Monday, May 5, 2008

Review - Babel-17

by Samuel R. Delany
Tied for 1966 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Babel-17 is an odd book for me as I started out with a strong negative opinion and in the end reversed it. This change didn't occur because of any aspect of the novel but strictly in my point of view.

In the middle of an extended interstellar war acts of sabotage have been accompanied by a strange, indecipherable transmission. It is given the name "Babel-17" by the military code breakers and when they cannot solve it they hand it over to a former cryptographer who has become the universe's most famous poet and has a near supernatural gift for linguistics. She quickly determined that Babel-17 is its own language instead of a code and understands enough of it that she knows where the next attack will be. She gathers a motley crew together to follow the signals as she works out more and more of the language and its secrets.

I was annoyed with this book at first for one simple reason: the linguistics that are the center of the book both narratively and philosophically are nonsense. Narratively Delany goes into great depth on how the language of Babel-17 is more densely packed with information than any other known language. It's super-efficient and allows the speakers of it to gain insights through that language. The problem with that is to have the level of information that Delany describes would actually make the language significantly less efficient; to pack it in all as densely as the novel uses would require layers of context that would slow down the thought processes. In addition the nature of the language requires that many characters in the book behave like idiots so that the main character can demonstrate how great she is.

What changed for me is a discussion on suspension of disbelief. I made the point that you have to allow the movie or novel its premise and as long as that was internally consistent to let it go. I realized then that I had been viewing Babel-17 through a hard SF filter and it's not. I don't just dismiss stories that feature pseudoscience faster-than-light drives as a problem even when the author wastes my time pretending to explain it. Babel-17 is about as soft as science fiction gets only its choice of science is different.

So taking a second look the protagonist who's so perfect that everyone falls in love with her and she changes the world view of everyone she meets makes a bit more sense. Delany is telling a story about language and the hows and whys of it don't matter even if he tries to explain it. The protagonist's mastery of language affects those around her.

It still isn't entirely successful. The way the story jumps from episode to episode without a real purpose or connection is annoying. Even when I understand where Delany is coming from with his perfect character it doesn't make her more endearing to the reader. It doesn't make the strawmen characters who exist mainly to be shown the right way by the protagonist more interesting.

What does work is that once you allow for the unreality of the premise Delany has some fun with the idea of an incredibly powerful language. It not only shapes the world view of those who use it, at several points it actually shapes the text of novel. Delany's prose is sharp in this regard and is a good match for a book on language.

In addition the adventure story being told in Babel-17 is interesting and packed with some fairly unique concepts; many of which really deserve a novel of their own to focus on the concept. Humanity is losing meaning as people modify their bodies wildly to their whim but this is a superficial detail in the novel. The dead are raised and serve as both crew and a kind of synaesthetic sensor system.

So in the end I found the novel worth reading but overstretched in certain respects that might turn off many readers. There's a lot of interesting to read about concepts but few of them are supported well. I liked it but it's a borderline case.