Understanding Language in Babel-17

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Kingsley Amis wrote in his treatise on Science Fiction that the motto „‘Idea as Hero‘ is the basis“ (137) for SF. In Babel-17, Samuel R. Delany’s sixth novel, the importance of language and linguistics is emphasized. It does both to an extent that is very unusual in a SF novel (cf. Aldiss and Wingrove 292) and its interest in language runs deeper than in the ordinary SF novel, where strange words abound or some new language or dialect is invented, as in Burgess‘ A Clockwork Orange. Evidently, language is this novel’s hero.

Babel-17’s interest in language and how it portrays the mechanisms behind language is the subject of this paper. It has the goal of mapping out the political and the epistemological consequences of the text’s treatment of language, which, as will be made clear, works in several ways. Some of the examiniation is done out in the open by Rydra Wong, a famous poet who is commissioned to decipher Babel-17, a code allegedly used by terrorists to coordinate their acts of sabotage, which soon turns out to be a language. In other parts, the examinition is provided by the character’s actions and emotions and by the events. Finally it will be pointed out, that the interest in language even informs the structure of the novel down to the generic markers it employs. It will be seen that SF is a kind of language itself which has to be understood by the reader of SF, because „knowing a genre is also knowing how to take it up“ (Broderick 39).

This is also the way most criticism has been reading the novel, but none of that criticism has noted, that it’s not just ‘about’ language, it is about understanding language as one of the basic givens of humanity. Its influence reaches deeply, into communication and thought. That is what the first two parts are trying to show. The last part amply demonstrates, that even when something in not language, is may be language-like, such as the genre SF.

SF is „What If Literature“ (Landon 6) and, as remains to be shown, Babel-17 poses some of the more powerful what if questions, trying to help people to recognize science’s „potentialities for social change“ (Asimov 162). This paper’s thesis is, that at the end of the trail that this reading of Babel-17 provides, one can see some possibilities of a brighter, more humane future, or a darker future. Babel-17 indicates the potentialities of communication and language that humanity has squandered for thousands of years and it poses some potent questions about free will and about the truth we take for granted. What questions these are, this paper will attempt to demonstrate.

Babel-17 is written in English and the characters that shape events, or are shaped by them, are speakers of English. One might be tempted to think that this impression only derives from the fact that the novel is written in English, just as an English novel about France would feature no, or not very much, French dialogue, even if all the characters were French. It becomes clear, though, that the first impression is correct once we note that comparisons to other languages always are comparisons of English to other languages (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 111). Also, the English-speaking characters never have to translate anything, everybody who takes part in this novel’s events speaks English and should be able to communicate perfectly with anybody else.

Although English is the predominant language, it is not the only one. The political background to the story is a war between the Alliance, part of which forms the earth , and the Invaders. Both probably consist of several nations, having several languages each (cf. 24). Of the Invader’s languages we encounter none. Eight earth languages are mentioned, other than English: Finnish, Sioux (as an example for North American Indian languages in general), French, Hungarian, Spanish (all five: cf. 111), Basque (cf. 77), Old Moorish (cf. 115) and an unnamed african language that is spoken in the „N’gonda province in Pan Africa“ (54, cf. 51f.). Sample words are not provided from Basque, Finnish, Hungarian or Sioux, only one word from Spanish and Old Moorish each, about five French words and generous eight sentences of the African language. These languages are not important to the story, they only demonstrate certain linguistic points, such as the grammatical differences between Sioux and and Finnish noun cases.

Thus, the main focus, of course, is on the mysterious language, Babel-17. Babel-17 is described as „the most analytically exact language imaginable“ (210). It does not know the words ‚you‘, ‚I‘ nor the words derived from them, such as ‚your‘ and ‚mine‘ (cf. 139) so speakers of it cannot even conceive of the principle of the subject. Also, Babel-17 „contains a preset program […] to become a criminal and saboteur“ (215). This means it curtails the range of options the speaker of Babel-17 has so severely, it even imposes a „schizoid personality into the mind of whoever learns it“ (215), which means that a second personality is programmed into the person that can even grab hold of all the willpower of this person. The speaker of Babel-17, who thinks only analytically and cannot talk or think in categories of subjectivity, is massively hindered in the choices his mind allows him to make, for example „thinking in Babel-17 [you might] try and destroy your own ship and then blot out the fact with self-hypnosis“ (215).

