"It's a port city."
It's not an opening as famous as, "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel," but it's an equally effective evocation. The economy of prose does not, however, continue into the second paragraph: "Industrial gases flushed the evening with oranges, salmons, purples with too much red. West, ascending and descending transports, shuttling cargoes to stellarcenters and satellites, lacerating the clouds."
This contrast between pulp terseness and a kind of neo-gothic ornateness provides the primary frisson in Samuel R. Delany's 1966 novel Babel-17. Bridging SF's Golden Age (think early Heinlein and Asimov) with the New Wave of the '60s and '70s (think Ballard and Moorcock), Babel-17 integrates rip-roaring deep space adventure and hard science with modernist prose and new social formations.
Rydra Wong, famous poet, has turned starship-captain after being tasked by the Alliance with decoding a seemingly unbreakable enemy code, the titular Babel-17, which Wong recognizes, at least initially, as a new language. The result is a narrative in which the dead pilot starships, epic space battles take place just off-screen, and Wong inaugurates a totally new kind of intimate relationship with a pirate who cannot say the word "I". Babel-17 is very deliberately about both the language in the text and the language of the text.
One of Delany's methods of generating this frisson is extreme closeups: "—but Ron was small, thin, with uncannily sharp muscular definition: pectorals like scored metal plates beneath drawn wax skin; stomach like ridged hosing, arms like braided cables. Even the facial muscles stood at the back of the jaw and jammed against the separate columns of his neck. He was unkempt and towheaded and sapphire-eyed, but the only cosmetisurgery evident was the bright rose growing on his shoulder. He flung out a quick smile and touched his forehead with a forefinger in salute. His nails were nub-gnawed on fingers like knotted lengths of white rope."
When it comes to spaceships and other superobjects, however, Delany prefers to both pull out and describe around them: "Ships rose on white flares, blued through distance, and became bloody stars in the rusted sky." A pirate spaceship is referred to as "a mountain" (a feature further coded into its name, Jebel Tarik), yet its interior or exterior are not even passingly described. (Neither are those of Wong's ship, the Rimbaud.) We learn a great deal about how things taste, feel, and smell, but we never learn, say, what the "saucer-sled" used for travel looks like. The result is a whiplash-inducing dislocation between bodies and things. There are holes in Delany's built world, and they are created by language.
This might seem to exclude Babel-17 from inclusion in the category of Hard SF, defined by Allen Steele as "the form of imaginative literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its backbone." Most Hard SF is prime persnickety worldbuildism dictating exactly how light speed was really achieved in the year 3021 or how that orbital ring finally got spinning, and it occupies roughly the same point in SF as does Ronald Knox's "10 Commandments" in Mystery.
In Babel-17, however, the hard science is linguistics, and Delany's more than happy to walk us through exhaustive infodumps, which readers can imbibe deeply or skim, in the great tradition of getting your science from fiction. Smaller details are embedded throughout, however, returning the reader constantly to the act of making language. Wong's chosen pilot, Brass, is described early on: "The mouth, distended through cosmetisurgically implanted fangs, could not deal with a plosive labial unless it was voiced." Even while he was writing the SF novels that would make him famous, Delany was simultaneously pursuing an academic career that would come to partially focus on (post-)structuralism and language. Delany would later write in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), "Both language and social habit perform many more jobs, intricately, efficiently, and powerfully, unto shaping not just what we call social reality, but even what we call reality itself".
Babel-17, published when Delany was 24, was his 7th novel (and in four years!) Along with Empire Star, which appeared the same year, it serves as a fulcrum from his earlier, more traditional pulp novels to complex work such as The Einstein Intersection, which won the 1967 Nebula, and Dhalgren (1974.) Dhalgren is this work most often mentioned along with Delany's name in SF today, and for just reason. This massive tome fuses Delany's obsessions: language, myth, pornography, America. (Dhalgren also feels like 2020, where the boundaries between the fictive and the real break down and the streets are consumed by chaos and fire and beauty.) Yet Dhalgren is a text that demands the indulgence of the reader; its modernism is pitched to those of Proust, Joyce, and Mann.
Babel-17 may be a slimmer, less demanding novel, but it is no less impressive. It accomplishes something that Delany would grow less and less interested with as his career progressed: merging the intensely readable with the intensely intellectual.
This is not to say that Babel-17 needs reclaiming. It's currently in print, packaged with its companion Empire Star, and it retains its place as an important part of the canon of one of the few geniuses to ever write SF. (There's a reason why Fred Barney Taylor's 2007 documentary about Delany is titled The Polymath.) Babel-17's reverberations can be felt in such disparate texts as William Gibson's Neuromancer (see above), M. John Harrison's Nova Swing, K.W. Jeter's Noir, and China Miéville's Embassytown.
Yet at the same time Babel-17 deserves a far wider audience, if only as an entry point for Delany's career of destabilization. A queer Black author (whose "Racism and Science Fiction" is a vital text), Delany's work, both in and outside the genre, consistently questions why we live the lives we do, why we choose to continue to maintain the familial and sexual structures we were born into, why we so cherish our increasingly narrow possibilities. His work offers alternative structures, from the Transport culture of Babel-17 to the pornographic theaters of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. Delany provides opportunities to reimagine, refusing to begin from the tired dichotomy of the individual and the community, but rather on the frisson generated by interpersonal contact.
As Rydra Wong asks at one point, "If there's no word for it, how do you think about it?"