Babel-17 & Empire Star
by Samuel R. Delany
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I'm reviewing these two together because the current print edition of Babel-17 includes both, per Delany's wishes since they are connected. The images on this page are from the individual paperbacks I have, not the current edition. The novella "Empire Star" has appeared in paperback by itself or with other unrelated stories, as well as story collections and anthologies, but all of those are out of print at this time, although I'm sure you can find some of those others if you search enough. Babel-17 is available as a separate title for Kindle, and I would assume for the Nook and other e-readers too. Amazon gives the impression that the Kindle file of Babel-17 includes "Empire Star," but that is incorrect.
Delany won his first Nebula for this novel, and it was also nominated for a Hugo. He is generally associated with the New Wave, but there are a multitude of styles and themes here that not only transcend New Wave, they also hark back to old-style space opera as well as seem to be a forerunner of cyberpunk. Most all of Delany's characters and societies are bizarre and alien, even when they are on Earth, and Babel-17 is no exception. Again, like the majority of his work, this is essentially a story of a quest. It's set several hundred years into a future that has civilizations established and/or discovered throughout the "five explored galaxies." Propulsion systems and "hyperstatic" engines have been developed to make vast distances accessible in short periods of time. The crews that man these interstellar and inter-galactic vessels are unique and enhanced in various ways. Pilots must meld their brain and nervous systems into the ship's controls. Navigators are always a three-person team that have to be compatable and work together so perfectly their relationship is as intimate as any marriage. The ship's scanning systems are manned by Eyes, Ears and a Nose, which are traditionally discorporate entities, ghosts if you will. Death in this world is rarely the end of existence, as many have their consciousness and/or body preserved for later use.
A war has been raging for over twenty years between the Earthpeople's Alliance and forces identified only as The Invaders. Not even the Alliance military know the nature of their enemy, whether they are an alien species or renegade humans, or perhaps a combination of the two. The book's protagonist is Rydra Wong, who had been born on Uranus, but orphaned during an Invader attack when she was a child. She later is transported to Earth and undergoes therapy to cure her from her catatonic state. Rydra proves to be incredibly intelligent and a master at languages, eventually being recruited by the Alliance for their code decryption program. After several years she resigns from that position and begins journeying around the systems in search of a purpose, and eventually becomes a renowned poet whose work is highly regarded throughout the galaxies. But the Alliance comes calling again when they are confronted with a new code, dubbed Babel-17, which they have connected to recent Invader attacks. Their confidence in Rydra is reinforced in short order when she determines it is not really a code, but rather a unique "new" language. She acquires a ship, the Rimbaud, and recruits a crew, since she is convinced she knows where the next attack will be, but a saboteur aboard endangers the mission.
The rest of the story is more a mystery than anything else, and a very intriguing one at that. What is the language known as Babel-17 and what is its purpose? Who is the saboteur, and why do they not want to destroy the Rimbaud but rather maneuver it into the grasp of the pirate ship Jebel Tarik? Rydra recognizes that name is from an ancient Moorish language and means Tarik's Mountain, but then is confused why control of the ship seems not to reside in Captain Tarik but instead with his second-in-command, a brutish beast known only as the Butcher. Why does she form an alliance with the Butcher, one which even begins to appear to be a romantic one? While the mysteries are interesting, they're not totally transparent, and I think many readers should be able to figure out the identity of the saboteur. Still, the answers to all the questions are satisfying, with everything coming full circle into what appears to be a pre-determined conclusion.
As wild and bizarre as the characters are and the action is, the more interesting parts are simply ideas. First and foremost is the notion that language shapes how a person views his society and interacts with it. Limiting a person's vocabulary limits what they can and cannot do in life, and also creates a class hierarchy. This is the major reason for Rydra's success, not only as a code-breaker but also a poet, since her language skills are almost unlimited. It also doesn't hurt that she is telepathic, which explains a lot if you really pay attention. There is discussion of both phonetc and phonemic structure, as well as semantic and syntactic ambiguities in all languages. Another idea is about eliminating the concept of "I"? What will result when a person cannot distinguish themselves as an individual person? That is what has happened to the Butcher. Another concept, expressed by Rydra's therapist, is that artists and criminals are the two groups most likely to be able to change society. I don't necessarily agree with that, but if you added scientists I would. Those are the ones most willing to question the "natural" order of things. And when a person like Rydra is a combination of all of those, almost anything is possible.
Depending on the source, "Empire Star" is considered a very short novel or a novella. Even though the Science Fiction Encyclopedia says the former, I'd say the latter. FantasticFiction has it listed as a novella in one section of its Delany bibliography, and a short story in another. It is possible it was originally shorter for a magazine, then expanded for book publication. I've seen cover images of when it was all by itself in book form, and that had to have been a very thin book. I have it in two different books, the one pictured to the left, in which it is in relatively large print on only 109 pages, as well as in the collection Distant Stars, where it's also large print on 125 pages, but quite a few of those are taken up with illustrations. While "The Ballad of Beta-2" may be set in the same shared universe as Babel-17, I don't think there is a direct connection, plus I didn't re-read it this time around so won't be discussing it. "Empire Star" is actually a story within the story of Babel-17. Briefly mentioned in the novel is Muels Aronlyde, a member of Rydra Wong's triple-partnership when she served as a Navigator during her early wanderings. She left that life when Muels was killed during an assignment, but before that he was also a writer, well-known for his stories detailing the adventures of Comet Jo. "Empire Star" is one of those stories.
The idea of language shaping a person's perception of themselves and their world is reiterated here, as well as the concepts of simplex, complex and multiplex ways of thinking. Comet Jo is a simplex personality, uneducated except in the chores of mining playsil in the caves on the planet Rhys circling the red star Tau Ceti. He may be simplex, but he does have imagination, and received his nickname for the frequent nights spent gazing at the starry sky. On one of those evenings he has a strange encounter with a being which at first seems to be a duplicate of him, which tells him he must take a message to Empire Star, and then it dissolves into a liquid mass before crystalizing into a shiny jewel (actually Jewel, an advanced, multiplex personality who is the omniscient third-person narrator of the story). Not knowing the location of Empire Star or what message he must deliver, he is still sure where he can find out, so he travels to the port city which bustles with the activity of ships transporting playsil to the rest of the universe. The ease by which he is able to gain a job on one of those ships seems uncanny, but this is a fable so such shortcuts are not only logical they are necessary. Jo meets the beautiful San Severina, who promises she will teach him the grammar and syntax of Interling so he can begin to think in complex and multiplex ways. During his journey he meets others who seem to know more about his task than he does, but they also help him gain the courage to continue.
Muels Aronlyde writes himself into the story at this point, as a former corporeal entity which has had its personality transformed into Lump, or a Linguistic Ubiquitous Multi-Plex, as advanced a computer as there is in this universe. Lump aids Jo on the final leg of his journey, including a scene where they encounter renowned poet Ni Ty Lee, who had been an avid reader of Aronlyde but does not know Muels is now Lump. It is possible that Ni Ty is another iteration of Jo, but to explain that would be not only difficult but spoilery. Suffice it to say that time travel may be involved, or else it's a fantasy where begnnings are the same as endings and all characters are really manifestations of the same being. Perhaps Jewel is God, creating the story as it is being told. It's comical in its simplicity even though some of the ideas expressed are complex. At times it reads like Cordwainer Smith, at others you might start thinking it was written by Kilgore Trout. Enjoyable enough, and consistent in imagery, if not seriousness, with most of Delany that I have read. It gets my recommendation.
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