Babel-17, by Samuel Delany

Babel-17 was published when the author had just turned 24. It was his seventh published novel. He wrote his first when he was 19, after dropping out of college after one semester, and he got it published thanks to the intervention of his wife at the time, who was an assistant editor. This should tell you three important things: first, that the author was clearly precociously talented and bursting with ideas; second, that as a married novelist at 19 the author was clearly in a great big hurry to be an adult; and, third, that as a 23-year-old who had been writing continuously since childhood, with growing financial and critical success, all through the age when other people might be attending university or starting a ‘real’ career, he still basically writes like a teenage boy.

Collectively, those three things are probably enough to sum up this novel.

Delany has ideas, and is desperate to tell you about them. Some are good, some are great, some are nothing much at all, but by god he’s going to tell you about them. The entire novel is more or less just exposition. To his credit, the kid realised that that wouldn’t be enough: he needs pace, action, excitement. And credit him again: he went all out to try to provide it. This isn’t so much a story as a vertical drop from a high height. It never pauses, never looks around, never takes time to have a think about things, it just runs. Indeed, the novel overwhelmingly reminded me of The Stars My Destination, in its attempt to embody a sort of overwhelmingl elán, a panache that carries you off your feet, as well as the stylish disdain both novels show toward ‘realism’ or ‘accuracy’. Indeed, Damon Knight, writing about The Stars My Destination in 1956, could almost have been talking presciently about Babel-17 ten years later: he criticised Bester’s novel for its “bad taste, inconsistency, irrationality, and downright factual errors.” There are indeed a lot of things wrong with The Stars My Destination, but it’s so damn good, and so damn fast, you don’t have time to complain.

Unfortunately, I’ve read Bester’s novel, and Delany… well, Delany is no Bester. His prose is interesting at times, but never as magnetically beautiful as Bester’s; his plot and his pace may try to be unstoppable, but they end up closer to histrionic. It’s very difficult to combine massive exposition with a breakneck plot, and Delany doesn’t really manage it. Instead, the novel very much feels divided into set-pieces – some of which work, some of which don’t – without too much of a compelling narrative to pull you through them. Bester gets to play with Gully Foyle’s thirst for revenge, and his smallness against the vast forces he opposes; Delany gets Rydra Wong telling us how wonderful she is, and a formulaic MacGuffin that supposedly justifies the techno-travelogue, but that neither intrigues nor resonates.

Wong is a huge problem in the novel – I shouldn’t be surprised because it’s exactly one of the big problems with his later novel, Dhalgren. To put it bluntly, Rydra Wong is Delany, and she is perfect in every way. She’s an excuse for Delany to praise himself – and since Wong is also the greatest poet in the galaxy, it’s an excuse for Delany to shower us with his teenage-boy poetry, which at its best rises to the level of respectable doggerel, and at its worst is just garbage. Oh, sorry, no, it’s world-shatteringly, soul-definingly transcendentally brilliant. We know this, because every character tells us so. There are entire dialogues, whole pages, between peripheral characters away from the main course of the plot, just to tell us how incredibly wonderful and amazing Chip Delany Rydra Wong is and what a privilege it is to meet her. At least Kidd in Dhalgren occasionally felt like Delany knew how narcissistic he was being; the younger version of the author seems to have no such self-awareness. [Oh, and just for fun, a character not seen on page but closely associated with Rydra is described as the author of Empire Star, another of Delany’s novels, and since the author is said to always write himself into his own novels (including Empire Star), the ironic reader will note the possibility that this character is actually meant to be the author of Babel-17 as well; you know, just in case the subtlety of his Mary Sue-ing (in both senses of the word – perfection and self-insertion) had slipped anybody by]

Gully Foyle is a character we have to empathise with even though he’s despicable; Rydra Wong is a character I find myself not giving a shit about even though she’s Jesus returned to earth in the form of the greatest poet in history (NB. she’s not really Jesus… although if that had been the final-page twist, it wouldn’t have surprised me).

That betrays, incidentally, a wider conservativism in the novel. When Knight said that Bester’s novel was in bad taste, he wasn’t kidding – his antihero does things that are really morally challenging, and the whole ideological emphasis of the novel is counterintuitive, and… well, challenging. Delany’s novel, on the other hand, is a counter-culture teenager’s idea of ‘challenging’. Its bad taste is only ‘what traditionalist Republican housewives would say was in bad taste’. It reads less like a challenge and more like an attempt to shock.

I sympathise with Delany’s sympathies. If he wants to write a novel with polyamorous sexual relationships, extreme body modification, invasive telepathy and identity-melding, mind-uploading, and super-intelligent nice girls being attracted to semi-sapient serial killers because they’re so damn butch and hunky, I’m not just passively OK with that, I actively want to read that book. The problem is, it doesn’t feel that Delany has any interest in, say, exploring three-person relationships. It feels like he’s primarily interested in making establishment squares blush and feel uncomfortable. It feels like he’s just out to shock… which might be OK, except that (unlike Bester) he doesn’t actually come up with anything shocking! Wow, it’s three people in a romantic relationship and, get this, they’re actually acting like it’s normal!!!!! – err… OK. Maybe that did genuinely seem mildly edgy in 1966, although believe me people have been writing about such relationships in fiction for a lot longer than that. But as a reader now, I didn’t even feel the need to shrug.

