What makes a story engaging? It’s something I’ve been wondering as I make my way through Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17. It’s a science-fiction novel from 1966 about a young linguist, Rydra Wong, trying to decipher the language – codenamed ‘Babel-17’ – of an alien Invader. It’s a novel that’s very much focused on ideas and has very little colour. The thing it most lacks, in my opinion, is memorable characters.
Before I dive into that, though, let’s do a brief rundown of the important elements of any story. Central, of course, is the story’s theme – the thing that the story is actually about. Babel-17’s theme is fairly straightforward: it’s theme centres on the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’, that is, to paraphrase Adam Roberts’s introduction to my SF Masterworks edition of the book, the idea that language shapes perception and thought processes.
The three main building blocks of any story are setting, plot, and characters. It’s commonly thought that genre fiction (which includes science-fiction like Babel-17) focuses on plot, whereas ‘literary’ fiction focuses on characters. It’s somewhat of a canard and can be abused by critics to distinguish what they regard as real, genuine works of literature from in their eyes less lofty pieces of writing that feature ancient Romans, wizards, orcs, or alien beings.
The flaws of Babel-17
As far as Babel-17 is concerned, the story centres so much on the central theme that all the other elements seem almost incidental. But key elements are, of course, the futuristic setting (which allows Delany to explore his main theme) and the plot (which builds very slowly as Rydra tries to understand the language of the Invader and is thrust from one incident to another).
However, the story hasn’t been very engaging for me so far. Part of the reason for that is that it feels, even at less than 200 pages, like a good short story that has been stretched out to fill the book. I cannot help but think that this tale would have been a lot better when cut down in length to about 30 pages. At the same time, I feel like that doesn’t completely answer the question of why the story so far – and I am near the end – hasn’t really gripped me yet.
Is it a matter of style? A story, after all, is more than just theme, setting, plot, and characters. Even a dull story can be engaging when it’s told in an effective manner. Narratively, the story is told in an entirely linear fashion; pacing is a bit of an issue, as I explained above. Delany writes in the third person, but his focus never wavers from the main protagonist of the story: we never witness a scene without Rydra Wong and we also learn what she – and no other character – thinks about every situation she finds herself in.
And that brings me to my main point of criticism: Rydra Wong, like all characters in the book, is simply not very interesting. First of all, her name – a play on ‘right or wrong’, in case you hadn’t noticed yet – draws attention to the fact that she’s entirely artificial; a pawn created by Delany in order to tell his story. We know little about her except that she’s beautiful, desired by almost every stranger she meets for the first time, is a naturally born leader immediately trusted by whoever is placed under her command; she is also exceptionally intelligent, and with a particular gift towards decoding cyphers and learning and understanding foreign languages.
In other words, Rydra Wong is nothing short of perfect. There is a twist toward the end of the story, which I won’t spoil, but it does little to develop her character or add a particularly interesting aspect to her persona. Likewise, all of the other characters in the story, even if they’re not part of a largely anonymous mass of people (like the young ship’s crew members), are entirely flat characters, who are distinguished from one another largely by their appearance (often altered quite distinctly from the base human form through cosmetic surgery).
Naturally, Delany isn’t the only writer – and certainly not the only science-fiction writer! – who populates his stories with boring characters. Much could have been done to make Rydra Wong a more interesting character – a few shortcomings and a colourful backstory would have gone a long way to make her more appealing than this perfect, beautiful, authoritative, intelligent female linguist-slash-captain.
Characters in other media
Of course, this is just my opinion. But I think that when it comes to stories, we are drawn in particular to memorable characters. I’ve written earlier about my experiences with the game Mass Effect 2 – and that game’s narrative focuses almost exclusively on the characters. Each and every member of the crew gets what is in effect a pair of short stories focused particularly on them: one story when you go and recruit them and a second, more detailed story in which you try to win their loyalty. You learn a lot about these characters in the loyalty missions, and can delve into even deeper aspects of what makes these extremely flawed people tick by engaging with them in conversation aboard the ship.
At the same time, my girlfriend and I have watched (or rewatched, in my case) Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix, and are currently deep in the second season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Both shows are interesting to watch and study, because, like Mass Effect 2, the episodes never really focus too much on plot – except for a few memorable cases – and instead make the most out of their setting and, especially, the characters.
Of course, television and movies have one big advantage when it comes to characters that books don’t: they are portrayed on the screen by a living, breathing actor. Even when the writing is poor, the performance and charisma of the actor in question can still make the thing pleasant enough to watch. Conversely, the same bad writing and the same flat characterization in written form might have forced you to put the book aside and wonder why you ever bothered with it in the first place.
After a rocky first two seasons of The Next Generation, Michael Piller became the series’ showrunner. He decided that the writers needed to focus on the main characters – the crew of the starship Enterprise – rather than the guest stars. A good example is an episode from the second season, ‘The Outrageous Okona’, which focuses entirely on the Han Solo-knockoff Thadiun Okona, to the point that the regular cast are little more than bit players on their own show. The worst thing is that the writing is poor; William O. Campbell, who portrays Okona, is neither as outrageous nor as charming as the script would have us believe, and the whole episode feels like a waste of a perfectly good 45 minutes.
With Piller at the helm, these kinds of episodes largely fell by the wayside. What we got instead were stronger episodes that, by and large, put the main cast front and centre. When a problem occurred or first contact was established with another species, the action was mostly centred on the main characters and not the guest stars. It made the stories engaging, even in those cases where the actual plots were rather pedestrian. A good example is the early third-season episode, ‘The Ensigns of Command’, in which Data has to convince the inhabitants of a planet to evacuate before alien invaders destroy their world. The plot is fairly basic, but we’re sold on the story because we have the charismatic Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) trying to negotiate with the hostile aliens while Lieutenant-Commander Data (Brent Spiner) tries his hand at diplomacy on the surface.
When Michael Piller left The Next Generation at the end of its sixth season, he began work on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. With the focus now on the adventures aboard a space station rather than a continuously moving starship, Piller was able to double-down on his ‘characters-first’ concept: nearly all characters have an interesting backstory (the death of Sisko’s wife in a battle; O’Brien’s history with the evil Cardassians; Kira’s life in the Bajoran resistance; Odo’s mysterious origins; and so forth) and all of them have distinguishing character traits. The fact that they’re also portrayed by capable actors is a definite plus, but Deep Space Nine, more perhaps than any other Star Trek show, would have worked just fine in the written medium, too, I expect.
If episodic television proves one thing it’s that character arcs aren’t really necessary to make the characters interesting or memorable. If anything, a deliberate arc can sometimes come across as rather artificial: a character started out one way, experieces something, and comes out changed at the other end (either positively or negatively).
What episodic television demonstrates is that it’s equally as interesting to simply add more layers to characters: Picard being assimilated (and then rescued), experiencing a lifetime as someone else on an alien planet, being confronted by Q about his life’s choices, and so forth. Like regular human beings, these characters accrue experiences and become richer for them – even if the writers never refer to these events again (but they often do), we – the people who have joined them on their journeys – will remember them, and it makes the characters all that much richer and more vibrant.
And that’s the real shame about Samuel Delany’s Babel-17. It lacks memorable characters and the incidents that occur with Rydra in particular seem to have left no lasting impact on her. She’s perfect in every way, and ultimately that makes her utterly unconvincing and boring. The story as a whole suffers for it. A good theme and a decent plot alone, in my opinion, don’t make for a very interesting story.