Friday, April 27, 2018

Babel-17, by Samuel Delaney

Samuel Delaney in Babel-17 (1965) portrays an intergalactic culture of the distant future where gender and relationship norms have fundamentally changed, where people surgically alter the appearance of their bodies—to get wings for example, or whatever else one might imagine as a body alteration--where dead souls can be revived.  Women command star ships and occupy the same roles as men.  But the main character, Rydra Wong, a famous and beautiful woman poet, seems a throwback to the Veronica Lakes of the 1940s.  She is exotic, immediately attractive to every man who sees her, a brilliant linguist, a mind reader, and Asian.  In other words, she is a stereotype. Delaney portrays the future as diversely multicultural, yet various ethnic groups still retain stereotypical characteristics associated with them today.  Economic and social class issues remain as well.  The crew of the starship commanded by Ryla includes a group of middle and lower-class individuals who talk as if they are secondary characters from a World War II platoon film.

Babel 17 is the language of a group of aliens who are invading the world.  Ryla is tasked with interpreting it.  As she comes to understand it, she finds her thoughts and abilities changing.  As it turns out, the invaders developed the language to be able to control the thoughts and actions of those who learn it. Delaney dramatizes in the novel a theory of linguistics, the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” which holds that language and the structures of the brain are related, and that learning to speak a new language affects how one thinks.  This idea was later applied in the film Arrival and the story on which it was based, “The Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang.

Much about this novel that would have seemed revolutionary at the time of its publication now comes across as anachronistically outmoded (computer programming cards, for instance).  Its vision of a world in which gender and social codes and behaviors have evolved beyond recognition is compelling.  But the anachronistic elements detract, and a degree of tabloid pulpiness does not help either.

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