Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I waited eagerly for this to arrive from Amazon, since this was going to be the book for January for my SF Masterworks book club, and it seemed like it would never arrive. However, that’s because it was shipped from the UK. It got here on the fourth and I started reading it right away. I chewed through it pretty quickly, partly because it was an excellent book and partly because I was really sick with the flu and thus I had the time.
Delany apparently wrote this book at the age of 23 in the 1960s, and because of that, a lot of people are quick to judge him as being “in love with his own cleverness.” I think that’s a characterization that wouldn’t have been made were people not aware of that tidbit of information. I will admit that Delany does have a habit of lecturing his readers, even about subjects that he doesn’t really know as much about as his characters should.
Rydra Wong, the clever, strong, brave heroine of the piece (who might be a bit of a Mary Sue; but hey, cut Delany a break, this was a strong female sci-fi protagonist in 1966!) is a famous poet and a cryptographer in a far future where humanity has settled in the far-flung corners of space. One might think that these are contradictory skills, but Rydra is perhaps a bit autistic, having been afflicted with a plague as a child that may have caused brain damage, and is a bit of a savant when it comes to languages and communication. That “knack” extends into even reading the subtle nuances of body language and muscle tics, and might even border on telepathy.
There is a war going on between Invaders and Alliance (never thoroughly explained; the Invaders are some kind of enemy aliens but the Alliance also includes aliens). A general discovers that some kind of a code they dub “Babel-17,” is being broadcast over radio receptors right before major mechanical disasters happen to major Alliance military targets. He asks Rydra, the best cryptographer he knows, to crack it.
Realizing this is not a code but a language, Rydra decides she must track down the speaker of this language and understand it, and decides to go in search of it. The language doesn’t reveal much initially but does tell her where the next “accident” will be so she goes there, after first recruiting a bizarre hodgepodge crew. What follows after explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language forms personality and consciousness, in an unforgettable crazy space opera romp with an unforgettable ending.
I find myself thinking of this novel as “proto-cyberpunk.” Babel-17 is likened at one point to computer languages and it is used to program machines. The working class people (called “Transport” as opposed to the stiffly proper white collar “Customs”) are prone to enormously transformative surgical alterations that make many of them look anything but human, nontraditional relationships, odd customs, and the use of discorporate (read: dead but preserved as energy) people to do jobs that live humans simply couldn’t do. I was reminded very much of the world of Joan D. Vinge’s “Catspaw” and I can’t help but think that if Delany had been born twenty years later, this book would have contained a lot more internet or cyberrealm equivalent. All the elements of what will become cyberpunk are here. I love this colourful world, so vividly realized in such a short novel.
I also love the protagonist. What a breath of fresh air in 1960s vintage science fiction! She’s marvelous! Some reviewers have found that her abilities stretch credibility, but really, if you read carefully, she’s amazing at just one thing; reading and understanding people. That ability serves her well in many capacities, including poet, cryptographer, starship captain, diplomat, and rogue.
I suppose it may not be to everyone’s tastes — my partner found it dull, but then again he doesn’t share my interest in how language forms consciousness either. Personally, I’m glad I had to buy this book to read it because I’m sure I’ll read it again. Highly recommended!