Classic Review: Babel-17 by Samuel L. Delany

This compact novel feels way ahead of its time.  It has an ambiance in the best tradition of Cordwainer Smith, it reminds me of the modern works of Alastair Reynolds, it explores an ancient idea that was immensely popularized in the 21st century, and it beautifully blends action, exposure, and introspection.  Babel-17 is a gem for those who take the time to read it and visualize its setting.

Mankind is in a prolonged war against the Invaders.  Lately, however, the Invaders managed to gain the upper hand by performing a series of behind-the-lines sabotages, which have only one common element: a secret transmission whose code was named “Babel-17”.  The military is at a loss in decoding it, so they hire Rydra Wong, a linguist and famous poet.  She quickly realizes that Babel-17 is not a code, but a foreign language, and sets to translating it.  To prove her initial theories on the language, he hires a spaceship crew to get her to the location of the next expected sabotage.

Already on her way to the destination, her ship is damaged, and she and her crew barely escape their predicament and get on with their journey.  Shortly after arriving at the military’s weapons lab facility, the director is assassinated, proving that Wong’s translation had been correct.  However, another sabotage sends the ship into the heart of a nova blast, from which they are rescued by the nick of time by a black ops ship, which patrols the fringes of the human space and defends against the incursions of the Invaders.

On this ship, Wong strikes an unlikely friendship with the second in command, a hulking ex-con nicknamed Butcher.  During a battle against the Invaders, Wong begins to think in the Babel-17 language and suddenly discovers that she can predict the ship movements.  She tells Butcher where to aim his shots, and they destroy the opposing force.  Since then, whenever Wong is thinking in Babel-17, she discovers her latent powers of telepathy.  She asks Butcher to take her to the military headquarters, and once they come close to their destination, they are set upon a much stronger force of Invaders.  They manage to repel the attack, but Wong is forced to enter Butcher’s mind, where she hopes to awaken his latent powers.  Unfortunately, she gets stuck there, and only manages to send a quick message to her psychiatrist, with hints on how to get her out.  The psychiatrist manages to rewire the Butcher’s neural processes, freeing Wong.  In doing so, they all realize that Babel-17 forces people to perceive reality differently.  Those who understand the language can be almost hypnotically forced to do things they are told, and it was in fact Wong who sabotaged the ship.  Butcher is the only other person understanding the language, and he had been complicit in all the sabotage attempts when he was told to.  The language, however, also allows its speakers a far greater logical and analytical range, which accounts for Wong’s strategic genius, and mastering it may mean a turning point in the war.

The idea that language shapes the perception of reality and can affect one’s thinking is nothing new.  Known as the linguistic relativity theory, this idea had been around since ancient times, and to a lesser extent it is considered valid to this day.  There are many examples of this theory in science fiction.  In the recent years, a memorable attempt was made by Neal Stephenson in his early novel Snow Crash and China Mielville’s Embassytown.  However, it got an enormous boost in popularity via the movie Arrival.  This is a mixed blessing for Delany’s work.  On one hand, the book is more approachable by the modern audience; on the other, it will be judged against these better-known works.  That said, I believe that especially people who saw Arrival will be able to better visualize the effect of the Babel-17 language and appreciate the central idea of the book better.  It is said that Delany popularized linguistic relativity for future works, but I felt like he himself was influenced by Zelazny’s A Rose for Ecclesiastes, which has been published only a few years before Babel-17.

Speaking of the idea, most writing workshops will tell you that one cannot write a novel about a single idea.  Short stories are okay, but longer works require additional content.  Here, Delany is truly shining.  He creates a vibrant, futuristic world, with a dark and byzantine ambiance akin to Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality universe, which I believe Reynolds has borrowed for his Revelation Space universe.  Delany’s world is a mixture of gothic horror, extreme body modification and acceptance of the weird.  There is a long scene where Wong goes to recruit her crew, in a bizarre labyrinth of clubs, morgues and ghost towns with literal ghosts.  While the characters in the book are very one-dimensional, the interaction between them is very intricate.  For example, there always must be three ship navigators, in a polyamorous relationship, and Delany explores the consequences of this arrangement.  Ghosts are able to talk to people through a specialized device, but Wong can get around it by immediately translating their speech to Basque, so that her brain registers and remembers what they said.  There are plenty of such examples throughout the book, making the story wondrously weird.

I personally also appreciated the rhythm of the book.  It varied between action, tension (sometimes quite uncomfortable) and introspection.  A section that impacted me hard started with Wong slipping into Babel-17 thinking and telepathically probing people in a cantina, until she discovered an assassin.  At that point, the story seamlessly shifted into action with a very brutal ending.  And yet, everything seemed so effortless that the conclusion felt almost banal.

Of course, a novel that is nearly 60 years old cannot get everything right, especially from a technological side.  There are lots of anachronisms, such as using recording tapes.  For me, this is not a problem, as far more modern authors use this type of technology to color the world.  Reynolds, for example, has “search turbines” that have to be maintained as the big mechanical beasts that they are, instead of database software, in his Prefect Dreyfus series.  However, Delany wasn’t sophisticated (or interested) enough to create at least a semblance of realistic space travel, and this somewhat hurts the reader’s immersion in this book.  This issue was serious enough for me to jump out of my revelry of the worldbuilding.

All in all, though, Babel-17 is not only important in the history of science fiction, but also a hell of a good read.  People with taste of the weird will like the setting.  It is easy to visualize, and it allows tantalizingly little in ways of explanation, so that readers will be free to fill in the blanks for themselves.  People who like the Big Idea will be excited about the novel’s main concept.  This book will please everyone who likes to do a little thinking for themselves, and even after all these years since its first publication, reading it is a very refreshing experience.

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