Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany
1966, 219 pp.
Samuel R. Delany might accurately be thought of as the James Joyce of science fiction. His work is intellectual, difficult, conceptual, avant-garde. It begins with acclaimed, cerebral renditions of existing literary forms and progresses to Dhalgren, an immense, impenetrable work of high modernism. Babel-17 won Delany prominence and a Nebula award and is now justly a classic of the genre.
The book is a sort of science-fiction-according-to-Ludwig-Wittgenstein. In the midst of a 20-year interstellar war, strange sabotages and disasters are accompanied by mysterious transmissions in an unknown language code-named Babel-17. The plot follows Rydra Wong, an acclaimed poet who has neurological gifts which allow her to understand any language and grasp the thought patterns which accompany a language to an extent which borders on telepathy, as she tries to unearth the mystery of Babel-17 and stop the attacks. She forms a crew, which allows Delany to really let his imagination run with the possibilities of space travel. Her pilot is an immense surgically-created tiger-beast who steers by literally wrestling through “hyperstasis transit,” her navigators are a “Triple” of three mentally, emotionally, and sexually symbiotic people, and her sensors are resurrected ghosts called Ear, Eye, and Nose. They perceive space and objects through one intense sensory input. She encounters space pirates and aliens and all manner of wildly imaginative science-fiction stuff.
The aesthetic is quite similar to M. John Harrison’s great novel The Centauri Device: it’s a future set mainly in decaying post-industrial port cities full of smoke stacks and rusted metal and concrete towers. There’s an impoverished, anarchic underclass, a seemingly permanent and pointless interstellar war, and a lot of imagery centering around smoggy sunsets and industrial fires. “Ships rose with a white flare, blued through distance, became bloody stars in the rusted air,” for instance. It might be plausible to think of Babel-17 as an entry in a very select sub-genre: the post-industrial anarcho-poetic sci-fi novel. I love this kind of stuff, and Delany pulls it off with flair and style. He keeps the forward momentum going with a decent amount of sabotage, space fights, assassinations, and so forth, without losing track of the great linguistic puzzle his protagonist is attempting to solve. Delany is good at expressing her intellectual excitement: “She wondered what would happen if she translated her perceptions of people’s movement and muscle tics into Babel-17. It was not only a language, she understood now, but a flexible matrix of analytical possibilities where the same ‘word’ defined the stresses in a webbing of medical bandage, or a defensive grid of spaceships. What would it do with the tensions and yearnings in a human face? Perhaps the flicker of eyelids and fingers would become mathematics, without meaning…”
Speaking of that linguistic puzzle, there’s some very interesting parallels in Babel-17 to David Foster Wallace’s Broom of the System. Both feature female protagonists trying to solve language puzzles, and seem born out of each author’s interest in the degree to which reality is a linguistic construction. Both involve antinomies (in fact, the exact same ones) as a major plot point, though Babel-17 is structured in a much more conventional novel form, with none of the post-modern playfulness of Broom of the System. I just wonder if Wallace happened to read Babel-17 at some point, or if the attraction of speculative fiction authors to Wittgenstein, language, and logic is so widespread as to create such coincidences.
All of that said, the book is not perfect. Delany is here better at vivid prose and imagination than he is at dialogue and interpersonal relations, the former of which is often strained and the latter sometimes unmotivated and arbitrary. There is an odd slackening to the pace about twenty pages before the end, and what seems like a minor plot twist midway through turns out to be a major development which determines much of the second half of the book. And my copy (the original 1966 Ace paperback edition) had some serious quotation-mark typos which were a particular impediment during a long and lovely dialogue towards the end in which two characters switch around “I” and “you” in their conversation. Those minor complaints aside, Babel-17 is an excellent read, at once a satisfying sci-fi adventure and a cerebral exploration of the possibilities of language. It isn’t every sci-fi author who knows what an “allophone” or a “plosive” is or who is daring enough to suggest that an interstellar war might be ended using antinomies.