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Babel-17 by Samuel R. DelanyBantam edition4 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIf ever a book was ahead of its time, that book would have to be Babel-17. Written while Samuel Delany’s career as a novelist was still fairly fresh, it’s a book one can easily imagine being released in the 21st century. Delany casts an Asian woman as the captain of a spacecraft at a time NBC was telling Gene Roddenberry that he couldn’t have a woman serving as first officer of the Enterprise because audiences wouldn’t accept it. He pays close attention to the cultures and subcultures of his future, and isn’t shy about redefining relationships and gender roles. He has the conscious minds of dead people serving as ship’s crew, decades before the transhumanists regularly began writing about upload civilizations. And he loves to play with ideas, both scientifically and philosophically, in the context of a fast-paced pulp space adventure that’s as entertaining now as it was so many decades ago.

The idea underpinning most of Babel-17 is something called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, a long since debunked linguistic idea that was kind of all the rage among intellectuals in the ’60s. Language, it was thought, could alter perception. Merely talking or even thinking about something in another language, not your own native language, could change your entire understanding of the thing. Not true, really. (I’m pretty sure that when a French person and an American person think about pizza, we’re thinking of the same thing apart from the toppings.) But it’s a hell of a premise for a work of speculative fiction, and Delany runs it all the way home in a book that’s barely 200 pages.

We’re far in the future, and an interstellar war is raging between the human Alliance and alien invaders we know only as the Invaders. Rydra Wong is a military veteran, linguist and popular poet — Delany includes poetry by his then-wife Marilyn Hacker as examples of some of Rydra’s work — who is approached by Alliance command for help in deciphering the Invaders’ communications cipher, Babel-17. Rydra has figured out that Babel-17 is neither a code nor a cipher, but an actual language. Her studies of it have convinced her she can accurately predict where the next attack will be, and with the approval of Alliance command, she assembles a crew to head to the destination. But it appears there’s a saboteur aboard her vessel.

As Rydra continues to grow more proficient in Babel-17, she experiences unusual changes in cognitive function. It’s as if she slips into a trance state whenever she thinks in Babel-17. Time itself seems to slow down, because the language brings a kind of superhuman efficiency to how the mind processes ideas. But it has side effects, almost like coming down from a drug high.

Faced with the challenge of conveying how Babel-17 works as a language, Delany experiments with prose form in ways he would further refine in books like Dhalgren, such as double columns of text contrasting the accelerated comprehension of Babel-17 to the tedious inefficiency of Rydra’s native language. But beyond stylistic innovations, Delany brings warmth and emotional truth to his scenes of character interaction. A scene set during a party, where Rydra has a private chat with Ron (a member of her crew engaged in a threesome marriage with two others), might seem like a needless digression. But it adds heart and humanity to the proceedings, a focus on the intimate lives of its characters that typical hard science fiction of the day couldn’t ordinarily be bothered with.

The same applies to the growing bond between Rydra and The Butcher, part of the crew of a pirate vessel friendly to the Alliance which rescues Rydra and her crew after a shocking attack. The Butcher is a criminal on something of a personal path to redemption, and Rydra notices that his own speech has no concept of “I” or “you,” something she also knows Babel-17 lacks. There’s a brilliant scene in which she teaches him the concepts, which he understands intellectually but has a hard time applying in practice. Delany never treats his characters as merely props to convey his story’s ideas (as John W. Campbell might have preferred). Their humanity is always front and center, and the emotional weight of the story always rests in how their lives are impacted and forever changed by their understanding. In this way, Babel-17 is a novel that speaks a universal language.