QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics: Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

Babel-17 is one of the early, short novels of SFWA Grand Master Samuel R. Delany, first published in 1966 and winning the Nebula Award the following year. Sexuality—including various queer and/or polyamorous sexualities—is one of Delany’s main themes, but people more commonly discuss this topic in relation to his later works even though it is present very early on. Several readers have asked me to review Babel-17, a novel which is possibly one of the earliest mainstream SFF works with casual queer inclusion—including bisexual inclusion, which is still comparatively rare.

Babel-17 is a classic space opera adventure on the surface, but the adventures also present a world that was nigh-unimaginable in the 1960s along both the technological and the social axes. Spacefarers divide themselves into two large groups, Customs and Transport. The division is fundamentally about conventional versus hyperspace travel, but it also becomes much more:

As of yet, the Customs work involved in getting ships from star to star is a science. The transport work maneuvering through hyperstasis levels is still an art. In a hundred years they may both be sciences. Fine. But today a person who learns the rules of art well is a little rarer than the person who learns the rules of science. (p. 43; page numbers are from the SF Masterworks edition.)

Transport people are more artistic and unconventional, including being much more accepting of queer sexualities, and also of body modification. This makes Customs people wary of them, and sometimes even consider them freaks.

Into this world of spacefarers comes Rydra Wong, a poet renowned throughout the human-inhabited universe, even across warring political factions. She is also a linguist and cryptographer, with a near-superhuman capability (acquired after childhood trauma) to learn languages. Even though she left the military to focus exclusively on writing, a general seeks her advice when mysterious languagelike transmissions are received from an unknown source. The transmissions, dubbed Babel-17, have stumped an entire cryptography department, and they always coincide with accidents that the general suspects to be sabotage. Rydra Wong hires a Transport crew for her spaceship, and sets out to unravel the mystery.

Rydra Wong is casually bisexual, and we find out that she used to be a member of a polyamorous triad—though these expressions didn’t exist or weren’t widely used at the time Delany was writing the book; even “bisexual” was just becoming more frequently used in the late 1960s. To pull us into this new world, the story begins with Rydra dragging a Customs Officer with her (“Daniel D. Appleby, who seldom thought of himself by his name”– p. 24) through various Transport areas and activities, which include naked zero-g wrestling. Customs Officer, who’s just there to handle the paperwork of hiring the crew, is alternately terrified and entranced. His reactions to the Transport approach to life probably mirrored a certain type of contemporary reader’s, but I think that in 2018 most people picking up the book will just grin and nod… The future is quite awesome, but no longer as alien. (I am sure that readers bothered by the queerness still exist, but I feel that SFF has become so polarized in that regard that they are altogether less likely to pick up the book.)

Delany’s worldbuilding still shines in the details of Rydra assembling her crew. Some of the crew members are “discorporate” entities—something akin to people living inside a computer as simulations, to help them pilot the ship across hyperstasis. But here the parallel is less cybernetic and more necromantic, with discorporate people compared to ghosts and the metaphor sustained over the course of the entire book, from virtual graveyards to morgues. There is the occasional hitch, both technological—such as when punch cards are mentioned—or terminological (for example, the book uses “Oriental” instead of the modern “Asian”), but overall the tone remains fresh. The ethnic, racial, and linguistic diversity is also matter-of-fact, though this is not surprising from Delany, one of the Black pioneers of SFF. On a sentence by sentence level, this novel could have been written very recently…and indeed, is probably better written than most novels published to this day. But has the science fictional concept behind the prose aged similarly well?

