Science Fiction for all

Ross Hetherington

In this series of short, personal pieces on science fiction, Ross Hetherington hopes to bring to wider awareness the suitability, for anybody who loves literature, of a selection of premier sci-fi authors. This issue: Samuel R. Delany.

We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line – I first read this title in 2009. It was only after some period of time that it ceased being a regular visitor to my mind. I would be walking on an errand, or taking in a Saturday afternoon. I could be at the summit of a rise, seeing a distant crane, or on a street neither full nor empty. Then, a voice would speak the line in a quiet but purposeful measure, and I would think of … I would think of the devils, those behind everything, working the hidden, ceaseless bureaucracy of the world.

The title is that of a short story by the American science fiction and fantasy writer Samuel R. Delany. Delaney is many things: a literary critic, creative writing professor, black homosexual (perhaps bisexual) and an essayist; now at the age of 70 he sports a huge white beard.

I am not the kind who, upon getting a certain author on their palate, gobbles down all they can find. My reading of Delany is selective, and as I know none of the extensive criticism applied by or to him I will also pass over most of his early work. Only the third volume of The Fall of the Towers trilogy (1963-1965) has real style, whilst The Einstein Intersection (1967) won the Nebula award for best novel; it’s interesting, ambitious, and overrated.

In 1966, however, Delany had already published Babel-17. Clever, funny, deep, un-cynical, subtly political and leagues ahead of its time (it reads like it could have been written yesterday), Babel-17 will be focus of this article with occasional reference to Triton (1976) and its similar themes.

A Poet, linguist, and polyglot, Rydra Wong lives on Earth in a galaxy divided between The Invaders and The Alliance, where her poetry is read by both sides. She is commissioned by The Alliance Administration to crack the Invaders’ new code, ’Babel-17,’ which has been used by the enemy in a series of ingenious sabotage operations. But Babel-17 isn’t a code, it’s a language: a language like no other previously developed or created. To pursue its origin, Wong requests a ship, hires a crew, and heads out to try to reconstruct the language’s structure, and thus the Invaders’ plans.

Babel-17 is an unapologetic thrill-ride and is space opera (think Star Wars here, not 2001) at its finest. No scene outstays its welcome, whilst the five ‘parts’ of the book are each episodically watertight. The writing is dialogue-driven, interspersed with just the right number of Delany’s characteristic jewel-studs of scene-setting. As a book Babel-17 is short, light-hearted, playful and has a glow of optimism about it that unhurriedly reasserts itself after darker sections. The read is permeated, even more thoroughly, with a sense of wonder at the possibilities of human beings.

In Delany’s world(s), human development through the sciences (all the sciences, as I shall soon emphasise) may be ambiguous (Triton is subtitled an ambiguous heterotopia), but it is never merely destructive. Physical, mental and social modification are essentially humanising forces; as they reveal more about the possibilities of human beings, they delineate more clearly what human beings are. What the human beings find out about themselves (individually or collectively) in Delany’s stories may not always be pleasant, and is sometimes harrowing, but it is never pointless nor meaningless. In Babel-17, for example, cosmetic surgery is commonplace. Not for the attaining of a stereotyped beauty, but in the service of a carnival-like self-expression. The tattoos, coloured contacts, and piercings of today are as yet only a small move towards what Delany (amongst others) already imagined in the sixties, but the bodily modifications he envisages (unlike ours) combine truly outrageous form with working functions amongst his space crews and planetary colonists. We have to look for other writers to see the human spirit cancerous with grafts and adaptations.

One worry one might have with Delany is that he does not take science seriously. Technology is always loosely described in his work, and often verges on the speculative extreme. Whilst accepting that Delany is never going to get into the nuts and bolts of the sciences as other science fiction writers did (and do), it can be suggested that Delany is more careful than some authors to take all of the sciences seriously. Moreover, he is interested in the interconnections and interactions between the sciences and between them and the humanities. I look in vain for a clear dividing line between ‘science’ and ‘art’ from his perspective. Finally, I think he is more interesting and plausible than most in his imaginative explorations of what such a holism about human inquiry might achieve. A fundamentally practical person, to my reading, he never heads off to the transcendentally mystical, whether its source be Big Science or The Great Beyond.

This fascination with science and art, and the permeability of their borders, is clear and characteristic in Delany’s treatment of Babel-17’s principle theme: language. Babel-17 is a language like no other, and a recurring theme in the book is that the acquisition of a new language leads to the acquisition of new ways of not just thinking but of perceiving, problem-solving, doing, and so on. These changes are not conceived to be a surface matter. Delany makes it clear that the difference strikes to the social, cultural, psychological and neurological levels. Babel-17 makes a big difference, because there is a big difference between it and other languages. But the difference is one of degree, not of kind. Language pervades the plot of Triton as well, albeit less prominently. There, it has to compete with the whole host of socio-cultural phenomena which Delany is moving meticulously away from our own, as he explores a world which is in many ways more fraught, and perhaps more weary, (and certainly less swashbuckling) than that of Babel-17.

Babel-17 is a hearty, endearing adventure, bedecked almost to decadence with sumptuous scenes. Delaney avoids this pit-fall through a display of welcoming, provocative, sensitive and intelligent sci-fi literature. The great white beard would no doubt be pleased how his sageful lines still transgress the minds of those who have appreciated his work in all manner of situations;  is that not surely the purpose of sci-fi?