In trying to crack the structure, the grammar and vocabulary of Babel-17, Rydra Wong, the poet that turned linguist by virtue of her „total verbal recall“ (9), finds that it „scares“ (22) her. For a language that one does not understand, this, introduced at an early point in the narrative, is a novel idea. Everybody would agree that it is possible to be afraid from something said and understood or even by a menacing way of delivery that a language can have, but being afraid of the language itself must seem strange to the reader.

As we have seen, there are passages in Babel-17 that compare different languages to each other. This process, however, is never focused on. The comparisons are drawn to make points about the nature and the properties of language itself. The vocabulary that is often used to make these points is scientific vocabulary, stemming from linguistics, but the person doing the scientific work is not a scientist. Rydra Wong, as mentioned above, is an artist, a poet, whose linguistic explorations are more of a hobby or a vocation. There are many weighty passages treating issues of linguistics but they are counterbalanced by the epigraphs introducing the five chapters, taken from Marilyn Hacker‘s poetry.

The differences sketched here between science and art run deeper. The first thing that is learned about language is that it is not a code and that the two should not be confused. A code can simply be deciphered, but a language has to be understood in a more organic way (cf. 6ff.). Suddenly voices, circumstances, contexts become important. An artist‘s intuition becomes useful, her „knack“ (10). This intuitive approach is contrasted with the government scientists, who, „although they know a hell of a lot about codes, […] know nothing of the nature of language“ (8). This kind of disparagement has lead some to claim that, in this novel, language is part of the arts and not of science (cf. Weedman 136). This approach mistakens the pervasiveness of science. If in this text art is valued more highly, it is only because „today a person who learns the rules of art well is a little rarer than the person who learns the rules of science“ (48).

So, even if Rydra’s advantage might be her intuition, her art still has to confer to rules. More often than not, she uses linguistic terms to talk about these rules, in a word, she uses science. As Walter E. Meyers points out though, she misuses these terms often enough: „The uninformed reader of Babel-17 receives misinformation“, and the novel „is inaccurate at almost every turn“ (both: Aliens and Linguists 180). It seems as if all the linguistic terms that are heaped up (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 111) are nothing but words, or names. Outside the text the rules spread out in the pages with linguistic rambling might be scientific nonsense or inaccurate, but in this text, her rules lead Rydra Wong to an understanding of Babel-17.

The critic who tries to establish a rift between science and art in Babel-17‘s treatment of languages is mistaken because he does not understand that the novel’s discourse is concerned with language itself. Language is its own „ordering principle“ (Fox 97), not art or science. The two ways to approach the nature of language, art and science, do not preclude one another. It is important to note, that each takes part in solving the mystery of Babel-17. So cannot be about linguistics or poetry, it is about their object, language.

The most important fact is the all-pervasiveness of language. Early in the novel, a customs officer has some kind of sexual encounter and, trying to cope with the ensuing depression, he turns to the means of language. He tries to describe his loneliness in a way that perfectly describes one of the limits language imposes on its speakers, the emptiness of language (cf. 47). In the dense phrasing of structuralism: you „cannot ‚mean‘ and ‚be‘ simultaneously.“ (Eagleton 170), the thing you talk about is absent in the language, language is empty. Later Rydra, awakening from sleep, is caught between English and Babel-17 and thereby experiencing a kind of double consciousness (cf. Littlefield 223). She is not able to gather her thoughts, reflecting on the nature of language: „If there’s no word for it, how do you think about it?“ (Delany, Babel-17, 111). The nature of language, one learns from Babel-17, evidently is defined by the limits it imposes on us.

During a voyage through space we learn of ghost-like beings, called ‚Eye‘, ‚Ear‘ and ‚Nose‘, who are part of a space ship‘s crew, and who are responsible for sensual reconnaissance. They report how an approaching space port looks like to the captain of the ship who has no windows or anything to „see“ for herself (72f.). Through a helmet she can partake of the three sensory impartations, each of which can explain the whole situation as is witnessed by the simultaneous answers to the captain’s question of where to dock in the space port and for the verbal description of each the words seem deficient.

