Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

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“If there’s no word for it, how do you think about it?”

Twenty years after an invasion of the solar system, poet Rydra Wong (famous throughout the five explored galaxies) is called upon to help decode Babel-17, a language that has something to do with the invasion. Rydra is only 26 and in addition to being a famous poet, is also an expert in both human and extraterrestrial languages, to the extent she can even read people’s minds simply by observing their body language. There are nine space-faring species, some on each side of the war, but language barriers keep them from reality knowing each other even if they’re allied.

We get snippets of Rydra’s poetry (written by Delany’s wife Marilyn Hacker) throughout the novel. We’re told she’s a successful poet because she can express what people want to say better than they can, but she can’t express her own thoughts. (Her poem that starts part one is pretty cryptic and metaphorical, so I disagree that she’s good at expressing things in a clear way, but whatever.)

There’s mention of people being repeatedly driven to cannibalism at the beginning of the novel, so I expected it to be dystopian, but it turns out things aren’t as grim as the introduction would lead us to believe. We’re told people typically live to be 150 years old, for example, which indicates things are better in this future than they are today.

The novel is largely an exploration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (what language you speak determines your worldview and limits what you’re able to think about) and Rydra even solves a navigational problem due to a word in a different language helping her think in a different way.

I like the colorful details we get about this world. There’s a bar where people check their clothing at the door. Space crews engage in body modification such as adding membranes or roses to their bodies. The pilot resembles a lion and wrestles in a zero gravity globe above the bar in order to show off his piloting skills.

The crew also includes three navigators (whose job requires them to be in a close emotional and sexual union with each other), an Eye, Ear, and Nose (who need to be dead because a living person can’t do their job), and a platoon of kids who love playing marbles wrangled by a Slug who administers corporal punishment to make them work better (hitting people doesn’t actually make them work better, but whatever).

I like that when someone interacts with the dead, they typically can’t remember what happened or what was said, but they remember the emotion of the encounter strongly. We’re told brains of dead people can be copied so their knowledge is preserved.

As the crew gets underway, it becomes evident that they have a saboteur on board the ship. Rydra also starts to learn Babel-17, which is such a perfect language that knowing the word for a type of restraint also gives you the knowledge for how to get out of it. She meets a man called The Butcher whose language has no word for I or me or you which limits how he thinks.

There’s a lot of fun ideas in here. It’s more fiction than science, but overall, an enjoyable read.

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