The stylistic application of language and linguistic theory, in combination, have the potential to produce brilliant writing. Such a mix also has the potential to fail spectacularly should one or the other extend too far. Samuel R. Delany’s 1967 Babel-17 is amazingly able to fail at one, but given the secondary and tertiary layers worked into the overall premise, succeeds. Dated for the theory it depends on, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the novel’s prose never lets the reader down, the hypothesis proving useful in a lateral manner. Transcending much of the genre’s norms of the time, Delany’s seventh published novel is well worth reading despite the disputability of the linguistic concept incorporated.
For those unaware, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (as it was largely known in Delany’s day), and what has since become linguistic relativism, is a theory that purports humanity’s perception of the world is shaped by language. Generally speaking, if a language lacks a word for a specific thing then that thing is either non-existent or hazy in meaning, depending how strictly you interpret matters. For example, the language I’m learning now, Polish, lacks directly translatable words for “chuckle”, “snicker”, “giggle”, “cackle”, “chortle”. Adhering strictly to linguistic relativity would mean these variants of laughter do not exist in the Polish mindset. Seeming dubious at best (especially anyone who has spent time amongst the Poles), the idea is nevertheless the main principle guiding Babel-17.
The story Babel-17 is of Rydra Wong, a polyglot, borderline-autistic savant poet who is called in by the Alliance to decipher an enemy code called simply Babel-17. Used by the Invaders (aliens who have been sabotaging Alliance stations), the code is a first step they have taken to infiltrate mankind’s enclaves and colonies around the universe. One region after another engulfed into the Invader empire and placed under embargo, the method is effective. Quickly realizing the code is in fact another tongue, Wong obeys hers instincts and sets out to prevent the next Invader attack with a small sample of the language and a handpicked crew of highly exotic proportions. But where her plans take her is not the point her confidence initially steered.
Delany’s style vibrant and youthful, Babel-17 nevertheless shows poise. Packed neatly into less than 200 pages, Wong’s story progresses in brisk but concisely described scenes, Sapir-Whorf the engine pushing things forward. Wong’s poetry incorporated as epigraphs, the book is something of a language sundae. The prose is not sweepingly majestic nor overtly allusive, but instead balances description, concept, and plot into a dense but salient story that is as lightly thought provoking as it is entertaining.
Before moving on, it’s best to get the obvious out of the way, starting with a quote from Wong: “Don’t you see, sometimes you want to say things and you’re missing an idea to make them with, and missing a word to make the idea with. In the beginning was the word. That’s how someone tried to explain it once. Until something is named, it doesn’t exist.” (131) A quick rumination on the different types of love we know exist but for which we lack the words (in English) shoots down any narrow interpretation of Wong’s statement. But that Delany goes on to utilize this idea in Wong’s behavior indicates his interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf is indeed a narrow one. The denouement flying in the face of reason, it’s best to approach the book with low expectations regarding the “science” in the fiction.
There is, however, another aspect to the linguistic theory described in Babel-17 worthy of mention. Published in 1966, perhaps the heart of the civil rights movement in America, it’s possible to look at the linguistic relativism in a parallel but distinct light to the theory. Rydra Wong is one of so few lead female roles in sci-fi published up to the time. Likewise of mixed ethnic descent, Delany is overtly challenging many of the norms of the day in the genre. Wong’s universe post-human before that too was considered a standard motif, the crew she collects to pilot her to the next place she thinks the Invaders will sabotage is a far cry from the characters populating Asimov and Clarke’s stories, and indicates Delany had additional ideas regarding color and practice. The pilot a massive sentient more lion than man, Wong also recruits triplings (polyamorous groups of three), discorporates (undead who use their immaterial state for advanced inter-stellar navigation), and team members who have cosmetically-surgerized their bodies in ways only science fiction can think of. Truly a ragtag bunch of sailors, the crew Wong assembles is anything but typical space opera characters, something Delany seems to present as transcending the existing societal limits. That Wong is seeking to understand the language of an esoteric group likewise indicates Delany is attempting to stretch cultural understanding beyond appearance and behavior to a level more universal. Thus if the usage of failed theory is considered a weakness of the novel, than most certainly its more central concept—language—redeems itself by being used as a tool to examine culture and individual choice.
In the end, Babel-17 is a thought experiment, story, and expression of cultural awareness all rolled into one. The theory underpinning the plot is weak, but Delany’s sense of style, storytelling, and usage of the theory to transcend societal norms are enough to right the ship. Characterization neither rich or realistic, the intent is not empathy, rather to play with a linguistic theory plot-wise and hold a mirror to the sun and see how it reflects in our own world character-wise. That mirror may come from a circus tent, but nevertheless more than a few elements are properly reflected.