„In the sound of the E-minor triad.“
„In the hot oil you can smell bubbling to your left.“
„Home in on that white circle.“ (73)

This passage amply illustrates the point, that language is not enough, but everything recurs to language, in the end, you have to listen and make the best of it. Aristotle said man is a social being and society consequently depends on communication, or, to phrase it differently, on language.

Limited as we might be because of language, we might think, that we might possibly cope completely without language. The one area, though, where everybody might agree that language is essential, is communication. And it is communication that turns out to be one of the three most important aspects of language in Babel-17, the other two being the diversity of languages and language itself.

This novel is shock full of characters who try to communicate with others and fail or who don’t even try. The latter case is evident in the interplanetary war between the Invaders and the Alliance. In the whole novel there is not a single instance where the two parties communicate in any way. Until the last chapter, the Invaders are only twice encountered in person and then from a considerable distance, only as a red light on a radar screen (cf.124ff.). The unspoken question lingers in the text whether the war could have been evaded or, once under way, stopped by both parties communicating their differences. There are indications of both possibilities in the text. For one thing, both parties refer to the other party as the „one-who-has-invaded“ (215), which implies a misunderstanding . For another, as Rydra Wong sets out to put an stop to the war at the end, one of the first measures she takes, is to talk to the Invader’s Commander (cf. 218).

More interesting than the political misapprehensions are the numerous implications that aberrations in communication might be part of the conditio humana. The thought of the General: “Sequestered, how could this city exist?” (3) might well be applied to humans in general, as this same General, becoming infatuated with Rydra, mentally despairs of not being able to tell her his feelings, thinking: “My god […] all that inside of me and she doesn’t know! I didn’t communicate a thing!” (14), even though Rydra understands him perfectly through his non-verbal language, the “[b]reathing pattern, curls of hands in lap, carriage of shoulders” (197), also called “[m]eaningful motion [or] kinesics” (Meyers, Aliens and Linguistics, 59) in linguistics. This communication comes so naturally to humans that its total absence can cause “horrifying” (Delany, Babel-17, 197) shocks. The Butcher, as a speaker of Babel-17 loses the concept of ‚I‘, he is badly handicapped when it comes to communicating with others, but as he does not have the verbal means to efficiently communicate subjectivity the Butcher subconsciously resorts to non-verbal language (cf. 151), such as thumping his breast to express something that would be filled by speakers of English with the word ‚I‘ or ‚me‘ . Obviously, even if we do not talk we always use language or language-supplements such as a gesture to communicate.

Sometimes in Babel-17, communication takes place neither through speech nor through non-verbal language. Sometimes it takes place through telepathy, which is interesting, considering the interpretation of the General’s statement stated above: sequestered from other people, how can man exist? Telepathy is often seen as a way out of the solitariness of modern man (cf. Milner 298) and a way to cut the distance to others and to short-circuit communication if problems arise (cf. Bogdanoff 247). It is consequently of high importance that the person who solves the communication problems surrounding Babel-17, Rydra Wong , is telepathic (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 198).
Reading the thoughts of animals she comes up with pictures (cf. 205), but with humans the mind-reading always results in grammatically correct sentences. The difference between man and animal must clearly be language . Humans being „creatures whose choices are limited to killing or talking“ (Meyers, The Language and Languages of Science Fiction, 211), the emphasis on good communication in Babel-17 indicates a strong inclination to the latter, moreover it demonstrates a way to circumvent the former, if we bear in mind the political misapprehensions we talked about.

As we have seen, language has many uses in Babel-17, reaching from a comparison of different languages to an examination of the nature of language and, further still, to the necessity of communication. Communication has been the bottom line of all these implications of language. There is one other use of language, though, which concerns the practice of ‚naming‘ things.

The first kind of naming, using names as intertextual devices in a way that Bakhtin labeled „discourse“ (Eagleton 146), enables communication, not between the characters but between the reader and the text, as well as between this text and others. It is obvious at first glance that names are eminent for the construction of the text, as the five parts of Babel-17 are each named for one character, thereby signifying his or her importance for that particular part. Names, apparently, carry meaning in this text.

