Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17

Babel-17/Empire StarBabel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a coruscating epistolary critique of The Bluest Eye, innocuously titled “Letter to Q——” in the 2005 collection About Writing, Samuel R. Delany tabulates what he sees as the many flaws of Toni Morrison’s classic first novel. The gravamen of his indictment is that Morrison so indulges miscegenation-anxiety and sex-panic that her book becomes ideologically akin to Birth of a Nation and George Lincoln Rockwell. In passing, he notes more mildly that the novel is also informed by “feminist clichés.” As this champion of the cultural left does not want to be thought of as anti-feminist, he clarifies:

I do not mean feminist concepts; I mean clichés—phrases and images from which the ideas that once made them rich and quick have been drained by repetition, easy emotions—negative or positive—and critical exhaustion.

Delany was writing in 1997. In his own early work, the spectacularly inventive science-fiction novels that made his name in the 1960s, when he was only in his 20s, we can detect a number of fresh and vital concepts that have perhaps become merely popular or middlebrow clichés in our own day. (He also claims in the Morrison piece: “Popularity is always a conservative phenomenon.”)

Perhaps the most famous of these novels, the one most clearly united around a central idea, is 1966’s Babel-17. The novel is set in a future marked by interstellar war between the Alliance and the Invaders. Its heroine is the brilliant young celebrity poet, linguist, and starship captain Rydra Wong, herself traumatized and orphaned by the war. Asked by an Alliance general to translate intercepted Invader transmissions in a strange code called Babel-17, Rydra assembles a team and sets off for space.

Because starships need to be staffed by polyamorous trios and by the consciousnesses of the deceased (or, in the book’s lingo, “discorporate”), Rydra must recruit her crew from the demimonde inhabited by those in “Transport,” i.e., space travelers, a kind of science-fictional bohemia looked down on in the novel’s world by the squares and normies who work in “Customs.” In the novel’s first quarter, Delany is clearly more interested in exploring this futuristic East Village—and dramatizing a Customs Officer, a stodgy straight white male, lose his resistance to its polymorphous blandishments—than he is in the plot’s supposedly central star wars.

But eventually Rydra’s ship, the aptly-named Rimbaud, is captured due to a mysterious traitor onboard. Our heroes end up on another spacecraft at an aristocratic dinner party eventually broken up—in a passage of delicious decadence—by terrorist sabotage. Better than quoting the text alone, I will quote Ted Gioia’s amusing commentary on it:

Over the course of this novel, Delany presents the full range of action scenarios, from hand-to-hand combat to full-scale spaceship battles. But even in the midst of combat, he finds a way to employ his experimental techniques. Delany’s description  of a terrorist attack at an official dinner is one of the strangest fight scenes in sci-fi history, with more attention lavished on the food than fighting. “The fruit platters were pushed aside by the emerging peacocks, cooked, dressed and reassembled with sugared heads, tail feathers swaying….Tureens of caldo verde crowded the wine basins….Fruit rolled over the edge.” It’s as if the NY Times had fired its war correspondents and replaced them with restaurant reviewers.

Rydra, meanwhile, realizes that Babel-17 is a language, a language of extraordinarily dense precision, of words as vast idea complexes. Thinking in it and speaking it allow her to perceive reality as a concatenation of such fine-grained patterns that her cognitive abilities become nearly superhuman. She also falls in love with the Butcher, an amnesiac violent convict whose own speech is bereft of the words “I” or “you.” At the novel’s moral center, they stroll amid the discorporate while the compassionate poet teaches the Butcher that these shifters, which express both personhood and relation, are the indispensable key to morality:

“Are they the same word for the same thing, that they are interchangeable?”

“No, just…yes! They both mean the same sort of thing. In a way, they’re the same.”

“Then you and I are the same.”

Risking confusion, she nodded.

“I suspect it. But you—” he pointed to her—”have taught me.” He touched himself.

