Samuel R.Delany is an author, professor and literary critic, best known for his sci fi novels. This one, Babel-17, and the Einstein Intersection both won the Nebula Award, (1966 and 1967 respectively.)
He is a cerebral writer, and by that I mean that although his work has all the fun trappings of really good sci fi of the 60s, it has an academic and thoughtful underpinning which keeps all that space opera-y stuff pasted together in a coherent and believable manner.
The principle idea in Babel-17 is taken from the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis This is that idea that if you don’t have words for something, you can’t think about it. And that how you think about something influences your life and culture. In linguistics, the Hypothesis states that there are certain thoughts of an individual in one language that cannot be understood by those who live in another language. The hypothesis states that the way people think is strongly affected by their native languages.
This is an interesting yet controversial theory, and has, since its heyday in the 50’s, been pretty much disproven, although there are some linguists who feel it has some relevance in the field of relativism.
The entire premise of the book is built on this hypothesis, so a fundamental grasp of the bones of this hypothesis will make for much more enjoyable reading.
Our heroine, Rydra, says at one point
Textbooks say language is a mechanism for expressing thought. But language is thought. Thought is information given form. The form is language.
There are certain ideas which have words for them. If you don’t know the words, you can’t know the ideas — And if you don’t have the idea, you don’t have the answer. Until something is named, it doesn’t exist.
So in addition to this academic idea, we have as the leading figure a young woman! Whooohoooo. She is a pilot, a linguist, a poet and a telepath, who lives in an intergalactic world, of which Earth is only one of the inhabited planets. “Invaders” arrived twenty years ago, and since then there has been an ongoing conflict between them and the Alliance, the side that she is on. But as we learn as we get deeper into the novel, who is the invader and who is the invaded, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, is really a matter of perspective.
There were nine species among the seven explored galaxies with interstellar travel. Three had allied themselves definitely with the Alliance. Four had sided with the Invaders. two were not committed.
Rydra Wong is contacted by General Forester of the Alliance to help decode a number of messages they have intercepted. After some study, she comes to the conclusion that the messages are not in code, but are in fact a different language, marvelous in its conciseness.
She acquires a ship (of the space variety, thank you very much) and goes off in search of a crew, which will help her fly the ship to search out the creator of this new language. The pilot is a lizard like creatures, very large. See, in this world, space pilots are hooked sensorily into the ship and they sense the hyperspace waves or something. Another section of the crew she obtained from the Discorporate Sector. These folks are dead but not dead, and because they tune into the environment senses -sight, sound, smell, it would be total overload for a living person and make them totally mad, so discorporates are used for this job.
At one point another pirate ship helps them out of a jam, and she meets a man known as the Butcher. He has a strange language system — he has no “I” or personal reference pronouns, and a lot of the yada yada between the two involves the exploration of the idea of a self. Buddha would have been proud.
All in all, it was a pretty good story, and I really liked the ‘hard science’ aspects, that is, the world building. Lots of nifty interstellar stuff, but get this …. while walking around looking for the crew, at one point her companion needed to contact his headquarters, so they found a street phone on the corner lamppost.
I find it interesting: no matter how visionary the sci fi writers are, it seems that none of them get the cell phone/computer thing right. As my Dearly Beloved points out, even in Star Trek, although they had those proto iPads, when they pulled up information, there seemed to be no wifi, and they had to walk over to the other person to show them what was on their screen.
So, great read, as so much of the mid-20th century sci fi is, which all makes you think of 1960s Popular Science Magazine covers, and the early Disneyland Land of Tomorrow of thirty years ago.
An just as a side note, take a look at the cover on Delanys’ book above. Doesn’t the chick on the cover look like the actress Dana Delaney?