A Biblio-Critical Study of Speculative Fiction Novels

Chapter 03 Babel 17: Samuel R. Delany


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Chapter Three: Babel 17, Samuel R. Delaney

A. Introduction

Samuel R. Delany is perhaps the most technically skilled writer in speculative fiction. His novels display considerable precision in construction. They are mult-layered, unconventionally structured. They utilize mythical archetypes, employ poetry, and justify several different levels of comprehension. Delany, following the example of Alfred Bester, re-vitalized the "space opera" structure. Delany showed that the science fiction novel could use mainstream literary techniques and concerns while maintaining its unique perspective on the human condition.

Samuel R. Delany, one of the very few black writers in science fiction was born (1941) and raised in Harlem, New York City. Delany, however, attended an expensive private school outside Harlem which influenced his later fiction:

"I spent my days downtown in a white upper class school at Park block north of the most crowded gave me a misplaced sense of superiority...I've always been writing about people make trips through that kind of barrier..although not necessarily a racial barrier. "(1)

He demonstrated considerable skill at mathematics and music. He attended New York University for only one years, but his books exhibit deep and diverse reading. In high school he met his eventual wife (until the late 1970s), Marilyn Hacker, a poet and feminist. She played a considerable role on Delany's early development. She persuaded Delany to submit his first novel to her employer, Ace Books. Delany traveled extensively. At one point, he lived in Greenwhich Village. Later, he moved to England and has visited other places. In Greenwich, Delany worked for several years as a professional jazz musician. These experiences gave Delany a cross-cultural perspective as well as supplying some of the backgrounds and characters for his novels:

"I have always lived in the more run down parts of town..when society is beginning to fall apart, you can get a better of how it operates, where everything is not absolutely sneaky-clean because so much of that surface is there to mask the way things actually run."

Delany's stories typically employs the space opera plots, mainstay of science fiction since the twenties, but he ties them into the archetypal quest patterns of mainstream literature through mystical and literary allusion. Delany could write a novel with an accessible surface meaning and add new layers of death.

"I do like the space opera's a kind of linear graphic thinking that organizes so much of our thinking...I like the freedom it gives...I don't think of (my use) of it as adding another layer, I think of it as exploring the entire construct in ways it hasn't been explored before."

In Delany's work, the external form of the quest often parallels an interior quest for meaning, an exploration of "inner space." Both journeys reach their conclusion at the end of the novel. Reader, character, and mainstream structure all conclude together.

Delany brought mainstream experimental techniques to the science fiction novel. His early novels external conventional come well-stocked with allusions, metaphors, similes, poetic language, actual poetry, and other devices. In his latest novels, Dhalgren and Triton, he utilizes stream-of-consciousness and controversial subject matter. Unlike some authors, however, Delany never uses the unconventional for its own sake.

Delany almost exclusively uses the third person limited viewpoint. This may stem from his protagonists' resemblance to their creator. The third person viewpoint distances the author from his subjects and allows a more objective outlook than would first person.

Delany avoided the stereotyped heroic scientists and inventors of standard science fiction by featuring artistic protagonists such as musicians and artists. This merely created a new set of Delany stereotypes in his early novels. Only with Triton and Dhalgren does he display these characters as holding as much importance as the symbolism they impart.

The settings of the novels divide into two groups: the youthful, energetic worlds and the destroyed, desolated worlds. In Babel-17, Nova, and Triton, humanity expands and asserts itself, but it lacks a wisdom attained by experience. In The Fall of the Towers trilogy, Dhalgren, and the Einstein Intersection humanity has destroyed itself and must struggle to rise above the ruins. Delany seems to pair these two environments in successive novels as thesis and anti-thesis so that reading two novels together often forms a more rewarding experience than reading either in isolation.

