Catherynne Valente: Space Opera

Valente, Caterynne, Space Opera, Saga Press
ISBN 978-1481497497

One of my favorite science fiction novels is The Killing Star by Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski. The situation is simple: in the future, with humanity having colonialized the solar system and about to step outside, someone notices we exist and might be a threat, and, just to be safe, nukes the whole of humanity before coming in and mopping up what’s left. It is a dark novel that provides an unsettling answer to the Fermi paradoxon, and its logic is grounded in our history of colonialism and imperialism. Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera takes a very similar premise, and spins it into one of the funniest novels this side of Scalzi’s Redshirts (it’s funnier than Scalzi). Humanity has reached the brink of leaving for space, and now the sentient creatures of the universe are auditioning us for space adulthood. How you may ask? After a devastating civil war in the galaxy, a singing competition was instated to test sentience. You have to take part. If you are an applicant species, you can’t come last – if you come last, your planet is wiped clean and re-seeded. So one day, the universe is knocking on earth’s door and asks for humanity’s champion. That champion is a washed up British glam rocker: brown, queer and old. What comes next is hilarious – and smart.

The obvious comparison is Hitchhiker’s Guide, with its satirical phantasmagoria of space, but the most apt comparison to me is the work of Terry Pratchett. Like Pratchett, Valente suffuses her extremely funny writing with some ultimately serious thinking about who we are as a society and who we ought to be. Pratchett’s work is less about dwarves, wizards and inedible streetfood than it is about community and how we as humans – and more precisely, the English –struggle with and understand community and humanity. One wonders what Pratchett, who died in 2015, would have made of Farage and Brexit and Trump. Well this is an option: Catherynne Valente takes one of the big projects of post-WWII Europe, the Eurovision Song Contest (née Grand Prix Eurovision) and blows it up to galactic scale. She keeps the current rules (including the stupid stupid current vote split between popular and jury vote), and adapts them to a larger scale, with aliens of all shapes and sizes, and includes the genocide-for-losers option (though it only applies to applicant nations. Established nations who come last are merely shamed for it. Valente is an unexpectedly funny writer, the book’s joke density is extremely high, with standalone jokes, allusions to pop music, to Eurovision history, to books, and more wrestling for space, but even so, we’re always led by a clear political sense of what’s good and proper.

Racism, for example, isn’t, and Valente gets in multiple hits at it. This connects Space Opera to another novel that I can hear humming in the background: Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love. Gwyneth Jones is one of the most underrated and most brilliant writers of SF today, and her Bold as Love cycle focuses on a mixed-race British rock guitarist, connecting rock music with British politics, and for all the fantasy hijinks in Jones’s books, there is a serious contemplation behind it all, which Valente shares. Both Valente and Jones take contemporary culture, signifiers of identity and skew them away from assumptions of whiteness and “Britishness.” Valente gets explicit – once her protagonist, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes gets picked, the British public is upset: a brown immigrant from a Muslim background? Couldn’t they have picked someone….whiter? There is a tendency in some science fiction to externalize debates on racism to aliens and make it about purple beings discriminating against green beings – not so here. Like some versions of Doctor Who, Valente never disengages from actual racism, though she does use galactic racism as a canvas as well. In Space Opera, things are terrible on Earth, and things are terrible in the Galaxy, and one doesn’t replace the other.

In fact, Valente’s novel is a perfect example of the possibilities of science fiction. Yes, it is a endlessly hilarious take on Eurovision, but it also exemplifies what Samuel Delany has written about science fiction expanding literary language and possibilities. It takes a genre considered bad (Delany says “When far-future sf fails, we usually call its degenerate form “space opera”) and elevates it. Valente uses the camp and exaggeration inherent in the form to speak to a larger issue about violence and war and, most of all, community. If you have read any of her other books, in particular what I consider her masterpiece, the 2009 Palimpsest, you won’t be surprised at the precision and craftsmanship throughout the book. Jack Vance, one of the SF legends, had written a tongue-in-cheek take on space opera in his 1965 Space Opera, but somehow Valente’s book exceeds this and many other novels like it. There is no flab, no fat on the bones of this novel. Even her very prose is complex and dense with allusion and humor. Her humor is not harsh, not cheaply ironic. It is full of puns, verbal energy – it’s like a three ring circus act. What’s more (and important to understand) is that Valente (like me) unironically loves the ESC. The book comes with quotes from some favorite songs and a long dedication to its founder in the afterword. Irony is cheap. This book is not. The book demands to be re-read in delight, excitement and admiration. Space Opera is very funny, very serious and very, very good.


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John Scalzi: Lock In

Scalzi, John (2014), Lock In, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-8132-3

[A note: this review has somehow turned out very digressive, so here’s a quick tl,dr summary of my opinion: Lock In is an intelligent, fun, exciting science fiction novel built around a brilliant idea, somewhere between Merleau-Ponty and Michael Crichton and executed by one of the most prolific and best SF authors we currently have. If you like techno-thrillers and/or you like science fiction, read Lock In. It’s very good.]

DSC_1559So if you are not following what’s happening in English-language science fiction, it’s quite likely you missed quite a solid amount of drama. The magnificent Adam Roberts has summarized the affair succinctly here. If you don’t feel like clicking on links (another good take is here), the even shorter version is this: dismayed by a distorted perception of who is being fêted by the prize-giving crowd in science fiction, a group of mediocre-to-terrible writers have set up a list of “preferred” writers. Their moniker is “sad puppies” or “rabid puppies” (technically two different groups, practically indistinguishable) and they feel they have to protest what they feel is boring, politically correct fiction. Recent Hugo winners and nominees include books that question gender, race and class, and writers like Larry Correia, who runs a gun shop and likes to shoot guns in his spare time (like, really likes to shoot guns) feel there’s not enough old fashioned ass-kicking and shooting going around, and very much not enough veiled (or not so veiled) xenophobia and misogyny. They are just, we hear, not enough fun. The Hugos should be awarding the fun books, the popular books rather than the books well loved by critics. I remember a similar debate around the Booker Prize and its dreary results [insert here a complaint about many recent Booker shortlists]. But the Booker is not a award that the public can vote on, so what the “Sad Puppies” did wouldn’t have been possible there: they organized a crowd of rowdy, angry, mostly white and male supporters and rigged the voting process, getting a disproportionate amount of “Sad Puppies” on the list. Now, the awards ended in a curious result, which you can find summarized here and here. But of all the essays and thinkpieces on the award, what struck me most strongly somehow was this Hugo analysis (and it’s follow-up here) which I was interested in for two reasons. One, apparently, without the Puppies voters, the award for best novel would have gone to The Goblin Emperor, a nice but not spectacular book (my review here). Two, and more relevantly for this review, without the “Puppy” books, John Scalzi’s Lock In would have been nominated. This is interesting. Neither The Goblin Emperor, which treats class and power with dubious sloppiness nor Lock In are boring-but-critically well received books. In fact, the closest non-SF point of comparison for Scalzi’s excellent book is Michael Crichton’s oeuvre. It’s a fast paced thriller, brilliantly conceived, with smart ideas and a sleek, efficient execution. If you like fast paced SF-y thrillers, read it. It’s a blast.