Most names in the text are invented, they seem like anagrams but there is no way to determine from the text itself where they point to, they might as well be part of the strange names of SF . The first of the three which are indeed decipherable is the name of the battleship on which Rydra encounters the Butcher, the only person really speaking Babel-17, though not uttering a single word of it in the text, and learns that language: Jebel Tarik. We are informed, that this means ‚Tarik’s mountain‘ in Old Moorish (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 115). It also is the Old Moorish name for the small peninsula called Gibraltar, one of the pillars of Herakles. What exactly this reference means we can only speculate upon. One way this can be construed is that it is indeed Herakles, the hero of greek myth, who is meant. This is indicated by the only openly mythical reference in the text (cf. 126), which also refers to greek myth and Herakles‘ quest , two parts of which took place on Gibraltar. As Babel-17‘s events ressemble a series of quests (cf. Barbour 26), calling the battle ship ‚Jebel Tarik‘ might be a move of the text placing the novel’s events square in ancient quest traditions.

The second name is the name of the novel as well as of the mysterious language: Babel-17, which is obviously a biblical reference to Babel, also known as Babylon. There are two significant biblical passages pertaining to Babel-17. The first is situated in and is concerned with God punishing Babylon for its arrogance. The punishment consists of „confound[ing] their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.“ (Pinker 231) This passage may well be read as a mythical explanation for the diversity of languages, the origin of many misunderstandings that arise in human communication. The second one is found in , where the downfall of the Great Whore Babylon is described in detail. At first glance, this passage might seem a little weird, having nothing to do with language or communication at all. Maybe, on second glance, it describes the consequences of mis-using language, of failed communication, of using words for war-mongering. In this reading of Babel-17, could the accusation that „die auf Erden wohnen, sind betrunken geworden von dem Wein ihrer Hurerei“ () not be talking about humanity whose mind was clogged by misleading words? In short, clogged by the limitations of language, just as, in a more obvious way, the Butcher’s mind is clogged by Babel-17.

The last name is less complicated than the first two. It is the protagonist’s name: Rydra Wong, which, spoken aloud, sounds like „right or wrong“ and may be a play both on critical processes within a language and on sublime messages in otherwise inconspicuous speech. The first reference might have something to do with the fact that within Babel-17‘s structure everything that can be said seems logically correct and intrinsically right, including the criminal actions programmed into it. It takes Rydra Wong to detect the manipulation inherent in the language. SF-editor Hartwell claims that „the dream of SF is to control reality by creating it“ (95) and Babel-17 tries to do just that. It creates a world where all possible propositions are true, it pretends that that each and every possibility is exhausted. As Wittgenstein said: „Man kann [einen Satz] verstehen, ohne zu wissen, ob er wahr ist.“ (33). Babel-17 pretends that every proposition that can be understood is true. This pretension is questioned by Rydra, introducing external criterias for evaluating truth into the language.

Names are of a great value to the structure of Babel-17. This holds true, as we have seen, for some particular names. Also, as we have seen, the process of naming things, for instance naming chapters or naming the novel, is an important part of the process of developing Babel-17‘s themes. We get an idea of exactly how important the process of naming actually is if we read that „[w]ords are names for things.[…] But were words names for things, or was that just a bit of semantic confusion? Words were symbols for whole categories of things“ (Delany, Babel-17, 112; italics his).

What I mean by „process of naming“ is the process whereby someone or something gets assigned a name and, through the name, the person or thing suddenly can be categorized, be used as a thing one can finally be sure of. Naming is trying to rid yourself of issues of undecidabilities, trying to rid yourself from ambiguities inherent in the person, thing or idea. Naming is a continuous series of „attempts at ‚image control‘“ (Tucker 13). That process is nicely illustrated early in the text, when a customs officer sees something he has never seen before, he is intimidated accordingly, so he tries to name the thing. He starts by calling it „the Silver Dragon“ (35), a name, that is more like a title than a name. Its gender or sex is not specified yet, that happens in the next sentence, starting off with „[s]he“ (35). The naming is complete, relieved that he could assess the creature, the customs officer can now allow himself to be astounded and exclaims: „It‘s a woman!“ (35). The same reasoning leads him shortly afterwards to tag someone a „Pervert[]!“ (43). This quick tagging seems to be the easy way of handling complicated situations.

