This was an intriguing and well-written book, but I just never seemed to connect with it the way I wanted to. Babel-17 was the last book of my classic sci-fi binge in February, and it was also my least favorite of the three I read (the other two were Way Station and The Stars My Destination). Although, in another headspace, and maybe if I hadn’t had to do the Kindle version (because free) I might have been able to concentrate more and liked it better. I might actually revisit it in the future on audio.
Also, it was very weird!
Babel-17 takes place some far distance in the future where space travel is normal, and body modification has progressed to the point that humans can make themselves essentially into anything they want. A nebulous alien civilization only called the Invaders have been at war with humanity for years. The poet and ex-codebreaker Rydra Wong (who is just a teensy bit telepathic) is tasked with decoding a strange signal that appears just before attacks from the enemy. She learns that it’s a language, Babel-17, and decoding it puts her life in danger, but not in the way you’re expecting.
This book is all about how the language we speak shapes the way we view the world. Babel-17–a language that does not have the concept of the individual, and no word for “I”–is dangerous because of the way it shapes Rydra’s thinking, not because it’s imparting new knowledge or tactics or influencing her thoughts in any direct way. It makes her into more of a strategic thinker, also while making her less empathetic and aware of her fellow humans, but it’s ultimately human connection that brings her back.
This book is an interesting thought experiment, but for me I think it discounts the other way around too much. Yes, the words we have at our disposal and the structures of our language do shape our thinking, limit and offer opportunities depending on what we’ve got to work with, but we humans are also pretty determined, and if we need a word for something and don’t have one, oftentimes we change the language to suit our needs. The influence doesn’t just go one way. That’s why languages constantly evolve, and aren’t just static. It’s why many people have such a hard time reading Shakespeare, and attempting to read Chaucer is like visiting a foreign country. It’s why “social distancing,” a term none of us knew four weeks ago, is now in common usage (or whenever it was, I’ve lost track of time entirely).
The characters were all right, but I had a hard time connecting with them, especially at the beginning of the book. If you can make it a third of the way, you’ll be fine, but I did have a hard time getting to that point.