For some reason–perhaps an overlooked effect of merging our personal libraries in 1982–Ron and I found a duplicate copy of the 1966 paperback edition of Samuel R. Delany’s Nebula-Award winning SF novel Babel-17 this spring when we were cleaning up after the flooding downstairs. I gave away some of the duplicates we found, but this one I started re-reading.
Since the first time I read Babel-17–when I was younger than the author’s age at the time he wrote it (23)–I had met his wife, the poet Marilyn Hacker, during her time as editor of the Kenyon Review, read a mention of him in Jo Walton’s Among Others, and heard Ron’s introduction to reading a section from one of his books at a Black History Month event. This is part of what Ron said:
“Delany published an autobiographical account entitled The Motion of Light in Water, a Hugo-award winning book, in which he describes his experience as a black, gay, and dyslexic writer in the East Village. One has the sense reading this that each of these attributes brought him another viewpoint on the world, and seeing the world through multiple simultaneous lenses is common in his books.”
Jo Walton also points out that the main character of Babel-17, Rydra Wong, is quite a strong woman for a character in a book almost as old as she and I are.
I didn’t know any of this about Delany the first time I read his book. I would have been titillated to know some of the details about his “summer of love” exploits (evidently, the fullest details are in the movie Polymath). I don’t even think that I was skeptical, as a teenager, about the universal popularity of Rydra’s poetry (which consists of epigraphs from the poems of Marilyn Hacker) in this fictional universe. What fascinated me is that babel-17 turned out to be a language rather than a code, and that thinking in it shaped not only thought, but action. (The idea this was based on, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, is now disproved, but it’s still interesting to consider that thinking in a different language could give you a different perception.)
The story is fast-paced and interesting, aptly summed up in this description from a blog called Imperfect Vacuum:
“Rydra discovers that the code is in fact a language, unlike anything seen before and from partially deciphering intercepted transmissions, determines the location of the next planned attack. After requisitioning a starship to travel to the next target, Rydra assembles a crew composed of a part-human-part-animal pilot, a menage-a-trois team of navigators, discorporate ghosts, a slug and a ragtag platoon of first-time travellers. Rydra continues to decode the mysterious language and after the assassination of a high-ranking alliance weapons-developer (by his own genetically-engineered spy-bot), the crew of Rydra’s ship experience an increasingly dangerous series of acts of sabotage to their own ship, which can only be attributed to somebody in the crew. After one of these acts, the crew is knocked unconscious and the ship set adrift. The crew are rescued when discovered by a band of roaming mercenaries, amongst which Rydra meets “Butcher”, a mysterious figure who does not understand the concept of “I”, similarly to the lack of the same concept in the language Rydra continues to decode. Eventually, with the help of her crew, Rydra discovers that the language itself is the element of sabotage developed by the enemy; by learning to speak and think babel-17, the structure of the language causes its interpreter to participate in self-destructive behaviour, and that Rydra was responsible for the acts of sabotage to her ship.”
The action moves very quickly–it’s only 173 pages long in the original paperback edition–but it’s also full of passages like this, about how Rydra feels when she discovers that a terrifying character named “Butcher” thinks and speaks in babel-17: “The Butcher’s egoless brutality, hammered linear by what she could not know, less than primitive, was for all its horror, still human. Though bloody handed, he was safer than the precision of the world linguistically corrected.”
And there are wonderful experimental passages in which Delany represents the telepathic thoughts of Rydra and the Butcher in a mix of English and babel-17:
“You are so big inside me I will break. I see the pattern named The Criminal and artistic consciousness meeting in the same head with one language between them…
Yes, I had started to think something like—
Flanking it, shapes called Baudelaire—Ahhh!—and Villon.
They were ancient French po—
Too bright! Too bright! The ‘I’ in me is not strong enough to hold them. Rydra, when I look at the night and stars, it is only a passive act, but you are active even watching, and halo the stars with more luminous flame.
What you perceive you change, Butcher. But you must perceive it.
I must—the light; central in you, I see mirror and motion fused, and the pictures are meshed, rotating, and everything is choice.
My poems! It was the embarrassment of nakedness.
Definitions of ‘I’ each great and precise.
She thought: I/Aye/Eye, the self, a sailor’s yes, the organ of visual perception.
He began, You—
You/Ewe/Yew, the other self, a female sheep, the Celtic vegetative symbol for death.
—you ignite my words with meanings I can only glimpse. What am I surrounding? What am I, surrounding you?”
Aside from a few of these experimental passages, though, this is classic science fiction, populated by characters who like to enhance their bodies so they look like lions or grow roses out of their shoulders zooming around in spaceships shooting at each other. It’s a good story well told, and you won’t find many stories published in 1966 that have aged half this well.
As part of the More Diverse Universe celebration, I’m giving away my duplicate copy. It’s worn, but with the original 1966 cover art. Leave a comment to be entered to win it. . . or if you’ve read it, or if you’d like to say anything about the charms of living in a universe where you could zoom around in a spaceship, perhaps unable to pronounce the letter “p” because of your fangs.
The deadline for entering the giveaway is Oct. 9.