There are two more ways that naming is employed in the text. One is the use of euphemisms and codes. A euphemism occurs, for example, when the General talks about the terroristic sabotage as „accidents“ (12). Codes are used far more often and in these codes names are used as simple placeholders for the encoded words, for example in radio contact in a space fight (cf. 129) or, more simply in assigning a code name to the language which the terrorists use to communicate with each other, Babel-17.

The last crucial act of naming concerns the naming of one’s self. According to Jacques Lacan, we are least ourselves while we talk about ourselves (cf. Eagleton 170), yet the attempts to define one‘s self by talking or thinking about it crowd the text. Be it the elusive desire that one wants to seize by naming it (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 14) or one’s vague feelings that seem less vague once they are named: „I am amazed, surprised, bewildered.“ (5). This process is reflected in the text itself in a most interesting way: when Rydra is trying to teach the Butcher the concept of ‚I‘ and ‚you‘, he turns that same concept nearly on its head by turning ‚I‘ and ‚you‘ respectively into proper names.

The main concern of naming is finding the „real name“ (69) of things, and thereby their irrefutable meaning. Later Rydra asks herself „[i]f there‘s no word for it, how do you think about it?“ (111), how do you assess it? This question echoes the questions that arise from the posthumously published works of American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, his central claim being the following:

We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds, that all observers are not
lead by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic
backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated. (Whorf 214)

The so-called principle of linguistic relativity states that fundamental differences in grammatical categories or in categories of words correspond to fundamental differences in thought. We cannot think independently of the language system we are part of, because „we cannot but ‚see and hear and otherwise experience‘ in terms of the categories and distinctions encoded in language“ (Lyons 304). This is the strong formulation of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which is highly controversial.

The weak formulation ‚merely‘ states that „the structure of one’s language influences perception and recall“ (307), meaning that memory is selective and depending on the language systems it will recall different things in different language systems. Some hold, that, although Whorf might have been wrong in his strong hypothesis, the weak version ist too weak and they formulated their theory between these two versions, taking into account the culture as a whole of the society in question (cf. Gipper 225).

In respect to two different language systems, the last issue to be discussed is the difference between translation and understanding. Even if it were true that translation is impossible, because metaphors and connotations are seldom translatable and never without losing some of the connotation, this would not mean that understanding is impossible (cf. Lakoff 311). It is crucial to differentiate between two languages having a different „conceptual system“ (311), which is what makes translation difficult (cf. 311f.), and the „conceptualizing capacity“ (310), of which Lakoff assumes that it is shared in general by people. This capacity allows for understanding even in cases when the conceptual systems are radically different (cf. 311f.).

One need not go very far in looking for an example of the difficulties implied by the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in Babel-17. The two most significant languages in the text, English and Babel-17, are not very similar to each other, their conceptual systems are fundamentally different. Babel-17 is “an exact analytical language” (Delany, Babel-17, 215), while English is claimed to be “analytically clumsy” (210). Speakers of Babel-17 seem to have an “angular brutality” as well as an “animal grace” (both: 131). The English language, by contrast, lends itself well to poetry, it is beautiful when it is polished, it is a very subjective language, expressing peoples thought and opinions (cf. 17f.), whereas in Babel-17’s conceptual system the grammatical category of subjectivity and self-reflexiveness is missing (cf. 139).

These conceptual differences make translation difficult, certainly. That is why the Butcher, the original speaker of Babel-17, who does not speak a single word of it within the text, has trouble communicating properly in English, he sounds harsh and brutal (cf. 146ff.). These difficulties do not, however, prevent him from learning in English the concepts of ‘I’ and ‘you’ that are missing in the conceptual system he operates with. His being able to understand Rydra’s teaching is the proof that the text offers for the validity of Lakoff’s distinction between understanding and translation.

The closest the text gets to simply restating Whorfian theory is when Rydra claims that “language is thought” (23, italics his) and the closest it gets to refuting the same theory is by saying that although “the original words were lost, the translation remained” (77). What may seem simply like a contradictory statement turns out to be, another one of the textual tactics of Babel-17, namely intrducing a contardiction to shake the readers grip on the meaning of the text and to leave him with questions. Similarly, the explanation of Babel-17’s function as programming its speaker “to become a criminal and a saboteur” (215) is so blatantly unscientific and implausible that it should quickly be realized that the text is not concerned with simple endeavors such as fictionally exploring Whorfian theory. On the contrary, it uses Whorf’s theory to make its own points.

