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June, 2008 : Criticism:

Linguistics, Cultural Engineering, and World Building in Languages of Pao and Babel-17

Linguistics is the scientific study of language and its structures, and can broken down into a number of disciplines such as semantics, phonetics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, anthropological linguistics, etc. Linguistics is probably the most rigorous of the soft sciences and studies a phenomenon that is so omnipresent we take it for granted. According the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, language has been a prevalent topic in SF, but little SF has been written about linguistics (Clute and Nicholls, 723). Two works focused on linguistics and the nature of language are Samuel Delany's Babel-17 and Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao, both of which rely on the world building opportunities of science fiction to perform interesting thought-experiments that explore how language shapes human experience. The novels consider important questions about linguistics, and demonstrate how SF writers utilize scientific theories to construct their work.

Jack Vance's 1958 novel The Languages of Pao explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the theory that language shapes culture. Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir were linguists and anthropologists who argued that a language's structure and grammar construct the perception and consciousness of its speakers. Ideas are shaped by language: speakers of different languages find certain ideas unthinkable, or conversely more palatable because of the grammatical structures and words which shape their perceptions. Even concepts such as time and punctuality are shaped by a language's verb tenses.

A glance at two quotes from Sapir and Whorf provides a good overview of their theory.

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the "real world" is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached ... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation (Sapir, Wikipedia).


We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees (Whorf, Wikipedia).

Sapir and Whorf's theory espouses a radical cultural relativism. The "real world" is a chaotic kaleidoscope of sensations that we carve up and organize based on the patterns and structure of our language. Reality itself, or what we perceive as reality, is composed of language; people who speak different languages live in different worlds.

Whorf and Sapir offered nuances and caveats to their theory; for example, Sapir wrote a lengthy essay about how language and environment often work in conjunction and reinforce one another to create a culture (Sapir, 89-108). A fair summary of their position is that language is the most powerful force in constructing human societies and human behavior, but other factors such as environment and geography play important roles as well.

Vance extrapolates from the premises of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to construct his novel's world and plot, portraying and contrasting two planets, Pao and Breakness, which evolve cultures reflecting the tendencies of their environment and language. The Paonese live on a planet and speak a language that encourages passive behavior. The language contains no verbs, adjectives, or word comparisons such as good, better, and best. The lack of verbs encourages indolence and inaction among the Paonese, whereas the lack of word comparisons and adjectives produces a culture devoid of conflict and ambition. The Paonese language discourages individualism and creativity because those traits might cause conflict among the large population. Pao has a mild climate, a long growing season, and no harsh changes in the seasons, an environment that works in tandem with the language to create a calm, unchanging culture. Humans multiply across the planet because of its hospitable environment and abundant crops, and evolve a culture with no religion, wars, or social friction. Most Paonese are small farmers who inherit an ancestral home and eventually pass on their values and traditions to their children. Pao's rulers, the Panarchs, possess absolute power and have presided over a stable hereditary government for centuries, making the Paonese a people with little history or strife.

Breakness possesses a climate, culture, and language vastly different from the pleasant society of Pao. Breakness has a harsh climate, contrasting seasons, and unpleasant weather that challenges its sparse population. The Breakness language is wholly based on the self, and its sentences focus on individual acts. The language does not contain the word 'I'—not because Breakness denies the importance of the individual self—but because the language is so individualistic that every sentence flows from the acts or views of the person speaking, making the word "I" superfluous. Breakness contains little expression for emotion—its speakers are solipsistic and unemotional. Although Breakness contains no words for anger, joy, and love, it offers hundreds of nuances to describe intellectual ratiocination. The language contains little negation and no passive voice, again emphasizing individual striving and effort.

Breakness's educational institutions are also shaped by the population's individualistic language and environment. Each student lives alone, interacts only moderately with others, and is encouraged to develop original interpretations and theories in the classroom, a style of education that differs radically from the Paonese, who encourage their children to learn in groups and recite in unison reams of memorized, traditional information. Breakness has created a culture that is ambitious, technologically sophisticated, and full of energy and expansion. Its people are intellectual, accomplished, and self-centered, vastly different from Pao's conformist, indolent populace.

