January 11, 2010

Quipucamayoc in Babel-17

Babel-17Babel-17 is a 1966 science fiction novel by Samuel R. Delany in which the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (that language strongly influences thought and perceived reality) plays an important part. It was joint winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966 (with Flowers for Algernon) and was also nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1967.Comment:  Near the end of this book, spaceship captain Rydra Wong addresses crewman Ratt. The following exchange ensues:"You can get down there in a minute," Rydra said. "Suppose I make you honorary quipucamayocuna?"


"That's the guy who reads all the orders as they come through and interprets them and hands them out. Your great grandparents were Indians, weren't they?"

"Yeah. Seminoles."

Rydra shrugged. "Quipucamayocuna is Mayan. Same difference. They gave orders by tying knots in rope, we use punch cards. Scoot, and just keep us flying."
Rydra is actually talking about the Inca quipucamayocs:Quipucamayocs (Quechua khipu kamayuq, "khipu-authority"), the accountants of Tawantinsuyu, created and deciphered the quipu knots. Quipucamayocs could carry out basic arithmetic operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. They kept track of mita, a form of taxation. The Quipucamayocs also tracked the type of labor being performed, maintained a record of economic output, and ran a census that counted everyone from infants to "old blind men over 80."Talk about sloppy and stupid writing. Delaney's character thinks there's no difference between Seminoles and Maya. She then attributes an Inca practice to the Maya, an unrelated culture a couple thousand miles away.

Seminole, Maya, Inca..."same difference" because all Indians are alike?

Also note the presumption that because Ratt is 1/8 Seminole (assuming his great-grandparents are pure Seminole), he should feel honored to be quipucamayoc(una). Why, because his small amount of Seminole blood controls his identity? Ridiculous.

This whole bit is vaguely racist. It would be like going to Johnny Depp (1/8 Eastern Cherokee) and saying, "I'll make you a Lakota peace-pipe carrier or a Tlingit totem-pole carver." His response would be something like, "What the hell are you talking about? I'm an actor, not a buckskinned Indian brave."

Obviously, I finally got around to reading this "classic." Wow, is it overrated! It had some interesting ideas, but I wasn't crazy about Delaney's characters, plot, or writing style. Rob's rating: a meager 5.0 of 10.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.

Below:  Quipu.

1 comment:

Rob said...

A comment received via e-mail:

Samuel Delany--one of my favorite writers, but I remember that same part in 'Babel 17' drove me crazy too. His other books are better! (He's black, by the way.)