Which feels like a bit of a let-down from an author who was a mixed-race gay married man living with two women (his wife and their mistress) in 1960s inner-city New York, having casual sex with strangers in public, while having a nervous breakdown! It feels like even if he wrote what he knew, it could be explosive – but instead, it’s neither sensationalist enough to be shocking (there isn’t even anything like the graphic sex in Dhalgren (and even that I found got dull fast), let alone, for example, any fore-echo of his later, what one might charitably call ‘challenging’ views on child-adult sexual relationships) nor serious and exploratory enough to be interesting or moving. In this respect, Dhalgren is certainly both more confrontational and more intriguing.

And it feels like this for all his gimmick ideas, whether social or technological. The prose is full of eyeball-kicks, and the events are full of, for want of a better word, imagination-kicks. Big flashy sparky things that go ‘look at me, I’m an idea!’ and then when you peer over to have a closer look you see that that’s all he intends to say about them. He says something, a paragraph or two, we pay homage to his genius, and he moves on. This, it seems, is supposed to be enough – plot and character development are only window-dressing added in the interests of appearing fashionable.

I wish I didn’t seem to be damning this book. It’s not a terrible book. Quite the contrary: it’s a book that I think most SF fans, or people who might become SF fans, should read. If nothing else, it’s really short! If you feel trapped in a rut of genre stories, questioning whether anything else is really possible, Babel-17 is a great book to throw some water in your face, shake you around a bit, and make you realise how many stories are still left to be told. Unfortunately, it does this in part by pointing at potentially interesting stories and then not telling them.

In particular, I have to contrast this with the immense, sprawling Dhalgren. In many respects, Babel-17 is much worse than Dhalgren. I don’t think it possesses that later book’s ability to anger you, frustrate you, and generally mess around with your head. It feels a much more superficial novel than Dhalgren; far less sincere. But it also has to be remembered that Dhalgren is halfway tantamount to unreadable, a deathly-slow slog through a narcissistic morass of posturing and minutiae and prose so purple that the fellow who wrote The Eye of Argon would sit back making tsk-ing sounds and wondering out loud whether maybe this Delany guy should tone it down a little. In those respects, Babel-17 is much better, which is to say that this is a Delany novel that you can recommend to people without either malice or irony.

In that respect, Babel’s superficiality is a benefit. It makes it readable. You can zip through it really quickly (I didn’t – I made the mistake of putting it down, and kept making excuses not to pick it up again; this is why the set-piece-by-set-piece structure is a problem, because there’s little compulsion at the end of each chapter to read the next one, readable though the chapters in isolation are).

And if you’re looking for a fast, light, short SF read, Babel has a lot that other novels don’t. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill genre pulp. It is a thought-provoking, exciting, and still tangibly fresh novel.

But I do wonder whether we would read this very differently if we thought it came from a promising young contemporary self-published author, rather than it being a Nebula-Winning Masterpiece from a Titan of the Genre. I can see why this novel was popular in the 1960s. I’ve just read bits of a roundtable discussion on the author, and one critic compared Delany to Hendrix, and observed how this was writing that (in those days) was sure to piss your parents off. If you want rock-and-roll SF sure to piss off your fifties-America parents, without actually challenging you that much, or confusing you, or demanding anything of you, then this is the stuff you want. And in the late 1960s, a lot of SF fans did want this, and it won the Nebula, and he became a Titan of the Genre.

And reading Dhalgren – an novel that I thought felt like the promising early work of a potentially great writer, rather than the magnum opus it’s meant to be – I can’t but wonder if that was a problem for Delany. He writes like a gifted teenager in Babel-17, and he writes like a genius teenager in Dhalgren, and you know, maybe if when Babel-17 had come out somebody had told him no, this isn’t good enough, go back and do it properly this time… well that wouldn’t have been good for his commercial career, but maybe it would have been good for his literary powers. The novel benefits from its lack of discipline to the extent that it does feel fresh and different. But maybe it would have benefitted more from the author having had to go back and make it better. And maybe down the line Dhalgren would have been better if it didn’t feel so much like the author was a pompous enfant terrible who had never been told he wasn’t the second coming. Because Babel just reminds me how much I want to read the writer that Delany claims to be. I want to read more of this writer who claims that “all identities only become interesting when they begin to leak”, and that his interest is “the identities of those who have fallen through the categorical cracks without having slipped wholly free of the nets of desire;” and that writer does show through at moments in this book, perhaps even more than he does in the more jaded Dhalgren. But this isn’t the book that that writer might write. I don’t know if that’s because of some commercial, financial, fame-seeking contamination in his motivation, or just because, come on guys, he’s a 23-year old college dropout having a mental breakdown, how much in control of his art can you expect him to be? So perhaps if Babel-17 had failed, or better yet if it had been regarded as promising rather than as the finished article, he’d have honed and pared and been humbled and he’d have come back with a real masterpiece. Maybe he did, indeed, as there’s plenty of his work I haven’t read yet. But Dhalgren isn’t it. As (someone once said that) Merckx once said: “the best thing that happened to Saronni in 1977 was that he broke his collarbone.”