Vance focuses his plot on his linguistic themes, and the contrasts between the planets. The Panarch Aiello, the hereditary ruler of Pao, has been negotiating with two parties—the trade representatives of the planet Mercantil, and the Dominie Palafox of the planet Breakness—because Aiello has intelligence that a nearby warlike race, the Brumbos, plan to raid or invade Pao, and he needs better weapons and defense strategies. Because of its passive culture and language, Pao is an easy target. Mercantil, as the name implies, trades extensively with surrounding planets, and provides the Paonese with their military supplies, but Mercantil has taken advantage of Pao by selling it subpar weapons. Pao's weak military leaves it vulnerable to Brumbo aggression. The Paonese have survived for centuries in a stagnant, conservative culture, and probably would continue to do so—their language and culture are perfectly adjusted to their environment—but their more dynamic and powerful neighbors intrude upon them.

In the midst of these crucial negotiations, the Ayudor Bustamante has his brother, the Panarch Aiello, assassinated, and assumes control over Pao himself. Bustamante's coup is ill-timed, and he finds himself overwhelmed by events. To cover up his role in the assassination, Bustamante blames the murder on the Mercantil trade representatives and executes them. He imprisons both Beran, the Panarch's only son, and Palafox, planning on executing them the next morning, delaying only because Paonese superstition forbids an execution at night. Thus Bustamante ineptly manages to alienate both the merchants and Palafox, leaving him with no allies against the Brumbos. Palafox and Beran escape their imprisonment, with Palafox planning to use the former Panarch's son as leverage against Bustamante.

In alternating chapters, the novel depicts Bustamante's difficulties as ruler, and Beran's experiences as Palafox's ward. Palafox teaches Beran the languages of Breakness as well as entering him into a Breakness university, making Beran more formidable than the average Paonese, more active and technically sophisticated.

The inadequacies of Pao's language and culture come to the forefront when the Brumbos launch their invasion. The Paonese are so inept at war that 10,000 Brumbos conquer the entire planet of 15 billion. However, the Brumbos find the Paonese difficult to rule, because the one thing they will resist is change. The Paonese passively refuse to work or produce under Brumbo rule, making them a surly and unpleasant people to command. The Brumbos derive so little pleasure in their victory that they reappoint Bustamante ruler with the proviso that he pay them a hefty tribute each month. Although Bustamante pays the required tribute, he realizes that the Brumbos will make more and more demands, and resolves to find a way to resist them, eventually traveling to Breakness to try and enlist Palafox's help.

In a passage reminiscent of Sapir and Whorf, Palafox explains to Bustamante that language determines thought, so the only way to give the Paonese the will to fight is to alter their language and thus their mental framework. Palafox uses the Breakness Institute, a type of university/thinktank, to create three new languages: Valiant, Technicant, and Cogitant, and forcefully moves thousands of young Paonese into separate communities where they are forced to speak the new languages. Bustamante and Palafox use language as a tool for cultural engineering, crafting new societies that teach the Paonese how to defend themselves, build their own factories, fabricate their own weapons, and trade on their own terms, because without those skills they will always be dependent on other planets. A group of overseers, an elite corp of civil servants, are created who can speak all three languages, and thus coordinate the groups.

Palafox informs Bustamante that the language of the warriors, Valiant, is "based on the contrast and comparison of strength, with a grammar simple and direct" (58). Palafox designs Valiant to differ dramatically from Paonese, which is a language that avoids comparison, and requires a complicated grammar with no direct description of action. For example, a Paonese speaker could not say, "The farmer chopped down the tree," because the language lacks verbs such as "chopped." A literal translation of the sentence from Paonese is: "Farmer in state of exertion; axe agency; tree in state of subject to attack" (59). In Valiant the sentence would read: "The farmer vanquishes the tree, using the weapon-instrument of the axe" (59). Valiant relies on strong verbs and a vocabulary of conflict, warfare, and weapons, which makes it the perfect language to create a warrior race.

