Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
25 September, 2012
They call it Babel-17, this mind-twisting, multi-dimensional language – and it frightened Rydra Wong. For Babel-17 was not just a system of words, Babel-17 was a whole new way ot thinking. Lightning-swift and horrifyingly effective, it was the Invaders’ subtlest weapon, clawing constantly at the Alliance’s Imperial outposts. Only Captain Wong could comprehend it, but could even she, the Alliance’s most brilliant poet, hope to control the corrupting power of its words?
My friend H first introduced me to Samuel R. Delany over a year ago. She has been slowly going through his novels and spoke about him every time we met. I was intrigued for Delany sounded different to the conventional sf writer; visionary, intellectual, radical. I was a little afraid to try him but then I came across a copy of his book at my local charity shop and snap it up I did. And then I got an e-mail from Aarti inviting me to participate in her blog tour for A More Diverse Universe and I thought Babel-17 would be perfect. For Delany is African-American and gay (although his sexuality and relationship status is rather complicated).
And you know what? I was totally. blown. away. Babel-17 is a slim book and yet it is a substantial one in thought and idea. Delany’s writing style is sophisticated and you immediately sense that here is someone who knows how to write. You know when you get that tingling feeling that you’ve stumbled upon a masterpiece? Yes, that.
Set several centuries in the future where life has spread out far from Earth, there have been several incidents of sabotage and terrorist bombs against the ruling hegemony, the Alliance. In this technologically advanced, decadent and deteriorating society, someone has been sending signals that no one can decipher. Except for one person. Rydra Wong is a celebrated poet with a gift for languages. She is given the commission of decoding this mysterious cypher known as Babel-17. She soon discovers that it’s not actually a code but a language like no other and her interest is peaked. Gathering herself a handpicked crew, she embarks on a journey to deconstruct this language and in doing so, come to terms with her traumatic past.
But Rydra’s ship is soon captured by a vessel situated in the region between the two warring factions, just out of the jurisdiction of Rydra’s society. Full of societal misfits, Rydra soon gets to know the captain and his comrades including the mysterious convict named The Butcher. After gaining their trust, the captain agrees to escort Rydra to the next suspected destination of planned attack. And it isn’t long before Rydra realises the full extent of their enemy’s power and treachery.
This sounds like a conventional quest for the self but it is so much more. Considering Delany published Babel-17 in the late 60s, it has worn its age extremely well. He could have published it this year and no one would blink an eye. The ideas, projected advances in technology and culture seem contemporary in a Blade Runner and Neuromancer kind of way with hints of Michael Moorcock’s The Dancers at the End of Time. But what makes Babel-17 so special is the language and the thought processes behind it which reminds me strongly of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. Delany’s gift is that he holds back rather than overwhelm you with too much information, making you want to delve further into his world. There is a sparse beauty to his writing and since Rydra is a poet, she explores the complex beauty and power of language. And in this instance, the power that the language holds is immense. For Babel-17 will take over your thoughts, your memories and your actions. It’s a weapon like no other.
Like the language Babel-17, Delany’s story and style is subtle. You realise it while you are reading the book and it hits you again when you finish, as you try and work your mind around it. It’s certainly one that I would like to re-read. It’s been a while since I’ve read an sf book that has stunned me with it’s complexity and readability and I urge you all to try it. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Delany’s books, although I have heard that some, such as Dhalgren, are rather extreme.
I read Babel-17 as part of A More Diverse Universe reading tour. If you are interested in more diverse sff, do check out the link where you’ll find lots of titles!