By Samuel R. Delany
Ace Books 1966 176 pages.
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 Aranlydean 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.
Also Today: Recent Raves
A Pixar film
Written and Directed by Andrew Stanton
With the voices of Albert Brooks, Alexander Gould,
Ellen Degeneres, Geoffrey Rush, Willem Dafoe,
Bruce Spence and others.
Release date 30 May 2003
Visit and search for Finding Nemo at
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
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.