Babel-17, winner of the Nebula Award for best novel of the year, is a fascinating tale of a famous poet bent on deciphering a secret language that is the key to the enemy's deadly force, a task that requires she travel with a splendidly improbable crew to the site of the next attack.
©2015 Samuel R. Delaney (P)2015 Blackstone Audio, Inc., and Skyboat Media, Inc.
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"A bit dated"
The story is focused heavily on ideas from linguistics, in particular the Sapir Worf hypothesis. While that may have been cutting edge in the 1960s, it is pretty outdated now. While words certainly can be used to frame arguments and manipulate people, that ability is not all that tightly bound up with the language itself.
"Contrived and poorly executed"
The story is based on an interesting concept. The execution, however, is poor, with many literary flaws. The characters spend too much time explaining things in dialog, to the point where the dialog is not natural, and the listener feels like information is being spoon-fed to them. Many of the details are too contrived. The main character is a linguist, a spacecraft captain, and also happens to be psychic? The other characters are barely fleshed out at all, they are "explained" rather than allowing the listener to discover them. Two stars for the concept, and the performance is fine, but overall, not very well written.
Samuel Delany wrote a masterpiece. Lots of things to make you think about language and meaning. Good work on how creating a future society, and what it would look like, and how folks would get along with one another. Normalized being in a threesome sexually.
Performance of both male and female parts was extraordinarily well done.
"Great Concept, Not Quite the Narrative Tech"
He has a beautiful voice, but his register is so low that it's sometimes hard to hear.
Reading this book is a little like going back and playing one of those early home video games, something like the first generation of Castle Wolfenstein. There’s something to it, something you know you sensed when you played the game way back when, but you can also clearly see how the technology limited the final effect.
This one has a fabulous premise: the “bad guys” develop a language that corrupts its speakers. It functions less like a human language and more like Fortran or Basic – languages that direct a machine to do a thing without giving it the vocabulary to comprehend itself. Without that sense of self – without the concept of “I” – it isn’t possible to resist the codes one’s programmed to do. In the world of the novel, it turns its speakers into sleeper double-agents, people who aren’t aware of their own duplicity.
I can give that kind of a summary largely because of what I learn in the final pages of the novel, when one of the characters – having been reprogrammed of deprogrammed – explains the phenomenon to everyone else. Otherwise, this is a hard-to-follow story. We get a lot of quick cuts, a lot of characters introduced by pronouns rather than given names, and a lot of action committed by characters under the control of other wills.
Much of the story moves forward through dialogue, often a clunky narrative technology but especially so here. How, I ask, can we contemplate the power of language when we are so trapped in conversation. There are “technologies” that might work better – stream-of-consciousness, multiple narrators, deliberate fragmentation – but Delaney tends to stay with a conventional approach here. He does push against it a little – we get some attempts at weird-angle limited omniscient third person and he opens each chapter with long, allusive quotes from Marilyn Hacker’s poetry – but, ultimately, he doesn’t seem to have the tools to get his fabulous question across.
I don’t think he’s alone. I’m cooler on his contemporary Philip K. Dick than most, and there was a lot of other high concept, overly pedantic sci-fi in those era. It was common for sci-fi to come across as cold, peopled with characters who seem props for ideas rather than characters in their own right. In some ways, the original Star Trek had the same problems: big ideas without quite the special effects to pull them off. It took Star Wars (on screen) and Dune (in print) to begin to develop that technology, and now we have Guardians of the Galaxy (on screen) and Neal Stephenson (in print, when he’s on his game).
There’s certainly something here, and I also acknowledge I read this too quickly to get everything from it. I suspect I’d have been in awe of it if I stumbled onto it as a 13-year-old in 1978. I don’t mean to say I’d have gotten all the bio-linguistic points it raised, merely that I think I’d have sense it even then as pushing toward something it couldn’t quite yet say.
I have the chance to hear Delaney a few weeks from now, and I’m keeping an open mind. I’m blaming him here for a limited technology, but it’s just as possible I’m not bringing all the reading tools to this that I should.
"A Sci-fi delight perfect for any Star Trek lover"
Dense with original, provocative ideas, Babel-17 is wonderful (and, in seeing the sixties' view of the future, humorous ) at every turn. I'm happy to have experienced it! Go, Rydera!
"Not my cup of tea but interesting concept"
Like what I said in the title, just interesting enough for me not too return it, but it barely kept my attention
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