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Speak to me
on 4 May 2017
Rydra Wong is a poet, fantastically successful across a human inhabited Galaxy. She is also a linguist with near telepathic ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. Earth is involved in a war with the equally human "Invaders" while various aliens look on. The military have intercepted messages in an impenetrable close, to which they refer as "Babel 17".
This is a novel which sits securely as part of 60s science fiction. It steps beyond the boundless optimism of the 50s Golden Age, hasn't succumbed to the more recent obsession with simply trying to devise "cooler" technology, or shoot em up video game-like stories. This is a novel of ideas and as such is comparable to the works of Ursula Le Guin or Philip K Dick.
Babel 17 is based around the idea of the power of language, and it's symbiotic relationship with thought. Language is shaped by thought processes in one glorious section Delaney describes a race whose reproductive cycle is based around temperature, but who have no need for a fixed physical location, hence they do not have a concept of home, and need long paragraphs to describe it. Conversely, highly technologically advanced, they can describe complex equipment in very few words. On the other side of the coin, Delaney also sees language as capable of steering thought, going as far as to position it as a computer programming language for the brain.
This is not however a dry treatise, the exploration of linguistics is set within what often feels like a supremely pulpy piece of sci-fi, with space battles described in flashy, dynamic prose. With such flashiness, the book is a definite pre-cursor of the cyber-punks, not least in the space pirates whom Rydra encounters. I would also be surprised if the makers of the 2016 film Arrival hadn't read this. In her demand for context to understand a language, Amy Adams's character directly mirrors Rydra.
In the end the pulpiness meant that this felt a little lightweight when compared to LeGuin,but it is still an entertaining and interesting read.