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Babel-17 - Samuel R. Delany

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Author: Samuel R. Delany / Genre: Sci-Fi / Fantasy

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      12.04.2007 20:17
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      A novel deserving of its 'Masterworks' status, well written, though occasionally difficult reading.

      Different genres mean different things to different people. Regardless of whether it’s movies, music, books or various other activities, one person’s delight is another’s nightmare.
      Science-fiction is one of those genres that can polarise even the best of friends. If you’re the kind of person who rages at the very thought of anything sci-fi, then perhaps the ‘SF Masterworks Series’ is something best avoided. If, like myself, you enjoy reading sci-fi, then this series is well worth checking out. Stretching back some five or six decades, the ‘SF Masterworks Series’ is a collection of ‘classic’ science-fiction, selected by writers and editors well respected within the field.

      ‘Babel-17’ is the sixth book of the series and was written by Samuel R. Delany. Originally published in 1967, it tells the tale of Ryda Wong, who is a poet renowned through the five known galaxies and is considered the “voice of her generation”, as her poems seem able to say the things others want to, but simply don’t know how to.
      The backdrop to the whole story is the fact that the Alliance, (which consists of several worlds and species) is fighting a largely unknown force known simply as The Invaders. After several “accidents” have happened, it is believed by many that The Invaders have managed to create some kind of super weapon. The only thing known about it is that transmissions have been recorded in some alien code, which has been given the working title of ‘Babel-17’.

      Before becoming a poet, Wong served in the military because from a young age she had a “knack” for languages and was widely regarded as the best translator working for the Alliance. For this reason she is asked to begin attempting to decipher the code. Very quickly Wong realises that what is supposedly just a code, is in fact a language in itself. So taken is she with this new language that she sets out not only to solve its mysteries, but find out who exactly uses such a language.

      I was really taken by some of the concepts Delany presents in this book. I liked the idea of “cosmetic surgery gone mad”, whereby humans all manner of alterations done to their bodies, making them look and act more like animals.
      Another concept I enjoyed was the ‘discorporate’ beings, (essentially dead-people brought who are ‘alive’ as ghosts). Whilst I thought the explanation for how this happens could have been a little more in-depth, I found that idea itself quite novel and interesting.
      I also found the fact that language plays such an important part in both the plot and the interactions between characters to be very intriguing. I have always been fascinated with languages and ciphers ever since I was young, so for me it was quite enjoyable to read Delany’s approach in terms of the concepts behind languages and how there are sometimes no literal translations – the notion of whether not having a word for something means you lack its concept too was particularly thought-provoking for me.
      To be honest, I could probably write a whole review on the concepts Delany presents within ‘Babel-17’, though I suspect there are far too many to keep you reading. Needless to say, for any fan of science-fiction, there’s no shortage of material to engage and entertain the mind. For people who have either never encountered much sci-fi, or only have a passing interest in it, this book does run the risk of over-loading you with weird and wonderful concepts. All I would say is that the effort does pay off and it is worth struggling through.

      I did think the book started a little slowly and, at first, I found I was only reading short sections, (not even necessarily whole chapters), before putting the book down again. It’s not so much that the first few pages aren’t engaging, but rather that the slow pace early on in the book is really setting the scene for things that happen later on. It wasn’t until forty or fifty pages in that I made a conscious effort to read up to a certain point, (I think I chose a random number close to a hundred). Despite this initial concerted effort I actually found that the book really picked up a little before half-way through and it was then that I found the threads laid out earlier in the book really began to piece themselves together in such a way that it became quite a compelling read.
      Like I’ve already mentioned, I felt that in the end “struggling through” did pay off, but I will admit I was getting quite close to giving up on the book altogether. I wouldn’t be overly surprised if some people did stop reading just before the book really gets interesting and that is a bit of a shame, but fairly understandable in some respects – my only advice would be, if you think the book isn’t really going anyway, read a little bit further than you might normally give a book

      Another issue along the same theme is that certain portions of the book a little hard going in terms of how Delany’s style reads. Whilst I wouldn’t say that they are overly packed full of subtleties and nuances, they can from time to time become a little difficult to follow. I’m not adverse to ‘heavy’ reads by any means, buy once or twice I did find myself having to re-read section to fully grasp then and even on some occasions even giving up trying to understand them all together and move on. I wasn’t overly put off by these sections and overall felt the book was fairly easy going, but it is worth noting that some parts can perhaps go over your head from time to time.

      With Ryda Wong as the main character, Delany focuses a lot of his efforts in developing her particular character, which I thought he did very well. A slight side effect is that some other significant characters suffer slightly, with things eluded to be never fully explained. However, the strength of ‘Babel-17’ is not in the character development so much, but the way in which all the characters interact and respond specifically to Wong, or with one another because of Wong – a good example of this is the way Customs Officer Daniel D. Appleby, (who only met Wong for one night) and Wong’s former-doctor, tutor and life-long friend Mocky interact when they discover that they share Wong as “common-ground” so to speak. For me at least it is these interactions, couple with a solid enough plot and wonderful concepts, that really make the book deserving of its ‘Masterworks’ status.

      If you’re not a fan of sci-fi, then I would personally recommend staying away from this particular novel; however I would recommend this to people who are already fans of science-fiction. Equally, if you’re new to the genre then I think it might be worth getting a few other novels under your proverbial reading-belt before trying ‘Babel-17’, though I would recommend getting around to it eventually. Worth having in your collection because of the concepts and overall plot, just might take a little getting into.

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    • Product Details

      In 1967, Samuel R. Delany was young, gay, black and possibly the hippest person on the planet. He was to write more perfect books than Babel-17, but it is perhaps the most delightful, clever and sensual of his works. Its set pieces--an extended wander through space-dock bars as poetess and code-breaker Rydra Wong assembles a crew for desperate adventures; a high society dinner that turns into mayhem; Rydra's subversion/seduction of the sinister Butcher, who cannot say, or think, I, me or mine--are glorious in their arrogant sense that no-one has ever been this smart before. Rydra is one of those protagonists whom the author loves because he identifies with her, whom we love because we are overwhelmed by his infatuation. And the plot? Invaders from another part of human space are using as code a language which cannot be broken, and Rydra must save the day. As a meditation on language and thought, this is as sharp as its decor. Most important, though, is the complex, polymorphous sexiness of the whole thing--its sense of surgical chimerahood, life after death, and clone assassins as just unbearably hot and really really cool.