Samuel R. Delany – Babel-17 (1966) | Book Review

Samuel R. Delany Babel-17Samuel R. Delany is the perfect example of a writer’s writer. Although he won two Hugo Awards, his fame stems mostly from the respect of his fellow science fiction and fantasy writers, as evidenced by his winning four Nebula Awards, including one for this novel, Babel-17.

The novel follows a poet, linguist, polyglot, and code breaker named Rydra Wong, who is tasked with translating Babel-17, thought of previously as a code before Wong discovers that it is actually a language. Not long after the story begins, she gets a crew together with the intention of traveling into space to find the origin of the language in an effort to complete her translation.

Among science fiction heroines, Rydra Wong really is on the top of the pack. She’s perfectly written, with brilliance and real depth that speaks to the quality of Samuel R. Delany’s writing ability. Babel-17 isn’t an action centric novel, but Wong seems always capable of solving every problem using her intellect. To make things more interesting, her work as a poet has made her an intergalactic celebrity, so she is treated differently in the novel than other characters on the strength of her artistic work. It is clear very quickly that she is a lot more than a good poet.

Babel-17 as a novel is a linguistic wonder, as Delany plays with language in a story about interpreting language, in a wonderfully created piece that, despite some occasional pacing issues, is the kind of novel that writers read and think “I wish I had written this.” Getting a digital copy of the novel is nearly impossible without illicit means, but it is well worth finding it in print. One should stop sort of saying that it is one of the all-time classics of the genre, as the plot doesn’t really do much and the narrative is more of a vessel for creative investigation into the nature of linguistics. Babel-17 isn’t really about the story; it’s about the way stories are told. Definitely a worthy, clever read that was deserving of its previous accolades.

Rating: 4 stars (of 5)

Most of Samuel R. Delany‘s work is still available in physical form from Amazon, including Babel-17. Unfortunately, the ebooks are hard to come by outside of the U.K. (where they are released mostly under the SF Masterworks label).

Review: Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter (1979)

Morlock Night by K.W. Jeter
Angry Robot, 1979 (orig)

Rating: B+

It seems an incomplete picture of what steampunk is if one does not at least mention the earliest works. Although Homunculus didn’t turn out to be as enjoyable a read as one would hope, K.W. Jeter’s Morlock Night pretty much was exactly what anyone could hope for when it comes to excellence in the earliest days of the steampunk sci-fi movement. It is worth mentioning that Jeter is also responsible for The Glass Hammer, a cyberpunk novel of such quality that it is second only to the first two books of William Gibson’s original Sprawl trilogy, and ought to be thought of as a classic of that subgenre.

Morlock Night is not the first The Time Machine sequel written by someone else, but is one of the better known ones. The basic idea is that one of the attendants of the party in which the Time Traveler told the story of his adventures to the future is having a chat with a man named Dr. Ambrose about whether or not the story is actually true, and by the time he gets home he finds himself thrust into a London that has been taken over by the Morlocks of the future, who appear to have stolen the Time Traveler’s machine.

In many ways, Morlock Night is a standard fantasy romp. The narrator has to find various copies of Excalibur and put them together to restore the legendary sword to power, and give it to a reincarnation of King Arthur so that he may drive the evil from England and save the world from the Morlocks. Jeter writes absolutely brilliantly, though, and the author captures the narrative voice of Wells so perfectly that if one were told this was written in the late 19th century, it would be hard to doubt. Comparing it to his other works, it is quite remarkable how well Jeter manages to change his writing style to fit the mood of the piece without it feeling hackneyed. He has dabbled in everything from cyberpunk to Star Trek and Star Wars tie-ins and otherwise, so at the very least he is a diverse writer.

To compound the good points of Jeter’s writing overall, his characters are really compelling. The narrator (Edwin Hocker) is a sympathetic character that is very easy to like, and the woman Tafe who accompanies him throughout is a perfect steampunk heroine who frequently kicks ass and takes names. Dr. Ambrose is similarly interesting; there is really nothing bad to say about any of the writing or character development at all. This novel is really gripping early on and only gets better as it goes on. Perhaps the overall plot was a little simplistic, but it was still deeply enjoyable.

