June 2003

Babel-17

By Samuel R. Delany
176 pages
Published in 1966 by Ace Books

Winner of the Nebula for Best SF Novel of the Year, 1966
Babel-17, an early short novel by Samuel R. Delany, won him his first Nebula. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language forms thought drives the plot. Primarily a space opera with a very thoughtful background, Babel-17 concerns a threatened invasion of the "Alliance," to which Earth belongs, by an alien race. The aliens are unseen, but nevertheless seem to be human - this is one of the main points of the linguistic underpinnings of the book. The main character is Rydra Wong, a famous poet. She is a whiz at languages and, as it develops, telepathic. She is called in by the Alliance to break the Invaders' communications code, known as Babel-17. Rydra discovers almost at once that Babel-17 is a language, not a code.

Like a computer language, Babel-17 produces certain definite responses and actions from those programmed in it. Being a language developed specifically for use in warfare, it defines the killing of a pregnant enemy soldier as "expedient." Because it has no word for "I," there can be no introspection for its users. And, because it defines human beings as objects instead of a part of the "I-thou" continuum, it has no word for "you." In a classic example of Orwellian "doublethink," Babel-17 defines the word "Alliance" as "those who invade." In fact, it turns out that merely thinking in Babel-17 infuses one with an instinctive hatred of the Alliance and a subconscious determination to subvert it.

The motif of communication runs throughout the novel. The members of Rydra's crew, hastily assembled from various sectors of the galaxy, have problems understanding each other. There are even "discorporate" crewmembers that cannot be sensed by the living without certain machines.

We may well be living in the days of Babel-17 even now. Consider how our political landscape has changed, when sick people as defined as "malingerers" or "early retirees," and their families as "dependents." When we are "downsized" from our jobs, when insurance programs are called "entitlements," or when the withholding of disability benefits to qualified applicants is called "expedient," "socially responsible," and referred to as "incentives" for their own good.

Some later versions of Babel-17 include another early Delany novel, Empire Star, which is referred to in Babel-17 as being written by Muels Aranlyde - an anagram for Samuel R. Delany.

Delany was a powerful influence on me as a young writer. I still find his characterization vibrant and his language colorful. The writing may be a bit florid for some, but I have found few sf writers with Delany's power to invoke alien worlds and peoples. The only other one that springs to mind, in fact, is Cordwainer Smith - who deserves to be the subject of future consideration in this space.



Recent Raves:

FINDING NEMO
A Pixar film directed and written by Andrew Stanton
With the voices of Albert Brooks, Alexander Gould, Ellen Degeneres, Geoffrey Rush, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Spence and others.
Release date May 30 2003

http://www.pixar.com/featurefilms/nemo/
- Pixar's site
http://disney.go.com/disneypictures/findingnemo/index.html - Official movie site

I suppose Pixar will field a loser one of these days, but Finding Nemo isn't it. And, judging by the trailer for The Incredibles, about long-in-the-tooth superheroes, that one won't be the loser either when it debuts next year. (After that is a film called Cars, about - well, you guessed it.)

In the meantime, whatever part of your disposable income is devoted to movies would be well spent on Finding Nemo. (Let me add a quick gripe here, however - it cost three of us, myself, my wife and our daughter, 22 bucks to get in - and just about as much again for two small popcorns a cup of seltzer and a bottle of water. You would think that the management could pay its droids enough the keep the damn bathrooms clean.) The story is deceptively simple - overly protective clownfish father Marlin (Albert Brooks, cast well to type) is separated from his impatient and slightly physically handicapped son Nemo (Alexander Gould), the only survivor of a brood of four hundred who, along with Coral, Marlin's wife, were eaten by a predator. Marlin has vowed to let nothing happen to Nemo and, in the company of a ditzy fish named Dory (Ellen Degeneres, in a bravura performance) sets off to find him.

Of course, the fun stuff comes from the various fishy sorts that Marlin and Dory encounter on their way, including some sharks recovering from their carnivorous habits by turning veggie, some sea turtles right out of The Big Lebowski, and a truly scary angler fish with the most incredible teeth on any animated critter ever. There are some very funny set pieces (I got a big kick out of a passel of nitwit seagulls who can only say "Mine!") as well as some real thrills, and even a few sly references to other undersea movies (most notably Jaws).

Nemo, in the meantime, has ended up in a fish tank in a dentist's office, where he is befriended by the slight stir-crazy denizens, whose leader Gil (Willem Dafoe) is anxious to use the little clownfish in a harebrained plot to escape. Look sharp for the Buzz Lightyear doll on the floor in the children's area of the office.

The movie is gorgeously animated. Pixar's people just seem to be getting better and better at their craft. They have created a beautiful tropical undersea (and aquarium) world more colorful and dynamic than anything they've done before.

Pixar, of course, has never been just another pretty face. They've always worked at least as hard on their story lines and characterizations as they have on their visuals, and that concentration on story is again in evidence in Finding Nemo. But even the plot wouldn't work as well as it does if we weren't really buying the characters. This is of course where the voice talent comes in. Brooks, who is a good sector when he has good material to work with, is completely convincing as the neurotic Marlin. Ellen Degeneres is given a lot to do here, and she never drops the ball. She's especially funny in a sequence where she tries to speak "whale" to a humpback that has accidentally swallowed her and Marlin.

The bottom line: do yourself and your kids a favor and take 'em to see Finding Nemo. As always, stay for the closing credits. No "out-takes" this time, but a few cute surprises.