Posted by : atcampbell | On : September 2, 2008

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

Nine people gathered at A. T.’s house to discuss Babel-17, Delany’s classic New Wave novel. Additionally, two submitted commented by email. All of us had read the author before. Eight started the book, and five finished.

We like the book’s examination of language theory. A strong element was the development of the idea of language as shaping the mind and worldview of the person. One person commented that he enjoyed reading a rare novel that mentioned the word “FORTRAN.” A few of us felt the presentation of language theory here seemed dated.

One of our female readers commented that the female main character, Rydra Wong, was well-handled by the male author. She liked the matter-of-fact descriptions of this world that differed from our own in many ways, particularly the extensive use of body modification.

Most of us had read the book before, and we commented on how different it was on a second reading. Several of us thought Delany’s writing and imagery held up well. One appreciated the social imagery littering the background of the story and commented on the concision of the language. Another person said that the book was shocking on his initial reading, and now seemed tame.

Some who’d read a lot of Delany noted the recurring Delany motifs including bisexuality, lots of descriptions of hands, and a drifting loner who can be both violent and tender. A few noted that this book directly references the events in Empire Star, another Delany book written about the same time.

Most of us felt the book was a joy to read and deserving of its classic status. We generally agreed that Babel-17 is Delany’s most accessible work.

Near the end of the meeting, we discussed other sf novels dealing with language.  Books mentioned include The Languages of Pao by Vance, 1984 by Orwell, Snow Crash by Stephenson, and The Dragons of Babel by Swanwick.

After the meeting, several of us had a nice dinner at Culver’s.

— A. T. Campbell, III