DSC_1557The reason I suppose Scalzi was not among the recommended authors is not this work in particular. It’s not even his work in general. Lock In is not some nifty exception to an otherwise more complicated and/or difficult oeuvre. It’s not to his oeuvre what Kraken was to Miéville’s, for example. In fact, his Hugo-winning novel Redshirts (2012) is similarly an absolute joy to read. It’s a story about Star Trek, it toys with genre, with conventions and characters. It’s absurdly funny. Sure, there’s a level on which it’s a clever take about truth and narrative, but we are at no point obliged to stop and consider this take in order to enjoy the book. In fact, the reason I never reviewed it here is because I thought it was lovely but a bit breezy and slight. Would I recommend it? Of course. It’s endlessly amusing. And I think the deeper its reader has fallen down the SF culture wormhole, the more enjoyable it is. So is this the kind of dour politicking the Sad Puppies warned us? It’s clearly not about popularity because Scalzi’s books sell like cold drinks in a hot summer. He’s so successful in fact, that Scalzi recently inked a 3.4 Million $ contract with Tor (read the man’s own explanation here). Scalzi is popular, he writes breezy, not entirely weighty books that are not super left wing (Old Man’s War is a good example) in an accessible style – the kind of style, indeed that would allow him to publish 19 books in 10 years. So the issue isn’t with his work per se – it’s with Scalzi the person who runs a blog that frequently discusses political issues in science fiction, and a Twitter account that does the same. For these reasons, Scalzi has become the bête noire of the “Puppies” crowd. And the most fascinating part about it is that Scalzi at no point in his recent work fills the role he’s expected to fill. There are practically no flat polemics, no open and excessive politics, nothing. Lock In is politically interesting, but not overtly so, and his asides that may be read as commenting on the debate are minor, such as when a character says to the other “I get that you’re used to saying what you think to anyone, anytime. That comes from being an entitled rich kid.” Compare this to, say, Rushdie’s grumpy asides on the New Atheism debate in Enchantress of Florence, for example, where he inserted anachronistic debates just to (I guess) make a point.

DSC_1556For all the baggage that comes with the name Scalzi and with the science fiction community and the Hugo dustup, Lock In is an intricate (but not overly so) techno thriller that happens to be SF, but reads in many ways like a novel by Michael Crichton. A new technology is introduced, it proves to be dangerous and influential people behind the curtain try to abuse it to their own benefit and it’s up to some detective-like character to figure it out. It’s not the first time on this blog that I’ve compared a SF writer to Crichton, and last time, it was Charles Stross’ lamentable Halting State. (click here for my review) – but there is a key difference. Stross copied the school of Crichton to a fault, from the narrative skill to the odd politics and even xenophobia. Stross presented a SF novel entirely denuded of all that makes science fiction such a vital and important genre. Because that’s another way that the “Puppies” got it wrong. Science fiction has always been full of exciting books that pushed the intellectual envelope, that managed to say things in the grammar of science fiction that couldn’t have been said equally well within the genre of “literary fiction” – Coreia, Beale and their ilk didn’t just misread and mistreat contemporary science fiction – they also seem entirely unaware of the genre’s proud and interesting tradition. Scalzi on the other hand – and unlike Stross- wrote a book that makes heavy use of the advantages of SF. That summary just now doesn’t really do justice to Lock In and that’s because the book, despite having a thriller corset, wouldn’t work as it does in a pure thriller structure. It’s SF skeleton are as important to the book as its thriller muscles. Unlike Halting State, whose speculative technologies are at best hair’s breadth more futuristic than the technology that Crichton’s more speculative books revolve around, Scalzi’s basic idea is the backbone, the most essential element of the whole book. In fact, in some of its slighter moments the book feels like the author competently-but-quickly fleshed out his ideas. There’s no complex structure to the book, it develops rather straightforwardly from its initial premise. Much like the idea of Redshirts, i.e. what if the characters on a TV show were somehow real, and script rewrites would inexplicably change the world around them. And what if they then managed to escape to “our” world and contact the actors and scriptwriters and producers of “their” show? The rest of the book just fleshes out that idea, expands on it, adds joke and easter eggs. In a more serious way, the same thing is true for Lock In. There’s a premise and the writing just fills in the gaps and wrangles a plot. That premise, however, is so good that it allows Scalzi to really go to town.

DSC_1568The basic idea is that in the near future, an illness strikes a vast portion of the population, the so-called Haden’s syndrome. For a small percentage of those inflicted, falling ill means being locked out of your body. These people are basically paralyzed for the rest of their lives, with active brains and nerves, but without control over their bodies. And there is no cure for Haden’s syndrome. However, after a few years, technology has developed to help the millions inflicted. Many of those technologies involve the transfer of consciousness. Into a virtual community called the Agora, into robots, and into the brains of people who serve as carriers. These solutions are not permanent. The Haden’s victims still have their bodies around which need to be tended to and there is a transfer of physical sensation from the body to the consciousness, and if the body dies, the consciousness dies with it. The transfer is achieved via neural transmitters. Some people, born with the illness, never really encounter the physical world actively and spend all their life in the Agora. Some enter some means of transportation every day. There are CEOs, politicians and people from all walks of life who suffer from Haden and use robots to get around town. This technology is accessible to everyone because, until very recently in the book’s timeline, it was heavily subsidized by the government. The book’s protagonist is a famous Haden’s patient, Chris Shane, who we meet on day one of his new line of work: rookie FBI agent. Shane comes from a famous/rich family, but want to make it on his own. I think you can recognize the trope. On day one, he and his new partner, the troubled but brilliant agent Leslie Vann, are called to the scene of a murder involving Hadens. The book covers roughly one week during which their initial murder case leads them to uncover a conspiracy that involves more murder, corporate greed, terrorism and a popular uprising of those affected by Haden. The book moves quickly, as there’s just not enough time to meander, given all that happens, and it does it with efficiency and narrative excellence. However, just because the book doesn’t offer us digressive essays and pamphlets, it doesn’t mean the book is bereft of intelligent points on a wide range of things.

DSC_1555I have recently been reading (in PhD work breaks) quite a few genre novels and I am vaguely aware of the attempt to establish the term “slipstream”, which I mostly encounter in the writings of genre writers who want to sidle up to the “literary fiction” genre by claiming a kind of shared space. But good literary fiction does more than tell a good yarn, it offers us structures and ideas and an elevated level of prose. Some books, like the incomprehensibly dull The Doors You Mark are Your Own by “Alexander Tuvim” mistake the recent resurgence of narrative (I commented a bit on that resurgence in my review of Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise) for some new literary license to sprawl without having the intellectual nous to actually say something rather than merely indulge. If there was a slipstream genre, surely it would involve books with genre trappings that also fill the shoes usually worn by what is generally perceived as literary fiction. The problem with that is that this is already amply covered, say, by science fiction. M. John Harrison, Iain Banks, Samuel Delany, Gene Wolfe and China Miéville are as skillful writers of prose as many “literary” novelists (and certainly better than “Tuvim”), and intelligent and even brilliant ideas abound in science fiction, which has never confortably settled within any arbitrary set of genre conventions. The mere history of science fiction explodes that idea. I know the idea comes from Bruce Sterling who is always worth considering, but to me what he describes is more like a gothic alienating technique (which you’ll also find in the recent works of William Gibson), but I’m always open to being proven wrong about the validity of “slipstream” as a genre. If it hadn’t come from Sterling, I would have assumed it came from someone who doesn’t really understand the reach and power of science fiction. And Lock In is an excellent example of the reach and unconventional positioning of science fiction. Scalzi employs the tropes of thriller writing, with small but significant twists. At the same time, his reliance on his science-fictional premise allows him to implicitly debate issues such as the question of how society and the structures of knowledge intersect with disability. How do we construct a disabled body? Where does deficiency end, and identity begin?