Several themes run through Delany's novels. The most persistent Delany theme asserts both the value and necessity of art. The protagonist of the Delany novel, generally artists, often work outside society as a criminal or a reformer. In the early novels, this often takes the form of "saving society" or "saving the world," but in the latter novels they produce a more subtle artistic renaissance, showing more sophisticated insights into the artist's relations with his audience. One critic even hypothesized that Delany's novel, in that most cliched tradition of this century, concern the writing of novels:

"It is amazing to what extent the novels and short pieces discuss the nature of their own creation...Moreover, the protagonists of the novels are young artists in the process of learning their art, and the quests which form the narrative structures of his novels can be seen as the reader's quests through texts from the experience of the novels." (4)

The critic over-simplifies. Delany feels strongly about the potential of art, but occasional references by the protagonist to the novel itself often only provide humor, comic relief in quite serious works. Delany believes, fundamentally, in the power of communication. Art represents one form; language, the concern of other his novels, another. This probably functions as the unifying element in Delany's fiction: to communicate develop yourself and learn how to live with others.

The place of myth in human life forms another common theme running through Delany's work. Archetypal myths demonstrate the patterns in our actions, and hence, a form of communication at between individuals. Divergence from, understanding, and negation of themes forms, however, rather than the myths themselves, define different persons. They provide an insight for the reader into the characters in the novels and for the characters into each other.

One can over-read a science fiction novel and interpret more into the work than actually exists, but Delany makes it clear that he intends more than mere entertainment:

"(My long term ambition) is to keep writing science fiction novels but also to broaden what is science fiction. I do have all sorts of grandiose ambitions to make the world a better place...not so much to influence people's thinking but to influence their way of reading. I want to write texts that are worthwhile reading, with a sense of play, but a play of a much more complex kind than frequently is supplied through most science fiction tests..." (5)


B. Early Works: The Jewels of Aptor and The Fall of the Towers

Delany's first novel, The Jewels of Aptor (1962, Ace) he wrote at the request of his wife, then a book reviewer for Ace. A typical fantasy-quest novel, it features, however, such common Delany elements as a mythical structure, internal and external journals, and a recreation of a literary myth, in this case that of Jason and the Argonauts. The protagonist both artist and criminal, forms a first instance of a common Delany motif. Ace heavily edited the initial edition, but subsequent editions restored the initial text.

His next work, the Fall of the Towers Trilogy demonstrated higher ambitions. Tomoron, the common setting for the trilogy, the last city on an automatically-decimated future earth, falls under the threat of an invasion of an alien enemy, The Lord of the Flames. Delany weaves together two themes: the myth of the city in search of renewal and a critique of an American society haunted by the Cold War. In Out of the Dead City (originally Captive of the Flames, 1962, revised 1966), Delany explores the interior of this future society. Delany's protagonists repulse the enemy in a metaphor-packed finale, reminiscent of Alfred Bester's novels. In The Towers of Toron (Ace, 1963), the city's central computer (controlled by the Lord of Flames, which somewhat lessens the effect of the novel) circumvents attempts at both social upheaval and reform: it uses mass psychosis, complete with casualties to convince the populace that a rival army actually attacks the city. War in capitalist society serves many purposes beyond mere survival:

"Tomoron has rested on Earth for five hundred revolutions about the planet Sol. The upheaval that Tomoron went through was a complex economic, political, and psychological reorganization coupled with a tidal wave of technological advance...the degenerate, thousand year old aristocracy was unable to redistribute...Their only solution was to simulate a situation which existed only in libraries from when the whole planet was populated with nations like theirs, they simulated a war that would rid them of their excesses." (6)

In the concluding volume, City of a Thousand Suns (Ace, 1965), the delayed social revolution comes to pass, and the Lord of the Flames attempts to use upheaval to seize power. However, he learns from three artifacts forming the basis of Tomoron (and also, by analogy, Western) culture: the unified field theory (math); a volume of poems (art); and a history of Tomoron (tradition). The Lord of the Flames, a collective being, like the Communist state, contains members trying to assert their individuality. Tomoron's citizens have a different identity and different needs. They need to work together. Reform, rather than revolution, fulfills their need.

"The essential factor in all our make-up is that we are individuals, and as individuals, we are alone, working only with images...It is both our salvation and our damnation, and opposed to it is the desire inherent in our aloneness to move closer to another individual, or individuals, to perceive with them, through them, to unite somehow. Many of you..have this internalized into your procreative rituals." (7)

Several weaknesses mar this early trilogy. Delany introduces a "Triple Being" to oppose his Lord of the Flames. This reduces the role of humanity in the novel. His characters seem more emblematic than believable. Still, Fall of the Towers notably pays attention to social problems, its symbolic merging of individualism and collectivity, its theme of renewal, its use of metaphoric language, and its setting. Delany uses the old science fiction setting of the last city on earth for a novel that ranks a cut about standard novels set in similar locations.


