I’ve never felt so close to a brilliant mind playing with the possibilities of language and the difficulty of communicating feelings as I have when reading Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17. Of course, this SFF adventure from the early 1960s is all about language, the mysterious one named in its title. It’s up to Rydra Wong, the young poet who is described as the voice of her age, who also happens to be a master spaceship captain, as well as linguist, battle strategist and telepath, to crack the mysteries of Babel-17.
From early in the story, Delany brings communication of feelings front and center. Rydra has a conversation in a bar with the General who is recruiting her for the Babel-17 mission. He arrives in civilian clothes and feels uncomfortable since he lacks the normal shield of his uniform.
Sure enough, with his defenses down, he is smitten by Rydra’s beauty and struggles to contain his every response to her. But she is a master at reading subtle muscular changes and can see what is going on with his feelings. The General manages to leave, he thinks, without betraying anything, but Rydra is upset. As she later explains:
“He thought nothing had been communicated. And I was angry. I was hurt. All the misunderstandings that tie the world up and keep people apart were quivering before me at once, waiting for me to untangle them, explain them, and I couldn’t.”Babel-17, Kindle edition, Location 368
In order to carry out the mission for the General, Rydra has to assemble a crew and obtain a ship in one night. I love strange crews, and this is one is almost too strange to visualize. There is the ten-foot tall Pilot who is a wrestler, when not wired into a ship, and cosmetically transformed to resemble a saber tooth tiger.
The Navigator is a set of three people acting in unison, one of whom has to be raised from the dead and only speaks Swahili. There is a rowdy group of twelve kids managed by a kind of nanny called the Slug. They handle all the routine mechanical tasks on board, from repairs to cooking.
The “discorporate” Eye, Ear and Nose do all the scanning that would kill a live human being. The discorporate can speak to live humans, and while they are speaking they seem to have faces. However, neither their faces nor speech can be remembered. To counter this, Rydra translates each message to another language, Basque, one that she can capture and remember.
The problem with Babel-17, which is at first thought by the military to be only a complex code, is that this language can turn people into traitors and weapons. Rydra has to learn this the hard way when her own ship experiences malfunctions on take-off, leaving them adrift until they manage to get back on course for their destination: the center of weapons production for the Alliance. This universe has been split between Alliance and Invaders, two human groupings that have divided up several galaxies between them but remain at war.
After arriving at the Alliance weapons center, Rydra and crew are entertained by the Baron ver Dorco. Treachery overtakes them all once again when more hidden messages activate a super soldier weapon that wreaks havoc at a huge dinner party. Rydra and crew escape to their ship, but the vessel seemingly takes off on its own, after more Babel-17 messages are mysteriously sent. The whole crew falls unconscious. When Rydra awakens she, her crew and their ship have been taken on board another vessel, an Alliance-friendly pirate ship, under a Captain Tarik.
Things get more interesting from there as Rydra deepens her knowledge of Babel-17 as well as her relationship with one of Tarik’s crew, named Butcher. He has a habit of slamming one fist into his hand, and Rydra realizes he is doing this because he lacks words to express crucial concepts: I and you.
Delany was deeply interested in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that maintained one’s language determined the categories of thought. If there was no word for a concept, it couldn’t exist in your life. Hence for Butcher, there was no “I” and no “you”. As Rydra puts it to Butcher:
“In the beginning was the word. That’s how somebody tried to explain it once. Until something is named, it doesn’t exist. And it’s something the brain needs to have exist, otherwise you wouldn’t have to beat your chest, or strike your fist on your palm.”Babel-17, Kindle edition, Location 2247
Rydra sets about teaching him these concepts, and so language becomes the instrument that not only changes Butcher’s awareness but also makes it possible for him and Rydra to get close and communicate feelings. Their dialogue helps to unlock certain secrets about Butcher’s past and completes Rydra’s understanding of the weaponized Babel-17.
Though Delany came to reject the Sapir-Whorf view of language, he constructs in this novel compelling scenes that are central to the drama of the story.
After Rydra and Butcher survive further dangers with Babel-17, she explains late in the novel (some spoilers here) just what she has been facing in mastering this language, as it simultaneously mastered her:
“Rydra nodded. “It ‘programs’ a self-contained schizoid personality into the mind of whoever learns it, reinforced by self-hypnosis—which seems the sensible thing to do since everything else in the language is ‘right,’ whereas any other tongue seems so clumsy. This ‘personality’ has the general desire to destroy the Alliance at any cost, and at the same time remain hidden from the rest of the consciousness until it’s strong enough to take over. That’s what happened to us.”Babel-17, Kindle edition, Location 3193
With its many intriguing and mind-stretching scenes, Babel-17 holds up well after almost 60 years, despite the fact that Sapir-Whorf has fallen by the wayside. My main complaint is that the novel is too short and that many of the critical scenes, especially late in the story, disappear into the blank spaces between chapters. I can only wish that Delany had written more about these characters.
An interesting note is that the beautiful and densely written extracts of poems that precede major sections were written by Marilyn Hacker, Delany’s wife at the time. I very much want to look up her work. Babel-17 is not to be missed.