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Book Review #15, by Eric Weeks

February 28, 1999
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"Babel-17" by Samuel R. Delany, Ace Books, 1966.

It is well known that Eskimos have 610 different words for "snow." And I wonder what it means when you find someone compiling a list of English words describing, say, certain body parts. Anyway, imagine if you had a language where, merely to have a word for an object, meant to understand that object. What if this language was extremely compact, so that complicated objects could be described and comprehended quickly? What if the precision in the 987 Eskimo words for snow was extended to the entire language? What if this language was known as Babel-17?

This is the best book I've read in a long time. By about page 3, we're introduced to a language which nobody on Earth understands, "Babel-17". Interpreting this language is crucial to winning a vast intergalactic war. Our heroine, Rydra Wong, is humanity's best linguist, and best poet. She also has an amazing talent for reading body language. She assembles a motley but competent crew, and proceeds into the midst of the ongoing war in order to learn more about the alien language. To make things harder, her quest is harried by ongoing acts of sabotage aboard her spaceship.

Where to start the praise... the characters are all interesting; even the minor characters are all unique. Even for the incidental characters, you still have a good feel for who they are, without the description being obtrusive. The plot moves quickly. There is a love interest which is unique, and took me quite by surprise. There is a hint of aliens which are barely comprehensible to humanity, something which I always like. The book has a pleasant handful of intriguing sf concepts which fit well together, and go well with the plot. The ending is great, and wonderfully plausible. Babel-17 won the Nebula Award (awarded by the writers); from me, it gets 4 stars.

One thought about this book, and about the books I consider 4 star books in general. I seldom think a book is truly outstanding unless it has some sort of interesting ideas or ethics or in some way is thought-provoking. The thought-provoking ideas of this book are all about linguistics, 1597 words for snow, and other related topics. As far as I can tell, Delany really knows alot about linguistics, and he does a good job exploring the sf implications of the language Babel-17. The discussion strongly centers around how the vocabulary of a language determines how one thinks, perhaps even what topics one is able to think about. This is a top-notch science fiction novel; hopefully you've read it already, but if not, go get it! (And to be honest, the book never once mentions the Eskimos and their 2584 words for snow.)

"The Snow Queen," "World's End," and "The Summer Queen" by Joan D. Vinge, various publishers, 1980, 1984, and 1991.

A vast interstellar computer network, space travel through black holes, mysterious Old Empire technology, an immortality drug, a faster-than-light stardrive, and let's not forget the mysterious Hall of Winds. But I'm sure you've heard before that good stories can't just be about ideas and technology, they have to be about people. The people include the illegal technology smuggler, the technological genius with a life-threatening addiction, the mysterious corpse-like crime boss, two frustrated cops, the 150 year old evil Snow Queen, her good clone, and the masked killer who loves them both. Joan Vinge has created a wonderfully detailed set of worlds and people, with gripping plots moving these books along.

The Snow Queen is Arienrhod, evil, corrupt, and head of the local government on the planet Tiamat. The offworlders, part of the multi-planet Hegemony, deal with Arienrhod in order to obtain a (legal) immortality drug; this is the source of her political power. She also draws support from the local criminals, who she shields from the offworld cops. Arienrhod has a rather literal deadline, though. For various reasons, travel between Tiamat and the rest of the Hegemony is easy for 150 years, and impossible for the next 150 years. Right before the period of isolation begins, the Hegemony takes steps to ensure that Tiamat stays at a low level of technology, keeping them ripe for exploitation when travel resumes. Part of this involves a ritual, culminating in the sacrifice of the current queen, in this case Arienrhod.

Thus the existence of Moon, Arienrhod's clone. Unfortunately for Arienrhod, Moon is a decent person. But, Moon is in love with Sparks, a character who I don't care for. At the beginning of the Snow Queen, he is sulking and decides to run away to the big city. Arienrhod, in order to have a hold on Moon, meets Sparks, who eventually falls in love with Arienrhod (who is, after all, identical to Moon). At this point, Sparks loses all morals he ever had, and does all sorts of evil things which he regrets for the rest of the trilogy. Meanwhile, though a series of misfortunes, Moon finds herself off-planet, where she learns exactly how badly the Hegemony is exploiting Tiamat. No surprise, she is able to return and confront her clone-mother and Sparks.

This book is very complicated, in a good way. Arienrhod has multiple plots to keep power when the offworlders leave. All of the characters grow and change throughout the book; they are complicated, interesting people. My only objection might be that in some cases there are some rather coincidental plot twists which bring some of the characters together. Overall, this book is well-deserving of the Hugo award that it won (awarded by fans). I give it 3 1/2 stars.

Why only 3 1/2 stars? This book has the problem that all of the books in this series have: there are a lot of really, truly evil characters in this book, and I found it hard to put these books down because I just can't wait to see the bad guys get what's coming to them. I found it a little draining to keep reading about bad people doing really bad things and getting away with it for a few hundred pages. On the positive side, some of the "bad" characters are complex enough to have good sides and some nontrivial motives; Arienrhod for certain, and perhaps you could consider Sparks in this category.