DSC_1566There is a moment where the protagonist is offered a broken robot as his only option to get around town. The robot works, but its legs don’t, so the rookie agent is offered a wheelchair to get around in. It comes near the end and allows the reader to come to terms with the many other ways disability has been portrayed in the book. There are mental disabilities that are shown to be both limiting as well as empowering. We are confronted with the question of how connected our sense of humanity is to our corporeality. In many places, Scalzi appears to offer a riff on Merleau-Ponty’s famous discussions of the corps propre. Even as early as in his 1942 work The Structure of Behavior, Merleau-Ponty points out that “[l]’esprit n’utilise pas le corps, mais se fait à travers lui” – the consciousness doesn’t merely use the body as a host. It could not just be made independent from the body – despite the fact that Hadens can easily and quickly transfer their consciousness from and into different hosts as you would get into and out of different cars (the protagonists keeps traveling throughout the country by downloading into available robots). Very subtly, Scalzi also discusses the topic of race and how visibility and disability play into the cultural construction of race. Least subtly, and likely connected to contemporary American domestic debates, he offers a withering indictment of the opposition to government-supplied healthcare. And I’m not transposing some kind of reading on a more innocuous book – all this is really in there, and he uses plot and setting to offer a debate without having to stop for narrative breath. This is enormously hard to do in “literary fiction” because it’s not as easy to mold the environment to convey a philosophical argument as it is with the grammar of science fiction, and downright impossible to do while maintaining fluid readability. Lock In is a barrel of excitement – did I mention that it’s also humorous and witty? It’s just enormously good at what it does – and it does a lot. It#s the best book by Scalzi that I’ve read so far – although I am far from a Scalzi completist. This is very good and I recommend it to you with all the conviction I can muster. It’s a fantastic book, and the “Puppies” can go suck my big toe.


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Charles Stross: Halting State

Stross, Charles (2008), Halting State, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-441-01607-5

These past years, I have recommended Philip K. Dick’s impressive novel Ubik to a number of serious readers of literature interested in Dick and/or Science Fiction literature in general. It’s the perfect introduction to Dick’s work, because it’s both straightforward and pleasantly odd. But there’s more. Several readers have written back to me to complain about how little sense the book supposedly made, how Dick made gross errors in narrative logic etc. This is more than the usual philistine hurry to blame the author for one’s own careless reading. I ‘d suggest that it points to something that is quite typical of the genre of Science Fiction. Dick isn’t the only writer who’s used to infusing a narrative that seems straightforward enough with a dose of the odd or strange. There’s something angular, uncomfortable about many good books of the genre, a sort of basic difficulty, almost independent of the literary skills of the writer in question. Science Fiction demands, like no other genre, that its readers take each book on its own terms. It’s always dangerous to interpret difference as erroneous writing, but with regard to SF, this assumption is more likely to be incorrect. There is no other genre I know of that constantly mixes the tools of experimental fiction with the storytelling of an action movie to produce all kinds of inventive yet readable results. Given the prolificacy of many prominent SF novelists, it’s also astonishing that a great deal of them are greatly attentive not just to matters of literary structure and the like, but also pay extraordinarily close attention to the words they use, to the way they connect to the ideas put forth in the novel. Form is always connected to content in SF, and more often than not, it’s germane to any significant understanding of the book in question. All this means that any work of SF is likely to be less encumbered by conventional expectations of narrative logic, and it’s why Science Fiction is such a worthwhile genre to read. Even so-so works like Tobias S. Buckell’s Ragamuffin contain a daunting intellectual structure; apparent mistakes in narrative logic (as the aforementioned readers thought to find in Ubik) are usually more than that. They are part of a sophisticated, passionate, elaborate literary undertaking that has languished for far too long on the grubby shelves of ‘genre literature’ while the Franzens, Austers and Mitchells of this world reaped critical success and broad public appreciation. This tension between quality and lack of critical success has, on the other hand, led to a tradition in SF that tried to make the genre palatable, relatable, clean, acceptable, slowly draining the genre of everything that made it as powerful as it was. Charles Stross’ 2007 novel Halting State represents a kind of end point for this development. It would be silly and facetious to compare it to accomplished works of science fiction. In fact, the author it most resembles is not strictly speaking a SF writer, it’s Michael Crichton.*

Make no mistake, Halting State is a very good read, a real page turner of a novel; it’s both efficiently written and smartly constructed. Charles Stross is clearly a highly competent novelist, and Halting State is a well-nigh flawlessly executed thriller: in it, Stross displays an uncanny knack for timing, for example. Characters, plot elements, surprises and moments of shock and breathless action are released at just the right moment, a skill that should not be underrated. The book’s sleek efficiency is also visible in the way the characters are fleshed out in just the right amount. There is enough depth to care about the things that happen to Stross’ characters, worry about them, and cheer them on when they fall in love or have an arduous fight to endure, yet not so much as to make readers stumble over potential ambiguities and complexities. To sum up: if you like thrillers and/or Michael Crichton’s work, you’ll love Stross. Another similarity with Crichton’s post-Sphere work is the gentle way that Stross introduces his futuristic technology. Halting State is set in the near future and its technologies are rather similar to ours; the same is true for the kind of social and political structure we encounter. The changes are so slight, so carefully wrought, that they allow any reader to catch up with the author and quickly relate to the events without having to think or re-contextualize. The contexts stay, broadly speaking, the same; additionally, Stross presents a near future with completely believable and utterly dull developments. Nothing is surprising in any way, every single technology in the book is rooted in something that we already use and, in some cases, he uses ‘new’ technology that is already in development. One of the fundamental conceits of Halting State, about the interconnection of private entertainment and the grander world of global espionage, is so banal and unsurprising that it’s been taken up in various guises in pop culture, most recently in an episode of Nathan Fillion’s comedy-drama TV show Castle. Well, I have to admit: this is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, what it means is that Stross has utterly professionalized his genre. He has moved away from visions and conceptual difficulties into the realm of professional thriller writers whose books are based on easy emotive access and, ultimately, fear. A fear of that which is still somewhat alien to us, a term which usually means foreigners and technology, i.e. things and people we can’t really understand. That’s why easy relatability is so important – only in a sequence of knowns can the unknown stick out as it does in the work of Crichton. This kind of discourse is of course buttressed by a defense or acceptance of the status quo, of things as they are, of ruling hierarchies and exploitative mechanisms. That this sort of thing, hitherto mainly typical of thrillers, crops up in SF as much as it does these days is sad, but true. Stross is only one of many examples: Cory Doctorow (cf. my review of Little Brother) is another, though less problematic one.

Thus, with a cleaned up language, efficient plot and relatable discussions of future technologies, only one potential stumbling block for readers remains, and it’s one of the few concessions Stross makes towards his genre: he toys a bit with pronouns. The book has three distinct protagonists, each of whom narrates their own chapter. However, the book does not use the first or third person singular, but the second person singular. This trick, which has no further consequences for the way the story is told, does not extend to difficulties of speech and perception, barely engages questions of identity or anything else. Stross could have removed this from the manuscript by copy & paste without damaging the rest of the text except in negligible ways. It’s a nod to his genre, no more than that. Since the novel is concerned with virtual realities, and the ways that our world interacts with the virtual, the use of the second person singular allows Stross to mirror virtual relationships as well as relations that we engage in in dealing with one another (and us ourselves) through online media. As as I mentioned before, using form in order to reflect on content is a commonly used tool in science fiction prose and this appears to be Stross’ main difference to Crichton et al. In most other ways, he follows the mainstream thriller guidelines almost exactly. The similarities to Crichton in particular are both general structural similarities, as well as more specific resemblances. Among the closer ties is an eery similarity to Crichton’s famously racist 1992 novel Rising Sun, which painted the ascendancy of the Japanese economy as a threat to Americans in several garish colors. The apprehension towards dominant Japanese companies had already produced books like Tom Peters’ fun but ridiculous In Search for Excellence (1982), but for Crichton, exalting American values or Americans in general was not enough. His novel contains murderous Japanese businessmen, scheming Japanese officials and two Americans caught in the middle of an intricate intercultural intrigue. Something somewhat similar happens in Halting State. A robbery and a murder have been committed and a police officer, an insurance investigator and a software geek are trying to get to the bottom of an affair that keeps getting more and more complicated. As in Rising Sun, inquiries are quelled or at least hampered by political interference, by executives’ and politicians’ schemes and manipulations. In Stross’ 2007 novel, the Japanese are no longer the bad guys as they were in Crichton’s and other novels of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it’s (as can be expected) Chinese hackers on the payroll of the evil Chinese government that are the enemy now. Actual people of Chinese descent barely make an appearance in the book, but that’s largely unimportant, since, as any racist will be able to tell you, it’s not the specific individual that attracts their rage, it’s the general idea of the foreign culture/race. ‘They’ are different, and ‘they’ are a threat. That’s the name of the game Charles Stross is more than happy to play.

