Thursday, 30 April 2009

Babel-17 - Samuel R Delany

In one respect this is standard science fiction space opera. Space ports, interstellar war, strange names, all of it a bit grimy round the edges. The story itself is standard fare as well – a group of charming misfits set out to uncover who is responsible for sabotaging the war effort. You see this kind of thing in thousands of pulp magazines, cheap sf novels, and endless movies

In Babel-17 there are two things that make the book different. The first is the metaphysical theme concerning how language impacts on the way we think and view the world. More could have been made of this (and others, notably women sf writers, have done so to great effect), but it is well handled and never allowed to be anything more than an integral part of the story. The second is the quality of the writing.

Samuel R Delany is unashamedly poetic in style and handles the plot with great skill, picking out only those scenes that are essential to the story and letting the reader fill in any gaps if they are so inclined. The result is a pacy ride through an exotic landscape with characters who, if not exactly well-rounded, are at least sympathetic and interesting. It’s been a few decades since I last read this book and it has stood the test of time well.