Palafox tells Bustamante that the three new languages inculcate different values in their speakers: "To the military segment, a 'successful man' will be synonymous with 'winner of a fierce contest.' To the industrialists, it will mean 'efficient fabricator.' To the traders, it equates with a person irresistibly persuasive.' Such influences . . . pervade each of the languages" (59).

Palafox and Bustamant's methods of cultural engineering are inhuman and disruptive, moving large numbers of people against their will, and disrupting centuries of tradition. However, the Paonese language has made them such a passive people that they do not resist their culture's destruction.

Palafox has a hidden agenda. His age is indeterminate—thanks to the advanced science of Breakness, he has been alive for decades, if not centuries—but now that science is reaching its limits and Palafox verges on the edge of death and senility, the Dominies of Breakness perpetrate themselves by cultivating a harem of women and producing many male heirs, ensuring themselves a type of immortality. The language of Breakness produces individualistic, driven people who are self-centered to the point of narcissism, tendencies that Palafox reflects. His grandiose ambition is to populate Pao with his sons, to use the entire world to perpetuate himself. He abducts Paonese women and places hundreds of his sons in the Cogitant community as teachers and leaders, thus granting them positions of power and influence.

Eventually Bustamante becomes leery of Palafox and his plans. In response, Palafox overthrows the Panarch, and replaces him as ruler with Beran; hoping he can control his former ward.

Since Beran was educated in the individualistic environment of Breakness, he tends, if anything, to be less cooperative than Bustamante or the average Paonese. Beran speaks the languages of both Pao and Breakness, and serves as a bridge between the two planets. When he assumes his responsibilities as the new Panarch, Beran is deeply disturbed over the inhuman treatment of the Paonesse and the fragmentation of their society. Palafox's cultural engineering has split the Paonese into four cultures, each speaking a different language, living in a segregated community, and valuing different traits and achievements. On the positive side, the Paonese now can defend themselves, trade, and build their own industries. They are no longer a passive, purposeless people, so Palafox and Bustamante's cultural engineering has worked, but at the perhaps inevitable price of the massive destruction of homes, communities, and traditions.

Beran wants to reunite the Paonese people. By the end of the novel, he manages to achieve his aims, despite a rebellion by the military, because the military realizes that it cannot function without the technicians producing arms, the traders bringing in goods, and the civil servants meditating between the groups. Eventually the Paonese learn Pastische, a language that combines elements of all the languages. Pastiche reunites the Paonese as one people while at the same time giving them the linguistic tools to trade and defend themselves.

Samuel Delany's Hugo and Nebula award winning novel Babel-17 explores linguistic concepts similar to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but also takes those ideas in innovative new directions. The novel focuses on the experiences of Rydra Wong, a famous poet, whose galaxy is divided in a brutal war—punctuated by blockades, deprivations, and starvation—between the Alliance and an enemy referred to as the Invaders. A general approaches Rydra and asks for her help because a series of Alliance targets have been sabotaged, and he needs Rydra, who is a brilliant linguist, to unravel 'Babel-17' (the code used in the attacks). Rydra attempts to unravel the mysterious code, which she discovers is actually a previously unknown, alien language. She deciphers enough Babel-17 to determine where the next sabotage attempt will take place.

The first few chapters depict Rydra's attempt to recruit a crew to fly an interstellar ship to the site of the next sabotage attempt. Delany creates an intriguing subculture of transport workers—spaceship crews who are outsiders and often near criminals—and contrasts them with the customs workers—civil service functionaries who are bourgeois and middleclass. The transport workers practice body modification more transformative than what is technologically possible today, using cosmetisurgery to transform themselves into near amphibians, reptiles, griffins, dragons, lions, sphinxes, etc. What the transport workers are doing to their bodies vastly differs from getting a breast implant or a nose job—which are ways to enhance the body around conventional notions of beauty—they refashion their bodies in creative and surprising ways, using their body as a canvas, and crafting unique notions of beauty and self.