Like Crichton, Stross leaves, of course, ample room for a denunciation of corporate greed. For both writers, this is an important element, because readers are just as likely to reject executives as grossly incompetent, stupid or gluttonous, as they are to reject foreigners as scheming, lazy or destructive, and both writers are engaged in an attempt to build an alliance with their readers built on shared prejudice. Stross even does Crichton one better. Unless I misremember, there is nothing in Crichton’s post-Sphere work that corresponds to what I like to call Stross’ trinity of identification. Stross’ three protagonists are Elaine Barnaby, a woman, who is drawn in a mildly clichéd but not aggressively sexist way, a smart and quirky closet geek. There is Jack Reed, the software engineer, who is the most knowledgeable of the three, constantly explaining facts about the technological background, a nerd who likes to drink, is shy around women, and incredibly smart. The third narrator and protagonist is Sue Smith, a police officer, and representative of a whole strain of elements that crop up all over the book. Thing is, Halting State, a book about the global world of hackers, espionage and online gaming, is rooted in a weird sort of patriotism tinged with localism. It’s set in Edinburgh, and reflects its Scottish background in multiple ways. For starters, there’s Sue, who speaks/writes a mild sort of Scots-inflected English, which stands out among the verbal offerings of the other characters. It is Sue’s point of view that foregrounds most a contrast between locals and foreigners, because in Halting State, only Scottish citizens are truly locals, and Jack and Elaine, the two English geeks, are always slightly out of place. The book crawls with comments about how little the streets and facades of Edinburgh have changed; this is accompanied by comments about the specific/unique relationship that this Scottish metropolis has with the modern world outside. In a way, Stross reproduces the larger discursive concerns that power books like Crichton’s and includes a miniature model of them, localized in terms of references and language. And it’s all so incredibly well made! Halting State is a stunningly crafted thriller, but a mediocre, fifth rate work of science fiction. If the genre did not also contain writers like Gwyneth Jones, China Miéville, Adam Roberts or Vernor Vinge (who, by the way, praises Halting State), I might be worried. There is much to admire in this book, and compared to other, let’s say, thrillers, it would stand out. In its own genre, however, it’s its deficiencies that stand out starkly. If you want a quick, good read by a writer with a good grasp of current technology and excellent command of a certain kind of narrative, this book is highly recommended. If you want something more, you’ll have to look elsewhere.


*A lot of Crichton’s books can of course be categorized as science fiction, among them probably Sphere or Jurassic Park (incl. sequels). I’d argue, and in a way that is what I’m doing in this review, that Crichton’s main influence and the genre he mainly belongs to is the thriller genre. He may use a SF tool now and then, but they are just props. Crichton’s intentions and visions are those of a mainstream thriller writer, and his approach is the same in Jurassic Park, Next, Rising Sun or any other of his best known works. Finally this: what I take to be the core of the Science Fiction genre I laid out in my first paragraph. It’s a different kind of approach to seeing the world. Iris Murdoch wrote in The Book and the Brotherhood about Marxism: “The only good Marxist is a mad Marxist. It’s not enough to be a revisionist, you’ve got to be a bit mad too – to be able to see the present world, to imagine the magnitude of what’s happening.” I think this madness is necessary for good science fiction, as well, this imagination of possibilities and impossibilities. This is true for space operas, hard sf, cyberpunk, steampunk or the straight madness of Dick’s later novels. The best test for good SF is this: if you take away the odd objects, and the unfamiliar settings, are the texts in front of you still different from mainstream fiction? In my review’s first paragraph I suggest they should be, and any of the authors I mentioned appraisingly in this review have produced works for which that is indeed the case. It is not true for Halting State which is powered by the same visionary black hole that brought forth Michael Crichton’s works. A reader on a literature forum suggested that part of the book were a straight yet awkward pastiche of Ian Rankin‘s books. I would not be surprised to find that to be the case, although I haven’t been able to sample Mr. Rankin’s work yet.

Miéville wins!

Miéville wins this year’s Arthur C. Clarke award. The price is well deserved, too. His prize.winning novel, The City and the City is a well-nigh perfect achievement. It’s so good that I was too daunted to write a review of it. Read more about his win here

The novel won the British Science Fiction Association prize for best novel earlier this month, when BSFA journal editor Niall Harrison predicted it was set to take a slew of further prizes. Miéville pronounced himself “absolutely gobsmacked” and “incredibly honoured” to win the Arthur C Clarke, an award originally established by Clarke himself to help promote science fiction in Britain. “It’s very different from most of my other books,” said Miéville, who has previously won the Arthur C Clarke with more traditional fantasy novels Perdido Street Station and Iron Council. “It was very much written in an effort to be absolutely faithful to works of crime fiction. Crime readers will denounce a book because it has ‘cheated,’ and I wanted to write a book that didn’t cheat, that was faithful to crime rules and that if you’d never read any fantasy you could pick up.”

Adam Roberts: Yellow Blue Tibia

Roberts, Adam (2009), Yellow Blue Tibia, Gollancz
ISBN 978-0-575-08357-8

Here’s the deal. You will have to read Adam Roberts, unless Yellow Blue Tibia, his most recent novel, grossly misrepresents his oeuvre. There is just no way you can bypass this writer, who is so self-controlled, so sure of his capabilities and his craft, who is able to engage both the humorous and the darkly serious nature of his work. Yellow Blue Tibia may not be a masterpiece, but it is certainly an excellent novel and a truly dazzling display of skills. So far, he has ten novels under his belt, a few academic studies (including a regrettable one on Frederic Jameson, in the sense that any study on Jameson is regrettable), some parodies and a few shorter pieces. If any of them so much as approach the quality of Yellow Blue Tibia, you’re in for a treat. Read it. You don’t even have to like science fiction, because one of the remarkable things about the book is that it is as much a literary novel about science fiction as it is a science fiction novel proper. In this extraordinarily funny and smart book, Roberts managed to seize his genre, and put it through the wringer, spinning it around, examining it, without ever becoming too intellectual or too cerebral. It’s also a joy to read, a book that scoops up a lot of the canonical postmodern playfulness of the 1970s, but has, below this, the elegant, moving structure of a more traditional novel. What’s more, Roberts’ playfulness is always in the service of real concerns, real problems, and implies the possibilities of real actions. Adam Roberts is a very serious writer, who likes to use the word “ballsack” a lot. And he excels at both of these kinds of writing. Read this writer. You will not be disappointed.