Sometimes the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is also called Sapir-Whorf-Korzybski Hypothesis, named after the founder of General Semantics, whose Motto is ‘The Map is not the Territory’ (cf. Eco 124f.), something we already encountered in Lacan’s thesis. Interestingly, this corresponds nicely with Broderick’s assertion that SF “maps utopia” (107). This connection should encourage us not to look for literalizations of utopias in works of SF, but to look instead for hints, absences, the “naturwissenschaftliche Wunderbare” (Todorov 54). Also, we should remember Moylan, who claimed, that we should not expect utopias in modern literature but only expressions of utopia (cf. Moylan 36). A cursory glance at Babel-17 reveals that there is no utopia in the narrow sense of the word. Still, there is a map of a certain, utopian change, as closer scrutiny will show. Babel-17 traces the contours of that change in the murky waters of language.

Naming things and using manipulated speech have been part of everyday language for several years now. The text shows just how manipulative everyday language can be by using the extreme example of the schizophrenia-inducing Babel-17 in several subtle ways. For instance it is pointed out that Babel-17 manipulates its speakers by using manipulative vocabulary: “the word for Alliance in Babel-17 translates literally into English as: one who has invaded.[…] It has all sorts of little diabolisms programmed into it.” (Delany, Babel-17, 215). This particular diabolism it shares with English, as we never get to know the word for the Invader’s home planets, they are just that: Invaders, meaning, those-who-have-invaded.

It is not easy to blame Babel-17 on the Invaders, as they used Babel-17 as a tool which only worked because it turned a weapon which was the Alliance’s all along, against the Alliance (see footnote 6). Babel-17 encourages us to look at language as an object, not as a given. “[T]he tool is not the weapon; rather the knowledge of how to use it” (213). This is where linguistic relativism comes into play. Some, among them Robert Anton Wilson, have claimed, that English is a highly manipulative language, with lots of possibilities to shroud the speaker’s intentions. That’s why they invented E-Prime, which appears to be sort of a new and improved English, wherin one is not allowed to use the verb ‘(to) be’ or any of its compound varieties (cf. Wilson 97-107). Changing the conceptual system changes minds, they claim. Exactly the same claim is made by Rydra Wong. After having uncovered every secret of Babel-17 and having stopped the sabotage she corrected Babel-17 “to build it towards truth” (Delany, Babel-17, 218).

Turning around what I said in the previous paragraph, I may also claim that its easy to blame Babel-17 on the Invaders, because the names suggest that. It is an „alien language“ (7) and the nameless Invaders wrought havoc with it (cf. 214f.). Sure, the Butcher was the Alliance’s tool, but it took the Invader’s cunning , the „knowledge how to use it“ (213) to make him a weapon. If it is that easy to change truths, how can Rydra believe herself to be able to make Babel-17 truthful?

Wittgenstein famously wrote: „Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen“ (Wittgenstein 111). Not to talk about something equals in this case not being able to say anything about that something that can have any claim to truth. Babel-17‘s status as a work of fiction and the loads of contradictions of which we have encountered several already, almost represent that Wittgensteinian silence. At the end of the day, what, really, has been said? What has been named? If „[a]ny given fiction reveals what it excludes“ (Broderick 133) the possibilities of what is revealed in Babel-17 are great, as it nearly never mentions the government, society, anything that borders on the issues of language is excluded from the text but not from the text’s discourse. Some kind of utopia is discernible in the text, but it’s precise shape is never named, which makes it all the more pervasive.

In Babel-17, we have earned, language is present in many ways, as language, linguistics, poetry and in the process of naming. There is one last aspect left, the one about the language-like qualities of SF. Samuel R. Delany encourages the reader of SF to think of it „as a language that must be learned or as a mode of writing as distinctive as poetry.“ (Landon 7). Each SF text is embedded in a „generic [SF] megatext“ (Broderick 59), which consists of all the other SF works that have been written and all the works that will be written. This means that every SF text has numerous references to numerous other SF texts which must be „not so much understood as simply recognized as proper names.“ (Broderick 57). Most importantly among those references figure certain stock terms that keep cropping up and the individual SF text is characterised by the way he takes up these stock terms and uses them in his own narrative.

