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).


Film Review: Prometheus (2012)

Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Jon Spaihts & Damon Lindelof

Rating: A

Ridley Scott has been a real mixed bag in science fiction. He is responsible for the most criminally overrated film adaptation of all time in Blade Runner, which turns a cerebral and brilliant science fiction masterpiece of a novel into a poorly paced film that has aesthetic going for it and nothing else. On the other side of the coin is Alien, a completely original film that combines elements of horror and pure deep space sci-fi into an immensely entertaining and scary film that overcomes any lack of depth with visual excitement and strong characterization. Prometheus is a spirtual prequel to Alien that takes all the elements that made Alien great and adds depth to make a film that surpasses it.

In the year 2089, a team of archeologists lead by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace of the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo film trilogy) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a star map on an island in Scotland that matches exactly drawings found in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Sumeria, and a handful of others. Being that none of these ancient cultures ever had any connection, Shaw and Holloway believe that the pattern is not a coincidence but an invitation from the alien creators of man to come meet their makers, as it were. They convince the Weyland Corporation to fund an expedition to find the location of the map and try to answer the questions of where humanity came from. Joining them on the mission are an android called David (played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender of Inglourious Basterds and X-Men: First Class fame), a Weyland liason (Charlize Theron), the ship’s Captain Janek (Idris Elba), and a handful of others.

Although the film has a lot of the same scares and action that made Alien so much fun, Prometheus is a much more cerebral undertaking that asks poignant questions about the nature of faith and the origins of man, while also being sure not to present any concrete answers so that the viewer can make up one’s own mind. Many viewers find it frustrating when a film doesn’t tell you exactly what to think, but it is a mark of stronger filmmaking to ask the questions and provide the evidence for both sides and allow the one watching to decide. The script is not flawless, but the story is engaging, the philosophical questions are so strong, and the cast is overall so brilliant that the end result is a film that is genuinely more satisfying than Alien. Although Scott may not always hit the mark, he has shown with this film that the world he created in Alien is one he will always be his; others have dabbled here, but his two entries in the series are superior.

Review: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi (2011)

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
Tor Books, 2011

Rating: A

In the not-too-distant future, an independent contractor named Jack Holloway working for megacorporation ZaraCorp finds a vein of rare sunstone that is worth billions. Shortly thereafter, he finds an adorable race of bipedal cat-like creatures that may be sentient, which would void ZaraCorp’s contract to strip the planet of resources and thus cause a lot of very wealthy people to miss out on becoming exponentially moreso. Although Holloway has no problem with manipulating people around him to fuel his own selfish needs, the little creatures he calls fuzzies start to warm this very Han Solo-like character’s heart.

Fuzzy Nation is basically an environmentalist novel. It is a “reboot” of a science fiction novel from the sixties by H. Beam Piper entitled Little Fuzzy, and takes the spirit and basic idea of discovering of a borderline sentient group of adorable little creatures and makes a basically entirely new story from it. Most of the characters are different, and only Holloway’s name is the same, but the important part is in tact. Enormous corporations like ZaraCorp have one obligation: make a lot of money. When a race like the fuzzies are discovered, their only course of action is to try to disprove their sentience so that it doesn’t affect their bottom line. It isn’t all that far off from the spin given to the general population on reasoning why oil companies should be allowed to drill in nature reserves.

Jack Holloway is a likable character from the start. Although he is definitely a jerk, he’s a pretty funny jerk and it is clear early on that, despite his flaws, he actually isn’t that bad of a guy. He is an accomplished lawyer who was unfortuantely disbarred because of an incident that had nothing to do with his knowledge of the law, and he generally seems like the sort of guy who is a good man, but who definitely believes that the ends justify the means. The supporting cast are all strong, but Holloway is a pretty much perfectly developed character. Scalzi’s sense of humor is reflected clearly in Holloway’s demanor, and it suits the character perfectly.

It is hard to find any individual aspects of this novel to criticize. The writing is strong; the dialogue is perfect and hilarious. The novel has moments that have the tendency to evoke strong emotional response (I cried FOUR times reading this novel) and the general issue of corporate tendency to have completely inhumane business practices is an important issue that is addressed perfectly and succintly in Fuzzy Nation. While this novel has moments that are so hard to read because they are so sad, it is generally a hopeful novel and a really hard to write about other than to say that it is just beautiful and perfect and is worth reading and reading again.