I recently rediscovered this book hiding in a crate in my home library, waiting several years to be read. As with most of my experiences reading Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17 proved at various times frustrating, inscrutable, exceptional, and interesting. When a friend asked me if I had enjoyed it, I replied, “I respect it.” That’s perhaps the best way to sum up a lot of my feelings about Delany’s science fiction.
Babel-17 takes place in a future where humanity has spread out across the stars. We are also at war with unspecified aliens called the Invaders. Rydra Wong is a poet of great repute. She has mastered so many languages that the military approaches her to decipher an Invader code called Babel-17. Rydra decides she needs to take out a starship and crew and investigate the site of an upcoming attack by the Invaders, one that will help her understand the nature of Babel-17 once and for all. In this process, she and her crew face terrible danger. Perhaps more importantly for Delany’s themes, Rydra meets an enigmatic man whose incomprehension of I and you provides that final piece to her Babel-17 puzzle.
Though a short book, it took me a week to read because, as always, Delany’s science fiction exemplifies the way in which this genre can be used to explore complex ideas. Delany has a knack for imagining and telegraphing complex societies that are very different from our own without drowning us in exposition. We quickly learn that death isn’t necessarily the end in this society: you can become discorporate, a kind of consciousness separate from corporeal form, and that discorporate crew are essential for some of the operations of a starship. I kind of wish Delany had explored or explained this more; motifs of embodiment have long been something that fascinates me in science fiction. They manifest strongly in Babel-17, where Delany suggests that language might in fact be enough to shape or split someone’s personality, to effectively disembody oneself within one’s body. From here, he further invokes tropes common to 1960s SF, including psychic and telepathic abilities.
But language remains the defining feature of this novel. Rydra’s investigation into Babel-17 hinges on her ability to parse, comprehend, and eventually speak this alien language. Delany is clearly influenced by the advances happening in computer programming in his time: if we can literally shape the “minds” of our machines depending on the type of programming language we use, could we not shape the minds of people the same way? (This also feels like an anticipation of the pseudoscience of neuro-linguistic programming that emerged in the 1970s, although that was more about patterns of speech than developing an entirely different language.) Indeed, some of the most intense conversations in this book aren’t directly about Babel-17 but are still about language. Rydra explains the difficulty of communicating with alien species that lack concepts we take for granted (like home) while, in turn, having words so attuned to describing concepts we might take entire books to relate. While linguistic relativity and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis remain somewhat controversial, depending on how you define them, their staying power is evident because we are just obsessed with language. It’s one of the most defining aspects of our humanity—and as anyone from a marginalized identity group is aware, language and vocabulary can be important in asserting one’s agency too.
So don’t underestimate this book just because it’s tiny! There is a lot to unpack here.
I will add a small warning, though, which is that the book definitely feels dated in some regards. Delany uses terms for ethnicities that, while common in the 1960s, have long since fallen out of favour (and therefore it’s kind of jarring to see them show up in a setting in the far future). This is less a criticism than an observation for anyone embarking on this book in 2021. Unlike, say, the Foundation novels I just finished reading, Delany’s writing holds up remarkably well when it comes to characterization. Male or female, corporeal or discorporate, professional or hired help, the characters in this book each have their own chances to show off what they can do without the kind of jingoistic editorializing that Asimov brings to his characterization.
Far from my favourite Delany novel, Babel-17 does confirm, I think, that I prefer his science fiction to his fantasy outings. I think that when he is imagining entirely different worlds and technologies, Delany often creates stories that ironically feel more grounded in the mundane than the ones that he weaves in, say, Neveryóna. Regardless of setting, however, Delany’s writing is inevitably thought-provoking, and Babel-17 is no exception.