Nebula Project: Babel-17

What follows is a spoiler laden discussion of the book Babel-17. Beware if you’re worried about such things.

The Alliance has been the target of a series of mysterious and troubling attacks. The military has managed to capture some chatter from the attackers, but they’ve been unable to break the code. Former analyst Rydra Wong is asked to help, though she left the service some time ago to pursue a new career as a poet. Wong brings her own unique talents to bear on the “code” and soon discovers it’s not a code at all — it’s a new and unknown language so special it can literally speed up the thoughts of anyone who uses it for thinking. But is there more to it than that?

K: So where to begin on this one. I really had no clue what this book was about before I started reading it; I’d never even heard of it before we looked at the Nebula list.

J: And I.. apparently I read it only about 2 years ago and had no memory of finishing it! I was certain I’d started it and stopped.

K: I guess an obvious point to start with is the protagonist, Rydra Wong. I was surprised to find a female Asian protagonist. In fact, the whole cast was relatively diverse in a way I didn’t expect. I found it extremely unlikely that it would even occur to a white male writer in the 60s to include so many cultures, so I wasn’t surprised when I looked and found Delany was not white after all. And after that I sort of remembered that maybe I knew that already.

J: Even knowing Delany is both black and gay, it’s still surprising. Not so much that he wrote it. (Though even that is surprising given the year.) But that it got published and it won! Okay, tied, but still. Not only is she female and Asian and not entirely straight, but she also has a disability.. or more specifically, she’s not neurotypical.

K: Yes, let’s talk about that. I will tell you that the mention of Rydra being “autistic” at the beginning of the book made me want to throw the book across the room. Because clearly it was a ridiculous statement any way you look at it. Rydra is described as being so good at reading the body-language of people that she can appear telepathic, which is exactly the OPPOSITE of autistic.

J: Actually.. I just read something yesterday. A blog post written by a woman who’s autistic, who says that’s exactly what she does. And the comments from other autistic adults said some of the same things. That they’re not good with faces, so they look for other cues.

J: May be a bit lengthy for you to read now, but here’s the link.

J: That is the impression I had though, when I was reading. That it didn’t seem like he’d gotten the autistic thing right at all. And some hokey psychiatric treatment hand-wavey thing was going on. But now, thinking about it, having read that link.. well, maybe it’s not so wrong as I thought.

K: Well, I think it’s been hammered home enough recently that autism is a spectrum. And it has perhaps not been hammered home enough recently that autism in girls tends to be different than in boys. But all the same I still don’t think he got it right — especially as -when he was writing the book- it certainly wouldn’t have meshed with any definition of autism.

J: Yea. For most of the book, it doesn’t even seem like she’s very different. I mean, if you just accept she’s telepathic, explanations aside, then it’s fine. Maybe this was just at the cusp of telepathic and other psi powers being really big in sf/f though. But for me, now, it’s like.. just say she’s telepathic. Heck, you don’t even have to say it, I’ll pick up on it and go with it. Rather like ‘oh, that thing is floating, it’s probably some form of antigravity’.

K: It was odd, because the impression I came away with after it was mentioned once was that the therapist seems to think that he cured her of whatever issues she had. That she came to him ‘autistic’ and he fixed it. Which if anything, no, he just taught her coping mechanisms, which is how most therapy for autism works nowadays. So at least in that sense the book was very forward thinking.

J: I did get the sense of a cure too. And yea, exactly. Didn’t really ‘cure’ her as much as he might think he did.

K: This is another post from the same blog which seems to contradict the more recent one. An evolving opinion? Perhaps.

J: Could be. The blogger is probably working through a lot of her own thoughts on it and just doing it in a public space. I don’t know much about autism at all. More than the average person? Except it’s so prevalent now that the ‘average’ person probably knows someone close to them who’s on the spectrum, and as far as I know, I don’t.. so.

K: I know a family with a 5 year old daughter who has Asperger’s. Their difficulties have more mirrored the typical idea of autism, where she has difficulty with less concrete things like feelings and correctly interpreting social cues.

