Ya know, finding a book I wanted to read that just so happened to be written by someone under the age of 30 was a far more difficult task than I expected. I had originally picked Ready Player One because my math told me Ernest Cline was 29 when it was published. Well, ladies and gents, there’s a reason I became an English major. I don’t math well. Turns out he was 39. Thankfully, I was able to switch these two since Samuel R. Delany was only 24 when this was published. Sure, Babel-17 came out in 1966, but it still counts. I think.
In Babel-17, humankind is deep in an interstellar war. The story starts with things going south for the home team. Bases are being sabotaged and officials are being assassinated. The government thinks its found a way to stop all this subterfuge when they discover what they believe is a code–Babel-17. None of their people can crack it, though, so they bring in the beautiful poet/linguist/starship captain Rydra Wong. She immediately realizes Babel-17 is a language, not a code. This realization drives her to gather a crew and set star-sail to solve the mysteries of the Invaders’ Babel-17 and hopefully help stop the war.
This…is an interesting book. It’s really more of a deep look at language disguised as a sci-fi novel than anything else. The central idea is that language is a huge factor in our thought processes and who we are as people. Maybe. I’ve never really been good at analyzing things like that (makes you wonder how I got an English degree, huh?). I won’t spoil how Babel-17 works as a language in case anyone stumbles across this and wants to give the book a shot, but one of the character’s native tongue doesn’t have the concept of pronouns. Overcoming that hurdle is a pretty cool part of the book.
There’s quite a few cool things in this book, actually. Sure, it’s a sci-fi novel, so that’s to be expected, but I found myself going, “Well, that’s nifty,” a decent bit. The discorporate beings was probably my favorite idea introduced in Babel-17. In this world, those who die become discorporate and can still live(?) and function within the galaxy. Kinda like ghosts, but not. Starships actually have to use discorporates for certain roles on the crew because living beings can’t possibly handle those particular tasks. Rydra is also a great part of this book. She’s such a driven and fascinating character. Her linguistic mastery is actually so great that she can read other people’s body language to the point where it’s almost telepathic. In fact, she does have telepathy, but she refuses to use it.
Sadly, every other character is pretty dull and one-note. They don’t bring much to the table other than, “Boy, I sure can’t wait to help Rydra.” And, like I said before, this is mostly a study of language. Although it does make you think, it also detracts from the story and characters since there is kinda only one character. As for the story, there’s not much that’s actually resolved. Again, though, that’s not really what Babel-17 is about.
All in all, yes, I very much enjoyed this book. The writing, concepts, and Rydra outweighed the flat characters and “meh” story. It quenched my thirst for old sci-fi, and I do want to read all the Hugo and Nebula-winning novels, so this sort of killed three birds with one stone.
This was the second book I read on my cruise. After it and Ready Player One I realized I’d picked my books pretty well. I had no idea at the time, though, that I was about to read my favorite book I’ve read so far for the reading challenge. Up next, a book with nonhuman characters. What will it be? Stay tuned to find out.