This, of course, is nothing else but the notion of intertextuality that we already discussed. It is only now, however, that all the necessary elements for a sensible discussion of the dialogical functions of the SF megatext have been gathered. Babel-17 „showcas[es] the possibilities of SF’s invented languages“ (Malmgren 9) and a comparison with the SF megatext shows that Sfspeak is just another language in the bulk of the many already presented, but it is the process of naming that will become most important for the discussion of SF vocabulary.

Many SF texts play on the so-called „quest formula“ (Aldiss and Wingrove 393). These texts constitute a whole subgenre of SF: the space opera, which first appeared in the 1920s in pulp magazines such as Amazing and Astounding. (cf. Landon 72 ff.). Kingsley Amis remarks that what space operas resemble most are „horse operas“ (44) and Susan Sontag noticed, apropos of SF films, that their predictability remind her of Westerns (cf. 209). Space opera’s plots involve all the magic ingredients, space ships, black holes, hideous aliens, big guns and in a focal position: the heroic men who conquer the unknown universe (cf. Bogdanoff 82 f.). Space operas not only reinforce certain stereotypes, they also have social relevance in their advocacy of capitalism and colonialism (cf. Bogdanoff 85f.) They are propelled by a „missionary fervor and a sense of purpose“ (Landon 81). This crusade leads to frequent encounters with aliens. These encounters can be subsumed under the so-called first contact theme.

First Contacts are not restrained in their appearance nor are they more likely to appear in a space opera than in any other SF subgenre. They are first contacts with that which is alien, that which is the other. This theme is so pervasive that it has lead Broderick to say that SF both „writes the narrative of the other“ and „the narrative of the same, as other“ (51, italics his), which is a major insight, as C.G. Jung points out: „the alien is that which exists within humanity but which civilized humanity believes to have conquered“ (Golden 73). Also, according to C.G. Jung, the quest of the hero is a new myth (cf. 31) and corresponds with „the perennial human quest for meaning and wholeness“ (29). Fighting a war against an alien perceived as hideous would mean what the hero really fights is that within himself which he perceives as hideous. He finds himself a substitute enemy.
Turning to SF it soon is noticeable that the main problem in first contact scenarios is a failing of all kinds of communication, verbal as well as non-verbal (cf. Bogdanoff 244). In SF films the appearance of the alien usually is accompanied by silence (cf. Seeßlen 435), which in written SF texts is impossible to realize. As in the movies, however, the appearance of the alien has its importance. According to Bogdanoff communication works better the more human the alien appears. (cf. 230). This raises the question of what is really human: the humans, their shadow counterparts or both? What makes someone human ? It might well be language.

When talking about mythical references in the novel we already noticed the quest motive in Babel-17. Indeed, the novel has been derisively called a space opera often both by members of the academia (cf. Schulz 151) as well as by members of the SF ‚scene‘ (cf. Keim 503). It has been claimed that space opera’s underlying world view prevents any criticism of society or language (cf. Keim 514). In contrast, I would claim that the text „shows the need to understand codes and conventions“ (Samuelson 168) in order to work with them.

The stereotypes of space opera are conspicuously absent. The hero is a woman, who has weak moments (Delany, Babel-17, 15f.). She is a poet, not a warrior and although fights take place they have nothing to do with what turns out to be the hero’s victory. There’s none of the stereotypical male cocksureness in the events. It is poetry, science and Rydra and the Butcher‘s love that wins the day, not the big guns. The crew on Rydra‘s ship which is all the society the text permits us to see works in ways together that seem more like kibbutzim, working together as equals, work and love closely related. There is no trace of capitalism; colonialism, however, is hinted at, the headquarters of the Invaders are in a city called „Nueva-nueva York“ (218), a clear reference to New York and American colonial history. The missionary fervor, too, has its place in Babel-17, but it is a different fervor, a different purpose. In the end, Babel-17 is accorded no cultural value that could result in a cultural colonisation, it is assigned to other tools, it works as a go-between.

