conceptual fiction
Essay by Ted Gioia
Babel-17

by Samuel R. Delany
Even as science fiction authors became more daring
in the 1960s, few found ways of reconciling the leading
experimental tendencies of the day with the demands
of genre fiction.  In the world of literary fiction, novelists
were stretching syntax and semantics, engaging in fanciful
wordplay and moving
beyond the time-honored
conventions of narrative
structure.  In science fiction,
in contrast, authors were
enlivening their tales with
more expansive plot lines—
embracing sociological and
religious themes and bor-
rowing heavily from current
thinking about mythology
and psychology—yet the
language of their stories still
betrayed sci-fi's pulp fiction
roots.  The leading science fiction authors might construct

elaborate spaceships or time machines….but were usually
afraid to tinker with sentence structures.

Except for Samuel R. Delany.  Delany had grand ambitions

for science fiction.  A prodigy who started writing in his
teens, and had published seven sci-fi novels before the age
of 25, Delany aimed not only to broaden the themes of
genre lit but also its language. Sometimes his prose took
on the fanciful qualities of poetry, at other times he wrote
in a stream-of-consciousness style or even experimented with
the way the words were presented on the page. Not all of
his risk-taking paid off—his most famous novel, Dhalgren,
is like Ulysses' evil twin—but at his best, Delany was one of
the great visionaries of sci-fi, taking genre fiction to places
it had never been before.  

Related Reviews
The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
Nova by Samuel R. Delany


Babel-17, written around the time of Delany's 23rd birthday,
still stands out as one of the most successful attempts to
mix the language games of modernists and postmodernists
with a taut science fiction plot line. Delany achieves this
by making linguistics a key part of his plot—an unusual
move for any novelist, highbrow or lowbrow, but very
much in keeping with sci-fi's absorption of the human
sciences during this period.  As a result, the unconventional
sentences and page layouts that often seem gratuitous in
other Delany books not only fit seamlessly here, but are
even essential to the unfolding story.   

Our chief protagonist, Rydra Wong is a poet, skilled linguist

and intergalactic literary celebrity…and, yes, a starship
captain in her spare time. Leading characters in Delany's
stories often come across as extensions of the author, and
like her creator, Wong is obsessed with the way meaning
is conveyed in language.  Because of her knack with words,
Wong has been enlisted by the military to assist in breaking
a code called Babel-17. This code has been detected on
radio transmissions that are invariably timed to coincide
with acts of sabotage at various parts of the galaxy.  

Wong soon realizes that Babel-17 is not a code, but a

language, and a peculiar one at that. Is it a kind of
communicative music?  Is it a more precise logical
framework for concepts?  Is it a type of computer language,
but designed for people instead of machines? Is it a
linguistic tool for brainwashing? Or is it simply an
evolutionary dead-end, destroying those who use it too
much?  For once, Delany has a legitimate excuse to
integrate his musings on words and extravagant
phraseology into a sci-fi thriller, and though Chomsky
might not approve of the theoretical orientation of this
tale—which violates his theory of generative grammar at
every turn—Delany both enlightens and entertains. The
result is one of the landmarks of linguistic sci-fi, setting
the foundation for later works such as Stanislaw Lem's
His Master's Voice, China Miéville's Embassytown, Ted
Chiang's "Understand" and Don DeLilllo's Ratner's Star.  

If the idea of linguistic science fiction leaves you

apprehensive, rest assured that Delany successfully
integrates his story of language and translation into a
fast-paced adventure story—not always a given with

this author. In order to unravel the intricacies of
Babel-17, Wong needs to set out in a spaceship, and is
soon caught up in the ongoing galactic conflict between
the Alliance and the Invaders. Over the course of this
novel, Delany presents the full range of action scenarios,

from hand-to-hand combat to full-scale spaceship
battles. But even in the midst of combat, he finds a way

to employ his experimental techniques. Delany's description
of a terrorist attack at an official dinner is one of the
strangest fight scenes in sci-fi history, with more attention
lavished on the food than fighting. "The fruit platters

were pushed aside by the emerging peacocks, cooked,
dressed and reassembled with sugared heads, tail
feathers swaying....Tureens of caldo verde crowded
the wine basins….Fruit rolled over the edge." It's as if
the NY Times had fired its war correspondents and
replaced them with restaurant reviewers.

The same distinctive Delany-esqe mixture of combat
and unusual language stands out in his big battle scene

—here, for inexplicable reasons, the military commander
relies on psychoanalytical jargon for all his strategizing
and communications to the troops. I found this inspired
bit of doggerel strangely appealing: "Neurotics advance.  
Maintain contact to avoid separation anxiety….Let the
criminally insane schiz out….Neurotics proceed with

delusions of grandeur….Stimulate severe depression,
noncommunicative, with repressed hostility….Commence

the first psychotic episode…."

As such passages may suggest, readers need to make

allowances for this author's eccentricities. And there are
many quirks here, as you might expect from a writer  
who proclaims Let the criminally insane schiz out. Be
forewarned: If you are waiting for Delany to explain
why he makes a soldier talk like Sigmund Freud or
worries more about the food than the fatalities at a
bloody banquet or has put some incongruous bit of
poetry in the middle of his story…you will be waiting
in vain.  He forces you to construct with your own
interpretation—if you can.

Almost every one of Delany’s novels could have been

named Stranger in a Strange Book.  But here the strangeness
works.  Even today many doubt that genre conventions
can coexist with literary experimentation. Babel-17 is a
corrective to that skepticism, an avant-garde space opera
that sets its own terms of engagement and played a key
role in reinventing science fiction during a period of
transition and transgression.  A half-century later, the
tables have turned, and highbrow literary authors are
now trying to assimilate aspects of genre fiction. It's to
Delany’s credit that, even in this changed environment,
this brash novel still can serve as a touchstone and role
model.

Publication date: March 31, 2012

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His
latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by
Oxford University Press.
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
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