Most reviews of and commentary on Babel-17 highlights the book’s linguistics aspects. Without getting into spoilers, the novel explores how speaking different languages affects thought—what is commonly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, though the novel doesn’t use this terminology. Babel-17 seems to side with a quite strong version of this hypothesis: namely that language doesn’t only influence thought, but determines it. Interestingly enough, my first language, Hungarian, is one of the examples used: “Imagine, in Hungarian, not being able to assign a gender to anything: he, she, it all the same word.” (p. 97; note that this is slightly inaccurate. While Hungarian indeed doesn’t have grammatical gender, it does have an animate/inanimate distinction, so he/she/singular-they and it are two different pronouns.) I remember first reading Babel-17 many years ago, and getting very frustrated. Hungary is one of the most sexist countries in Europe, and also not doing well on global rankings, despite Hungarian not having gendered pronouns and grammatical gender in general. This works very well as an argument against the main narrative of the book!

On my recent reread of the novel for this column, I expected to encounter this frustration again, but was surprised to find I had another reading altogether. Certainly, there is a space opera spy thriller aspect of the plot, in terms of unlocking powers of the mind when speaking an alien language. But one could argue that that’s just the flashy surface. To go back to the beginning of the review: Rydra Wong is a polyamorous bisexual woman, who’s currently single but has been in an F/M/M triad (and would prefer an F/F/M triad!). Now I have said even more, with present-day terminology, very succinctly. But the book itself has to establish all of this more laboriously, because those words didn’t exist; Delany even resorts to introducing new terminology, which ends up quite close to what is used today: “triple” compared to “triad”.

So, when I first read this passage, I was annoyed by the very obvious exaggeration:

“One Çiribian can slither through that plant and then go describe it to another Çiribian who never saw it before so that the second can build an exact duplicate, even to the color the walls are painted—and this actually happened, because they thought we’d done something ingenious with one of the circuits and wanted to try it themselves—where each piece is located, how big it is, in short completely describe the whole business, in nine words. Nine very small words, too.”

The Butcher shook his head. “No. A solar-heat conversion system is too complicated. These hands dismantle one, not too long ago. Too big. Not—”

“Yep, Butcher, nine words. In English it would take a couple of books full of schematics and electrical and architectural specifications. They have the proper nine words—We don’t.” (p. 134-135)

A surface reading of this exchange definitely provokes a reaction along the lines of ‘that’s not how language works, you can’t rebuild a whole power plant like that’—and, if you find me in a grumpy mood, maybe even a rant about the importance of redundancy in language—but now I feel that the point goes beyond that interpretation. Didn’t I just express all that information about the protagonist’s sexuality in… a set of words that are definitely smaller and simpler than the ones used to explain the same concepts in the book? Delany’s idea might ultimately be much more interesting and illuminating in terms of social circumstances than about science and technology, or about spy antics. (I found the spy antics ultimately somewhat of a downer, a take on Manchurian Candidate mind-control tropes that were especially popular in the 1960s—though some of the action was wonderfully cinematic.) As general commentary about society, and as a work of art, Babel-17 still holds up extremely well…even now that we have the nine words. (Though new ones are always coming!)

Upon this latest reread, I feel very strongly that the linguistics aspects of the story relate in a crucial way to the gender and sexuality aspects, even if this is not apparent at first. Delany even presents the process of language change, albeit in a very short and condensed fashion, as Rydra finds herself teaching someone the pronouns I and you…but not discussing he or she. Rethinking the whole novel from this perspective is as breathtaking as the moment when Rydra Wong finally wraps her mind around Babel-17.

Delany further explored these topics elsewhere, and we’ll probably get to those works in this column, too; for instance, transgender issues are not explicitly mentioned among the many shape changes the Transport people go through, but this theme does appear, for example, in Delany’s 1976 novel Triton. But next time, I’ll talk about a very different book—one in which the social aspects have again remained more timely than the technological/scientific ones…

Bogi Takács is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person (e/em/eir/emself or singular they pronouns) currently living in the US with eir family and a congregation of books. Bogi writes, reviews and edits speculative fiction, and is currently a finalist for the Hugo, Lambda and Locus awards. You can find em at Bogi Reads the World, and on Twitter and Patreon as @bogiperson.

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