Speaking ‘SF’ means understanding the stereotypes and using them. Moylan wrote that he believed the productive powers of phantasy were situated in art (cf. Moylan 33). Using one’s phantasy to speak to the reader with the intent of swaying him to the cause, that aspect of Moylan’s belief are well taken care of by SF.

The key to the space opera motive in Babel-17 is found in Jung‘s observation as stated above: „the alien is that which exists within humanity but which civilized humanity believes to have conquered“ (Golden 73), a dark force within humanity. And language is exactly that, a manipulative force that we believe to have conquered through writings, through codes, through the disambiguation that we believe to occur in the process of naming. By transposing the palpable figure of the alien with something as vague as language, Babel-17 demonstrates what we should be afraid of: ourselves. „Who is this animal man“ is asked early on (Delany, Babel-17, 3). If we as human beings dump our fears of our shadowy side on the character of the Alien, this process assures that in the figure of that Alien can we ourselves be traced (cf. Golden 161). In language we can also be traced with all our arrogance in full display, all our weaknesses.

Language in space operas, we have found, mirrors the capitalist society from when they originated. Language mirrors our selves, but, as we learned, those same selves are absent in the language. Compared to other utopias, the traces of utopia visible in Babel-17 are not to do with enshrining a particular language or culture, as utopias generally have the tendency to do (Gordon 205). Languages, we learn, are deficient. English as well as the mysterious Babel-17. Communication also is deficient, personal as well as global, we have learned that, too. Maybe society, and we, too, who are mirrored in it are also deficient.

Language is mended as the events turn to a close (218f.). Another thing that is on the way to being mended is the political situation, meaning the interplanetary war, as Rydra and the Butcher are resolved to stop it. About earth society we receive nearly no information, we only encounter two earth people from the government, the General and a customs officer. Both are unhappy. The General, because he thinks that he cannot communicate with others. The customs officer seems to be unhappy with his whole life situation. He changes because he communicates with others, he changes his language system in parts: the process of naming is recognized as bad. This, actually is not portrayed in the novel, but when Rydra returns to earth the customs officer’s lifestyle resembles a lifestyle he claimed was perverted (cf. 191f.). Rydra’s quest, one might assume, mirrors the officer’s journey through his language in an allegorical way.

In his foreword to Delany’s seventh novel The Einstein Intersection, Neil Gaiman reviews some of the ways that particular novel has been read by all kinds of readers and interpreters. He closes that section of the foreword without passing judgement on the validity of these readings but instead he comments: „if that were all the book was, it would be a poor type of tale, with little resonance for now. Instead, it continues to resonate.“ (Gaiman ix). That holds equally true for Babel-17, which has been read as a black novel (cf. Weedman), as a gay novel and as an arrogant and trashy novel (cf. Keim)

SF, Delany says, is „a tool to help you think about the present […] in a way that allows you to question them as you read along in an interesting, moving and exciting story“ (Landon 35). This statement perfectly captures the effect of Babel-17, an exiting story about language and its mechanisms, questioning our sense of ourselves. Notions of free will and truth are under fire in this novel. That its narrative is open-ended is fitting. It leaves us with questions, not with answers. Questions that are about language, not about codes.

Languages have to be understood. When Rydra sits down with her tapes and transcriptions and works out all the grammar and vocabulary before passing judgment on Babel-17, maybe that is the text’s way of telling us to sit down likewise and consider the implications.Rydra’s understanding of herself and her understanding of the language happen at the same time. Babel-17 suggests, that it is always that way as understanding ourselves means understanding language first.

SF „shows human kind groaning in chains of its own construction, but nearly always with the qualification that those chains can be broken if people try hard enough“ (Amis 77) In Babel-17 these chains are language. Changing your life means changing your language. This is where mainstream criticism errs, which assumes that Babel-17 is about language and problems of language. They cannot see that it is about change. Trying hard enough not to succumb to the manipulations of language or to reflect the manipulation. These consequences are political as well as epistemological. Changing society also means changing yourself and your language, which is the lesson Wilson implemented when he started to advocate E-Prime.
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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. I really need it🙂 . My other posts may not be *as* thorough as this one, but maybe still worth supporting? If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

2 thoughts on “Understanding Language in Babel-17

  1. Pingback: Big Brother: Orwell, Sapir-Whorf, and Evv'ythang - World Literature Forum

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