Themes and Meanings

Throughout his career, Delany has been intensely interested in problems of communication and theories about it. He is obviously a man of both wide and deep reading, much of which shows up in his fiction. In Babel-17, one finds the speculations about language of several linguists, all of whom share a common theme. Alfred Korzybski, a Polish aristocrat and émigré, published Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics in 1933. This turgid and cranky book attracted many admirers both in and out of science fiction by its thesis that if one clearly distinguished words from the things that they represent, one could free oneself from many misunderstandings and follies.

Korzybski’s principal advocate in the United States was S. I. Hayakawa, who promoted the ideas of general semantics in a much more readable form. Some of Korzybski’s ideas resembled those of Benjamin Lee Whorf, a noted American linguist of the 1930’s, after whom the Whorfian hypothesis was named—the idea that the language one speaks controls the way one experiences reality. According to the Whorf hypothesis, to control someone’s language is to control his behavior.

This notion had been explored in science fiction before Babel-17, most notably in Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao (1957), but Vance’s work dealt with the action of language on the mass of people, while Delany’s is concerned with...

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Themes and Meanings

The primary subject of Babel-17 is the role of communication in human society. Included in Delany’s discussion of communication, in addition to the obvious discussion of language, is the encoding of human behavior in the realms of sexual and class-related behavior. In each of these situations, the correct decoding of the environment determines the success of the character’s enterprise.

The first of these encoded situations concerns the nature of sexuality. General Forester is immediately attracted to Rydra upon meeting her. The general, however, strictly follows the rules of military etiquette and does not mention this attraction to Rydra. Rydra, who is telepathic, senses the general’s thoughts and later tells Dr. T’mwarba that she would have welcomed, or at least appreciated, the advance. The general, unable to decode the situation properly, remains on the outside of communication, as he does throughout the novel.

The second encounter over sexuality involves the unique customs of Transport-class navigators, who situate themselves in sexual “triples” to aid in the completion of their duties. The two navigators chosen by Rydra for the mission, Calli and Ron, have lost the first (female) member of the trio. Rydra convinces them to choose a new first from among the reanimated navigators at the morgue. When Ron continues to feel resentment about the treatment of the navigators by the Customs class, Rydra reveals to him that...

(The entire section is 538 words.)