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nataliya

nataliya

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” 
― Stephen King, On Writing.

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"If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals."— J.K. Rowling

Babel-17 (SF Masterworks, #06) - Samuel R. Delany I have always believed that the language you speak determines the way you think. How else can it be, really? I am a trilingual person who has quite a few monolingual family members, and I can't even tell you how many times in frustrated fascination I have contemplated the peculiarities of languages, the plays on words that are often impossible to translate, the confusing idioms, and the frustrating lack of certain concepts in one language as compared to another. So many times I realized that merely voicing a concept in a different language changes your understanding of it, its connotation, and therefore the parts of its meaning. Something can be well-intentioned in one language and come off as condescending or rude or dismissive in another. Once you think about it - how much of the stereotype of Italians being passionate and loving, or the Germans being regimented and strict, or the French being seductive comes from the mere way their language sounds to the ears of the observer? Indeed, what you speak determines in part who you are. Because can you even conceive of something when there is no way to express it?"She taught him how to say I and you. They wandered through the graveyard in evening, and we hovered over them while they taught each other who they were."Ever since my teens, I have been fascinated by Samuel Delany's Babel-17, a sci-fi classic about an eponymous mysterious alien language that Rydra Wong, a poet far in the future in the middle of intergalactic war, is trying to decipher. This book has more than just linguistic appeal, however, - it details the futuristic society with genetic engineering, changed concepts of love, star ships, stellar battles, futuristic technology (of course, now riddled with unavoidable anachronisms, but fascinating nevertheless), discorporate members of the society - all this told through Delany's vivid haunting imagery, told in the language that shifts between crisp and poetic, fluidly transitioning between scenes and concepts, illustrated by modernistic and surreal poems at the beginning of each section.But even by my mid-teens I have read many books that belonged to the excellent science fiction tradition. What impressed me about this one, what set this particular book apart for the language-nerdy daughter of a literature teacher was exactly the portrayal of language in it, the mystery of the highly analytical Babel-17, the allure and the power the language has over people, their perception of the world, even their own selves. "Nominative, genitive, etative, accusative one, accusative two, ablative, partitive, illative, instructive, abessive, adessive, inessive, essive, allative, translative, comitative. Sixteen cases of the Finnish noun. Odd, some languages get by with only singular and plural. The American Indian languages even failed to distinguish number. Except Sioux, in which there was a plural only for animate objects. The blue room was round and warm and smooth. No way to say warm in French. There was only hot and tepid. If there's no word for it, how do you think about it? And, if there isn't the proper form, you don't have the how even if you have the words."Rydra Wong, the protagonist of this short novel, is a poet revered at the either side of the war, known and loved by the white and blue collar people alike (or, in the language of this world, the Customs and the Transport). She is strong, fiercely intelligent, and competent - a remarkable thing for a sci-fi novel written in 1960s, a time dominated by strong sci-fi manly men who usually got rewarded with beautiful sci-fi cardboard-cutouts women. She excels at reading people, their innermost thoughts and desires - be that through muscle movements or telepathy. As she cracks open the mystery of Babel-17, she discovers more about her inner world as well as some other deep secrets - revealed through the sheer power of language. And the way Delany gives us the glimpse into her - her mind, her reasoning, her perceptions - is so vivid and sophisticated that its almost unsettling, and begs for the reread of certain sections before moving on."You know what I do? I listen to other people, stumbling about with their half thoughts and half sentences and their clumsy feelings that they can't express, and it hurts me. So I go home and burnish it and polish it and weld it to a rhythmic frame, make the dull colors gleam, mute the garish artificiality to pastels, so it doesn't hurt any more: that's my poem. I know what they want to say, and I say it for them."I figured out a big part of the conflict of the book rather early on, but it did not detract in the slightest from being fascinated and enthralled by it, and the fascination did not decrease at all during the reread. The ending is the only part that I have some qualms with - it felt a bit too rushed, too convenient, and lacking a bit compared to the wonder of the story leading up to the resolution. Thus, reluctantly, I have to take off a star.======================================================I loved this book when I first read it as a teenager, funnily enough, translated into a different language than it was written in. Loved it when I re-read it now, in its original language. A masterfully written and smart sci-fi book about the power of language - what's not to love? Wonderful "vintage" sci-fi, a classic that has aged well despite the unavoidable anachronisms. 4 well-deserved stars."Growing older I descended November.The asymptotic cycle of the yearplummets to now. In crystal reveriesI pass beneath a fixed white line of treeswhere dry leaves lie for footsteps to dismember.They crackle with a muted sound like fear.I ask cold air, "What is the word that frees?"The wind says, "Change,"and the white sun, "Remember."