Babel 17 – Andy is a little lost for words

June 29, 2015

A few years ago Netty and I went to a Melbourne Writers Festival event featuring China Mieville and Alastair Reynolds. I know why I was there, although I have to say I can’t really remember why Netty was. At some point during the discussion Mieville namechecked Samuel R. Delaney as an influential boundary-breaching writer of science fiction who happened to be gay and infused his writing with a sense of his queerness (as I say, it is a few years ago, and I do paraphrase, perhaps a little too liberally). I decided then that at some stage Netty and I should read some Samuel R. Delaney, and, this year, we finally got there.

And we maybe should have got there with Dahlgren after all.

Dahlgren, apparently, is Delaney’s masterpiece. It’s also colossal, and has been compared to Gravity’s Rainbow. Given that neither Netty nor I responded with huge enthusiasm to Pynchon in Year One of the Challenge, Gravity’s Rainbow parallels did not sit, well, so we opted for something shorter and more accessible.

babel17Babel 17 is certainly shorter than Gravity’s Rainbow. And it’s probably more accessible than The Crying of Lot 49, or whatever lot it was. But it’s not necessarily any more rewarding for all that.

There were a couple of things I really, really liked about this book – there’s a scene early on involving a customs officer and a succubus that is superb – and there was almost nothing that I hated. But it was such an awkward, weird mix of things – high-concept scifi on one level, a literary novel “about” language and linguistics, but also a pot boiler paying more than lip service to the American tradition of scifi as intergalactic Western-cum-hardboiled crime yarn – and none of this really sat well together. In fact mostly it just doesn’t work. As a lifelong scifi fan I can look at the work of the English writer John Wyndham – someone who has since been sneeringly dismissed by many – and comfortably say, Soz, Sam, John was doing way better than you well over a decade earlier.

Delaney can write superbly – there are stretches (shortish, admittedly) that make me wish he’d refocused his literary intentions. But there are swathes of it, chapter after chapter, where characters talk like pantomime pirates and behave like extras in a pretty terrible episode of Star Trek (and keep in mind that, in my book, most of Star Trek was pretty terrible).

I’m afraid I can’t be bothered writing much more about this book because meh which means less than 500 words which is kind of wow. Those slivers of brilliance might just tempt me, under certain circumstances, to read some more Delaney. But Babel 17 (was it 17? maybe it was 49. maybe I got the numbers mixed up) left me very disappointed.



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