Babel-17, Samuel R. Delany

Continuing what has turned into a recent tour of the New Wave, I come to Babel-17. This novel first appeared in 1966. It won the Nebula in ’66 and was short-listed for the Hugo award in 1967.

Robert at The Valve was dissappointed by this novel; he writes that this book is representative of award winners that represent the mediocre mainstream rather than the greatest potential of art. I can’t support this argument. Considering that Babel-17 was in contention against a Heinlein novel, in only the second year of the Nebula awards, it shows a substantial bias towards art over popularity that the Nebula voters chose the Delany novel (in a tie with Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon).

It’s true that the novel has dated itself somewhat. Its main theme is an exploration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (see Wikipedia) that language strongly limits thought. More recent linguistic thought has all but rejected Sapir-Whorf, more or less nullifying the premise of Babel-17. But remember, the premise could be recast with the word “language” replaced by “memes” and it would have seemed current into the ’90’s.

And anyway, the novel does still have something to offer. For one, the first half or so of the book is a long sequence in which the heroine, Rydra Wong, is searching out a crew for her starship amongst the Transport community, who’s habits are somewhat wild, to say the least. She’s accompanied by a Customs officer, clearly representing mainstream and “straight” (in every sense) culture. The interaction is a direct comment on what 1960’s mainstream American culture had to learn from the various peripheral subcultures around it, and it’s still valid today.

The second half of the book brings the Sapir-Whorf premise more into play, as Wong takes her starship and crew out to find the source of a mysterious language that has been recorded in radio transmissions preceding various attacks on the Alliance government. This section also reflects a bit of the 1960’s SF’s romantic infatuation with the aristocracy, another feature that dates the novel. Nonetheless, the later part of the book does develop an action-oriented plot, without sacrificing Delany’s poetic writing style.

Given Delany’s style, and apt social commentary, Babel-17 is still well worth reading, even if other aspects of the book have aged in the 43 years since the original publication.

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