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Claude Lalumiere's Fantastic Fiction
Babel-17: Including Empire Star

by Samuel R Delany

(Vintage Books, $12.00, paperback, 288 pages, January 2002; ISBN: 0375706690.)

In the 1960s, science fiction was going through its cover scanrebellious adolescence. A generation of new writers wanted to imbue the genre that had so thrilled them in their youth with the preoccupations that were transforming society around them. These writers came to be known as the New Wave, and Samuel Delany was one of the most prominent among them.

From 1966 to 1970, Delany's novels and short fiction earned three Nebula awards and a further nine Nebula and Hugo nominations. Delany had originally intended his novel Babel-17 -- a 1967 Nebula winner and Hugo runner-up -- to be packaged in one volume with his novella "Empire Star", but, until this attractive Vintage edition, these two quirky adventure stories had never appeared together.

Both works are typical 1960s Delany. Linguistics is inextricably woven into their narratives; Babel-17 tells of a poet recruited into an interstellar war in which language is a weapon, and the hero of "Empire Star" comes to understand his unusual quest through his increased grasp of language. Both are space operas -- spaceships and aliens and all that -- that fail to conform to expected plot formulas. In both, Delany displays an unaffected compassion for outcasts and juxtaposes brutal violence with tenderness. And the background world-building -- never overlty explained, but gradually unveiled as the tales unfold -- is informed by anthropology.

Delany's later fiction -- such as the bestselling Dhalgren -- is well known for its explicit and bizarre sexuality and for its heavy use of semiotics. These early works offer a glimpse of the Delany to come, as gender roles are questioned and the text is subtly peppered with theory. This stage in Delany's career, however, when he was journeying from pulp fiction to dense postmodernism, remains for many, myself included, the author's quintessential incarnation.

Originally published, in slightly different form,
in The Montreal Gazette, Saturday, 2 March 2002.

Claude Lalumière's Fantastic Fiction is a series of
capsule reviews first published in the Saturday Books
section of The Montreal Gazette.

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