The plot is hard to describe, mostly because it’s actually quite surprising. It’s not that you can’t see the final twist coming a mile off, but Yellow Blue Tibia, at the beginning, hedges its bets, shows you ways of continuing its tale, before stepping up to the plate and fully delivering its story. It starts off like this: in 1945, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, i.e. Joseph Stalin, ruler of all the Russias, asks a group of well-known Soviet Science Fiction writers to convene in a cabin in the woods. They come by train, by mule cart, they are both giddy and elated to meet Stalin, and mortally afraid. Instead of sending them all to the Gulag, however, Stalin asks them to write a story. In what seems to be a very Wag the Dog-ish line of thought, Stalin has decided that the USSR needs an enemy to unite against. Now that the Germans have been beat, and that (in Stalin’s estimation), victory against the US is, at most, five years away, it is time to plan and come up with a new enemy after the US are conquered. And why not invent an enemy? This is what Stalin wants his science fiction writers to do: invent an enemy to rally the peoples of the USSR against, “an extraterrestrial menace. It will be the greatest Science Fiction story ever told! And we will write it collectively! It will inspire the whole of the Soviet Union – inspire the whole world!”. So, this is what they do. After long discussions and deliberations, they come up with a species of “radiation aliens”, and they even imagine some of their early attacks, such as a destroyed US spaceship, and a bomb launched against the Ukraine.

This section is very densely narrated and it contains a lot of the ideas and themes that the rest of Yellow Blue Tibia later pursues. We learn that these men are all tired, all afraid, but they’re all, additionally, Communists. In period novels such as Vassili Grossmann’s Life and Fate, we learn hat even those afraid to be murdered by Stalin’s henchmen, even those in camps and at the front, that there are many ardent Communists among them, because the idea of Communism is unharmed by the horrific political events in the 20th century, engineered by Lenin, Stalin, Mao and their vassals. So it is with the men in that cabin. Their visions, thought, and basic motivation are informed by Marxism even as their faith in the political reality of their country has long gone. These writers are beat, exhausted, they are all soldiers, and they’re tired of war. One of the writers grumbles that, if he were alive today, Tolstoy wouldn’t write “War and Peace but War and War. He would write War and War and More War”.The connection between fiction, and history, as well as individual fates is established in that first section; also, the truthfulness of journalistic nonfiction, as well as, very importantly, questions of authorship. But as soon as we start to enjoy the odd rhythms of that discussion, that creation of an original story, the meeting in the woods is stopped short. Stalin, without offering explanations, dissolves the project, and swears all the writers to silence. For some decades, nothing else, pertaining to these days in the cabin, happens, as the narrator explains. Until 1986, when the narrator is visited by ghosts of his past.

The narrator of Yellow Blue Tibia is called Konstantin Skvorecky, one of the Science Fiction writers from the cabin. Choosing that name was certainly not accidental: in part it appears to be a clear reference to Josef Škvorecký, the Czech writer, who, like Roberts’ creation Konstantin Skvorecky, is a translator from English to a Slav tongue, and Roberts’ use of detective fiction tropes and his use of some elements of the roman noir may also, albeit in a more subdued manner, tie in with Škvorecký’s Lieutenant Boruvka novels. One suspects that all the names in Roberts’ fine novel are fraught with allusions and references, more than one. Is it coincidence that another writer, Ivan/Jan Frenkel shares his surname with a renowned Soviet physicist? That one writer’s surname and the title of his main book are semantically related? These are just a few of the examples and ideas that will creep up on the reader, and that crowd the margins of my copy of the novel. This is part of the method (and success) of this book: it creates a text that is often suggestive of ideas, that implies tangents, and hints at propositions, rather than blathering at length about them. It’s a book, like the best literary novels, that keeps the reader thinking: not just whodunit, but about all kinds of things, more or less connected with the book’s subject matter. And as we make our way through the book, more and more suggestions and ideas accumulate, making us think, not about a specific topic or problem, but making us, in a broader sense, just think. And for every association and loose idea, there is also a theme threaded through the book, recurring in different guises, suggesting different conclusions each time.

One of these themes is the topic of authorship, and, ultimately, of truth, fiction and authorial intent. The book’s subtitle is Konstantin Skvorecky’s memoir of the alien invasion of 1986 but much of the book’s suspense revolves around the question whether the alien invasion is really taking place or not, and in answering (or not) that question, the book makes use of our belief and disbelief in authorizing genres and gestures. An appended fictional Wikipedia entry for Konstantin Skvorecky ties in these concerns with our reading of our own history and how we understand chronology and time-lines. In this, there is an odd connection of Yellow Blue Tibia to the mad work of writers like Anatoly Timofeevich Fomenko. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s return to 1986 and Konstantin Skvorecky’s troubles. After decades during which nothing happened that related to the events in the cabin, Skvorecky, a resigned old man, left by his wife, recovering alcoholic, who makes some money as a translator now, is suddenly swept away by a series of events that are all connected to the story he and his colleagues made up 41 years ago. People claim that the fiction has come true, that UFOs really exist and radiation aliens, as well, and that the January, 28, 1986 breakup and disintegration of the Challenger space shuttle was the attack prognosticated in the story. What ensues is a delightfully strange picaresque tale that borrows quite a few elements of the noir, mostly in its setup of situations with shadowy government agents who may or may not pursue their own agenda. In scene after scene we encounter wonderfully warm and colorful images, although some of the events that are recounted for us, are dark and brutal.

Generally speaking, Roberts manages to bridge the distance between a serious, even vicious, kind of story/background and a laugh-out-loud funny tale with great aplomb. Like all great satirists (cf. Tova Reich), he is able to approach a situation like an interrogation in the cellars of the KGB and lace them with a humor that is at times almost silly, as with an interrogator, who, off the record, enjoys threatening his interlocutors with castration, which leads to a dialog that had me wheezing with laughter. This does not take away or detract from the dark history that Roberts engages here. But Roberts wants more than just instigate sadness in his readers, he wants us to think, comprehend, and contextualize this mass movement with others in the 20th century. He does this not by lecturing us, by cloaking non-fictional propositions in the soft cloth of a novel. Instead, what is on display in Yellow Blue Tibia is a genuine interest in the ideas and concerns of the novel and its readers are invited to take part in the swirls and eddies of its thinking. This makes for a very rich reading that does not bludgeon the reader with a disquisition on, for example, mass culture, or mass movements; we are rather presented with different elements that we can connect if we want to and in what way we see fit, although the general theme and focus of the novel do limit us somewhat. That theme and focus is writing, specifically the writing of Science Fiction. We are presented with a handful of categorical statements of what science Fction is, or is not, of what it can do, and what it can’t. It is, again, not a coincidence, that we are reminded of a classic of SF here, L. Ron Hubbard’s Typewriter in the Sky.

L. Ron Hubbard, his dangerous religion and his mediocre writing have often been mentioned in these contexts and they are a great example for mass movements, because in the evolution of Scientology from Dianetics and Hubbard’s work as a writer of science fiction the interconnectedness of fiction and religion becomes most obvious and clear. Hubbard’s pseudoscience, first published in the leading SF weekly Astounding Science-Fiction under John W. Campbell, Jr.’s editorship, is one of Yellow Blue Tibia‘s most important references. Not only does the book feature two members of the Church of Scientology, but its discussion of aliens, its depiction of UFO obsession, and, finally, its overriding theme of how narratives shape our perceived reality share many links to Hubbard’s new religion. The suggestibility of human beings, especially those ‘schooled’ by authoritarian belief systems is repeatedly brought up, with links, perhaps, to Elias Canetti’s brilliant opus magnum Crowds and Power. Crowds, for Canetti, don’t need a leader, they need a direction. Fiction, for both Hubbard and Roberts, provides the possibility of shaping exactly that: a direction that crowds can use as orientation, orientation that is beyond doctrine. It gives direction not just to explicit thought, but to the essentials of perception. In this criticism, Yellow Blue Tibia allies itself with orthodox Marxist thought and its Ideologiekritik, but it exceeds these narrow boundaries as well. Although it is committed to its ideas, it is not settled or determinate. The whole story is pervaded by a thorough ambiguity, an irony, if you will, which does not undermine the ideas of the book, but is part and parcel of these very ideas.

