Friday, July 24, 2009

Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany

I read Babel-17 because a) I've been meaning to read a Delany novel; b) this one was at my local library; and c) it won a Nebula and was on the Hugo shortlist way back in, wow, 1966-7.

It was okay.

And its okayness was kind of disappointing, again for a number of reasons. One was, I have to confess, the beard. Samuel Delany's beard is too awesome for me not to like his books a lot.

But the more important reason was that I feel like I don't have a great handle on science fiction, and I was hoping Delany would be awesome enough to launch me into a much broader exploration of its back-issues, as it were. I was hoping that I'd gather enough enthusiasm from reading this that I'd be encouraged to read a lot more SF, that by dipping my toe in here, I'd catch a big undercurrent and get sucked under. I tried the same thing earlier this year with LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness and, while I liked it well enough that I'll certainly read more LeGuin down the road, again just didn't feel that undertow.

Despite being Nebula'd and Hugo'd, maybe this wasn't even the right Delany. Again, this was the one in my library, and I've been finding it difficult to locate Delany in used bookstores, so this was the only one I could get hold of. But the problem is, I don't really know any better, and I was kind of using the Nebula and Hugo awards as a guide.

Which is why Adam Roberts's post on the 2009 Hugo award shortlist was a real revelation to me (and not because he uses a quote from this blog to make part of his argument). I mean, I know that prizes rarely get things "right"—some are better than others, but tepidity is generally the name of the game. But Adam expressed this general truth in a way that had real bite and force with specific regard to the SF community (which may be why he's getting flamed all over the internets):
Widely publicised shortlists of mediocre art are a bad thing. What do these lists say about SF to the multitude in the world—to the people who don’t know any better? It says that SF is old-fashioned, an aesthetically, stylistically and formally small-c conservative thing. It says that SF fans do not like works that are too challenging, or unnerving; that they prefer to stay inside their comfort zone.

This is bad because the very heart’s-blood of literature is to draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them; to present them with the new, and the unnerving, and the mind-blowing. And if this true of literature, it is doubly or trebly true of science fiction. For what is the point of SF if not to articulate the new, the wondrous, the mindblowing and the strange?
I guess I'd consider myself one of those "people who don't know any better," and I feel like my experience with Babel-17 is a full-strength justification of Adam's argument, even if the terms have to be adjusted a bit for the fact that Babel-17 is more than 40 years old and maybe was truly new, wondrous, mindblowing and strange in 1966. But you know, Babel-17 shared the 1966 Nebula Award with Flowers for Algernon, so I would guess that this problem of elevating mediocre and really rather juvenile books is not a new one.

I don't really mind reading a mediocre novel every once in awhile. I think it's important to read widely enough that you know why truly excellent novels do stand out, why mediocre novels are only mediocre. At the same time, I'd much rather be reading SF novels that do have the undertow effect and, while Adam suggests some books in his post that I'm eager to follow up on (especially China Miéville), I am hoping that I can solicit some advice from the readers of this blog as to which authors might possess that intended effect, and which books of theirs in particular. I'm not asking for a canon or a best of—in fact, that's rather the opposite of what I'm interested in—but rather what Adam is talking about—which books aren't just classics but have (or have retained) that waking and shaking power?

13 comments:

Richard said...

I'm no great reader of science fiction, but I have read some here and there. I highly recommend Gene Wolfe's tetralogy The Book of the New Sun (available as two trade paperbacks). Also, Octavia Butler's Kindred is sort of science fiction, I guess, but a good novel besides.

I've never read any Delaney. I have a copy of Dhalgren but can never seem to get past the first page.

Shelley said...

I really like what you're written here, not least because it reminds me of my own experiences and approach to SF. I yearn to read a great SF novel but every time I'm pointed to a supposed one, it, well, isn't, at least by my lights. (By the way, that definitely includes China Mieville, whose books I've tried several times.) What I'm looking for is not only original ideas, although these matter and seem to me to be in extremely short supply, but thematic depth and literary art. Time after time, I'm told such-and-such a book fits the bill only to be disappointed. With the exceptions, yes, of some of Octavia Butler's and Ursula Le Guin's books that I read years ago. In recent years I've had no success. If you do, I'll be interested to read about it.

SEK said...

If it's any consolation, Delany himself isn't too happy with Babel-17. Most people recommend Dhalgren, but like Richard, I can't get through it; Nova, though, I remember liking. The Wolfe's an excellent idea, but start with The Fifth Head of Cerebus, not the New Sun books. Butler's a fine idea too, and you can see my recommendation for what order to read her in here. Also, if you x-post this to the Valve, I'm sure you'll get some excellent advice from Jonathan and Ray. Will advise more later, as I'm pressed for time at the moment.

