The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Rydra Wong, supremely competent as a linguist, as a poet, as a polyglot, and as a spaceship captain, seems almost overburdened with talent. If she has a flaw as a character, it is that she never seems seriously threatened: In any situation, she will think of something. She must also be one of the most loved and respected characters in the genre: General Forester is in love with her, as is the Butcher; her mentor, Dr. Markus T’Mwarba, has a deep affection for her; even her poetry is universally admired.

The Butcher is much more interesting as a character because of his vulnerability. At some time in his past, he has been inhumanly treated and left with his strange defect. Rydra succeeds in giving the Butcher a sense of self in one of the most touching (and affectionate) scenes in science fiction.

The minor characters serve well to supply the novel with the sense of strangeness, of the exotic, that science fiction must have. These touches of the unusual are illustrated in realms ranging from unconventional sexual groupings (a common theme in Delany’s work) to the altering of the human form. In that future time, bodies may be surgically changed, both for practical purposes, such as the adding of extra limbs, and for the cosmetic whim of the patient—perhaps the addition of retractable claws and a mane.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Rydra Wong

Rydra Wong, the protagonist, the most famous poet in five galaxies. Although she is only twenty-six years old, she already is considered to be the voice of her age. In addition to writing poetry, Rydra is a skilled cryptographer, a linguist, and an interstellar captain. These fields of accomplishment, as diverse as they seem, are all aided by Rydra’s total verbal recall. She always had this talent to some degree but developed it rapidly after a severe illness in her youth. Rydra also is telepathic and frequently knows what people will say before they say it. Her own assessment of this skill, however, is that she is merely “reading” the expressions of others with great precision. By the time that she was twelve, Rydra had learned seven Earth languages and five extraterrestrial tongues. In the intervening years, Rydra studied many other forms of communication, including six languages used by the Invaders. She is considered very beautiful and has high cheekbones, copper-colored pupils, and East Asian features. Her hair is long and frequently cascades over her shoulders. Five years earlier, Rydra was part of a triple, a form of marriage among three people. One of the partners has died and another, suffering from an incurable illness, has been placed in suspended animation. She is enlisted by the military of the Alliance to break the secret code called Babel-17. She discovers that the language is a version of the enemy within, a parasitical system of signification that causes the human host to become a saboteur against the Alliance. Her improved version of the language, Babel-18, shifts the balance of power to the Alliance.

Dr. Markus (Mocky) T’Mwarba

Dr. Markus (Mocky) T’Mwarba, a psychologist and teacher. When Rydra was twelve, she was sent to T’Mwarba for treatment in psychotherapy and neurotherapy. Since that time, they have become close friends. T’Mwarba holds a black belt in Aikido and is the one person in whom Rydra places complete trust.

Danil D. Appleby

Danil D. Appleby, a customs official who helps Rydra assemble the crew of the Rimbaud. With his crew-cut red hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Appleby is, at first, the very image of the punctilious bureaucrat. After meeting Rydra, however, he develops a new sense of confidence and humor, coming to enjoy...

(The entire section is 969 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Rydra Wong is a strong heroine who does not conform to the macho image prevalent in the science fiction of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Instead, she is a sympathetic, individualistic, and even romantic figure who single-handedly solves the puzzle of Babel-17.

Wong is born with a talent for languages, both terrestrial and extraterrestrial. An embargo-related plague causes her to become autistic; only extended treatment with Dr. T’mwarba enables her to recover and, eventually, become the poet who functions as “the voice of her generation,” a title she despises. Rydra enjoys the numerous chances, sometimes dangerous, to put her talents to extraliterary use, including the opportunity to decipher Babel-17. As the novel progresses and Rydra’s mission leads her into contact with unfamiliar settings, some of her character traits are revealed through interaction with other unusual characters.

The first of Rydra’s extraordinary traits is her telepathic ability, displayed in an encounter with General Forester that opens the novel. She surprises Forester with her ability to anticipate his comments in the conversation. Later that evening, during a discussion of the interview with Rydra’s mentor and former psychoanalyst, Dr. T’mwarba, the secret of Rydra’s poetic talent is revealed: She monitors the thoughts of those around her and then expresses their unformed thoughts in poetic form.

Likewise, Rydra’s interaction with the crew...

(The entire section is 575 words.)