In a memorable scene, Rydra and a civil service worker enter a transport worker bar and observe the crowd of bizarre cosmetisurgery altered workers, with their scales, tails, and extensive modifications, many of them so different from other humans that they resemble aliens. The bar scene demonstrates that the transport workers use the reshaping of their bodies as a form of communication, identifying themselves as members of a subculture, a code recognizable by another transport worker. The transport workers immediately know the civil servant is not one of them because his body is unmodified. The body modifications express the personalities and values of the transport workers, creating identifications as unique as voice tone or vocabulary. Language and communication are prominent themes in the novel; Delany demonstrates even body modification and clothes—things we might find so mundane that we take them for granted—can be ways to communicate.

The later chapters revolve around the encounter of Rydra Wong and her crew with a group of pirates. Someone on Rydra's crew attempts to sabotage the ship twice. After the second sabotage attempt, when Rydra's ship is nearly destroyed, the pirates salvage her damaged ship and bring the crew on board. The pirates are privateers, licensed to raid the ships of the Alliance's enemies, and treat Rydra and her crew as honored guests. The courteous, chivalrous space pirates are implausible; real pirates would be far more likely to slash Rydra and her crew's throat then to generously give them medical treatment, food, and friendship. Although the pirates are unimpressive as a plot device, Delany uses them as a springboard for some interesting speculations about language.

Butcher, the pirate's second in command, strikes up an immediate bond with Rydra, fascinating her partly because he does not have a word or concept for "I" or "you." As the Sapir-Whorf theory suggests, Butcher struggles to understand concepts foreign to his language, and insists that you and I have no meaning. Rydra attempts to trace Butcher's history, for he is a mystery man: after all, what planet or culture does not have common personal pronouns? But Butcher suffers from amnesia, and Rydra cannot determine his origin or past. In one lengthy scene, Rydra attempts to teach Butcher the meaning of you and I, and the dialogue reveals the very different ways that Butcher thinks, and how his linguistic concepts affect his consciousness. Initially he reverses the meaning of the pronouns because he has difficulty grasping that Rydra refers to herself as "I," but when someone else refers to Rydra then she becomes "you" or "her." Butcher wants pronouns to consistently refer to the same person, and suffers from a great deal of cognitive and semantic confusion as he slowly comes to understand the concepts for self and other.

As Delany demonstrates throughout the novel, in terms similar to Vance and Sapir-Whorf, language is more than a tool to communicate: it shapes thoughts, information, and perception. Rydra Wong points out: "when you learn another tongue, you learn the way another people see the world, the universe" (22).

Rydra learns Babel-17, and it reshapes her consciousness and ways of seeing the world, deepening her connection with Butcher. Butcher's native language is Babel-17, and that is the basis of their strong connection; Butcher is happy to finally meet someone who can speak his language and perceive the universe in the same terms.

In the novel's later chapters, Delany's linguistic speculations take new and ingenious twists, quite different from Vance and Sapir-Whorf. Babel-17 turns out to be more than an ordinary language: its words reveal the structure of objects. After the second sabotage attack on her ship, Rydra wakes up in the pirate's infirmary, dangling in webbing. By knowing the word 'webbing' in Babel-17, Rydra can exploit the web's structural weaknesses and break its threads. On another occasion, Babel-17 allows her to perceive the weaknesses in a formation of enemy ships, and guide an attack that destroys them. Babel-17 allows its speakers to understand the concepts represented by words, and thus transcend many limitations in communication. According to the philosopher Saussure, language is structured on the difference between signifiers and signified. The signifier is the word, whereas the signified is the concept. Signifiers in ordinary language are arbitrary; there is no logical reason for a cat to be represented by those three letters; the animal could just as easily be named a dog, or a bull, or a pipe. A language creates a set of common signifiers that its speakers customarily refer to in order to communicate. In Babel-17, unlike ordinary language, the signifier is not arbitrary; it so accurately describes the signified that the language's speaker gains a technical understanding of the signified. Signifiers in Babel-17 are richer in technical information than words in ordinary human language, so rich that they speed up the mental processes of their user. Knowing the word for engine in Babel-17 provides a person with a technical understanding of an engine's structure and how it works.