[On the one hand I feel I should apologise for that reference, or at least explain it for members of the general public. On the other hand, ach screw it, it’s not like other people read these reviews anyway…]

So maybe Delany would have been better off struggling to say what he meant through his novels. Instead, he became a celebrity and a professor, educated people, and gave extremely long, rambling, semi-ironically pretentious and verbose and narcissistic and autofixated interviews explaining in great, poetic, eloquent and fascinating detail exactly what he was saying, rather than, you know, having to try to actually say it in his novels.

The most juvenile and personally frustrating thing about this book, however, is the author’s attitude toward knowledge and understanding. Which appears to be that if he knows something, he should tell us all about it, and if he doesn’t know something, he should just talk out of his arse. Less audacious writers might think that if they knew nothing about a subject they should keep quiet about it; Delany seems to think that if he doesn’t know about a subject, he should talk about it at great dull length and make it central to the project of his book. And let’s face it, the breadth of Delany’s astonishing ignorance is really remarkable for such an intellectual writer. Everything from linguistics to robotics is expounded upon from a stance of absolute – and seemingly disinterested – ignorance. That Delany should not wholly understand linguistics is one thing; that he should make his book at least prima facie about linguistics nonetheless is a second thing; and that he shouldn’t even make an effort to look up the meaning of some basic terms is quite a third. He just hurls words that sound vaguely relevant at the reader without the slightest curiosity if they have any meaning in this context. And frankly, his complete disdain for giving any thought at all to what he’s saying in this area (and many others!) rather undermines my confidence that he knows what he’s doing the rest of the time.

But what I can’t avoid the sensation of, reading this book, is audacity. Even his pig-headed ignorance is audacious. That’s why the book reminds me of The Stars My Destination – Delany is maybe even more audacious than Bester was, albeit with less talent or craft to support to justify it. And even my critical (in the small-c sense) reading of the novel has reminded me of just how good a book you can write, just how much you can get away with in terms of plot and character and worldbuilding and basic coherence, if you write with enough audacity. The towering reputation of the novel both in its era and through the following generations only bears that out. Delany dares you to call his bluff; and frankly maybe we should. But that it is so tempting not to is itself the mark of a remarkable, exciting novel.

Adrenaline: 3/5. Several chapters are gripping reads. Some aren’t. And I felt little compulsion to move from one to another.

Emotion: 2/5. There are a couple of good emotional scenes near the end, but by and large it feels too playful, and too off-hand, to get worked up over.

Thought: 4/5. Delany gives plenty of ideas, regarding society and physics and metaphysics and psychology and literature. They aren’t particularly novel ideas and they’re not explored enough to fascinate, but they are there.

Beauty: 3/5. Delany is more restrained here than in Dhalgren, but the same forcefully prolix style is here in muted form. Sometimes that means a really great line, and there are also a couple of beautiful moments. Other times it means dullness.

Craft: 3/5. In most respect, this is not a particularly well-written novel, not only in prose but in structure and content. But it is audacious! And it has its moments.

Endearingness: 3/5. I wish I loved it, but I don’t. I can see how some people might, but for me the appeal is balanced by the irritation.

Originality: 4/5. He is audacious, and he has ideas. On the other hand, a surprising amount of it feels over-familiar, albeit dressed in shiny new clothes. Rather than doing something truly new, he is doing something old in a new way.

Overall: 5/7. GOOD. Yeah, it’s a good book. A book with hints of greatness but a great many flaws. I recommend you read it, though, because it’s short, accessible enough, and it is at least an interesting kind of good…

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3 thoughts on “Babel-17, by Samuel Delany

  1. Hans says:

    I don’t know that novel, and by your description it doesn’t sound like one I’d like to read. But I noticed this: Delany gives plenty of ideas, regarding society and physics and metaphysics and psychology and literature. They aren’t particularly novel ideas and they’re not explored enough to fascinate, but they are there . And that gets him a 4/5 on “Thought”? From what you wrote, Delany sounds like a opinionated teenager filling page after page with his half-baked ideas. That probably ought to get him more than 1/5, but not by much… 2/5 perhaps?

  2. Sorry if my attempts to explain myself are confusing!
    My scores out of 5 work on a sort of ‘par’ principle: 3 is average, or more accurately non-notable, 2 and 4 are below or above average.

    In this case, I definitely think Delany gives his readers more to think about than the run-of-the-mill genre novel. It’s not done well enough to be a 5, but it is a selling point of the book. And he’s not stupid, either, just maybe intellectually lazy, or perhaps condescending.Maybe not exactly an ‘intellectual’ book, but you could call it both ‘imaginative’ and ‘thought-provoking’.

  3. Hans says:

    Ok, I think I understand now.

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