Babel-17, by Samuel Delany, is a highly philosophical novel. It is based on an artificial language that shares a name with the title, Babel-17. This language has only third person in it. There is no “I” or “you,” in other words.
The plot follows the main character, Rydra Wong, who is a poet. The story is set during a war in space where one side develops Babel-17 as a way of affecting change in those who use it. It turns people more collectivist, and it also makes their technical abilities sharper.
Rydra Wong is also the captain of a starship, in addition to being a poet, a telepath, and a learner of languages. She is tasked by those in her government to figure out how their opponents are so successful in their attempts at sabotage.
You can write about Wong’s discovery of her traitor on her own ship, how Babel-17 subverted the traitor and even herself, and how she ultimately figures out how to neutralize the effects with the help of her shipmates.
Babel-17, Delany’s first novel to receive a Nebula Award, was also the first to address issues found in many of his later works. Part novel and part philosophical inquiry, Babel-17 explores the degree to which language shapes the perception of reality. Babel-17, the artificial language from which the novel receives its name, is described by Delany as lacking both first-and second-person pronouns. As a result, Delany suggests, speakers of this language would not have any ability to be “self-critical” to separate reality from what the language has “programmed” them to see as reality. On the other hand, Babel-17’s analytical superiority over other languages is said to ensure that its speakers develop technical mastery over most situations.
One of the questions raised by the novel, therefore, is how much one’s language dictates the way in which one perceives the world. In Babel-17, the word for a member of the Alliance would mean something roughly translatable as “one-who-has-invaded”; this, Delany suggests, causes those who think in the Babel-17 language instinctively to view the Alliance as a hostile force that must be destroyed. As one reads the novel, one wonders how much one’s own linguistic structures—including, for example, such expressions as “upper class,” “Far East,” and “New World”—not only reflect, but also actually determine, a system of values.
With a poet as its protagonist, Babel-17 is also a work that explores the nature and power of literature. In the poetry of Rydra Wong, the novel’s main character—as well as in the quotations taken from the poetry of Marilyn Hacker, Delany’s wife, which serve as epigraphs for major sections of the novel—one finds poetry continually represented as an effective medium of communication. Rydra Wong’s success throughout the galaxy is proof that words can unite individuals regardless of their backgrounds, cultures, or even the planets on which they live.
On yet another level, Babel-17 functions as a sociological novel, exploring the ways in which people wrongly assume that social conventions reflect a universal law. In the intricately detailed world that Delany has created, many contemporary customs are presented in an exaggerated fashion so that the reader might view them from a new perspective. For example, a reader may be repulsed initially by the novel’s description of “cosmetisurgery,” a procedure by which lights, flowers, and mechanical devices are implanted into one’s body as decorations.
Yet, in the characters’ discussions of this practice, it quickly becomes apparent that surgical alteration of the body for purposes of beauty or hygiene has parallels to the familiar customs of circumcision, ear-piercing, and creating tattoos. In a similar way, the discomfort that some of the novel’s characters experience when encountering a “triple” (a form of marriage among three people) is intended to reflect the discomfort of Delany’s readers’ society when dealing with those whose...
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