Samuel R. Delany is one of the great modern science fiction writers. Oddly enough, he’s another of the greats that I hadn’t read. I’m not sure why. I’ve heard (and read) good things about his stories. He’s one of the many writers I always plan to get to at some point, but I end up being distracted by another book that catches my attention.
I recently picked up a copy of his 1966 novel, Babel-17. As usual, I didn’t read anything about it ahead of time, other than reading on the cover that it had been a joint winner of the 1967 Nebula Award and nominated for a Hugo that same year.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the story. It began with humanity being at war with a mysterious race of invaders, so I assumed it was going to be a war story, but after a few chapters I realized it was far more than that.
The story follows Rydra Wong, a poet, a linguist, and a ship captain who has been tasked with trying to decipher the invaders’ language. The enemy had been pulling off acts of sabotage and terrorism, and the only clues to the next attack may be found in their intercepted communications.
Rydra puts together a rag-tag crew (is there any other kind?) and sets off to figure out where the next attack will take place and try to get there before the invaders do.
Overall, it’s a great story. Delany is a poetic writer, his prose is filled with beautiful descriptions of everything from the alien crew members to the various ships and environments. Seeing as how this novel was written in the late 1960s, I have to wonder if Delany was writing while under the influence. If I had to guess, I’d say ‘yes’. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I also feel that Delany was ahead of his time. For example, the main theme of the story isn’t war or aliens or space travel, it’s linguistics. I found that fascinating. He constructed this language that doesn’t contain any pronouns. There is no word for ‘I’. In light of the current political climate in parts of the United States, this was an interesting aspect that surprised me. Additionally, the invader language has the ability to change the speaker’s worldview, allowing them to actually see and understand more of what’s happening around them. The sections where Rydra begins to understand and utilize the language are amazing.
Additionally, I feel like Delany broke ground in the area of sexuality in this story. Again, I haven’t read any of his earlier works – or any of his other works, for that matter – so I can’t say if he did anything like this before. However, many of his characters modify their bodies to be something different than how they were born. Their sexuality is also fluid, allowing for couplings that, at the time of publication, must have been shocking. Reading the story from a modern perspective, it felt like he was foreseeing the future.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the main character, Rydra, is a Chinese woman. Again, Delany broke some interesting new ground with just about everything in this novel.
It was a fantastic novel that made me want to explore more of Delany’s works. If you enjoy words and the power they possess, Babel-17 will make you happy. It’s beautifully written, pushes the boundaries of science fiction (especially for the time period), and explores the power of language.