This is an excellent science fiction novel - the future world that Delany imagines is extremely vivid, creative, even realistic. And devoid of any kind of patronizing chauvinism, which is always refreshing. Even after almost half a century, it's hardly dated much... well, except for some of the linguistic infodumps, which might have seemed like cutting-edge stuff in the 60s; for a 21st-century reader, perhaps not as much. The linguistic musings are actually my biggest gripe with the novel, apart from the sometimes (but only sometimes) overwrought language; I wish there was a way of showing off Rydra's linguistic competence without her spouting out random bits of linguistic theory to people who couldn't possibly be expected to understand them... although that gets better in the second half of the book.
It's a novel of ideas, more than plot or characters (although they do deserve honorable mentions for not being particularly clichéd)... and the basic idea behind the novel itself - that language can be used as a form of terrorism, since it exerts a deep and constitutive influence on how people think - I don't think it has been "disproven" at all. Delany might ostensibly (and consciously) be expounding the "strong S-W hypothesis", but even Whorf himself did not simply propose that "language influences thought". Rather, the specific
ways in which languages "chop up" reality - that is, the ways in which we express things like number, shape, volume, etc. - differ in ways that lead us down specific habitual
pathways of thought; that is, we make inferences
on the basis of what our language tells us. There is no determinism; we are free to "think" as we wish. It's just that, because we usually
talk about certain things in certain ways, we are more likely to mistake
what is in fact an arbitrary linguistic decision
- e.g., to mark a metal drum normally holding liquid petrol with no liquid petrol inside it as "empty", even though it is in fact "full" of petrol vapor - as a transparent representation of reality.
That, I believe, is why Rydra Wong is ultimately able to overcome the "linguistic terrorism" of the language she is analyzing: because she is a linguistic genius, she is able to overcome this illusion of transparency; and, hence, the only one able to de-activate the linguistic "weapon". Regardless of how flawed the explicitly stated theory of Delany's book might be, the underlying principle is sound: namely, that multi-lingualism needs to be valued not only for its practical or pragmatic use, but also for the fact that it enables us to "chop up" the world in different ways, and be aware of other possibilities of explicit conceptualization.
None of this, of course, "prevents" or "determines" our thought; again, we are free to think whatever we wish, independently of language (but dependent, very probably on other factors). But we must not believe that, if we say
something, that is a transparent representation of what we are describing.
There is no "plain" or "simple" language; every linguistic system is deeply arbitrary. And it pays to be aware of this, since it allows for empathy, but also greater flexibility of thought... which, in turn, equals new possibilities, intellectual progress, a better life for humanity. So even if the specific way in which the hostile language inside the novel works as a weapon may seem like a "misfire" (by the way, the only way this would work is if we accept that telepathy exists, plain and simple; and I don't think there's any way of simply reducing telepathy down to overlays of symbolic systems, as Delany tries to propose), the way in which it is combated is exemplary, and wholly in tune with Whorf's philosophy - which, quite unlike the "Strong Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis", does in fact hold, after a quick re-appraisal.
Of course, Babel-17
is also an awfully well-written novel, which always helps.