Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Review: Babel-17 by Samuel Delany

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
Published: Ace Books (1966, first), Open Roads Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (2014, my edition)
Awards Won: Nebula Award
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award

The Book:

“In the far future, the universe is divided by a war between two factions, the Alliance and the Invaders.  The Alliance government has been recently plagued by sabotage, and their only clue about the perpetrator involves some indecipherable communications that they have labeled “Babel-17”.

After the codebreakers fail, the government calls on the universally famous polyglot poet Rydra Wong for help.  Rydra realizes that the communication is not in code, but in an alien language that she is eager to learn. She gathers a crew and heads out to find and stop the saboteurs before it’s too late.” ~Allie

This is the second book I’ve read by Samuel R. Delany, and I enjoyed this one more than the last.  I don’t think Delany is really my style, but after Babel-17 I think I can appreciate his work.  Also, I seriously meant to review this for Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Sci-Fi Month, but then January got unexpectedly hard to handle.

My Thoughts:

Babel-17 features a space opera world that is unapologetically strange, and I found that I rather liked it.  This is a world where there is a specific set of people you need for a starship crew, and that includes dead people, a triad, a group of children and a good wrestler for a pilot.  A lot of the strangeness of the world also involved the methods of transfer of information.  For instance, disincorporated crew members interpret information relevant to space travel through unusual synesthetic impressions, and a living captain has to have a strategy to take into account that their mind is going to immediately forget messages from them (sort of like The Silence in Doctor Who).  The weirdness of the world and its methods of communication led to some very entertaining scenes and conversations.

The communication and information transfer aspects of the book also tie into its focus on how language affects thought. While I do think it is interesting to consider how language influences the way people see the world, I don’t really buy that it controls your thoughts to the extent that is shown here (which I think is considered the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis).  I think that even if you can’t express something in spoken language, you can still experience it, and just because a word has a certain accepted emotional subtext does not force you to feel a certain way about it.  To some extent, then, I found the language-based climax of the story a little too unbelievable to take.  All the same, it was pretty fun to read a space opera story that revolves around the impact of language on the thought process, even if I didn’t agree with its conclusions.  

Though it was packed with a lot of neat ideas, Babel-17 was also a very short book with many characters.  The focus on the unusual setting and various linguistic quirks meant that there wasn’t much time to flesh out Rydra’s crew and their relationships.  I enjoyed Rydra, a hyper-competent poet with a large skill set, and appreciated her frustration that her near-telepathic ability to read others did not necessarily enable her to communicate with them effectively.  Her romance subplot seemed a little too abrupt to be believable to me, though. Regardless, Rydra was an exceptionally fun starship captain, and I would have liked to read about her further adventures.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Babel-17 is a fairly short classic space opera set in an imaginatively strange universe.  I liked the focus on communication and language, and how it led to some unusual scenes and conversations. Some of the linguistic ideas were a little too unbelievable to me, though I still enjoyed the story overall. The poet heroine Rydra Wong is a little excessively skilled, but I appreciated that she was not without flaws.  I’m glad I finally managed to read Babel-17, and I expect it will stand as my favorite of Delany’s novels for quite some time.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Read-Along: Kushiel's Scion by Jacqueline Carey, Part 6

Welcome to week 6 of the read-along of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Scion.  This week’s questions are provided by Susan of Dab of Darkness, and cover chapters 45-52.  As usual, if you’re interested in joining future read-alongs, please check out our goodreads group.  Now, on to the questions, and beware of the many spoilers lurking below!

1) Imriel spends a night on the island of Asclepius. Do you agree with Imriel that his nature is to be cruel? Do you think of Imriel as a stunted tree reaching for the light?

No, I think he’s being a little too hard on himself.  I think the tree metaphor works better in reference to what he has suffered than as a statement on his nature.  His suffering will always be a part of him, but it doesn’t need to be something that prevents his growth or becomes the center of his being.

It seems to me that he is a little hypersensitive to his own actions that might be considered thoughtless, cruel and perhaps self-centered, because he has spent so much time meditating on the meaning of goodness.  I don’t think he is any crueler than the average person likely is from time to time, and I think it’s a good sign that he recognizes his failings and wants to improve on them.

2) Imriel makes a good go of breaking things off with Claudia. However, throughout this section we have seen how the spark between them is not yet doused. What do you think of Imriel's lingering desires? Is Claudia telling the truth about her own desires? 

I would give his break-up technique and A+.  He managed to avoid saying hurtful things, and was actually pretty respectful of her. He kept the focus on what their relationship was, and why he did not want to continue it.  Claudia lashed out a bit, and good on Imriel for not letting that get to him.

I think it’s undeniable that they still desire one another, but also undeniable that they don’t love one another.  Even if they end up in bed together a few more times, I think their relationship is essentially over.

3) Imriel reveals his full identity to Lucius and he learns of the legend of the Bella Donna, based on his own mother. Clever, intentional legend building by Melisande, or a fanciful story that built up over time or was borrowed from another legend? 