In the end, despite its concern with crowds, it is, I think, in part a rejection of Mao II‘s dictum that the future belongs to crowds. Nonsense, the book says, the future belongs to human beings, but they have to think for themselves. It is crowds and their narratives that are limiting, forcing people onto their narrow paths of thought. In this, Yellow Blue Tibia tars religion and ideologies with the same brush, calling on its readers to emancipate ourselves from hierarchies and structures that are narratives, i.e. fiction (in what is clearly a work of fiction, a contradiction that the book seems very aware of). This is by no means even close to be new, but then Roberts does not employ the gesture of much science fiction that wants to be ‘mind-blowing’. Yellow Blue Tibia is a novel that is very conscious of its antecedents, philosophically and literary. There is Stirner, maybe, Wilhelm Reich, certainly, Golden Age science fiction, 1970s paranoid classics like the novels of Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K. Dick, and many many novels about 20th century’s totalitarian systems. The associative, broad nature of its references and allusions means that its connections extend to books that the author may not have read at all, like the trash of Maurice Dantec and Imre Kertész’ fine meta-novel A Kudarc. Yellow Blue Tibia is conscious of the libraries of books that preceded it and doesn’t even attempt to be full of new ideas. Instead, it opts, surprisingly, for something else. The structure of the book’s narrative, as its ending shows us, is incredibly traditional, and both moving and charming, and it’s Adam Roberts’ major achievement that he managed to ground the story and its ideas in a humane, personal narrative that suggests to us that its concerns are more than fun and games. They matter.

As does science fiction. Yes, the book constantly contrasts fact with fiction, showing how lines get blurred, creating an atmosphere, a sense of undecidability, but it’s not plain ‘fiction’. It’s science fiction. Adam Roberts wrote a paean not just to imagination proper but to science fiction especially. Science fiction is stronger than imagination: at one point, a character exclaims

I only mean – it’s science fiction! If your science-fictional imagination is broken, you can rebuild it with imaginary high technology! If your writer’s soul is amputated, then because we are talking of science fiction you can fit it with a robotic prosthesis. You can write again, write better, stronger, as a cyborg!

Good science fiction offers tools not just to understand history or the present but to change our perception. The ‘cyborg’ bit here is significant: technology does not just provide props (as furnishings in historical novels tend to be), it allows the writer to supplement the imagination. Science fiction does not need to pretend to work from within a fixed, limiting world, its hierarchies and priorities need not be the small, polar ones of what we perceive to be the necessary, inevitable limits. There is, I think, an openness to good science fiction that is more than seeing clearer. It’s not seeing clearer, which is implying an exploration of limits, it’s glimpsing possibilities beyond this table, that wall or that window, without indulging in sloppy metaphysics. Science fiction, dark or light, is a kind of dreamy materialism. Adam Roberts does not attempt to seriously engage these possibilities, instead he highlights the literary genre of science fiction, and its viability as a tool in world building. Science fiction, he says, is worth engaging with, worth writing and reading. As is Yellow Blue Tibia. Read it. You will not regret it.

Unboring (JG Ballard died)

Sad day. JG Ballard has died on Sunday morning at the age of 78. He wrote once:

I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring. And that’s my one fear: that everything has happened; nothing exciting or new or interesting is ever going to happen again… the future is just going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul.

Luckily we have Ballard’s books as antidotes against this kind of future.

Gung Ho: Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother”

Doctorow, Cory (2008), Little Brother, Harper Voyage
ISBN 978-0-00-728842-7

Here’s the thing. I’m not one of those weirdos who make a distinction between good books and fun books. When I had fun reading a book, I had fun and that’s a good reason to recommend any book. But with Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, and his first young adult novel, I must say, I don’t know. Cory Doctorow is no relation to the great American master E.L. Doctorow, as far as I know, but if he were, the apple, as they say, would have fallen far from that beautiful tree (or has it?). Among several flaws, I’m tempted to call the writing sophomoric (but I’m not going to, for reasons detailed later) and, most damagingly, the novel appears to have been conceived in the early 1990s. Hackers, anyone? That said, the book was a whole lot of fun. Thursday on the train to Wuppertal, I was giggling with joy so much that people looked at me strangely (even more than usual). Also, I have ordered it for a friend’s birthday immediately and will continue to recommend it in the future. It’s an insane amount of fun, plus it’s smart and really educational. Any novel for kids that references Emma Goldman and contains a bibliographic essay that recommends Ginsberg’s “Howl” is very commendable. And really, it’s an awful amount of fun.

So, since I just reminded myself of the fun, I’ll start with the good stuff. The story, set in San Francisco, is about four kids who are engaged in a game of Harajuku Fun Madness, which is a quiz/geocaching type of game. The four of them are high school kids who are talented computer/tech whizzes. Marcus Yallow, the main character, has loaded up on gadgets and trickery to circumvent his high school’s increasingly oppressive surveillance tricks. He is the captain of their Harajuku Fun Madness team, and almost indecently paranoid. His home computer, which he has built from scratch, by the way, downloads his email from the server once per minute and then deletes it from the server. During that game of Harajuku Fun Madness, something happens. Terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge, killing thousands in the process. The four kids are near the site of destruction and in the ensuing chaos they are picked up by a group of masked men and thrown into a van. As it turns out, the masked marauders are actually agents of the Department of Home Security (DHS), who suspect the four of being perpetrators of the attack or at least associates of the perpetrators. The fact that they have backpacks loaded with technical devices that are, as I mentioned, indecently well protected, isn’t helping either.

In the course of the next days they are tortured, mostly because the DHS agents are irritated that someone who is so paranoid and thorough with encryption would have nothing to hide. When they are turned out again, one among their number is missing and Marcus and friends are in a state of complete shock. The city, meanwhile, has stepped up the surveillance, control and persecution as we see the DHS taking control of the city. Marcus, humiliated, concerned for his friends, comes home to a father who is trumpeting patriotic hooey, to a school where social sciences has been taken over by a class where patriotism and the importance of the DHS are taught, etc.. The hacker can’t believe his eyes. Powered by a different kind of patriotic fervor (the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are quoted roughly 6 or 7 times throughout the novel) he decides to do something. Among other things this involves creating and maintaining an underground Internet-ish web (ok, before we continue here, let me just state that I am probably the most inept guy of my age group when it comes to computers and technology and related issues, so ’tis is very rough and probably wildly inaccurate. If you know my other reviews, you know I’m bad with details, but this is worse. I won’t even attempt to describe what the kid does with Xboxes and chips I never heard of.), and building devices which turn some of the surveillance mechanisms in place into a farce. This then evolves into a nonviolent guerrilla war, complete with a war for media control and the truth. As I said: loads of fun.

And it’s educational, too. Every kid who watches the news and starts to believe the toss about security, Doctorow hands him the intellectual tools to understand the idiocy of such statements, by putting all of this into context. He evokes hallowed American icons such as the Bill of Rights and the American tradition of dissent and revolution. This is a point worth making: Marcus is in strong disagreement with the way the society around him changed, and he rebels. He stands up and takes action. This is no dystopia, the America depicted is not much different from the America (or Germany) today. These changes are all imaginable and quickly implementable. Doctorow is suggesting to his young readers: what would you do? In the final chapter, with everything cleared up (Oh c’mon, it’s a genre novel.), Doctorow has his protagonist work at a company that seems very similar to Doctorow’s own, making it easy for his readers to make the connection to the here and now. In a way his is a fictional enterprise similar to Philip Roth’s The Conspiracy against America, but whereas Roth’s smooth end that blended into history as we know it, was the most damaging weakness of an otherwise great novel, Doctorow’s last chapter invites his audience to do as Marcus does. Read online material, rethink your ideas, stand up for your convictions, hack something.

