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In which Netty tries to come to grips with Babel-17 – and the whole sci-fi genre in general …

July 1, 2015

Well, obviously this wasn’t my choice. I say obviously, because as regular readers (all three of ‘em! Haven’t made that joke for a while now!) know, Andy is the one who does regular laps of the sci-fi pool, while I merely sit on the side and occasionally dip my toe in the water.  

A late 1980s artist's impression of the main character Rydra Wong. I have more to say about this later ...

A late 1980s artist’s impression of the main character Rydra Wong. I have more to say about this later …

Although I must say that at the behest of my blogging partner-in-crime, I am a lot more comfortable with this genre than I used to be. I may have even been mildly enthusiastic when he suggested American author Samuel R. Delaney (He’s gay! He’s black! He writes sci-fi! His best book is 900 pages long! Errrr …)

Actually, we could have read Dahlgren (the aforementioned book), but instead we settled on Babel-17 – a shorter and sweeter option at 192 pages. My copy is part of the well-regarded Gollancz SF Masterworks series, which publishes reissues of “important” (I don’t know who judges what makes the cut) sci-fi books from 1950 onwards. I reckon I’ve read about half a dozen of these now; I have even enjoyed them. Which just goes to show, you can’t always judge a genre by its cover …

I am probably more sympathetic towards Babel-17 than Andy, maybe because my expectations aren’t that high. Which is not to say it’s a bad book – it’s not, and I note that it won the prestigious Nebula Award (for best sci-fi novel of the year, that year being 1966, in this case). However …

It took me a while to get into the swing of reading sci-fi, but what I found helped immeasurably was not attempting to try and understand everything that is going on. Sometimes you’ve just got to let the words wash over you. Well, that was the key for me, at any rate. That, and suspending one’s sense of (dis)belief. 

The timeframe of Babel-17 is unspecified, but presumably it is set several centuries from now. There’s a 20-year-long intergalactic war going on between the Alliance and the Invaders. The Alliance have been intercepting communications from the enemy that they believe to be a code, which keep cropping up before major, catastrophic accidents believed to actually be incidents of sabotage. They solicit the services of a galaxy-famous poet and linguist specialist Rydra Wong, who soon ascertains that the dispatches are in fact a language, dubbed Babel-17 (geddit?)

Here’s where things get a bit complicated – the whole novel is based on a non-linguistic concept known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: “that language actively shapes perception and mental processes” (I am quoting here from Adam Roberts’ introduction to my copy of the novel). The character of Wong, who speaks multiple earth and extraterrestrial languages, also displays telepathic tendencies; she becomes a conduit for Babel-17, which takes over the minds of its users, as she deciphers it.

Oh, I should also mention that Wong, as well as being a famous poet, is also astonishingly beautiful and an experienced space captain. And she’s only 26. And therein lies one of my big problems with this genre – or my scant acquaintance with it – the portrayal of female characters.  

I mean, kudos to Delaney for making his main character a female captain, putting her in charge of a largely male crew, and sending her out on a space mission to grapple with the various conundrums surrounding the mind-bending Babel-17, and in the process somehow managing to bring an end to the crippling interstellar conflict (which is all-too-neatly resolved and packaged up by the novel’s end, another major quibble of mine). Oh, and during the journey she also finds love with a rival who may or may not be the real enemy. I mean, really? Now, I might be a cynic and/or a pedant, but I would have expected a bit more than a white-picket-fence ending for our brave heroine.

Maybe I’m reading (boom! tish!) too much into it. Maybe I should accept the (many) plot improbabilities and just go with the flow. Because Babel-17 is first and foremost an entertaining romp with some fantastically fun characters. The night Wong spends in Transport town with an out-of-his-depth customs officer while she is assembling her crew is riotous. Later, a touching camaraderie develops between the crew, who have unwittingly co-opted the services of an onboard saboteur who not only threatens the mission but could also cost them their lives. On face value this is a journey that is not going to end well. But then – oh. I already pre-empted that, didn’t I? Dang. 

The problem, as far as I can see it, is that sci-fi (like heavy metal) is a prejudged genre like no other. The people who say they “hate” sci-fi (and I used to be one of those people) are unlikely to have read much of it, or maybe even any at all. And herein lies its issue as far as attracting new readers. I can say with confidence that were it not for Andy’s influence, I would not have read any sci-fi. But I am pleased that I did. I reckon it makes us a little less ignorant and a little more likely to give thought to what lies beyond both space and time. And that can only be a good thing.

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