Even the novel's asides develop Delany's speculations about language and cultural engineering. In two or three paragraphs, Delany describes an alien species, the Ciribians, who have a unique culture with three different forms of "I": "I-below-a-temperature-of-six-degrees-centigrade, I-between-six-and-ninety-three-degrees-centigrade, and I-above-ninety-three-degrees->centigrade" (122). With their complex modulations of I and self, the Ciribians directly contrast with Butcher's denial of individual self. Ciribian culture is based on changes in temperatures: they are sterile when the temperature is below six degrees, they can mate between six and 93 degrees, and when the temperature is above 93 they can give birth. Humans struggle when they attempt to communicate with the Ciribians because of the vast differences in the languages. The Ciribian language can describe a complex solar energy conversion plant in nine words—they have signifiers that express those concepts concisely and precisely—whereas humans need a large technical manual to describe the plant. In its technical complexity, the Ciribian language resemble Babel-17; however, during interactions between Ciribians and humans, saying the word "home"—a concept which does not exist to Ciribians—requires a paragraph describing the concept's meaning and why it is important.

The final chapters reveal Babel-17's true nature as a weapon of war and cultural engineering, an artificial language designed by the alliance's enemies as a way to create and control saboteurs. Babel-17 "'programs' a self-contained schizoid personality into the mind of whoever learns it, reinforced by self-hypnosis. . . . This 'personality' has the general desire to destroy the Alliance at any cost" (171). Babel-17 made Butcher into the traitor who destroyed the Alliance sites, and Rydra into the saboteur of her own ship. The language transformed Butcher, a loyal citizen of the Alliance, into an ideal saboteur because it accelerated his mental processes and was "such an exact analytical language, it almost assur[ed] [him] . . . technical mastery of any situation" (170). Neither Butcher nor Rydra remember attacking alliance sites because the secondary schizoid personality temporarily gained control over their psyche. This secondary personality found it logical to destroy Rydra's ship because she was working for the Alliance, even if that meant killing herself in the process. Furthermore, since Babel-17 lacks the concept for "I," a person using the language believes it to be the only way to perceive reality, leaving him/her with no perspective to criticize its programming. Babel-17 in many ways resembles Orwell's Newspeak, an artificially altered language 1984's police state uses to culturally engineer and control its population. Newspeak slowly eliminates words from the language, leaving its citizens bereft of concepts that could be used to resist the government. Freedom and rebellion are impossible if the populace has no concept for those terms.

By adding personal pronouns to the language, and thus expanding the conceptual possibilities of Babel-17, Rydra and Butcher manage to control the program embedded in their heads. The novel concludes with Rydra and Butcher trying to end the war. They've improved the language into what Butcher calls Babel-18, and have turned it into a useful tool for truth, rather than a program that imprints behavior in their minds. Rydra and Butcher leave a note on a general's desk stating: "This war will end in six months." The note will be passed around by top officials, and will semantically imprint in the officials' minds an order to end the war. Butcher and Rydra will leave a similar note on the desk of the top general of the Invaders, thus using Babel-18 to create a peace. Rydra and Butcher have found a way to turn a weapon of war and treason into a language of truth and peace. One weakness in the novel is that in his rush to provide a tidy, "happy" ending Delany has not acknowledged that the conclusion is problematic. Butcher and Rydra are still using Babel-18 to control the behavior of its users. Their goals are nobler than the originators of Babel-17, but using language to engineer the behavior of others—as a computer language programs a mechanical device—remains eerie and disturbing.

