit and her empathy rather than force or technology. She’s described by several people as beautiful, but this never becomes an issue—her admirers put her on a pedestal because they love her work. There are a variety of sexual flavors on display, but there’s never even a hint of coercion or assault. While Triples are referred to as deviants at one point, by the end of the book even straitlaced Officer Appleby is frequenting pilot wrestling matches. The gruff general from the book’s opening scene is willing to listen and collaborate with people from an array of fields, rather than toeing any military line.
Babel-17 starts the book as a code until Rydra realizes it’s actually a language. It’s used as a weapon, until a few people take a chance on using it as instrument of peace. By ignoring class lines and language barriers, and being willing to listen, and pay attention to the tiny details so important to poetry, Rydra is able to create bridges between people. By looking at a typical space opera adventure from a different angle, Delany was able to give us a weird, welcoming book.