Here is where my two main gripes with the book come in: ideas and audience. We’ll start with Audience. The book is strangely written. The style is simple and artless, it is functional and generic, which is not a bad thing necessarily. The book is not badly written. To write a book in a way that makes for fluid and fun reading is no mean achievement. What bothered me is something else. A novel that talks about a scene as specialized as Marcus’ and about technologies so far removed from everyday speech habits, needs to make sure that those in the know are not bored and that everybody else knows, roughly, what all the hullabaloo is about. The most obvious way to do this is to include a nincompoop who needs to have all the complicated ideas and terms explained to. This is not just the most obvious way to do it, it is also the most usual. So it’s refreshing that Doctorow’s tactic is different: he opts for the direct address: Marcus appears to talk to someone. Since he turns into a semi-professional blogger at the end it is safe to assume that Little Brother is some kind of extended blog entry. There are two problems with this: one is disappointment: direct address can make for great effect, as all sorts of books have shown (I’ll review two of them within the next week). The other is awkwardness. There are numerous irksome phrases. For instance, each time the word “h4wt” comes up in a circuitous, generic phrase I cringed. Doctorow clearly has trouble fitting these two registers of speech. But then, see, I don’t think he’s interested in doing that.

The same applies to to my second main gripe, his awkward juggling of ideas. His discussion of revolutionary action takes place on a backdrop of American patriotism. The Internet, and especially the hacker scene has, if my outsider’s perception is right, always been highly international. Doctorow is having none of this. He does sprinkle his stars-and-stripes menu with a few international guests, but they are always just that, guests on the sideline. The most impact that other countries’ journalists and hackers have is this:

Most notable is the global attention the movement has received. […] The issue came to a head last night, when the British Broadcasting Corporation’s National News Evening program ran a special report on the fact that no American broadcaster or news agency has covered this story. Commenters on the BBC’s website noted that BBC America’s version of the news did not carry the report.

This is criticism of America, but patriotic, righteous criticism: look what these countries are doing! Why are we not doing this? Thus, it fits the rhetoric, that the journalist, who finally steps up to the plate, is not just an American journalist, but a local one. But compared to other aspects, this is no major problem.

What is one is this: the American system is shown to be fundamentally sound. Again, there are hints: his friend Jojo is trying to cut down on his activities in the revolt because he is likely to be targeted first, as a Chicano American, but the fact that he’s merely afraid of this is a joke. The events after 9/11, in most western countries have demonstrated, that repression is not color-blind. Jojo makes his point well, he criticizes the racial bias of the judicial system:

White people get caught with cocaine and do a little rehab time. Brown people get caught with crack and go to prison for twenty years. White people see cops on the streets and feel a little safer. Brown people see cops on the streets and wonder if they’re about to get searched.

But Jojo isn’t caught, and in the prison where Marcus and his friends are held and tortured, Marcus sees a few Arabs, but that’s it. This discussion feels forced, and in contrast with the main points, it falls by the wayside, and fails to make any didactic impact. If this were not as didactic a novel as it is, it would not be its fault. But it is, and it is. I won’t even mention the fundamental affirmation of capitalism that Doctorow’s romantic idea of hacking puts forth. Well. The book has a clear didactic goal and a laudable one, as well. Doctorow may have chosen right when he decided to narrow his focus as he has done in this book. And this is something he shares with the great E.L., whose novels are also often very focused upon a didactic goal, trying to drive one particular point home. And the results, in E.L.’s case, are masterpieces such as The March. Does Little Brother fall short because the vision it presents it too pedestrian? Maybe.

For a different take on the topic, tune in next week, when I’ll review Charles Stross’ SF novel Halting State. Minus points: no Emma Goldman. Plus points: less flag-waving. I’ll see you.

Different Worlds

Today, on i09: Annalee Newitz on Feminism in Battlestar Galactica, one of the best TV shows of recent years. Her excellent article is a nuanced piece of thinking about her subject. This crucial distinction here’s from the conclusion:

If we define feminism as the critique of a world where men unfairly wield power over women, then BSG is post-feminist. In other words, that critique is no longer necessary in the world of BSG: The show more or less successfully depicts a universe where women and men are equal in the realms of work and family. However, BSG was not made in a post-feminist world, so there are all kinds of hiccups where you get retrograde characters like Cally, or naked cylon chick fetishism, that are relics of our own society, which still so desperately needs a feminist slap upside the head on a regular basis.

When Genius Goes Poof!

With High Castle, and Martian Time-Slip, I thought I had bridged the gap between the experimental mainstream novel and science fiction. Suddenly I’d found a way to do everything I wanted to do as a writer. I had in mind a whole series of books, a vision of a new kind of science fiction progressing from those two novels. Then Time-Slip was rejected by Putnam’s and every other hardcover publisher we sent it to. My vision collapsed. I was crushed. I had made a miscalculation somewhere, and I didn’t know where. The evaluation I had made of myself, of the marketplace, went poof! I reverted to a more primitive concept of my writing. The books that might have followed Time-Slip were gone.

Philip K. Dick in the Rolling Stone, 1975. (via, via)

Short Circuit: Ilija Trojanow’s “Autopol”

Trojanow, Ilija (1997), Autopol, dtv
ISBN 3-423-24114-4

While not conceiving or constructing it first, the Autobahnen, the German highway system, is still considered to be one of Adolf Hitler’s lasting achievements by many Germans, not just revisionists. In his second novel, “Autopol”, Ilija Trojanow digs deeply into the tar to excavate a horrific dystopia, published in 1997, on the heels of his widely praised debut novel “Die Welt ist groß und Rettung lauert überall” (1996), as part of an Internet project, as a “novel in progress”, published in small, hyper-linked installments. Since then he has been traveling the world and went on to published multiple travel accounts of India, Bulgaria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Mecca, he has also been writing essays, managing his own small publishing house (all of his books, incidentally, were published elsewhere). With all that, it took him 9 years to finish his third novel, “Der Weltensammler”, which I’ve reviewed here. “Der Weltensammler” is, as I said then, a masterpiece, frightfully aware and complex, a mature work in every way, a warm, full-bodied read. “Autopol”, in contrast, is short and very lean, almost angular; it’s also considerably less complex, serving its ideas up hot from Trojanow’s excellent mind.

When it was finished and, finally, published in book form, for a while readers had the choice to read the paper copy of it or the hypertext online version. All I had was the book itself, and while I can see how the novel would have worked as a hypertext, I do not have the option of reading it as such any more, since the online version has disappeared. Contrary to my expectations, ordering all the bits and pieces and binding them into a single book may have rendered the whole enterprise less interesting, rather than more, but that’s purely speculative, of course. The actual book on my desk is certainly worth reading and recommended. It’s a science fiction thriller, told in very small chapters. There are dialogs, conventional narratives, photographs, copies of press clippings, and an official memorandum. The plot is rather conventional, but cutting up the narrative and offering several voices the opportunity to tell the story makes for a quick and varied read. The novel consists of three sections; while the basic mixture of formal genres within each section stays roughly the same, the headings change. This may appear to be an inconsequential change, something that could be seen as simple trickery, but “Autopol” not only relies heavily on such changes but it also draws much strength and insight from them. It’s power is not, after all, derived from the writing itself, but from other elements: scenario, ideas, and formal tricks. The writing, I’m sorry to say, is weak, though it is never actually bad: somehow Trojanow always manages to be at least functional. He conveys what he has to in a decent style without the stylistic embarrassments that plague so much of current German fiction.