C. The Middle Novels: Beta Two, Babel 17,
Einstein Intersection, and Nova

Delany's next two novels, The Ballad of Beta Two and Babel 17 assert the necessity of communication. The Ballad of Beta-2 resembles many of Robert A. Heinlein's juvenile novels in its lightness of tone. A young anthropology student grudgingly accepts an assignment from his old professor to travel to decimated starship Beta-2 and interpret its folk ballad. Like the generations starship in Heinlein's archetypal Orphans in the Sky, civilization has broken down and mutants struggle with normal humans. The Beta-2 mutants, however, destroy their ship because the normal humans, their elders, attack them first. In Heinlein's novel, mere struggle for survival causes conflict. Inability for one generation to another triggers conflict on the Beta-2. Lack of communication, Delany asserts, forms the basis for the generation gap. Overall, the novel basically entertains the reader as Delany floats the old artifact of science fiction hardware, the generational spaceship, albeit with a twist.

Babel 17 (Ace, 1966), won the 1966 Nebula award for best novel. Poetess Hydra Won must learn to interpret Babel-17, a language used by the intergalactic enemies of her Earth-people's alliance. She discovers that Babel 17, a computer language, lacks the pronoun "I." Unable to talk about themselves, speakers of the language cannot act in their own self-interest. A change in language causes a change in outlook; describing the world in another language requires one to see it in a new way. To understand one another, we must understand our linguistic as well as cultural backgrounds. Wong does this and triumphs.

Despite this interesting premise and Wong's status as a female protagonist, relatively rare in science fiction, Babel 17 does not really rank as one of Delany's best novels. The setting looks familiar "space opera," the characters rather two-dimensional, and the narrative uninspired. It provokes thought, but it lacks some of the depth of Delany's better efforts.

Delany's next two novels, explicitly linked, explore the limits of myth. In Einstein Intersection, a human-like race occupies the earth after mankind's destruction. Lo Lobey, of the aliens, lives as a shepherd until "Kid Death" kills his beloved Fritz. He then undertakes an Orpheus-like quest in an attempt to bring her back. He passes through a number of mythical patterns, ancient and modern, including the killing of Billy the Kid, and he discovers the patterns that link human lives. As a musician, however, he appreciates the spontaneity of life and the need to become a "different individual". Life consists of a tapestry made of patterns, but he can choose between them. Only in retrospect do these patterns seem predetermined. In the end, he chooses the communal pattern that Spider offers, rather than the pastoral one of his birth:

"'In my village there was a man who grew dissatisfied. So he left this world, working for a while on the moon, on the other planets, then on worlds that were stars away. I might go there.'
Spider nodded. 'I did that once. It was all waiting for me when I got back.'
'It's not going to be what you expect.' He grinned, then turned away.
'It's going to be...different.'" (8)

Though this novel also won the Nebula in 1967, critics pointed out some problems with the novel. Noted critic and author James Blish asserted that when the novel won the Nebula, "I bit my cat," and sees the novel as a simple recasting of old myths. David Ketterer correctly points out that "ultimately the logic of plot development is at the service of the mythical structure and suffers accordingly." (9) The virtues of the book, however, outweigh its faults. Lo Lobey grows and learns in an interesting way. Myths provide a good structure for the novel and a justification for Delany's metaphoric language, and numbers among one of the few works that directly explore the connection between myth and reality. At least one critic has said there "is a case for arguing this is his most satisfying work." (10) One can make a case also for his next novel.

