Samuel Delaney, Language, and Representation

I just read Samuel Delaney’s novel Babel-17 and (accompanying) novella, Empire Star. Babel-17 won the Nebula in 1966, and would probably find a place on most Science Fiction canons. The interesting thing about reading Babel-17 in 2015, however, is that it rests upon a largely discredited scientific theory: a strong version of the Sapor-Whorf Hypothesis. As its protagonist, Rydra Wong puts it:

“… most textbooks say language is a mechanism for expressing thought… but language is thought. Thought is information given form. The form is language…. When you learn another tongue, you learn the way another people see the world, the universe.”

Babel-17 is an invented “analytically perfect” language that is used as a secret weapon in an inter-galactic war. It’s mastery not only results in mental ascent, but even physical superiority. While it is well-accepted now that language has an influence upon cognitive processes, its influence is nowhere near as strong as Delaney puts it in Babel-17 (for a lucid discussion, see Guy Deutscher’s The Language Game). This makes many of the central events in Babel-17 – and indeed, its central plot – at odds with science.

While time and science have not been kind to Babel-17, the book is perhaps the best example of how science-fiction grounded upon a falsified thesis can nonetheless be a great read. Like the other SF masters of the 60s and 70s, Delaney has a great sense of plot and pace. His protagonists race across the galaxy to decipher the alien language, and the narrative is pock-marked with entertaining starfights, intrigue and treachery, and the craters of love. However, Delaney is not simply a gifted plotter: like M. John Harrison and James Blish, he is a wordsmith as well. In the first chapter, I was pulled up short by this marvelous line:

“… he needed another moment to haul himself down from the ledges of her high cheekbones, to retreat from the caves of her eyes.”

And this could be right out of A.S. Byatt at her best:

“I listen to other people, stumbling about with their half thoughts and half sentences, and their clumsy feelings that they can’t express – and it hurts me. So I go home and burnish it and polish it and weld it to a rhythmic frame, make the dull colors gleam, mute the garish artificiality to pastels, so it doesn’t hurt anymore: that’s my poem.”

Empire Star, on the other hand, fares much better against the march of time – perhaps because it is a novella about time paradoxes themselves. Reading it, I was strongly reminded of Robert Heinlein’s classic 1941 short story, By His BootstrapsIn both stories, time loops back upon itself, and characters meet their past and future selves again and again, as realisation begins to dawn slowly. Like in By His Bootstraps, Delaney parses out his revelations piecemeal, leaving the readers in deep confusion for much of the novella, and without any satisfactory resolution at the end (think of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, and the lingering feeling of non-fulfillment with which one finishes that book. But that, in the end, seems to be the nature of time-paradoxes. Trite to say, but they would hardly be paradoxes if they could be resolved.

(After finishing the book(s), some quick googling informed me that Babel-17 is said to have influenced both Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, and China Mieville’s Embassytown – two books that I love to bits. Embassytown itself draws from the Sapor-Whorf hypothesis: its central premise is that alien beings with no physical brain-mouth filter find it impossible to lie, and are therefore easily colonised by human beings. The influences are clear. About The Dispossessed, I’m not so sure. Curiosity held me for a little while more, until I came across this fascinating article about an invented script exclusively for women, in medieval China:

Only men learned to read and write Chinese, and bound feet and social strictures confined women to their husband’s homes. So somehow — scholars are unsure how, or exactly when — the women of this fertile valley in the southwestern corner of Hunan province developed their own way to communicate. It was a delicate, graceful script handed down from grandmother to granddaughter, from elderly aunt to adolescent niece, from girlfriend to girlfriend — and never, ever shared with the men and boys.

So was born nushu, or women’s script, a single-sex writing system that Chinese scholars believe is the only one of its kind.

 

 

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Filed under Samuel Delaney, Speculative Fiction

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