K: There were other issues with Rydra, though. The question I was trying to answer through the whole book is if she was a Mary Sue. And in the end I lean heavily toward hell yes. The notes I have about her are as follows: way too hot, way too young, way too talented, way too influential.

J: Hrm. I didn’t think of her that way. But I definitely can’t argue against it. Maybe that’s why I didn’t really connect with her as a character. I mean, I did better than with Dune, a bit, but still..

K: She was just too much for me. The first scene where she’s just sitting there and the military guy comes in and instantly falls for her really put me on edge. Then it all just kept coming. She’s a super famous poet. But she’s also an expert linguist who used to work for the government. And she’s also a ship captain! Who also used to be married to some famous people! And she’s telepathic! And awesome!

J: Oh yea, that falling in love thing was ridiculous!!

J: As for the other characters, you may guess I was most intrigued by the navigators. And the ghosts could’ve been more interesting if they’d really developed as individuals, but we only know them as Eye, Ear, Nose. And at one point, I don’t know if it was a mistake in the edition or what.. but I think Eye and Ear got mixed up.

K: I was intrigued more by the -idea- of these triple marriages rather than the execution of the one we saw on screen. Mostly because the one we saw on screen was more evidence of Rydra’s superiority: not only does she know these two guys she has only just met so well that she knows exactly what they need, she can pick their perfect woman out without even talking to her. Augh. Now, stepping away from the annoying specifics, the idea itself was very interesting. All the moreso because it seems to be not well accepted by the public at large. So how did it come about? Weren’t there politicians going about declaiming that if you legalize marriage for THREE people, suddenly people will be marrying cats and dogs and myna birds? Is it just Delany sneaking in gay marriage without having to call it that and having the plausible deniability of another gendered person involved?

K: Even though it’s never stated that 3 men or 3 women couldn’t marry, we just only see examples of MMF (2) and Rydra mentioning she’d prefer FFM if she did it again.

J: Did they call it marriage? I finished it a couple weeks ago, so I don’t remember. And why was it so necessary for navigators? We never learn that at all.

K: I don’t remember if they used the word marriage in particular, but I know they referred to the participants as husbands and wives, so it was certainly heavily implied.

K: And no, we never did learn why it was necessary. In fact, the whole setting was pretty sketchily developed, which I think is definitely why I had a hard time connecting to the story. For me, it’s almost always the details of the setting that grabs me in any sf/f story (and to some extent in any story). And the details here were frustratingly few and far between. You have the impression of an interesting and complex world, but he just doesn’t bother to spend any time on it.

J: I don’t consider groupings like that to be easier to get away with than having gay characters. It’s certainly harder in the real world! And in fiction, the only other example I can think of is Vonda McIntyre’s Starfarers series. In there, there’s three people, but only because they’re recently widowed.

K: Even after the book ended I didn’t understand why the “Invaders” were invading.

J: That’s true. I wasn’t sure quite how far they’d gone or how long they’d travelled once they got into space. Certainly the navigator who couldn’t speak English was picking it up really quick. Some sort of sleep learning involved there, right? Not that the guys seemed to make an effort to learn Swahili.

J: Do you think he was trying to do too many things at once? Cram too many ideas into one book? That he sort of fell down in some key areas?

K: I had trouble with the passage of time, too. The first part of the book takes place very fast. Rydra meets the general, visits her therapist, finds an entire crew of people and a spaceship and takes off for space in less than a 24h time span.

K: I don’t know if that’s how I’d describe it. I think he was trying to do one thing very specifically: talk about how languages influence the way you think. And he built up the setting exactly as much as he needed to to get to the discussion he wanted to have.

K: But what that leaves is a weak structure upon which to rest this philosophizing.

J: The first part of the book was the hardest for me. And I think that was because it was a lot of .. person explains thing to other person. They even dragged that Customs Agent around so they’d have someone to explain things to. A stand-in for the ignorant reader.

K: I almost always enjoy the ‘collecting the team’ part of any book or movie more than the eventual caper, so I enjoyed the first part the best. (Though even there we couldn’t escape Rydra’s superawesomeness. In just one night she changed the life of the Customs Agent just by hanging out with him!)