Einstein Intersection asserts the independence of the individual; Nova explores the interdependence of members of society; Nova explores the interdependence of members of society. Lorq Van Ry travels on an Ahab-like quest to attain Illyron from a nebula before his archrivals Prince and Ruby Red, who head a rival corporation. If Lorq attains the material, the Draconian economy will make substantial gains. Delany, unfortunately, invents a device that allows rapid worker change-over, muting this social themes somewhat. Clearly, though, people will suffer either way. Throughout the novel, one of Lorq Van Ray's crew, Kain, attempts to write this novel itself and sees the mythical patterns that govern and apparently determine people's lives such as the Tarot cards. Mouse, in contrast, a musician, believes in freedom of expression and of life. They function as thesis and anti-thesis. Katin does write "his" novel and asserts his mold unto the piece, but only after the actual actions work themselves out. He cannot determine reality, but he can determine his art work, a fact Delany amusingly portrays:

"I write to (write the novel) I really do. But I'd be fighting a dozen jinxes from the start, Mouse. Maybe I could. But I don't think so. The only way to protect myself from the jinx, I guess, would be to abandon it before I finish the start." (11)

Nova concentrates on the tragic failure of Lorq Van Ray, Prince, and Ruby Red to understand one another personally, socially, and professionally. Lorq achieves his quest, but both his opponents get killed and he becomes blind, a symbol of his blindness to all except his objective. Society also suffers. Katin and Mouse's attempts at art form a counter motif. This novel shows less originality than some earlier works but shows increased characterization and more complexity. Delany, with mixed success, attempts to detail how an obsessed Ahab-like character actually becomes obsessed. Nova, an interesting novel, brings together the space opera plot and the mythical quest in an entertaining, rewarding whole.


D. The Short Stories, Dhalgren, and Triton

Nova ends the first period of Delany's writing. Before 1967, Delany wrote few short stories, but from 1968 to 1973 he published exclusively short stories. Driftglass (Signet, 1971) collects the best of these, among them "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" and "Aye and Gomorrah," Delany's contributions to Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions. They show new powers of characterization. Also, social and sexual themes become more important. These works directly lead into Delany's next period of novel writing.

With Dhalgren (Bantam, 1975), Delany contributed to the science fiction novel whether for better or worse. This volume hold the dubious distinction as the longest and perhaps least comprehensible science fiction novel ever written, i.e. the Ulysses of science fiction. Dhalgren contains several layers in this work, the social, sexual, and the personal. The individual characters form part of an enormous number of mythic patterns. Further, Delany, employs stream-of-consciousness, poetry, and experimental forms of story organization. Critics struggle to find a critical perspective for judging this work, but the basic story remains simple. An unknown youth travels to Bellona, a decadent metropolis possibly on Earth or on Mars, and participates in a number of social and sexual situation and leaves after assuming the name Dhalgren. The first sentence completes the last.

Delany explores the possible social formations that can survive a decaying America. One critic calls the novel "a dance symbolizing the twilight of the American Dream." (12) Dhalgren, though evaluates more than just American society. One character forms a commune; this does not provide adequate protection for its members or a sufficient impetus to action. Dhalgren works for an all-American family. Capitalist mutual competition robs them of the capacity for intercommunication and cooperation. He joins the "scorpions," a pseudo-fascist teenage motorcycle gang. The Scorpions provide ample protection, but their system of value equates to "might equals right." Like King Arthur, Dhalgren attempts to install an ethic in these punks and only achieves an ambiguous successes by the novel's end. In the modern world, no "perfect" system exists.

Delany displays a variety of sexual situations and implies that sexual diversity benefits society and the individual. Many critics focus on some of these experiences to attack the novel:

"Delany uses a great many words that would not have been found in the lowly pulps or even in general hard cover fiction not so many years ago; whole pages of it read as if transcribed directly from the lavatory walls. But the message conveyed in this four-letter language is ultimately more chauvinistic than anything in the polite censored pages of Jack London or Zane Grey." (13)

Dhalgren, however, evolves from inexperience and moderate chauvinism to extreme sexual tolerance. If men often dominate in these situations, the lack of settled conditions tend to make this more likely. The Scorpions do not subordinate women. Early, Dhalgren flees in panic from a sado-masochistic homosexual, Tak. Later, he submits to him and forces another homosexual to display his affections for him. Delany forces his reader to accept the unconventional sexuality of Dhalgren and his neighbors. Sex functions as a medium of communication, a Delany theme, both between individuals and an individual with himself.

