April 3, 2008

Samuel R. Delaney’s “Babel-17”

Posted in Books tagged , , , , , , , , at 10:26 am by myrlinn

I’ve always been a fan of science fiction, but I’d never even heard of Samuel R. Delaney until I found his 1966 Nebula award-winning "Babel-17" while browsing in my local library.

How could I have missed reading his work all these years! I just finished the book, and I loved it.

Coincidentally (there you go, I’m pointing out another coincidence!), reading the book brought me back to a recurrent theme of my blogs the past few weeks — memories of my past. This book is based heavily on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which says that language determines thought and perceived reality. As this was one of the more interesting topics when I was studying linguistics at university, this book definitely brought back memories of my student days.

Of course, today, the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is largely discredited.So, the science behind the plot is dated.* However, as I was reading the story, I was really impressed that the characters and the setting could have been written today.

Delaney imagined this world back in the 1960s, drawing for us an underground gritty cityscape more like the cyberpunk worlds of 1990s science fiction. Even his characters are modern. We get more of an insight into their psyche (within the limitations of the book, which is not very long). And he gave his characters body modifications and implants. These are features that we started to see more of only in more recent science fiction. Amazing!

p.s. I also just finished reading Jostein Gaarder’s “Sophie’s World”. I must admit I rushed through the last half of the book — couldn’t wait to read the ending! So I’m not finished finished, if you know what I mean. I’m definitely going back to read the book more carefully. But I just want to say: GET IT!!! It’s such a good primer on philosophy. It makes the subject so interesting, and so much less intimidating. And the plot cleverly illustrates philosophical points. My only complaint now that I’ve read it: I wish there was a similar book on eastern philosophy!!!

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* There is some evidence, though, for the idea that our language influences how we think and perceive reality. For example, to Eskimos, snow is not just snow. They have names for different kinds of snow, and are therefore able to differentiate snow in greater detail than someone who doesn’t know their language.

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