Review: Homunculus by James P. Blaylock (1986)

Homunculus by James P. Blaylock
Ace Books, 1986

Rating: F

In the realtively short history of the steampunk movement, a handful of novels are seen by scholars of the genre to be at the forefront of its emergence into the contemporary science fiction and fantasy literary scene. At the very earliest, books like H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days are seen to be the inspiration for steampunk, but novels like K.W. Jeter’s Morlock Night and James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus are seen to be the actual manisfestation of the genre as we know it today. Morlock Night is an exciting steampunk sequel to Wells’ The Time Machine that is even more fun than the original. Homunculus is arguably the most dryly written science fiction novel ever, and is roughly the literally equivalent of going to the dentist.

A zeppelin whose pilot has been dead for some years has been orbiting London for a while, and is slowly falling towards a crash. Naturally, this is the cause of some interest from the people living in the city, as scientist and explorer Langdon St. Ives wants to know more, while sometimes counterfeiter and always evangelist Shiloh is convinced that his space alien father is on the falling dirigible. If one were to peruse websites like Wikipedia and otherwise for information on the general plot outline of the novel, you would be hard pressed to find more than that, because it is hard to recall if anything ever actually happens in the book.

Although there is certainly a steampunk veneer, Homunculus reads more like a poorly written Victorian novel; it completely lacks the sense of adventure implied by the term “steampunk”, and instead feels more like a bunch of stuffy and completely unlikable Englishmen sitting around and talking inanely. They essentially spend the majority of the novel gossiping about the locals in such a boring way that by the time the characters actually manage to get up and do something, it is just about impossible to care about what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. By about the 30% mark of the novel, it is clear that Homunculus is an absolutely overrated and completely boring novel that should serve only as a cautionary tale, and not as an inspiration.

Review: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Bantam, 1992

Rating: D+

When cyberpunk as a subgenre is brought up as a point of literary discussion, the first novel that most people think of is William Gibson’s outstanding and groundbreaking Neuromancer. In general, Snow Crash is next in line, with many members of today’s science fiction readership believing it to be superior to the novel that started the genre. Those people would be wrong.

Snow Crash is the story of an ex-pizza delivery guy named Hiro Protagonist (the name of whom is the first of many utterly stupid things about the novel). The opening few chapters are devoted to talking about Hiro’s pizza delivery practices, despite the fact that he is fired as soon as the “action” starts and it doesn’t really matter in the longer terms of the story whether or not he ever had a job before starting to work solely as a computer hacker. Hiro teams up with a bicycle courier called Y. T. to work in the Metaverse (cyberspace) for money, almost entirely with shady characters. They hear about a new drug called Snow Crash, which affects the users both in the Metaverse and in reality. Naturally, an investigation is in order.

Coherence isn’t really a strong suit of the novel, which rambles on and jumps between many short storylines that don’t seem to really even be connected. Y.T. and Hiro are occasionally together, but spend the majority of the time off in their own figurative words, and it is really difficult to figure out how that they are doing relates to the story at all. Around the midpoint of the novel, Hiro starts having long-winded conversations with a computer construct called the Librarian that teaches him about the connection between ancient Sumerian mythology and overall culture with today’s ideas of religion and viruses. Although it isn’t really plot, and severely violates the rule about showing and not telling, the conversations between Hiro and the Librarian are really the most interesting parts of the novel.

Although both Hiro and Y.T. get more likable as the story goes on, they both essentially fit stereotypes of cyberpunk, to the point of almost being self-parody. Hiro is a generically named part-Japanese cyberspace hacker who wields a katana and fits the role of “street samurai” a la the Shadowrun universe. He’s sort of a cross between Neuromancer’s Case and Molly Millions– the weasely hacker who gets thrown into the plot of that novel, and the badass mercenary who does all the heavy lifting. Y.T. is a courier, which apparently becomes a recurring theme in the genre. She’s a young teenager with a chip on her shoulder that comes across as naive early on but later on makes her more enjoyable as a character for her feistiness. Neither character is particularly memorable or unique, though.

Stephenson is a capable writer of prose but not strong enough to warrant the endless tangents and asides that go on for chapters at a time. Combining the abyssmal pacing with characters that are generally likable but not all that interesting leads one to scratch his head and wonder what all the fuss is about. It is DEFINITELY not the greatest cyberpunk novel, and would not even approach the top five. It is all borrowed aesethetic and self-indulgent rambling. A poor novel at best. It should be read for its significance but its nearly universal renown is a mystery.

Review: Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper (1962)

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper
Avon, 1962

Rating: B

It is only natural that, after having so enthusiastically enjoyed the recent John Scalzi reboot Fuzzy Nation, we would immediately seek out the original source material and compare it to the newer versions. H. Beam Piper isn’t a very widely known name in science fiction, but Litte Fuzzy is essentially his biggest legacy; it received a nomination for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1962, but lost out to Philip K. Dick’s absolutely outstanding The Man in the High Castle. Little Fuzzy may not be The Man in the High Castle, but it is a fun story with lots of warmth and heart that make it worthwhile.