The psychological development of William Dhalgren forms a third theme of the novel. Dhalgren rises from a state of confusion to become one of the few centers of civilization. Delany explores Dhalgren more thoroughly than almost any of his other characters. When the novel starts, he possesses no memories, his identity defined by the book Dhalgren, which records all his mental processes as he explores himself and his run-down world. The narrative diary confuses external observation and internal reaction as we commonly do. In the last section, individual episodes become jumbled, a factor our "editor" cannot account for. William progresses to the point at which his narrative parallels the non-linear organization of the mind. He has learned to know himself and the world. The novel's beginning and ending tie together some of these themes. The first paragraph:

"To wound the city.
So howled out for the world to give him a name.
The in-dark answered with win.
All that you know I know." (14)

The final sentences:

"But I still hear them walking in the trees; not speaking. Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond and into the hills, I have come to." (15)

The last sentence supplies the identity, "I," that the first sentence lacks and supplies a motive. As in Babel-17 supplying a personality changes a perspective. That becomes aware of the others (them) while in the first "to wound the autumnal city" also suggests sexual entrance.

This work possibly too experimental for speculative fiction, attempts unconventional subject matter, presentation, and character, probably too much for one work. The work only makes sense as a whole, and it stretches too long for most readers. This may explain why some critics have called it "tedious and masturbatory." (16) If Dhalgren only experimented with only two of his variables, readers might find it more comprehensible. Possibly only a magnificent failure, Dhalgren represents Delany's attempt to write a novel of Joycean scope, experimentation, and density in a science fictional setting. The mixture of unrealities probably will overwhelm most readers, i.e., offering one unreality too many, leading Dhalgren to survive largely as a campus "cult novel," rather like Joyce's own works.

Triton (Ballantine, 1976) succeeds better than Dhalgren because it limits experimentation to subject and character. It returns to the external quest and expanding society. The protagonist comes to Triton, a society allowing a considerable number of socio-sexual environments. Bron, a former male chauvinist, later travels to other environments, where the strict Anglo-Saxon heterosexual environment repulses him. Ultimately he chooses to become a woman. Dhalgren entitles the work "an ambiguous heterotopia," an and ironic obvious answer to Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, in which dualism serves both as metaphor and a fact of nature. On Triton, inhabitants do not take heterosexuality as a given but as subject to debate. Sex becomes a medium of communication and love. Acceptance of diversity allows the individual a way of living with others and accepting their freedom. Another work, The Tides of Lust, Delany describes as intending to "shock the reader out of his sexual stereotypes." Some other works include Empire (1978), which one critic describes as "probing psychological and mythological study in the study of heroic fantasy." (17)


E. Conclusion

Delany's works number among the best in speculative fiction. He re-invigorated the older forms of science fiction and retained much of their optimism, but he added new depth. One can certainly argue against the themes and conclusions he puts forward, but they cover important subjects. His characters inhabit their own Babel 17 where various failures of communication divide and limit them. The try to achieve understanding of themselves, their world, and each other.

(1) Delany, Samuel R., quoted in The Dream Makers, p. 72.
(2) Ibid, p. 73.
(3) Ibid, pp. 72-73.
(4) Peter S. Altman, "Samuel R. Delany" in Twentieth Century American Science Fiction, Volume 1, David Concourt and Thomas Wymer, ed. (Detroit: Gale Research, 1980), p. 121.
(5) Ibid, pp. 74-75.
(6) Samuel R. Delany, The Fall of the Towers (New York: Ace, 1966), p. 283.
(7) Ibid, p. 393
(8) Ibid, p. 193.
(9) David Ketterer, The Apocalyptic Imagination in Fiction, Science Fiction, and American Literature (Garden City: Anchor Press, 1974), p. 67.
(10) Peter Nicolls, p. 163.
(11) Samuel R. Delany, Nova (New York: Bantam, 1968), p. 215.
(12) Paul Allen Carter, The Fiction of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Science Fiction (New York: Columbia U. Press, 1977), p. 175.
(13) Ibid, p. 176
(14) Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren (New York: Bantam, 1975), p. 1.
(15) Ibid, p. 879.
(16) Nicholls, p. 163.
(17) Ibid, p. 164.

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