“And that’s why you can’t go around killing people. At least you better do a hell of a lot of thinking before you do.”

In the course of things, we learn that Babel-17 is a weaponized Invader language that made Rydra herself turn traitor because, for all its preternatural precision, it too lacks the first and second person. (This is a clue to the Butcher’s real identity: an Alliance spy turned by the Invaders using Babel-17.) The novel ends with the promise that Rydra and the Butcher can bring cosmic peace by endowing Babel-17’s cognitive power with their own moral energy, their insistence that “I” and “you” matter.

The overall narrative is, I suspect, a meta-text about literature itself, which is why the novel’s protagonist is a poet (an excellent one: Delany supplies poetry by Marilyn Hacker, his then-wife, as Rydra’s work). Literature combines visionary precision in the transmission of sensations and ideas with a moral commitment to the inner lives of individuals, of “you” and “me.” We already have the pacifying Babel-17 portended by the novel’s conclusion, the words that join ethics to knowledge: it is Babel-17. If this novel, written during wartime, did not bring peace, it at least implies that a change in how we speak or write is all that can lastingly end war.

With that thesis in mind, we can return to Delany’s later distinction between concepts and clichés: in this brief novel, we get at least three concepts that were rare in popular fiction at midcentury, but which have since become commonplace.

First is the replacement of the white man as ingenious, omni-competent space-captain with a woman of color. Second is the future as bohemia, a place of erupting micro-individualisms where stellar citizens find their fulfillment in biological transformations and sexual configurations that were still relegated, in the middle 20th century, to the vast “closet” of certain urban quarters. Finally, Delany represents language as absolutely determining thought and experience; the language you speak and write constrains what you can know, believe, and even perceive—like so much 20th-century thought, Babel-17 presents language as first philosophy.

As such concepts grow familiar in popular culture, as they pass from the hands of inventors to those of imitators, their flaws and unanticipated consequences become more and more obvious.

The race and gender diversification of heroism is of course unobjectionable and welcome, but is such heroism as Rydra’s, with its seemingly limitless physical and mental and moral perfection, sans any tragic flaw, really proper to serious narrative, irrespective of race and gender? Maybe it works for “young adults,” though even for them it’s probably misleading and infantilizing; profound fiction requires more complex characters as protagonists.

Similarly, the future spread of bohemia further supports the novel’s ethic. If the mutual recognition of “you” and “I” is the basis of morality, then we should want each other to flourish to the best of our potential and desire. Delany portrays his novel’s demimonde of polyamory and bio-engineering as a society that alone allows this flourishing. When the square Customs Officer, whom Rydra had introduced to bohemia, trepidatiously but excitedly returns to get a dragon implanted in his shoulder, he is counseled by Rydra’s own therapist:

“Actually,” Dr. T’mwarba went on, “it’s psychologically important to feel in control of your body, that you can change it, shape it.”

The mundane corollary here would be getting a tattoo, a practice still confined in the ’60s to the disreputable or déclassé; but we can easily read an even more forward-looking subtext about gender and sexual identity into these words.

Surely only a troglodyte could object to today’s broad social spread of self-transformation at every level from epidermis to pronoun, but the move of these once-fringe practices into the mainstream may suggest their inseparability (which need not be a problem) from other cultural discourses that value the individual over the social. Something like “the culture of neoliberalism,” on the eve of whose triumph Delany was then writing, may be one and indivisible, a thought that only libertarians seem willing to entertain, because it disrupts everyone else’s narratives, which tend to sunder economic from sexual laissez-faire. In Delany’s imagination, “I” and “you” are interpenetrated and perfectly balanced, but most societies seem, outside of beautifully experimental science fictions, to elevate one over the other.

