Babel-17 Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Samuel R. Delany

Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Samuel Delany has himself explained the context in which the novel was written in several interviews and in his memoirs, the most complete of these being The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965 (1988). Though Babel-17 was published in 1966, Delany’s memoirs cover the period during which the novel was written and reveal the two episodes that led to its composition: the language that he and his then-wife, poet Marilyn Hacker, invented, the source of Babel-17; and the sexual “triple” which he and Marilyn entered into in the East Village of New York City. Delany’s social and sexual preoccupations became the source for many of the novel’s ideas and plot devices.

The literary influences on the novel range from the science fiction of Theodore Sturgeon, to the poetry of prodigies such as the French writer Arthur Rimbaud, to the circle of science-fiction writers in New York, and the circle of writers in San Francisco who came to be associated with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. These various and wide-ranging influences contribute to the richness of allusion and detail that are typical of Delany’s work. As Delany describes it, the novel was born during a period of psychological and social discovery in his life, during a time when he was experiencing what it was like to be black, a writer, and gay. As he notes in retrospect, he came to these realizations in the early 1960’s, when none of those words had the significance that they gained by the end of that decade.