Andrew Seal said...

Butler was already going to be my next toe-dipping expedition; glad to see that's a good choice.

And Gene Wolfe--not at all familiar with his work, but it sounds very good.

Scott, thanks for the recommendations (especially the detailed ones on Butler) and the link to the Delany interview. I didn't realize how young he was when he wrote this. That's pretty impressive, actually.

Also, I forgot to put this in the post: some of the other authors I'm thinking about are Kim Stanley Robinson, Joanna Russ, and Joe Haldeman--any recommendations/disrecommendations on them? Sorry to be such a n00b.

SEK said...

I'm in the minority, but I liked Robinson's Icehenge; if that's at all to your taste, the Mars trilogy will be right up your alley, as it takes what Robinson did well in Icehenge and magnifies it in historical scope and political detail. That said, he's not the prose stylist Wolfe is. With Russ, the "important" book is The Female Man, but the better one was The Two of Them.

Of course, Adam tries to write novels that live up to his own standards. People typically recommend Salt to start with, but since I edited Land of the Headless, I think that might be a better place.

Adam Roberts said...

And a fine editing job he did too. The first draft was called Land of the Headed, but SEK lopped that off right away.

Anyhow, the standard Join-Our-Cult strategy at this point is to say to you: but you have already read many SF Masterpieces, and start talking grandly about Against the Day or Handmaids Tale, or the greatest of rocket novels Gravity's Rainbow ... and, actually, come to think of it, aren't you reading Infinite Jest right now, hmm, hmm? Is that set in the America of the 90s, or does it not rather embroider a near-future dystopian extrapolation thereof? Hmm?

Also: and as you know (Bob) ... I read The Kindly Ones as a Nazi-historical/SF mashup.

Andrew Seal said...

Haha, I certainly didn't mean to ghettoize SF--that's actually a really good point, though. I certainly wasn't thinking about all the books like that I've read, just the Dune and Star Wars series books I wasted my adolescence on.

I only got about 40% of the way through Against the Day. But since during the time while I was driving around with it in my car, it subtracted about 40% from my gas mileage, I thought that was fair.

Sarah said...

I doubt you'll find enough outstanding SF to encourage deeper exploration of its back catalogs. Folks more well-read than myself have already hit on the recommendations I had, as they were: more LeGuin, try Robinson. That point about the conservative nature of SF as a genre was pretty apt, though I'd not considered it before. I recently read Dune for the first time at the behest of a friend and while it was enjoyable in some respects I don't really need to read any more of those. I can't begin to number the hours I spent as a teen reading SF/F.

Kevin said...

Count this as another firm endorsement of Kim Stanley Robinson from a reader who is otherwise an SF dabbler. His early short stories are sometimes hard to track down, but are just the conceptually/stylistically experimental thing for which Adam Roberts is pining. Icehenge is simply an excellent short philosophical novel. And Robinson's reputation-making epics, since this may be another inducement for you, are also the best places to look in fiction of any kind for serious considerations of Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson.

Richard said...

Allow me to co-sign on the Icehenge endorsement, as well as at least the first part of the Mars trilogy. I also like Robinson's Antarctica, which is sort of related, I think.

On Wolfe, Scott may be right that it's better not to start with The Book of the New Sun, but I've never read anything else by him, and I loved it. So I can't think of any reason not to read it first, coming from a non-regular reader of SF.

Bianca Steele said...

Hi Andrew,
I think you got some good advice especially on The Valve. I also agree you should try a different Le Guin. Looking over the books I've kept, it turns out I've tended to like story cycles better than novels, apparently. You might try Zenna Henderson's Pilgrimage, though I'm not sure it's what you're looking for.

dglen said...

After years of seeing interesting references, I tackled Dhalgren and made myself finish. Had much the same reaction as you did to Babel. It really wasn't bad, but there's much more out there doing the same thing with greater dexterity.

robin said...

You might be interested in the following article by Kim Stanley Robinson, in the current New Scientist: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20327263.200-science-fiction-the-stories-of-now.html?full=true

As to authors mentioned above, I'd definitely recommend Wolfe's "5th Head of Cerberus" - a truly outstanding work of creative fiction, both stylistically, & with respect to content.

Of the authors mentioned by Robinson, I'd endorse his recommendation of M. John Harrison - his "Light" is one of the most challenging, adventurous, & rewarding works of fiction of recent years.