Sunday, January 03, 2010

Book Review: Babel-17

Babel-17Samuel R. Delany
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ☆ ☆ – – –


I started out liking this book. I thought the main premise was good. Two opposing sides are engaged in an interstellar war. The good guys are the Alliance. The bad guys, the Invaders, have come up with a new weapon: Babel-17. Babel-17 is a language but it sort of acts as a computer virus; when you’re thinking in Babel-17, it makes you think in the ways that the language is designed to make you think, which means sometimes sabotaging your own side. It brings up interesting questions about whether the structure of your language can affect how you think. For example, if your language has no word for “I” or “you,” can you understand the concepts that those words represent?

Unfortunately, there were a number of things I ended up not liking, not least of which was the main character, Rydra Wong. Wong is a genius with languages and can feel out their translations by osmosis, and apparently she’s the only one in the universe with this capability. So she’s asked by the Alliance military command to solve the mystery of Babel-17 and figure out how to fight it. She puts a ship and crew together and goes to investigate and does, of course, figure out the mystery of the language and saves the Alliance and ends the war, yadda, yadda, yadda.

The problem is that Rydra Wong is totally annoying. Everything she does is perfect. She is the only person who has a chance of understanding Babel-17, she has a black belt in Aikido and she’s a capable starship captain. She is also totally empathetic with everyone on her crew, regardless of background, and they all just love her and all feel like they have a special connection with her. Oh, and she’s also the universe’s most famous poet, and everyone they run across is just awestruck at meeting the great author in person. And yet she’s also at times vulnerable and dependent and, worst of all, flirtatious with the big strong men in her crew. She’s always passing out after Babel-17 episodes and falling into the arms of whatever guy happens to be around.

It was all suspiciously similar to Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which came out four years before Babel-17 and which had equally unrealistic and dopey female characters.

An unrelated annoyance was that many of the situations seemed really contrived. The worst were the battle scenes. The commanders gave each battle a theme and carried that theme to the most ridiculous extent. For example, in one battle the theme was Asylum. Each division had code names like “neurotics” and “psychotics." During the battle they were given instructions like “maintain contact to avoid separation anxiety” and “prepare to penetrate hostile defense mechanisms” instead of "stay close" or "attack."

Okay, one more silly thing. Many of the characters in the book have had their bodies altered or had art implanted. Wong’s pilot, for example, has basically had himself turned into a lion, complete with fangs. Because of his fangs, he is unable to say the letter “p,” so every time he says a “p” the author replaces it with an apostrophe. So he’ll say things like, “it’s time for the shi’ to take off.” But for some reason, he can say “b” and “f” just fine.


Jake Miller said...

It’s time for the shi’ to take off

SFBookclub said...

We discussed this at my Science Fiction Bookclub last night and while I thought there were some interesting elements in the book I did struggle to see why its considered a classic.

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