Babel-17 – A Classic Book of Thought and Idea

The latest interstellar war has been raging on with no end in sight. That is until important Alliance installations are being sabotaged by a new and unknown means. The only clue is snippets of a new and unbreakable code picked up on the radio. A code dubbed Babel 17.

Rydra Wong as drawn by artist Chris Moore for the 1999 cover of Babel-17 published by Gollancz/Orion. (c) 1999 Gollancz/Orion.
Rydra Wong as drawn by artist Chris Moore for the 1999 cover of Babel-17 published by Gollancz/Orion. (c) 1999 Gollancz/Orion.

General Forester, of the Alliance army, is in charge of breaking a new code from the Invaders, however, his cryptographers cannot break it. In desperation, he sends part of the code to the intergalactically famous poet, linguist, and one time cryptologist, the beautiful Rydra Wong. Rydra Wong has discovered it isn’t a code at all, but a language. A language so complex in its simplicity that she is easily persuaded by Forester to discover its meaning and its origins.

Rydra Wong assembles a motley crew to run her starship that includes emotionally linked triple marriages, digital ghosts, and a gang of teenagers. All of which is common practice in the universe of Babel-17. With her new crew, Rydra Wong heads in the direction of her first clue, where the next act of sabotage will occur. What she didn’t account for was that there would be a saboteur aboard her very own ship.

Wong and her crew go from one disaster to the next, but somehow manage to wend their way, with thought and skill, through the galaxy, tracking each clue as it’s discovered. With each act of sabotage, or worse, more of the Babel 17 language is recorded and analyzed by Rydra Wong. Wong is also a telepath and as she studies Babel 17 something starts to change in her.

Finally, Wong encounters Butcher. Butcher is a space privateer working with the Alliance in their fight against the enemy. However, Butcher has a problem of his own. He cannot think in terms of ‘I’. This leads Rydra to postulate that Butcher is actually a native of the world where Babel 17 originated from as there is no reference to self in Babel 17. With this realization, Rydra gently helps Butcher think in the ‘I’ perspective. To become aware of self.

By now has unlocked the secrets of Babel 17 and is thinking in Babel 17. With this new ability, she has discovered who the saboteur is and how and why Babel 17 is used in these attacks. She also uses it to help Butcher win a decisive space battle. By the end, Rydra Wong has created Babel 18, a new language that can be used against the Invaders and win the long war.

In Babel-17 Samuel R. Delany explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language influences thought and perception, in a very engaging and entertaining way. The idea that the language we speak is not just a method of communication, but something that can alter our perceptions and abilities, is an interesting one. It has long since been disproved, but at the time Babel-17 was written and published, it was a credible theory.

Delany, with his usual style and ability, weaves a story that melds personal growth with galactic consequences. Delany has that ability to create characters that are at once exotic and yet familiar. Delany also wrote characters that, while clearly far beyond the norm in ability, could also be terribly vulnerable.

Rydra Wong may be beautiful, intelligent in the extreme, and very successful, yet she also requires reassurance from her psychiatrist, Dr. Markus T’Mwarba. Rydra doesn’t use her talents for personal gain, but to protect her fragile ego. Then there is Butcher. A man of great prowess in battle, but also lonely in the extreme. So closed off, he sets himself up as second in command of his own ship because of his debilitating inability to think about ‘I’ or ‘you’. Delany can make you feel pity for even the most hardened of characters.

If that was all Babel-17 had to offer it would be worth reading. However, Delany’s fecundity of imagination wells over on the pages. Most notably the idea of a ghost in digital format, radical cosmetic and genetic alteration, and a fluidly sexual triple marriage. The digital ghosts are clearly a precursor to the uploaded minds found in later cyberpunk stories. The idea of fluid sexuality and body modification clearly influenced later writers like Iain M. Banks’ Culture and Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space books. Babel-17 could very well be considered the proto-posthumanist novel, with its multi-galactic setting, its reliance on character development rather than action, and the way Delany uses big ideas to build his story the way a carpenter uses nails to build a house.

Babel-17, published in 1966, is older than I am, but aside from a few details, it reads fresh and exciting with Delany’s signature ability to ensnare the reader in only a few lines. While some of the science of Babel-17 is wrong, the fiction is still very right. Babel-17 is a book whose time has come. Again.

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