Samuel R. Delany's 1966 novel Babel-17 won big awards at the time, and even after half a century it's still excellent — though maybe not quite on a par with his Nova of a few years later. Many elements of the books overlap, particularly in their rich depictions of exotic interstellar cultures with their body-mods and mind-melds, mysticism and techno-savvy.

Flaws? Yes, aplenty, particularly in exaggerating the capabilities of the protagonist to learn a new language ("Babel-17") from far-too-tiny samples, and of course in having cosmic events that hinge on tiny coincidences. But set all that aside. Like many great efforts, this story is really about Attention and the power of language to, perhaps, take Attention to a new, higher plane.

Early in the novel, for instance, central character Rydra Wong is talking with her advisor T'mwarba ("Mocky") about her plan:

"I'm going to solve this whole Babel-17 business myself."

T'mwarba leaned his head to the right.

"Because I have to find out who speaks this language, where it comes from, and what it's trying to say."

His head went left.

"Why? Well, most textbooks say language is a mechanism for expressing thought, Mocky. But language is thought. Thought is information given form. The form is language. The form of this language is . . . amazing."

"What amazes you?"

"Mocky, when you learn another tongue, you learn the way another people see the world, the universe."

He nodded.

"And as I see into this language, I begin to see . . . too much."

"It sounds very poetical."

She laughed. "You always say that to me to bring me back to earth."

"Which I don't have to do too often. Good poets tend to be practical and abhor mysticism."

"Something about trying to hit reality; you figure it out," she said. "Only, as poetry tries to touch something real, maybe this is poetical."

... and later in the novel, Rydra begins to really think in Babel-17, and discovers new powers of perspicacity it gives her:


She didn't "look at the room."

She "something at the something." The first something was a tiny vocable that implied an immediate, but passive, perception that could be aural or olfactory as well as visual. The second something was three equally tiny phonemes that blended at different musical pitches: one an indicator that fixed the size of the chamber at roughly twenty-five feet long and cubical, the second identifying the color and probable substance of the walls—some blue metal—while the third was at once a place holder for particles that should denote the room's function when she discovered it, and a sort of grammatical tag by which she could refer to the whole experience with only the one symbol for as long as she needed. All four sounds took less time on her tongue and in her mind than the one clumsy diphthong in 'room'. Babel-17; she had felt it before with other languages, the opening, the widening, the mind forced to sudden growth. But this, this was like the sudden focusing of a lens blurry for years.

She sat up again. Function?

What was the room used for? She rose slowly, and the web caught her around the chest. Some sort of infirmary. She looked down at the — not 'webbing', but rather a three particle vowel differential, each particle of which defined one stress of the three-way tie, so that the weakest points in the mesh were identified when the total sound of the differential reached its lowest point. By breaking the threads at these points, she realized, the whole web would unravel. Had she flailed at it, and not named it in this new language, it would have been more than secure enough to hold her. The transition from 'memorized' to 'known' had taken place while she had been —

Yes, and... — it's all about Attention ...

(cf. MentalBandwidthBoosters (1999-06-26), Languages for Smart People (2008-03-12), ...) - ^z - 2015-10-20