William Burroughs famously described language as a virus, a sickness that can possess its speaker, a view sometimes reflected in these novels, which portray language as a weapon of war and cultural engineering. Interestingly, despite the dark implications of both novels' themes, neither is bleak; the protagonists find ways to control language and turn it to their advantage. The novels' optimistic endings are shaped to a large extent by genre expectations. In the late 50s and early 60s, editors expected science fiction novels to portray a capable protagonist using science to solve problems. Although not every science fiction story or novel followed that pattern, a great deal of traditional SF tends to optimistic endings with heroic, technically accomplished protagonists.

Both novels portray the can-do attitude of hard, traditional SF: despite the power of language, someone with the right technical understanding can—like a chemist mixing formulas—turn language to his or her advantage. Neither Vance nor Delany is thought of as a hard SF writer, but they demonstrate a faith in the power of technicians to use science—in this case linguistics—to control reality. Interestingly, the novels demonstrate the insights and blindnesses of traditional science fiction. They use the freedom of science fiction to create an imaginary world, and explore intriguing ideas about linguistics, but the optimism and the protechnical bias prevent Vance and Delany from fully interrogating some of the problematic aspects of cultural engineering.

Works Referenced

Clute, John and Nicholls, Peter, editors. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.

Delany, Samuel R. Babel-17. New York: Ace Books, 1966.

Sapir, Edward. "Language and Environment." Selected Writings of Edward Sapir. Edited by David G. Mandelbaum. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1949.

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Wikipeida. Accessed 5-26-08.

Vance, Jack. The Languages of Pao. New York: Daw Books, 1980.

Copyright © 2008, Robert Bee. All Rights Reserved.

About Robert Bee

Robert Bee is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. For his dayjob he manages a library in Trenton. He has published over 30 short stories and a dozen book reviews in magazines, e-zines and anthologies such as Outer Darkness, Parchment Symbols, Letter Magazine, Blue Murder, Parageography, Alienskin, Glyph, Cabal Asylum, Welcome to Nod, Nocturnal Ooze, Dark Krypt, Kings of the Night.


Jun 3, 03:53 by IROSF
Does linguistics make good fodder for Science Fiction? Any response to Bee's treatment of Vance or Delaney's books?

The article can be found here.
Jun 3, 05:58 by Yoon Lee
I was actually mildly surprised that some Linguistics 101 infelicities in Babel-17 were not mentioned; I don't have a copy of the book ready to hand, but I believe there's a bit where Delany confuses phonetic categories (e.g. bilabial vs. labiodental vs. alveolar or whatever). Walter Meyer has a fairly scathing critique of the Delany in his Aliens and Linguists, although it's sadly out of print.
Jun 3, 13:24 by Paul Jessup
If you guys like this sort of thing, you should check out a book I've got coming out next year called Open Your Eyes.
Jun 3, 19:27 by Gaile Pohlhaus, Sr.
Suzanne Hadin Elgin's [l]Native Tongue[l] and other sf books are wonderful sf linguistic reading.
Jun 4, 00:45 by Juliette Wade
Sheila Finch's The Guild of Xenolinguists is some great linguistics-based SF. I love this sort of thing - and write it myself (Let the Word Take Me now out in Analog). I don't mind a few errors in the details of terminology so long as the spirit is there. Language is one of the things that SF tends to work around instead of working through, so it's cool to learn about authors like Delany and Vance who really take it on and use it.
Jun 5, 04:09 by Ted Kosmatka
I agree, Juliette. And Delany is my all-time favorite author.

This is my first post, by the way. *Looks around* Nice place you've all got here. :)
Jun 5, 16:08 by Bluejack
Thanks, T! We try!

And thanks to everyone for recommending some more linguistics-centric Sci Fi. It's one of my favorite conversations at cons, and on bulletin boards. "Oh, you like that? You should read..."

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