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,...
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