More pernicious in political practice is this novel’s thesis on language. The questionable philosophical proposition that language is absolutely constitutive of consciousness, after being vulgarized and garbled, becomes today’s dubious claim that language is literally a vector of violence, that words have power to obliterate identity, to deal irrecoverable psychic wounds. But if this is true, then the basis of democratic, liberal society falls away, because the point of such a society is to sublimate literal violence into discourse and dispute, to use language as a field wherein extra-linguistic reality may be recognized, interpreted, and only then imaginatively transformed. If words are weapons, then all we have are weapons. The social becomes a scramble of all against all, a zero-sum contest to control reality, which language has the putatively absolute power to do. Far from bringing peace, the claim that language speaks us rather than the reverse promises only war.

In “Letter to Q——,” criticizing Toni Morrison for what he regards as her first novel’s racism and homophobia and all-around crypto-fascist essentialism, Delany argues that she has betrayed the mission of the novel as a literary form, because the novel exists to tell us

that evil (like good) is a manifestation of social systems, not individuals, and thus individuals, both the good ones and the bad ones, if they move into new social systems they are unused to, can be changed by them if they stay there.

A materialist, Delany rejects evil and good and the soul as metaphysical entities, whereas the Catholic gnostic Morrison certainly does not, nor do many great novelists who fall afoul of Delany’s basically Marxist commitments, from Dostoevsky to Coetzee. (By the way: 1997, the year Delany wrote his criticism of The Bluest Eye, was also the year Morrison published her late, underrated masterpiece, Paradise: in this novel, she seems to take Delany’s side against her own younger self and to recant the implicit ethno-nationalism and inverted colorism of her early fiction.)

For Delany, there is no soul, only society, and since language is the social system underpinning all others, transforming it transforms us. It’s so flattering a worldview for writers and intellectuals that they can hardly resist it. Some days, I can’t resist it myself.

Yet Delany writes like someone who knows that language exists in dynamic tension with what is outside it. If it didn’t, the work of converting “sensations and ideas” (the phrase is from Pater, a writer Delany and I both admire) into words would not be so difficult and newness could never even find articulation. Foreshadowing cyberpunk, Rydra compares language to code and language-speakers to computers, but can a computer reprogram itself? Can a machine running a program be an “I” or a “you”?

As an often pulpy product of a very young writer, Babel-17 is not a great novel, nor even exactly a good one: its characters, including Rydra, are very sketchy, and the narrative feels unbalanced because Delany is so taken with almost every aspect of its world except the war on which the plot is ostensibly centered.

Delany’s style, though, is as elegantly involute, as pregnant with implication, as modernist poetry or the best science fiction that preceded him. This gives this novel its odd tone, combining urban decadence with futurist didacticism, as if Robert A. Heinlein had re-written Nightwood (Delany often claims both Barnes and Heinlein as influences, despite his awareness that their rather different but decisive conservative convictions clash with his own leftism—though both certainly advocate in their fiction for sexual openness).

Babel-17 is better than a merely good novel; it is a profligately imagined one, a book that gives you more ideas per line than many more mature performances would dare. If Delany, with his compeers Dick and Le Guin, are read today not alongside other science fiction writers but among the postmodern experimentalists of their time, such as Borges, Pynchon, and Nabokov, this stylistic extravaganza and generation of concepts (that were not yet clichés) is the reason why.

Consider this extraordinary passage, with which I’ll conclude, combining the philosophy of language with the most poignantly personal recollections, a passage worthy of the writer it names in turning ideas into dialogue and drama:

Words are names for things. In Plato’s time things were names for ideas—what better description of the Platonic ideal? But were words names for things, or was that just a bit of semantic confusion? Words were symbols for whole categories of things, where a name was put to a single object: a name on something that requires a symbol jars, making humor. A symbol on something that takes a name jars, too: a memory that contained a torn window shade, his liquored breath, her outrage, and crumpled clothing wedged behind a chipped, cheap night table, “All right, woman, come here!” and she had whispered, with her hands achingly tight on the brass bar, “My name is Rydra!” An individual, a thing apart from its environment, and apart from the things in that environment; an individual was a type of thing for which symbols were inadequate, and so names were invented.