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Babel-17

September 27, 2012

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.

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2012 12:17 pm

    I’d like to enter to win! This sounds like such an interesting book, from your review and the one already posted. I love classic SF.

    • October 1, 2012 7:07 am

      I like the way that even though two of us chose this book, the other person was reading it for the first time. I’ll enter you.

  2. September 27, 2012 2:26 pm

    This does sound good, but I don’t want a copy — I’m cleaning my house! No more books! I’ll check the library.

    • October 1, 2012 7:08 am

      Good luck with that no more books resolution…

      • October 1, 2012 1:25 pm

        I’ll let you know how it goes . . . We had people over for dinner on Saturday and it was a great think to find the copy if Joseph Brodsky’s essays exactly where I know it was in the living room. I have evolved a book storage system based entirely on feeling — I know where books are although it is not sensible. Maybe it’s kind of based on when I acquired them. By rights Brodsky ought to be up in the bedroom, but he isn’t.

        • October 1, 2012 2:38 pm

          I’ve had book storage systems like that! My friend Travis once gave me a pop quiz because he didn’t believe I knew where everything was (I got 100%)

          • October 1, 2012 2:55 pm

            Not sure I’d get 100% — other people move things around — but probably 80%.

  3. September 28, 2012 6:16 am

    Please enter me in the giveaway. I’d like to read a classic S/F story that has aged well, and this one sounds complex and thought-provoking. Spaceships and poetry seems like a good combination!

    • October 1, 2012 7:14 am

      Oh yes, and it’s a very interesting spaceship, with triple marriages among the crew and dead folks on watch.

  4. September 28, 2012 8:26 am

    ‘characters who like to enhance their bodies so they look like lions or grow roses out of their shoulders’ – hehe, aren’t parts of vintage SF out there sometimes?

  5. September 28, 2012 10:54 am

    What a wonderful review! I’m happy to see that you still enjoyed it 2nd time around. I don’t really know anything about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis but nevertheless, like you, I found the whole concept of the power of language fascinating, especially when Rydra discovers Babel-17 isn’t simply code. No need to enter me in the giveaway as I already have a copy:)

    • October 1, 2012 7:17 am

      The part about Butcher not understanding the difference between “I” and “You” because his language didn’t have those words is the most specific representation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

      • October 1, 2012 8:38 am

        I see, that’s so interesting. Most of the languages I’m familiar with all have I and you so reading that part made me re-assess the complexity of language and how you need to think around it.

  6. aartichapati permalink
    September 30, 2012 10:32 am

    Fantastic review! If Jo Walton thinks the character is a strong one, then it’s one I want to read 🙂 No need to enter me in the giveaway, though – I am still not sure if Delany is someone I’d REALLY get along with, awesome as he seems.

    • October 1, 2012 7:19 am

      I was tickled because Jo and I are about the same age, and so had the same kind of reaction to women characters like this in the books we read growing up.

  7. September 30, 2012 7:39 pm

    Am I too late? Putting this book on my tbr. 🙂

    • October 1, 2012 7:21 am

      Never too late! I think you may have a good time with it, and I’ll enter you for the giveaway. I guess I didn’t set a deadline. Maybe I’ll give everyone another week, at least, since I’m still recuperating and not supposed to drive until then anyway.

  8. October 15, 2012 5:49 pm

    I’ve wanted to read one of his books since I heard Nalo Hopkinson speak about the importance of his work (shortly after her first novel was published) but, other than buying some, I haven’t gotten anywhere with my good intentions. This event has certainly reminded me that I need to remedy that oversight, and it sounds like this novel would be a good place to start.

    • October 15, 2012 5:58 pm

      It is one of his first novels, and way more accessible than a later one like Dhalgren.

  9. October 15, 2012 6:05 pm

    When I put the four people who wanted to enter the giveaway into random.org, the number 3 came up, which is Jodie from Bookgazing. Congratulations!

  10. drgeek permalink
    October 17, 2012 6:51 pm

    Have you read the novel Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson, Jeanne? That dealt with language not as something shaping the world view, but language is neural assembly code, capable of directly rewriting the human brain… and language as computer virus.

    Interesting that two novels written 25 years apart might explore related territory like that.

    • October 17, 2012 7:22 pm

      Yes, I’ve read Snow Crash (pre-blogging) and loved it. The name of the main character had me hooked from the start…

  11. January 14, 2014 10:15 pm

    you’re missing a LOT of people/works…I’ve been reading SF since 1946 and writing since (roughly) 10 years later…my perceptions are probably colored by when I came in, though there are aspects of “modern” SF I appreciate. There’s a great deal about Chip (Samuel Delaney) you don;t seem to get, though – as often as I was tempted to strangle him for one literary reason or another, he still wrote a hell of a stick.

    • January 14, 2014 10:42 pm

      Are you saying I should read more SF? I’m sure that’s true. Are you saying there are things about this story I’m missing that you get because you’ve read more Delany? What?

      • January 22, 2014 1:05 pm

        Both, I suppose, lol – mostly that a lot of older SF has gotten lost by the wayside. I found this site trying to track down one of Marilyn’s quotes from Babel (I must have had half a dozen copies or more wander out of my library, a record bettered only by R. A. Lafferty’s Fourth Mansions – find it of you can, it’s an amazing read) that I could only remember the latter part of, so I’m not completely sure what I had in mind at the time.
        Chip has always been far more than the sum of his parts or works…though you can chart his state of mind at the time of writing by how likeable the characters in a given book are.

        • January 22, 2014 1:50 pm

          I’ve just been reading through Jo Walton’s Tor.com columns on re-reading, and she ends every entry on a Delany book by wishing he would write more SF.

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