J: Except that he could’ve done that whole language thing without throwing in the triple relationship, without throwing in ghosts, and revived dead people, without throwing in those weird ‘kids crew the ship and need a nanny’ bit. Those are all things that could’ve been explored on their own!

K: Exactly! If the book had been longer, he would have had space to answer all of the questions and ideas he threw out there. But in spite of its win for best novel, this wasn’t really a novel length work.

J: The Hugo has that problem too. Fluctuating definitions of ‘novel’. And in general I like the collecting the team part too. That makes Sailormoon pretty awesome, right? Takes nearly the whole first season/series to get them all. :)

J: Fushigi Yuugi takes awhile too, now that I think about it. Anime rocks.

K: I was especially confused by the platoon of kids, and I wish that had been done better. When it was first mentioned, I imagined a troop of 10-12 year-olds: old enough to have some training, but young enough to still be very small and agile. Midshipmen. But whenever the ‘kids’ were mentioned they all seemed to be about 17 — and yet -behaving- and being -treated- like they were 12. Which was just crazy, because we know Rydra herself was working for the government at 19, one of the navigators is stated to be 19, and Rydra’s still only about 25..

J: Yea. That was definitely weird. Especially in that they just expected at least one of them to have marbles. Were marbles still even in fashion in the 60s? Certainly not something you’d take to college with you for a game on the quad!

K: Yeah, it was very weird. And seemingly pointless, because there was no reason they had to be 17 at all. They were just throwaway characters.

J: Yea.

J: There was interesting stuff in this book, it was just kind of hard to get into and also hard to.. pull it all together.

J: One thing that tripped me up was ‘aluminium’ which is when I realized I was reading a British version. You would’ve thought the single quotes would’ve clued me in, but I just thought of it as.. quaint and old-fashioned. And for some reason single quotes are harder for me to read. I just have this instinctual reaction of ‘ugh, this is dense and not going to be an easy read’.

K: Hm. I don’t usually notice them at all.

J: I think you may’ve read more British stuff when you were younger. But in the original British typesetting? I dunno..

J: And it’s hypocritical of me because when I type, I tend to type single quotes!

J: Though mostly around single words and phrases, like I just did with aluminium.

K: I dunno either. It may have to do with the fact that I read in sentences and paragraphs and I don’t see the individual words as such. The punctuation doesn’t stand out when I read, it just blends in with the sense of things.

J: So you aren’t thrown when a quotation mark is accidentally left off? That really trips me up.

K: Not usually, no. My mind inserts it.

K: Yeah. There was a lot of random information presented about the setting, but little explanation of any of it. It seemed to me like Delany wanted to focus on his idea of “Babel 17”, some sort of super language which literally made you faster just by thinking in it. It’s a bit unfortunate, but his description of the battle scene, all I could picture was The Matrix. Because it was exactly like that.

J: *snicker* I did find the conversation where she’s trying to teach him the concept of ‘I’ and ‘you’ to be quite trippy. I kind of kept expecting him to get it wrong, or for some copyeditor somewhere to have screwed it up. So I kept looking for faults in it and flipping it around. But I didn’t find any errors. It was mind-bending though.

J: By him I mean Delany.

K: It was. I did find that section pretty hard to read, and I imagine that was the point.

K: I found the discussion about language dictating how your mind works to be a fascinating one. It made a lot of sense to me. Languages don’t translate 1:1 and a lot of concepts are represented very differently between cultures and languages.

J: I feel like there was another book with a language as like a computer virus and reprogramming humans. But.. maybe it was just discussion of this book I’m thinking of. It’s true though, as some languages have different colors. And that’s trippy to think about too. That I can look at a rainbow and say.. yea, it’s got 6 colors. 7 if you sneak in Indigo. But someone raised in another language would look at it and go ‘I see 5’, or ‘I see 10’.

J: And as it says in this book. (At least I think it did?) What /is/ it like to think of all nouns as having a ‘gender’?

J: As some stage, I think a lot of us see cats as female and dogs as male. But if you’re French, cats are male. At least the /word/ cat is male.

