Samuel Delany is the first African-American and the first openly gay author to win one of these novel awards. It's the 1960s, alright, and it's certainly nice to watch the increasing inclusiveness of the science fiction community. Delany is also at the forefront of what is usually called the "new wave" of speculative fiction writers who wanted to explore more social and philosophical themes in the genre.
Babel-17 starts out strong. It begins on a future Earth that is under siege by a mysterious group called the Invaders who mount terrorist attacks against human outposts. Every attack is accompanied by strange, indecipherable transmissions. The military has decided to turn to the uncannily adept super-linguist Rydra Wong to decode the transmissions. Wong can learn almost any language and can also decipher a great deal about how a culture (or individual, for that matter) thinks from how they speak. She can even mimic telepathy with a precise and incisive analysis of the subtlest of body language. Wong deciphers Babel-17, learns the site of the next terrorist attack, and pledges to hire a ship and investigate herself.
This is a fantastic premise – it involves a strong central idea that looks to be thought-provoking and full of intrigue, and it also has a very solid hook for the plot. However, this set-up all takes place in the first two chapters, and from there, the novel goes off the rails. It turns out that hiring pilots for her trip involves Wong chatting up strange surgically-altered people with preternatural senses and polygamous tripartite sexual relationships. Some of them are dead; their corpses are in cold storage for revival when a good job comes along. This is all fascinating stuff, but it’s related in a breathless, obtuse, and dialect-heavy fashion that grinds the proceedings to a halt. It’s not unlike Leiber’s The Big Time, where the reader is never really given a clear explanation of the setting. I understand the artistic reasons why an author would thrust a reader into an unknown and wildly different future setting, but , at the same time, it’s not very satisfying.
The prose and plotting may be self-consciously and intentionally unwelcoming, but there are a lot of great ideas. The novel is about language, and Delany makes great use of the format to play with the concepts. He even includes an experimental bit where we get sidebars that translate the novel’s language into the more literalist language of Babel-17. There’s also a particularly nice exchange with a character who has no concept of the first-person singular, “I.” I also like Delany’s idea that humans will never even begin to understand alien species until they’re somehow able to think in alien languages – a concept that seems self-evident but that’s ignored in most sci-fi.
I have to admit that I knew nothing about Delany before I saw his name on the Nebula winner list (twice). Several of his novels were reissued by the literary imprint Vintage Books in the 1990s, along with works by Philip K. Dick and Alfred Bester. I can certainly see how Delany fits in next to those two – he takes risk, pushes the envelope of both social mores and believability, and he has a dark sensibility. I look forward to reading more of his work, but this novel just didn’t quite hold together for me, despite the strong ideas.