I reread this recently, because I want science-fiction and I remembered that I'd read this and liked it but that I was more than a little fuzzy on the plot. We own a copy, this edition which is beyond fugly by the way - I'd much rather own the one pictured on the Wikipedia entry (the first edition paperback cover), at least that one is retro fugly. But but but, it's the contents that matter, the contents above all, and isn't this a good novel to use to discuss just that.
But before that, let's talk about Samuel R. Delany, a person who in 1967 was, as Amazon puts it, "young, gay, black and possibly the hippest person on the planet." He may not be young anymore but the rest still applies. When I first read Babel-17 I always meant to learn more about him. Hello - openly gay, black, writes science-fiction (lets face it, that's a white sport, innit) AND he did it in 1967. Clearly, this is a man who eats boundaries for breakfast and picks his teeth with prejudice. (Unlike his namesake Sam Delaney, who popped up when I googled - the editor of Heat Magazine. Never shall the twain meet, I feel safe to say.) Anyway, Samuel R. Delany, I hope, is on the invitation list to every single Pride festival out there. He should be asked every year, just because he's awesome and everything queer is about, surely. He has a bibliography long as my arm, and our library has five books. Which I think I shall read, at least the English ones. After all, wouldn't want them to think it's cull-worthy. Keep the circulation numbers up!
Babel-17 won the Nebula award together with Flowers for Algernon, another classic that I haven't read (but I think I've seen that film, some time in the distant past). Babel-17 has yet to be filmed. I'm waiting for Will Smith to snatch this one up and muck about with it.
Set some time in the future, humans are engaged in an interstellar war of sorts with an alien race only known as Invaders - the humans and those aliens on their side are known as Alliance. Exactly what this was is about isn't clear - it is more important that people suffer from it. Lately there have been sabotage attacks on the Alliance, and immediately before them bursts of communication, some sort of code, could be heard. The Alliance military gives the transcripts to Rydra Wong, the hippest poetess star in the galaxy, since her knack with languages previously had her working in cryptology. She immediately sees that it is a language, a language that is so precise and compact that it changes your way of looking at the world. Together with her crew she sets off for where the data tells her the next attack will take place.
Bits of this are wonderfully imaginative. The crews always consist of a certain amount of people, with set roles and jobs. This includes dead people, discorporates, who function as sensors, because living people would go mad with all the sensory input. Navigation is always a married threesome, two women and one man or vice versa - Rydra's team has just lost their woman, and after a period of grieving are ready to find a new partner/lover/colleague, something Rydra helps them with. There's a team of about 20 youngsters who do the odd jobs, under the care of a sort of nanny, known as the Slug. Crew people always belong to Transport, which is almost a caste of people (the opposite being Customs), and we don't need any actual aliens for exotic flavour - Transport have wild cosmetisurgery done, like hollowing out part of the shoulder, fitting a small cage in it, and a little dragon to live in it, and are plenty exotic enough. Rydra's pilot has been altered to be lionlike, and is chosen based on his skill as a wrestler (his opponent was a female pilot who looked like a dragon). There is a whole culture planned and described here, and it isn't at all bound to our times and our ways of doing things. However, I was a little disappointed with the ending, which felt sudden and abrupt - odd, because it's a long way building up to it. More Buck Rogers than 2001 (bear in mind though that that sweeping statement is made after me only ever seeing one episode of Buck Rogers and never making it through an uninterrupted viewing of 2001).
What makes this book unique though is its focus on language, on the theory that our language determines how we look at the world. If we don't differentiate between soft snow or hard snow, or lack a word for third person singular that is neither masculine or feminine, or call red and pink by the same name - surely this affects our entire outlook at things. It's called linguistic relativity, and it fascinates me anyway. Babel-17 is a language that can be immensely precise, but in other aspects very vague, which makes it a tool to be used and abused, as Rydra figures out. This makes for the most interesting part of the book.
The weakest parts are Rydra's perfection (she's so very very fantastic) - oh, perhaps a general lack of real depth to the characters? It's more like I imagine depth because there is depth to the novel itself. And the end, it's rather weak, like I said. Other than that it's a bit of a must-read really if you like science-fiction at all, and perhaps even more if you don't, to help you see what the buffs find in the genre.