K: The example that came to my mind was colors. Specifically ‘aoi’ in Japanese, which is really quite difficult to translate into English without a context.

K: So I was really open to the idea that it might be possible to have a language which is so compact and efficient that your thought processes while thinking in that language would actually be faster than in a less well-designed language.

J: The Binars in TNG come to mind as an example of that.

K: Except again, I think that’s exactly the opposite. Binary is the -simplest- language. Two characters only. But it’s hardly the most efficient way of representing every concept. In fact, it takes an insane amount of 1s and 0s to represent anything complex.

J: Huh. You’re right. I guess in that case it’s the delivery method is faster.

K: Only if, like a computer, you can understand and keep track of the exact amount of 1s and 0s that were said to you.

K: In the end I was confused. Rydra gives the example of the aliens who can represent an entire power plant schematic in just 9 words. Then she starts talking about Babel 17 as being the same as fortran. Does not compute.

J: The more efficient the language gets, the more words it gets, yea? So like Chinese is very compact as a written language compared to English. But the characters are more complex to differentiate them from other characters. And you have to spend years learning them. Well, and Chinese would be even more compact as a written language if it wasn’t still relying on sound.

J: Oh, but that reminds me of something a bit tangential. People who think in Chinese can do math better because of the language. And I’m not sure I can explain this quite right… well, no, I can’t explain it at all. I’d have to Google.

K: Exactly. German has some very complex concepts you can express in one word, because those words are really huge! I couldn’t figure out which way Delany was trying to go: was he saying the language was compact because you could express things with very few words? Or was the language powerful because it was very simple, like binary? He seemed to say both at different times, so it was unclear in the end.

K: Apparently it was also magic and could brainwash you.

J: By being a subpersonality in your own brain.

J: Here’s a link that explains it. Basically in Chinese (and probably some other languages), eleven and twelve and things like twenty.. make more mathematic sense as words. I mean, think of 80 in French! That’s like 4-20. Confusing! Eight-ten makes more sense.

K: That does make sense.

K: Let’s wrap this one up, then. Does the book hold up? What are its merits and demerits?

J: And more importantly, how does it make you /feel/?

K: For me, it holds up very well, mostly because Delany is incredibly vague about everything relating to the setting. It only starts to show its age when he gets more specific. The references to algol and Fortran, for instance, are not exactly current. And there was one passing mention of punch cards. Doh.

J: I think that not a lot of people would read this for pleasure, for a purely enjoyable, fun read. Some of it is a little dated, moreso than Dune, though not too much. Where I think most of its value lays now is in people reading it for ideas, or for historical purposes. As in, ‘It’s the book that first did this.’ or ‘It’s the book with that in it.’

J: For example, if you read enough articles, essays, blog posts, or attend enough panels about linguistics in science fiction. Babel-17 will keep getting mentioned. And eventually you feel.. I should read this thing.

K: In a lot of ways it was ahead of its time. Alternate sexualities, a female non-white protagonist who doesn’t have to justify herself simply for -being- female and non-white. But I think the story itself was too bare-bones to remain in the popular consciousness. Plus, no movies!

K: Yeah. So it’s clearly of interest, but relatively niche.

J: It would make a weird movie. I don’t think it would work without being remixed or mashed up.

J: Like toss in some of Delany’s characters/plots/ideas in other books. Then it might work. A hot Asian chick kicking butt? Hollywood loves that.

K: I’m surprised it hasn’t been optioned just for that.

J: They would totally change the navigation team to two women and one man though. And show at least one sex scene.

K: Go all the way! Three women! Hottt.

J: And Rydra has to jump in for some reason.

K: bow chicka bow wow

K: So there was a lot to like about this book, but in the end, I would have liked it better if it had been longer and the setting provided with as much attention as Delany devoted to making Rydra superwoman.

J: Yea. There are secondary characters I would’ve liked to know more about.

K: And many things mentioned in passing which could have stood more screentime. Like the Invaders, whose motivations and goals are left completely hazy.

J: Now that I’ve read it twice and discussed it with you, maybe this time I’ll remember I’ve read it.