Classic: Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

This will become a monthly or biweekly segment, where I will discuss classic texts. To be included in this section, such a book will have to be written at least 50 years ago and it must be widely regarded as an outstanding text of its time and/or genre.

The start to this series is Samuel R. Delaney’s Sci-Fi classic Babel-17. I picked this title completely at random, I heard about it, saw that it was at least to some part about language and started reading it.

Babel-17 was published in 1966 by a then just 23 year old Delaney. It was by far not his first book, it was his sixth. How someone so young, can write that well and that thought-out, still puzzles me. But enough chatter, I intend to do one thing with this Classics segment: to tell you as a reader in the now, how pleasurable and enjoyable those old classics are nowadays. Despite from what such works once may have meant, are they worth reading now? Will you enjoy them?

I liked Babel-17. It tells us the story of Rydra Wong, a young poet and also captain of a space-ship and her adventure around a mythic language simply called Babel-17. Rydra is also a not-really telepath (you’ll get this when you’ve read the text) and graced with an intricate understanding of language and its patterns. She is tasked by the military to decipher Babel-17 speech, which they caught at attack sites recently. To solve the mystery, Rydra has to find a crew and travel the universe.

Babel-17 did well, what many books try to do now, some better, some worse; it has a set of characters that are not all straight cis-gender males or fantasies thereof, but diverse, interesting and depicted with actual depth. I especially liked the character of Rydra, she is such an interesting character, with such a unique view upon the world, I didn’t care one bit that not much was happening in the story, seeing the world through her eyes was enough. She is a great driving force as a main character.

Babel-17, you will have guessed by its name, is also about language, how it unites and distances us. The novel treats the Saphir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds that perception and thought are heavily influenced by language, as true. One character, for example, speaks a language free of pronouns such as I, me, my etc. Said character, has no I in the real sense for he does not perceive his consciousness to be an I. I have never read something as funny and tragic and interesting at the same time, as Rydra teaching this character unaware of pronouns, the concepts of I and you. The novel manages to tackle such issues of language, reflect on them without annoying the reader. That was quite interesting and something not often done in books.

The only thing that I might criticize here, is the sometimes confusing plot.

This is a classic that is absolutely worth reading. A great main character, enough mystery to stay interested even if not much is happening plot-wise and a great treatise on language and how it shapes our thinking and perception.

Publisher website for the book

I read this book in an electronic version and will therefore not comment on the book’s edition. Future installments of this segment will also discuss a book’s edition.