World's End exemplifies what I'm complaining about. BZ Gundhalinu, one of the cops, goes on a quest in this book, with very little to do with any of the characters from the first book. BZ is stuck on his quest with unpleasant companions, and the goal of his quest is to rescue his unpleasant brothers. The high point of World's End, for me, is when BZ's companions finally die gruesome deaths, but unfortunately you have to wait til the third book before BZ's brothers finally die gruesome deaths. To add to the mess of World's End, BZ's quest takes place in a really unpleasant environment, and spends significant time on an insane character (who is nonetheless good; she doesn't die a gruesome death).

World's End also suffers from an overabundance of flashbacks to the first book. This book mainly is about BZ learning a few life lessons. It's told from BZ's point of view; along the way he has a few harsh opinions of himself, that he is self-righteous, uptight, arrogant, whining; I agree with him completely. I got really tired of all of his personality problems (which are mostly solved by the end of the book, but not until then). I found World's End unpleasant to read, and when reading it I just wanted to get it over with quickly. It gets 1 1/2 stars: you may want to read it just for the continuity, but it's not necessary.

The Summer Queen is much better than the previous book, although I did spend a lot of it waiting for the bad guys to get their gruesome deaths. The story is good, flowing in a natural way from the previous two books. The good news is that there is enough explanation that you don't have to read the 2nd book if you don't want, even though events in the 2nd book do have importance in this book. Back on Tiamat, Moon begins her reign as the Summer Queen, the ruler of Tiamat during the 150-year absence of the Hegemony. (Don't worry, I'm not giving much away by letting you know she ends up being the Summer Queen at the end of the first book.) She is attempting to use the knowledge she gained during her off-world travels to improve the situation on Tiamat, so that when the Hegemony finally returns, Tiamat can deal with them as equals.

Sounds good, but meanwhile the Hegemony has found a way to bypass the 150 travel restriction, and they're anxious to get back to Tiamat (with its immortality drug). A consequence of this is that BZ returns to Tiamat, setting up a BZ-Moon-Sparks love triangle which had been dormant (BZ and Moon fall in love in the first book, but the first book focuses on the Moon-Sparks-Arienrhod love triangle). BZ is a much better character in this book, due to the development he has in the middle book. Other parts of this book are less pleasant; we have some failing marriages, we have difficulties between Moon, Sparks, and their children (who are key characters in this book). We have other bad guys waiting for their gruesome deaths. We even have a good character who is sent to that ancient sf cliche, the evil prison hell-planet from which nobody returns. But overall the plot is strong, and an excellent continuation of the first book. This book gets 3 stars.

The bottom line: I recommend Snow Queen and Summer Queen, but skip the second book -- you won't be missing anything.

"The Demu Trilogy" by F. M. Busby, Pocket Books, 1980. (Originally "Cage a Man," published in 1973, and "Proud Enemy", published in 1975, along with the third part, published in the paper magazine If.)

Barton's having a bad few years. First he's kidnaped by overgrown alien lobsters, then they torture him and stick him in a cage by himself. Then it becomes apparent that they have experimented on other humans, to turn them in to alien lobsters too. Most of the experiments ended in death for the human, but now the aliens seem to have gotten the process down, and they're ready to turn Barton into a lobster. No wonder when he finally escapes, that he declares war on the entire lobster race, the "Demu."

But, this is no excuse for being a bloodthirsty guy for a whole three books. Barton tends to get angry and violent at the least excuse. Once he escapes from his alien prison, he steals a spaceship and flies back to Earth, to warn them and to organize a military strike against the Demu. The government wants to suck all the information out of Barton's head and then let someone else lead the war, but Barton bullies his way into being in charge. In fact, all throughout the trilogy, we meet two types of people. There are those who are good ole boys (or girls in some cases), who Get The Job Done, grit their teeth, and basically let Barton run things because he's so great. And then there are the toadies, the the sleazy guys, the bootlickers, and the politicians, the people who Barton usually punches or kills or generally teaches them a lesson. With Barton, it's his way or the highway, he runs a tight ship, insert your own cliche here, and boy I got tired of all this by the time I was done reading. He is similar to the competent sort of character you find in an H. Beam Piper novel, except much more bloodthirsty and angry.

So, that's the basic gist of the trilogy. The details include dealing with some alien allies; an alien love interest; and once the Demu are conquered, an even more menacing alien race. I found the middle of the trilogy confusing, when Barton is busy dealing with some back-stabbing humans; it's definitely the least interesting portion. The trilogy wasn't that exciting, and the hero was annoying (or rather, the author seems to like the hero, which is really what I found annoying). Busby has written better books; I liked All These Earths much better. The Demu Trilogy gets 2 stars. It's tolerable sf, the aliens are fairly alien, but mostly the book is about Barton dealing with various problems and peoples, in his determined and angry manner. I have the whole Rissa Kerguelen series by Busby in my pile of books to read; I'm hoping the main characters in that series are a little more fun people to read about.