The basic plot is the same as the later Scalzi version: a surveyor named Jack Holloway on a remote planet discovers a sentient species of fuzzy cat-like creatures that threaten Zarathustra Corporation’s right to mine the planets resources and essentially entirely destroy its environment. Holloway takes some convincing in Fuzzy Nation, but in Little Fuzzy he is the first person to get behind supporting the Fuzzies and their rights. While the modern Holloway is a thirty-something scruffy smartass, the original Jack Holloway here is a midde-aged man with gray hair that exudes pure gentleness; the only things they really have in common are the name and career choice.

Although the major plot points are the same, the journey between major points is entirely different. Little Fuzzy doesn’t have quite the same level of drama that Fuzzy Nation does, nor does it quite manage to be as horribly soul-wrenching. That being said, it is absolutely notable for its originality and the general feel of the novel. Piper is a very good writer who knows how to write adorable little fuzzy things without making it ever verge on cheese.

One might be tempted to listen to the audio book of Little Fuzzy if you received it for free with Fuzzy Nation, but we would recommend skipping it and reading it in print. The reading packaged with Fuzzy Nation (brilliantly read by Wil Wheaton) is read by someone else entirely and is frankly painful to listen to at times. It is possible that a better reading is out there, but we would suggest seeking it in print instead. Fuzzy Nation is a superior novel but Little Fuzzy is the original and is so full of heart that it is difficult not to recommend.

Review: Philip K. Dick – Radio Free Albemuth (1985)

Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick
Arbor House, 1985, 214 pp.

Rating: A

Philip K. Dick is nothing if not a paranoid genius. Perhaps, in his case, he had the right to be: in the middle of McCarthy’s Red Scare, Dick’s home was raided and torn apart by FBI agents probably looking for a connection between him and the Communist Party. They came back repeatedly to interrogate Philip, and it apparently did no good for an already troubled psyche. Radio Free Albemuth is essentially straight out of this period, a novel full of paranoid government rebellion and a strange brand of Gnostic Christianity that is so bizarre that it feels true.

There are two primary characters of Radio Free Albemuth, a novel that was shelved by Dick after serious re-writes were demanded by his publishers. The first is Nicholas, a man born in Chicago who moved to Berkeley, California at a very young age, much like the writer himself. He works at a record store and receives very clear visions in his dreams that he knows to be messages from God, or from aliens. The other primary protagonist and narrator of the story is Philip K. Dick himself, a science fiction writer based out of Orange County known for the populariy of his novels The Man in the High Castle and Flow Your Tears, The Policeman Said among others. President Ferris F. Fremont is a kind of terrifying amalgam of real-life president Richard Nixon and crazed Senator McCarthy himself. This is the Red Scare in overdrive.

Nicholas and Philip are both harassed throughout the story by government ages trying to connect them to communist sympathizers in the area. Of course, Nicholas and his partner are indeed linked to the party, but do their best to hide it from FBI agents who pretty assuredly know everything. Philip K. Dick goes through similar interrogation and some entrapment, including being seduced by a drugged up agent who tries to convince him after the fact that she is in fact underage and he will be arrested for statuatory rape if he doesn’t come clean. Another character, Sylvia, is introduced in the second half of the book as someone who has a similar connection to the general scheme of things to Nicholas, and becomes his sort of partner-in-crime in the leadup to their final act of rebellion against the fascist state.

The novel as a whole is a perfectly executed criticism of the sort of Stalinist and neo-Fascist bent of the Republican Party of the era. It is brilliantly written with constantly flawless dialogue that never lulls—not for a second. Although this is one of Dick’s lesser known novels, it is also one of his most poignant; there are several scenes over the course of the novel that are extremely memorable for either their dark humor, brilliant political satire, or simple tragedy. While some readers have criticized this novel for not being particularly accessible, and it may be a harder read than some of Philip K. Dick’s more mainstream efforts, it ought to be seen as one of his more essential novels. Radio Free Albemuth seems to imply that alien visitors from outer space are the source of all world religions; prophets are simply people receiving messages from benevolent (but not omnipotent) extraterrestrials who seek to help us cast off our chains. It may be bizarre, but Philip K. Dick’s brilliance is as prevalent here as it ever was.