I blame Melisande!  She’s so easy to blame.  Seriously, though, it does sound tailor-made to absolve her of guilt and cast her in the role of a victim.  Imriel’s horrified response to the story was pretty funny.

4) All is not well at the city of Lucca. Helena has been kidnapped. The ghosts of the dead walk among the living. Lucius is possessed by his warlord ancestor Gallus Tadius. What do you think of this harsh man/ghost? 

Useful for the moment, but it will be good when they don’t need him anymore—assuming Lucius can find some way to banish him.  I am very glad they were able to prevent him from marrying Helena.  She’s going to marry Lucius at some point, I assume, but it was not a good time.  Lucius is possessed and she’s traumatized.

5) When Imri and crew return to the Tadius Villa with the injured Gilot, Imriel ponders the wonder of women. 'The courage of women is different than the courage of men.' Do you agree? 

Not really, courage is courage.  I would maybe agree that in a given society women and men are called (or forced) to express their courage in different ways.   

6) With the city under siege, an older mystery pops up with the arrival of Canis. Why do you think Imriel held his tongue and only told Eamonn? 

The simple answer would be because Canis asked him to (non-verbally).   The more complicated answer would involve why Imriel trusts Canis enough to hide his secret, and why Canis has come here in the first place.  I’m afraid I have no ideas there, though it’s clear that there is more to Canis than I had thought.

Other Things:

--This is a random thought I’ve had for a while, but it was brought up again this week by their riding.  I think the Bastard and I would really not get along. I am a horseback rider, and Imriel’s descriptions of his ‘spirited’ behavior sound exhausting and annoying to me.  I would much prefer a smallish, friendly, responsive, peaceful stallion (they do exist, I swear).  I guess Imriel’s preferences are naturally quite different than mine!

--I was so sad when Gilot died.  It just felt unfair, to him and to Anna and Belinda.  All he had to do was to make it through the wedding, and he could have gone back to Terre d’Ange and lived peacefully with his new family.

--I was quite struck by Imriel’s observation about Lucca: A place where a father loves his daughter enough that he’s willing to risk an entire city full of people to save her, but not enough to let her marry a poor man.

--I wonder if Imriel would have had the courage and conviction to rescue Helena the way he did without having endured the suffering of Darsanga. It was good that he reacted so quickly, even though it did ruin his chances of claiming diplomatic immunity.

--Alais is going to be pretty happy to hear his plans, if he makes it back to Terre d’Ange in one piece! I’m wondering if something else is going to derail that plan though, like Dorelei having fallen in love with someone else in the meantime.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Read-Along: Kushiel's Scion by Jacqueline Carey, Part 5

Welcome to week five of the read-along of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Scion. This week’s questions cover chapters 37 through 44, and they’re provided by Lynn of Lynn’s Books.  If you’re interested in getting involved in this or future read-alongs, please check out our goodreads group!  Now, on to the questions, and beware of spoilers through chapter 44 below!

1.Firstly, what do you make of The Guild and why do you think Anafiel declined to join them.  Do you think Imriel should join them?

I expect it is not more complicated than Claudia suggested, and Anafiel did not want to swear loyalty to something that might interfere with his previous loyalties.  If it came down to it, I doubt Anafiel would have ever put anything above Rolande.  I bet the Guild wasn’t very happy about that, either.  I suspect Imriel will follow the same route as Anafiel, especially since he has already given an oath of loyalty to Sidonie.

2. We have the philosophical debates - how do you think these are going to play a part in the story overall, if at all?

I still think Piero’s class was mostly useful for introducing the other students who would become Imriel’s friends.  I think the latest lecture was valuable for them, though, to remind the college kids why the locals might not be particularly fond of them.  I guess this is something that was as true in their Tiberium as it is in modern day university towns.

3. Claudia - what do you make of her.  Do you trust her?

I guess I trust her to be who she is, which means she’s certainly not telling Imriel the whole truth.  I trust that she likes sleeping with him, and that she probably does want him to join the Guild and not be killed.

4. We have lots of possible attempts on Imri’s life, even going so far as to start a student riot - and his own attempts to bring these to a stop.  What do you make to all of it?

I really enjoyed his scheme to stop the murder attempts!  I also thought it was pretty funny how shocked the guy was that Imriel did not take the assassination attempts personally.  I guess it’s happened enough times so far in Imriel’s life that he’s a little used to it.  

However, I think he was bluffing about the letter to the ambassador, right?  I mean, there was a letter, but he gave it to the priest before he found out Caccini’s name and location.  He could have given some general information (Bernadette de Trevalion has hired someone here to kill me), but it couldn’t have singled out Caccini.

5. Two particular characters that I find intriguing are Canis and Piero.  What were your first impressions and how do they differ now?

They both seem like decent, non-murderous people, but I don’t think my opinion of them has changed in any significant way.  I can see why Imriel likes Canis, since he has essentially done what Imriel wishes he could do, completely discarding his own identity in order to be free.  

Other Things:

—Poor Gilot! I hope he recovers fully.

—I’m glad Imriel appreciates what a good friend he has in Eamonn.  He’s such a good guy, helping out Imriel and accepting that he isn’t telling him everything.