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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