The basic idea is simple: a political dissident, Sten Rasin, is imprisoned in a huge prison colony, the eponymous Autopol, where criminals are dropped into to disappear; Rasin subsequently stages a large-scale prison escape attempt, in the course of which hostages are taken and people are killed. In Autopol, there is no rehabilitation, it’s a place where those end up whom the society wishes gone. Thus far, nothing new. The structure of the prison, however, is novel. It’s not a region or a place or, God forbid, one of those prison planets so ubiquitous in SF movies. It is a system of highways, a closed circuit that is cut up into four sectors, each of which has four rest stops. In between the rest stops, cars ceaselessly circulate. These cars are the prisons, and their drivers are called pilots, since the cars are apparently meant to be a mix of high tech buses and modern trains. The rest stops are solely meant for the drivers. Prisoners only get off the buses when they are sick or dead. They eat, sleep and live on the road. This system, closed off the the world bustling on outside, has developed a dynamic of its own. It is not run by the government, it is run by a company; the judiciary has almost unchecked powers to drop people into the abyss that is the Autopol and neither the company nor the people outside care. As it turns out, by now, even if they did care, the system cannot be effectively supervised by the people. Criminals are not just abandoned in the prison; by dropping them into the closed system of the Autopol, they are dropped out of the “open” system of the society outside.

This scenario will evoke several unpleasant historical and cultural associations in most readers. There are roughly three layers of significance. The first, and most unpleasant, is the most obvious one. In my first sentence I mentioned the Führer, and the Third Reich is a central reference here. One of the most salient associations, I think, are the cattle wagons used to move Jews through Europe to their fatal destination. As with the Autopol, the railways were a kind of closed system, with most onlookers pursuing a don’t ask, don’t tell policy in regard to the prisoners. The context here is different, of course, but Trojanow is concerned with the frightening ability of a society to cast out its members without looking twice and asks how this ties into our notions of narrative. “Autopol” dwells quite extensively upon the intricacies of speech and discourse, partly by using different genres, as mentioned, partly by the inclusion of an undercover journalist, who is determined to ‘get the truth’. This is the second major reference, equal parts Natural Born Killers and Katharina Blum. Journalistic ethos and narrative truth are both important parameters here, and questions arise as to how the media shapes our understanding of the world etc. If this sounds unspectacular, it is.

This part of “Autopol” is tedious and repetitive. Much of the resulting boredom is due to Trojanow’s decision to set the novel in a world very similar to the one he lived in then (1997 Germany). He restricts the SF elements to the Autopol. This, of course, makes some of the novel’s predecessors such as Böll all the more obvious, and severely restricts the scope of its criticism. That’s something that we often find in fiction writers who turn to the tools of SF for inspiration, but shy away from going all the way. So ’tis with “Autopol” as well: by restricting the amount of SF elements, Trojanow loses many advantages the genre offers. This restriction is clearly intended to generate immediacy, to make the criticism more directly relevant to today’s readers, and, in this, the novel definitely succeeds. Trojanow is a very good writer, too good not to make this book work at least at one level. His decisions, i.e. opting for sound bites rather than longer prose sequences, and for immediacy rather than complexity, mar the novel, I think. As it is, it is highly readable, well executed, but never rises beyond “good”. Good, but, I fear, forgettable, like a good, strong drink.

A drink, that only speaker/readers of German are able to enjoy, so far. As of today, only three of Trojanow’s books have been translated into English. Adding “Autopol” (or his debut novel!) would not be the worst of ideas. Get to it.

Cheese and Squeeze

Annalee Newitz at i09 presents Ten of the Kinkiest Science Fiction Books You’ll Ever Read. This one’s my favorite

Set on a planet of psychically-gifted people who embrace sexual diversity and peace, the series is focused mainly on sexual slavery and war. Our heroine is a prostitute (a noble calling on her world) who holds the “high couch” of her town – basically, she’s the sex duchess. Unfortunately she’s always being kidnapped or taken to other worlds where she’s tied up, forced to have degrading sex, and (of course) has lots of tearful, shame-faced orgasms. Silly and pulpy, the first novel in the series is basically a swashbuckler with kinky bondage thrown in between sword fights. Also, there is a giant flying cat.

Say it like it is

Ian Sales shares my bafflement at the veneration accorded to works such as Asimov’s Nightfall

I’ve complained before about the undeserving admiration given to many science fiction novels and short stories of earlier decades. […] [M]any “classics” of those days do not fare well when compared to modern works.

I recently reread ‘Nightfall’ by Isaac Asimov […]. I’ve long been aware of its status as a “classic”, of its reputation as one of Asimov’s best stories. So I was surprised on my recent reread to discover that it’s, well, it’s pretty bad. Asimov’s prose was clunky at best, and it’s not his best in ‘Nightfall’. […]

By all criteria, ‘Nightfall’ fails as a good short story. And yet it’s still regarded as a classic. Some people will even suggest it’s a good example of science fiction. Rubbish. It’s built around a single, not very interesting idea – a world has never seen darkness… and then it gets dark. Wow. […] ‘Nightfall’ contains a very obvious idea and it appears to me that many think the sheer in-your-face nature of it overrides all the story’s faults. Which should not be the case. A story should be considered a classic for a number of reasons – continuing relevance, good writing, originality (in ideas and/or deployment), rigour (of world-building, of story), meaning, impact upon the genre, impact upon the reader…



Annalee Newitz’s excellent comment on the Hugos:

The only controversial win, at least in my mind, was Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union for best novel. Certainly it’s a brilliant novel, and is undoubtedly a work of SF-ish alternate history, but it felt a little wrong to me that the award went to somebody who writes mainstream literary fiction that merely borrows a few tropes from SF. Chabon was too busy to attend the awards, but he did write a sweet and genuine acceptance speech which was read with ironic gravity by venerable fantasy author (and Chabon influence) George R. R. Martin.

Why Dr. Who is so fuckin’ awesome

Oh the nights I’ve spent watching the Doctor hurtle through time and space. I was never quite sure how to explain what makes that series so awesome. Here are a few bits from an i09 interview with the wonderful Steven Moffat which go a long way towards explaining that

It’s aimed at kids and adults. And why should anyone care about this? If you watch it, then it’s for you. It shouldn’t matter. I mean the specific thing about it being a children’s program, is that it follows the imperatives and narrative rules and the joy of children’s fiction


It’s naughty… It’s all fear. death and screaming women. It’s innocent people being melted in the first 5 minutes of every episode. […] We’re very happy they watch it [but] every single one of them would enjoy it more if they watched it with an eight-year-old.

Thomas M. Disch RIP

From the last interview with one of the great masters of English-language SF

I mean, I never know what my divine powers are going to do often, until they’ve done it.

This comes via i09 and here’s a bit of what they wrote

I have been alternating between sadness and screaming FUCK! really loudly for the past 24 hours since hearing that brilliant, angry writer Thomas M. Disch killed himself on July 4. He was the author of some of the creepiest, most amazing SF-themed social satires I have ever read. […] It’s clear from his work that Disch had become mournful and fascinated with the afterlife (if still in a satirical way). Disch’s partner Charles had been very ill before he died, and that sickness wiped out his savings and Disch’s. Before he committed suicide, Disch had been struggling with his landlord to remain in his rent-controlled apartment, which the landlord claimed he couldn’t keep because it was in his dead partner’s name. Thomas M. Disch, you will be missed.

Ain’t that true. 😦

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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6. Bibliography

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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.)