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Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany - Sci-Fi Classic Review

I pictured Rydra a lot younger than that

"The variety of worlds science fiction accustoms us to, through imagination, is training for thinking about the actual changes--sometimes catastrophic, often confusing--that the real world funnels at us year after year. It helps us avoid feeling quite so gob-smacked." - Samuel R. Delany

You can never really be prepared for your first literary encounter with Samuel R. Delany. It's been a few years for me, and I still can't decide if the man is a science-fiction supergenius or an addle-brained madman. Truth is, he's probably both. The son of a funeral director and a librarian, he had the guts to grow up as a self-outed gay black man in Harlem in the fifties and sixties, and his extraordinary life is as wild and unbelievable as his fiction. A poet, literary essayist, social commentarian, and legitimate science-fiction grandmaster who cut his teeth during the experimental New Wave era, Delany is not for the uninitiated, and his dense body of work isn't the kind of thing you can just crack into on a Sunday afternoon while sipping tea.

With that in mind, let's look at his 1966 Nebula-Award-winning Babel-17, arguably his first important novel. This is the story of a seemingly indecipherable alien language as it worms its way into the brain of Rydra Wong, a young poet whose work is famous in five galaxies. It starts out simply enough, but it isn't long before the novel becomes a meta-narrative about itself, when it begins to feel like Delany is himself writing in a dense and meaningful alien language you can barely comprehend.

This is so silly, I love it

I had a creative writing teacher in high school who gave me a hard and fast rule: make your story about one thing and one thing only. I've encountered this rule a few times since then, and it's always struck me as relatively wise, especially when it concerns science-fiction. When building fantastical sci-fi worlds, it's easy to get lost in the sheer amount of ideas you want to put out there, and it's even easier for your audience to get lost trying to understand where you're going with it all, if anywhere. For the longest time, I've considered it a mark of good sci-fi writing when a writer manages to stay focused on just one big idea--or at least one topic, like the way most cyberpunk deals with human beings interfacing with digital information--instead of trying to fill his or her stories with everything but the gravity sink.

Samuel R. Delany, on the other hand, does not obey this rule, not in the slightest. While it is a relatively short book, Babel-17 is not a quick read, as it requires readers to pay close attention, to piece together a complex and baffling universe that is described with unforgiving efficiency. Unlike a certain famous and similarly dense work about a desert planet I'll be talking about in a few weeks, Delany doesn't even offer an appendix to help readers keep up. Instead, it is up to you to keep track of this future where people modify their bodies to the extreme, can become discorporate, navigate spaceships through complex perceptory tricks and with the aid of tripled sexual partners, can commit suicide and be brought back to life later, are engaged in a generations-long stuggle with a conglomerate of alien "Invaders," etc. And that's all before things start happening that characters within this universe think are strange.

Thematically, too, Delany is all over the place. Perception, poetry, linguistic determinism, social inequality, war profiteering, prejudice, and sexual politics are all central to the plot, along with one of the better sci-fi explanations of psychic ability as a heightened and almost subconscious ability to read subtle physical cues in a person's behavior and mode of speaking. (It goes deeper than that, but let's try and keep this simple.) It's so advanced and--though I hate the word's modern day political connotations--progressive that it's hard to believe it was written in the mid-sixties. One passing reference to punch-card computing aside, it feels like it was written today.

It's great you finally put it together with Empire Star the way he wanted, but man, that's a boring, generic cover

Despite all this apparent chaos, it's all compelling, and it all makes sense--to a certain degree--by the end. Delany's style is earnest without being preachy, detailed without being boring, and playful without being obtuse. While I'm not sure I can say it's fun to read, Delany's work demands a ton of respect for its raw talent and ambition. In less adept hands, this would be an impossible book to slog through, but Delany manages to get across a million fascinating ideas in far fewer words.

The thing about Babel-17, too, is that all this richness becomes essential to the story being told. The titular alien language is, in many ways, a metaphor for the kind of future Delany envisions. Unlike some of the hard sci-fi writers I've covered--most notably Clarke and Heinlein--Delany isn't concerned with accurately predicting the technologies and science of the future, but rather the ethereal sense of it. He wants you to feel a little bewildered, because the future is going to be bewildering. And while he certainly knows his stuff when it comes to language and psychology--and while Babel-17 certainly belongs on the sci-fi shelf--he's leaning heavily on the fantasy side of speculative fiction, building a universe that obeys its own rules. However, he does this not because he's taking any shortcuts--may no one ever accuse Delany of that--but because that's the only way for him to get across the concepts he is so eagerly trying to convey.

This is all a long-winded way of telling you I don't feel competent enough to talk more specifically about Babel-17 or offer any coherent criticisms of it. I'd have to read it at least ten more times to fully digest it, and while I'm not above doing that, it would be very difficult for me to keep up with this blog if I did nothing but write about Babel-17 for the next two or three months. Sufficed to say, I am confident in writing that it is a work of startling genius. Samuel R. Delany is a fascinating figure with a lot to say, and he's proven himself to be one of the greatest science-fiction authors still alive today. Though I can't recommend his works to anyone just starting out with the genre, I do believe they are essential reading for anyone steeped in it. If you think you're ready for him, Babel-17 is definitely a proper introduction.

-e. magill 11/14/2019

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