Saturday, October 8, 2011

Babel-17 - Samuel R. Delany

I asked you which classic science fiction novel I should read next a while ago. A question prompted by my reading of Among Others by Jo Walton, with contains references to numerous works of science fiction. Babel-17 (1966) by Samuel R. Delany was the winner of that poll. It's the first novel I've read by Delany and I was quite eager to find out why people hold his writing in such high regard. He received the Nebula award for this novel in 1966 and it shares some traits with a number of other works often referred to as New Wave Science Fiction.

Delany certainly was part of a new generation of writers, Babel-17 was published when he was 24. What's even more remarkable is that he had already had six other novels published by that time. Although Babel-17 contains some hard Science Fiction elements that are so typical of Golden Age stories, the emphasis of the novel is much more focussed on linguistics, sociology and psychology. As much as I like Science Fiction, I feel the genre doesn't get really interesting until the 1960s, when a whole new range of topics suddenly becomes acceptable and more attention is paid to the quality of the writing. This novel embraces the opportunities this New Wave offers completely. As such it sounded like something I might enjoy. And indeed, that turned out to be the case.

During an interstellar war in which coalitions of several species vie for control of the explored galaxies, the human intelligence service investigates a number of sabotages that have hit important human targets. All of them are accompanied by a strange code language, dubbed Babel-17. Nobody is able to crack the code and in a desperate attempt to stop the sabotages, they turn to poet Rydra Wong. She is a woman with an unbelievable gift for languages and  she quickly finds out that they are not dealing with a simple code. Wong insists on being given all information available before setting out on a mission to find the origin on Babel-17, a language more compact than anything she has ever encountered and one that fascinates her like no other.

Babel-17 leans heavily on a strong version of an idea that was very popular in science fiction at the time: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The basic idea is that the structure of language influences the world view of the speaker. The debate to what extend this is true is still raging but generally the influence is thought to be a lot weaker than Delany describes in his novel. The author included some very interesting ideas on languages, expression and thought throughout the novel.
'Why? Well most textbooks say that language is a mechanism for expressing thought, Mocky. But language is thought. Thought is information given form. The form is language.'

Wong to Dr. T'mwarba - Part I, chapter II
Given the problems people can experience in putting thoughts into clear language, I'd say the relationship isn't 1:1. To me, language and thought are a lot more imprecise than Wong states here and I guess a lot of characters in the novel feel that way too. In a way she acknowledges that in her poetry.
'...You know what I do? I listen to other people, stumbling about with there half thoughts and half sentences and their clumsy feelings they can't express, and it hurts me. So I go home and burnish it and polish it and weld it to a rhythmic frame, make the dull colors gleam, mute the garish artificiality to pastels so it doesn't hurt any more: that's my poem. I know what they want to say, and I say it for them.'

Wong to Dr. T'mwarba - Part I, chapter II
Her mastery of language sets Wong apart. Although she speaks just about everybody else's language and can express other people's thoughts more clearly and beautifully than the owners of these thoughts ever could, she has yet to find a language that can fully express her own thoughts.

Wong thinks a lot about concepts, what languages have words for what concepts and how that affects thought. I guess this is best expressed in her interactions with the character known as The Butcher. Although he speaks a form of English, the word 'I' does not appear in his vocabulary, nor does it have any meaning for him. In fact the problem seems to extend to other personal and possessive pronouns as well. Although this was brought about by a form of manipulation, not by natural language formation, it impacts The Butcher deeply and in the end offers the key to explaining his behaviour. Scientifically, I have some serious reservations about the way Delany links The Butcher's actions to his unique way of thinking (shaped by the language he speaks) and the specific, engineered, omissions in the concepts he is able to grasp through his language. Literary, Delany builds a wonderful story around it though. I especially liked his search for someone who speaks 'his language'. Aren't we all looking for that?

Delany plays with language in this novel. Not just in the plot but the prose as well. It contains snatches of poetry for instance, and an attempt to render Wong's train of thought in Babel-17 into English that is quite a stylistic experiment. My edition includes an introduction by Adam Roberts in which he points out the importance of names as well. Something I probably would have missed without the introduction. Delany's prose is ... almost exuberant in this novel. The tale is pretty fast paced, almost inviting the reader to rush though the story. I frequently found myself rereading sections of sometimes whole chapters because I felt I had missed things. Wong's thoughts and the way she uses Babel-17 concepts to tackle problems lead to a lot of leaps and bounds that can be pretty hard to follow at times. It did fall into place eventually though. Maybe I've become a bit of a lazy reader lately.

Babel-17 certainly deserves its status as a classic of the genre. Although a linguist would probably have a field day pointing out all the errors in Delany's novel, and the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is currently considered disproven, Delany has managed to build a very good novel around these concepts. It is a novel that does what science fiction ought to do, provoke thought on scientific theories and concepts that are packed into a good story. It's obvious why this novel made an impact when it was published and it certainly aged more gracefully than some of its contemporaries. I guess the collective wisdom of Internet users is not to be underestimated, you did me a service by picking this novel.

Book Details
Title: Babel-17
Author: Samuel R. Delany
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 192
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-09420-8
First published: 1966

1 comment:

  1. Looks both fascinating & compelling, I'm going to have to look out for this one.