Thursday, October 16, 2008
Babel-17/ Empire Star
by Samuel R. Delany
Early on in Samuel R. Delany’s short novel, “Babel-17,” the brilliant poet and linguist Rydra Wong tells her psychiatrist that “…language is thought. Thought is information given form. The form is language…,” and then that “….when you learn another tongue, you learn the way another people see the world, the universe.” Both this novel and “Empire Star,” the novella included on the book’s flipside, are concerned with contextuality and perspective. For a further discussion of a multiplicity of perspective in Delany, see my previous post on “The Ballad of Beta-2.” But perhaps it is more expedient to approach “Babel-17” and “Empire Star” as independently diametric novels wrestling through parallel (though somehow intersecting!) procedures. They both investigate social education; they are about learning, that is, about growing up or transcending a fixed area through the expansion of boundaries. Look at the verbal construction of the first quote - it is a closed system whose point of cyclical flow is language. This system could flow intermittently, but in the end, it all boils down to language. “Empire Star” opens with two quotes, one from W.H. Auden, and the other from Marcel Proust, “…truth is a point of view about things.” It is a matter of context, just as the Proust quote is contingent on context, as it has been edited and grafted into a new context to provide Delany’s desired effect, his point of view.
In both novels, the acquisition of language serves as a literal manifestation of a quest. The quest is an initiation into maturity and enlightenment, or to put it less hyperbolically, knowledge. The shifts and changes in the language the characters speak and think in signal the shifts and changes in their sensitivity and perception. Comet Jo, the young initiate in “Empire Star,” begins the novel speaking a truncated, pidgin English. When he encounters a devil-kitten, he asks it “Wha’ madda?...Ya ma and pa run off?” What stereotype does that sound like? The novel opens on Rhys, an isolated satellite whose entire population is consumed with the harvesting of plyasil, which is “…an organic plastic that grows in the flower of a mutant strain of grain…[and is used]…as an alloy strengthener for other plastics…” Jo’s family life is composed of his uncle Clemence, who is always mad at him, and his fourth cousin Lilly, who Jo once unsuccessfully tried to kiss. This family make-up could almost be read as a parodic send-up of a racist literature’s portrayal of blacks as backwards bumpkins. The narrative progresses, and Comet Jo accumulates different means of speech and communication, fully obliterating racial stereotyping as we move into a diversity of communicables. Delany successfully takes an injurious stereotype, turns it around, and then explodes it as the novel’s scope expands.
Delany explicitly addresses racial oppression and imprisonment in “Empire Star” through his familiar theme of communication. The galactic empire of the story has been build by the Lll, an incredibly strong and creative alien race who “…build beautifully, wonderfully…they build over half the Empire.” But in order to build such astounding worlds, the Lll have been sold into bondage. Their owners are psychically linked to the Lll and made to feel the immense suffering and guilt of slavery. San Severina, the ruler of Empire Star, is forced to own seven enslaved Lll in order to repair eight planets ravaged in a galactic conflict. This reduces her, through the amplified psychic empathy stipulated by the Empire, to a mindless animal shackled in “…chains [that] are just short enough so she can’t kill herself,” on account of the unbearable suffering. I am reminded of Emerson’s belief that a man who reduces another man to an animal is also likewise diminished into a subaltern creature.
Language and communication provides a redemption from enslavement. When Comet Jo, due to fluctuations in time-space orbiting Empire Star, travels back in time (if it can be spoken of in those specific spatial terms) and finally meets a young and as yet untested San Severina, they communicate through the language of music – Severina with a guitar and Jo with an ocarina. The Lll are not freed by the end of the novella; it’s never that easy. Has racial oppression ceased in America, even over a hundred years after the abolishment of slavery? As the novel itself forms various loops, the assumption is that perhaps enslavement is itself, tragically, inevitable. We find ourselves in yet another of Delany’s self-contained and self-actualizing machines.
While the Lll are not liberated, the shackles of time and linearity are abolished, as the novel folds in on itself and time and identity is found to be more than a singularity, more than a binary, but a shining multiplicity. This reminds me of the origami folded in Grant Morrison’s comic book, “The Invisibles,” to represent time intersecting on itself. What on one hand may be a negative affirmation of slavery becomes on another an extra-temporal optimism. Again we are confronted with Delany as a transcendental novelist. Look at “A joyous defeat: When Prince Nactor burned Jo’s body on the ice, blasted plains of the planet that circled Tantamount- joyous, because it freed Jo to be able to use many other bodies, many other names.” Here we find the escalation of understanding as it moves beyond linguistic and physical boundaries.
“Babel-17,” both the novel and the fabricated language that shares its name, is primarily concerned with transcendence. A language of terrorism, Babel-17, is a precise, nearly perfect linguistic construct developed by one of two galactic factions. Their adversaries, who call themselves the Alliance, have dubbed this faction the Invaders. Here we find a trap. Language itself is the trap of “Babel-17.” A language has the power to intern and sublimate it’s speaking populace.
Remember, Samuel R. Delany is a poet’s writer; his novels usually grapple with language in and of itself outside of any concern for realism’s transparency. Poetry has the ability, as I quote Sigurd Burckhardt by way of Charles Bernstein, to drive “…a wedge between words and their meanings…” Poetry’s capacity, then, is to attune or align through acute sensitivity to words and their attentive constructs Words have the potential to be a great weapon, perhaps this partially explains how our main character manages to be one of the most well-known individuals in the galaxy simply on account of being a poet. When the arms manufacturer, Baron Ver Dorco, dismisses a long row of plastic explosives as “gross, uncivilized weapons,” while giving Wong a tour of his compound, the irony is that all of his devices are gross and uncivilized against the weapon Wong carries – language itself.
The terrorism of the novel is language terrorism – which has fitting and frightening analogies to the Republican party’s attack on words in “The War on Terror.” Babel-17 is the epitome of linguistic warfare, “…to start off with, the word for Alliance in Babel-17 translates literally into English as: one-who-has-invaded…” Rydra continues, indicating that “It has all sorts of little diabolisms programmed into it.” But then, so does every language. The joke here is that the names the two sides in this conflict develop for each other both come out as “Invader.” Language is insidious when read within, and it is only through reading outside of the text’s confines. Consider this quote from the writer Edmond Jabes, from a translation by Rosmarie Waldrop: “ Then where is truth but in the burning space between one letter and the next? Thus the book is first read outside its limits.” Boundaries foreshorten both potential and perception.
One character says of Rydra Wong that “She cut through worlds, and joined them – that’s the important part- so that both became bigger.” Well, that is what Delany ultimately does. He writes toward and through liberation and transcendence, though those goals are indeterminate and unreachable. Communication, open, honest, diverse and generous, allows the opportunity to approach an ecstatic endpoint, while never arriving. This, ultimately, is the plight of the Lll’s freedom, and this is the methodology of liberated language. The ending of “Babel-17” is an ambiguous one, as Rydra and the Butcher use Babel-18, a language constructed out of information gained from its precursor, to brainwash the military leaders of both sides of the conflict with the persuasive message, “ This war will end in six months.” A happy ending yes, but an ominous one, as words retain their authoritarian grip. The words simply have a new speaker. This reminds me of the endings of Alan Moore’s twin dystopian parables of the 80s, “Watchmen” and “V for Vendetta.” Peace or progressive change is gained at the end of each of Moore’s graphic novels, though the cost is a resort to authoritarian methodologies. Do Rydra and the Butcher do so at the end of “Babel-17?” Are we too, as language-users, complicit in a universal oppression?