Monday, August 30, 2021

Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany (author), Stefan Rudnicki (narrator)

Skylost Media, ISBN 1504668456, November 2015 (original publication May 1966)

The general commanding the forces of the Earth Alliance seeks out poet, linguist, and cryptographer Rydra Wong, to ask her to take on the decryption of the Invaders' code, which is being used to commit sabotage in the Alliance's military and transport forces. After some work with it, she tells him it's a language, not a code, and she needs everything the Alliance has on it to be able to translate it. She also asks him for a ship, and recruits a diverse and somewhat unlikely crew to go with her to what her analysis of the code/language, Babel-17, leads her to conclude will be the location of the next act of sabotage.

They reach their destination, and it's not long before the sabotage strikes in several ways--one of them affecting her own ship, and boosting them into near-disaster.

It's only near disaster because another, huge ship hooks them out of the disaster at the last moment, and she and her crew find themselves aboard a ship that isn't really a pirate ship, but isn't really not a pirate ship, either. Privateer might be the closest term, but the term the ship's captain and crew use is "shadow ship."

It's here that she meets a man called the Butcher, second in command on the ship, a man who doesn't use or understand the words "I" and "you," and who seems to have a character very much at odds with his given name, and his past record.

It's also here that, working together with the Butcher, she starts to understand what the Babel-17 language really is, and what the Invaders are really doing.

This is a book published in 1966, when Delany was 23, or 24 years old, and features a rather young woman, who is primarily known as a poet, as its protagonist. I was afraid I would find the Suck Fairy had visited it; it hasn't. It's still fascinating, fun, exciting book. Rydra is a strong, intelligent, and utterly believable woman. Some of the other characters are thinner and less satisfying, but it's still a rich, rewarding read or listen.

The linguistics here is central, and it's based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that says you can't think ideas and concepts that you don't have words for. That's largely discredited now, but that's not important in enjoying the book--unless, of course, you are yourself a linguist and that's as central to you as it is to the novel. In that case, I would imagine it would be maddening. For the rest of us, or at least for me, knowing the theory is wrong doesn't disturb me any more than knowing that faster than light travel is not likely to ever really happen.

This is a classic of science fiction that really stands up almost sixty years later. Recommended.

I bought this audiobook.

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