Short works

Books : reviews

Samuel R. Delany.
Millennium. 1966

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 17 September 2000

The Alliance has been at war with the Invaders for decades. Now a series of damaging sabotages are occurring, each accompanied by a burst of communication in a new uncrackable code, Babel-17. General Forester calls in Rydra Wong, poet, ex-cryptographer and linguist extrordinaire, to help out. She quickly realises Babel-17 is not a code, but a remarkably expressive and powerful new language, and sets out to unravel it and track it down.

I had thought I was slowing down. Back in the 70s I could read three SF books in a day; today I have trouble reading one. But, after reading Babel-17 I realise it's not just me slowing down -- it's also the books getting longer. Without necessarily getting better. Delany crams as many ideas and images into 200 pages here as would fill a modern trilogy -- or worse. The port scenes, the discorporates and the use of Basque, the marvellous chaotic banquet, the aliens with their temperature-based language, the short half chapter with "I" and "you" interchanged -- are just some of the beautifully-crafted jewels in here.

But the main theme of the book is language. True, Babel-17 may be based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language determines the way we think, which is currently discredited in its strong form used here. Yet much old SF is based on now-outmoded scientific theories or engineering limitations. What makes good old SF is when this doesn't in fact matter, because those (wrong) ideas are nevertheless used in an interesting and consistent way, and the story is still worth telling. As here.

Samuel R. Delany.
Triton (== Trouble on Triton) .

Samuel R. Delany.
The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: notes on the language of science fiction: revised edn.
Wesleyan University Press. 2009

An indispensable work of science fiction criticism revised and expanded

Samuel R. Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw first appeared in 1977, and has long been out of print and hard to find. Its demonstration that science fiction is a special language, rather than gadgets and green-skinned aliens, had an impact that reverberates today in science fiction criticism. This edition includes two new essays, one written at the time and one written about those times, as well as an introduction by writer and teacher Matthew Cheney, placing Delany’s work in historical context. Close textual analyses of Thomas M. Disch, Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, and Joanna Russ read as brilliantly today as when they first appeared. Essays such as “About 5,750 Words” and “To Read The Dispossessed” first made the book a classic; they assure it will remain one.

Samuel R. Delany.
Starboard Wine: more notes on the language of science fiction: revised edn.
Wesleyan. 2012

In Starboard Wine, Samuel Delany explores the implications of his now-famous assertion that science fiction is not about the future. Rather, it uses the future as a means of talking about the present and its potentiality. By recognizing a text’s specific “difference,” we begin to see the quality of its particulars. Through riveting analyses of works by Joanna Russ, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, and Thomas M. Disch, Delany reveals critical strategies for reading that move beyond overwrought theorizing and formulaic thinking. Throughout, the author performs the kinds of careful inquiry and urgent speculation that he calls others to engage in.