Reviews of Babel-17 (1966)
Review by spiphany (2005-12-18)
This was on a list of linguistics in science fiction and, hence, automatically of interest to me. Delany takes the linguistic theory known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and weaves a fascinating story about communication, loneliness, relationships--and of course Babel-17, the alien language which poet Rydra Wong sets out to decode. Very briefly, Sapir-Whorf is the idea that language affects how we think: "If there's no word for it, how do you think about it?" There's also a clear influence from Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics, which arose after the Second World War and emphasizes the principle that the more precise and exact a language is, the clearer the meaning.
Besides these two theories, both of which are taken to extremes in the Babel-17, Delany plays with language in numerous other ways throughout the book. I gather he makes numerous errors in some of the linguistic details, particularly in the area of phonology; all the same, he displays a much greater familiarity with how language works than many writers. There is a wonderful episode where an attack on an invader ship is described in terms of patients in a mental hospital, and another where Rydra attempts to explain 'I' and 'you' to a man who has no conception of either.
As a writer, Delany's strength is in characterization and description, and he tends to have a bit of difficulty with creating a satisfactory plot. Here he manages to balance plot and philosophy quite well (certainly better than in some of his other works), and the story advances quite naturally, although I found some of the conclusions he draws slightly hard to credit.
I enjoyed the book a great deal. However, some of my pleasure in it was spoiled by reading Walter Earl Meyers' fairly harsh critique of it in his study "Aliens and Linguists", which is where I got most of the linguistic details from for this review. His criticism of the book's inaccuracies are undoubtably justified from the perspective of a linguist, but as a poet and a philosopher Delany's writing rings true.