Saturday, March 11, 2017

Review: Babel-17

Babel-17 Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reading this book is a little like going back and playing one of those early home video games, something like the first generation of Castle Wolfenstein. There’s something to it, something you know you sensed when you played the game way back when, but you can also clearly see how the technology limited the final effect.

This one has a fabulous premise: the “bad guys” develop a language that corrupts its speakers. It functions less like a human language and more like Fortran or Basic – languages that direct a machine to do a thing without giving it the vocabulary to comprehend itself. Without that sense of self – without the concept of “I” – it isn’t possible to resist the codes one’s programmed to do. In the world of the novel, it turns its speakers into sleeper double-agents, people who aren’t aware of their own duplicity.

I can give that kind of a summary largely because of what I learn in the final pages of the novel, when one of the characters – having been reprogrammed of deprogrammed – explains the phenomenon to everyone else. Otherwise, this is a hard-to-follow story. We get a lot of quick cuts, a lot of characters introduced by pronouns rather than given names, and a lot of action committed by characters under the control of other wills.

Much of the story moves forward through dialogue, often a clunky narrative technology but especially so here. How, I ask, can we contemplate the power of language when we are so trapped in conversation. There are “technologies” that might work better – stream-of-consciousness, multiple narrators, deliberate fragmentation – but Delaney tends to stay with a conventional approach here. He does push against it a little – we get some attempts at weird-angle limited omniscient third person and he opens each chapter with long, allusive quotes from Marilyn Hacker’s poetry – but, ultimately, he doesn’t seem to have the tools to get his fabulous question across.

I don’t think he’s alone. I’m cooler on his contemporary Philip K. Dick than most, and there was a lot of other high concept, overly pedantic sci-fi in those era. It was common for sci-fi to come across as cold, peopled with characters who seem props for ideas rather than characters in their own right. In some ways, the original Star Trek had the same problems: big ideas without quite the special effects to pull them off. It took Star Wars (on screen) and Dune (in print) to begin to develop that technology, and now we have Guardians of the Galaxy (on screen) and Neal Stephenson (in print, when he’s on his game).

There’s certainly something here, and I also acknowledge I read this too quickly to get everything from it. I suspect I’d have been in awe of it if I stumbled onto it as a 13-year-old in 1978. I don’t mean to say I’d have gotten all the bio-linguistic points it raised, merely that I think I’d have sense it even then as pushing toward something it couldn’t quite yet say.

I have the chance to hear Delaney a few weeks from now, and I’m keeping an open mind. I’m blaming him here for a limited technology, but it’s just as possible I’m not bringing all the reading tools to this that I should.

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