on February 13, 2003
After reading Dhalgren, this novel is just like summer beach reading. Not that it's easy, but for the most part the effort is worth it. One of the few SF books to deal with the relatively esoteric topic of language and how it defines us (which really seems to be a natural SF topic, being that they deal with aliens and stuff so much), something it sort of shares with Ian Watson's The Embedding. Delany however won a deserved Nebula for this book (actually he tied with Flowers for Algernon, also a fine book, but as different from this as can be), which probably wasn't at all what readers were expecting in 1966 when this was published. But who cares what the readers want, as long as it's good? And this is. As I mentioned before it's a mediation on how language defines us, both to ourselves and in relation to other people, all cloaked in a Space Opera type story. The Invaders (who are never really seen, weirdly enough, but I think they're human) are attacking the Alliance and are using a mysterious weapon called Babel-17. What is it? Nobody is really sure so the military recruits famous poet Rydra Wong to figure out what's going on. She has little idea either but has come closer than most people. What follows is layer upon layer of story as Ms Wong examines her own life as she tries to unravel the mystery of Babel-17, examining both the roots of language and doing her best not to get killed. Rydra is a rarity in SF, a three dimensional woman who stands on her own as a strong character who doesn't come across as an emotional maelstrom or an ice-cold witch. She's one of the most enjoyable and well-rounded characters to come down the pipeline in SF and there are very few characters since who can match up to her. Delany's story just a bit wacky toward the end and he makes up more than a few SF twists to explain the ending but the story holds together really well and it has brains and a soul underneath all the deep thinking. It's also very short, so all the people scared off by Dhalgren can come over here and see what the man can do in small doses. Then they can move on to the big stuff.
Rydra Wong is a poet - the poet of her generation, though only in her twenties, with a readership spanning five galaxies. Her readership also spans two sides of an interstellar war. Because of her past skills at decryption and current skills in many human languages, her help is asked in decoding messages that precede devastating acts of sabotage against our side.
Rydra discovers that codename Babel-17 is no mere cipher. It's a language instead, with its own words, grammar, and lethal internal logic. Rydra chases Bable-17 in a trail of sabotage across the star-streams, learning bits and pieces of the language as she goes. Every fact that sheds light on the language only darkens the real mystery: who speaks this language? And why?
It's a slim book, but dense. Fast-paced adventure pulls the reader along, with plenty of worthwhile characters along the way. Delany's writing is so good that we really care about that mousy little bureaucrat who approves Rydra's star flight. We also get a genuinely sick chill from the head of the weapons lab - as well we should, from the hypocritical genteelness of a man so dedicated to death en masse.
There's an extra in this book, like the flip side of an old Ace Double. That's Empire Star, a novella with many themes of personal becoming: slavery ending, an urchin rising from the gutter, and a princess seeking her birthright. The storytelling is highly nonlinear, a fact that explains much but becomes apparent only towards the end. I never found a satisfactory resolution within this story, though. Although Babel-17 is truly memorable, Empire Star is not.
Babel-17 instantly became one of my favorites when I first read it. A new reading, years later, shows why. I never know whether an old favorite will live up to my memory of it, but this one certainly does.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was Babel-17. And from the Word understanding flowed, and gave substance to the material world. A Symbol: a Name: Rydra Wong. Poet. Cryptologist. Starship Captain. Woman. Co-opted to decipher what Babel-17 is, what meaning it has, what connection there is between war-plant sabotage and the usage of Babel-17.
Inside, around, and terminally intermixed with this nominal space opera is the quest to define the relationship between language, symbol, object, and thought process. A quest that flows around surgical body-form manipulation, the senses of the discorporate, succubi , the revival of the dead, love triples, starship pilot wrestling, a society and personality types split between Customs, Transport, and military. All told with Delany's inimitable sense of the English language, with the admirable support of excerpts of Marylyn Hacker's (Delany's then wife) poems.
Delany has developed this theme of language as the controlling factor in a person's world map in several books, but this is the only one that I can think of by him or any other author where language is not only a weapon but the main driving force behind the plot. In making his point, he almost goes too far, giving powers of understanding to Babel-17 that stretch the boundaries of believability, although he makes the very relevant point that some concepts cannot (or only with great difficulty) be expressed in some languages, while in other languages the same concept can be expressed very precisely in just a few words.
The characters of this book are far more normal than the typical set of Delany people, which is not to say that they are not extremely interesting, engaging, and well presented. And as part of the character set, we learn that Rydra was once part of a love triple, the other members of which, while just names in this book, play a major role in the follow-on novella, Empire Star.
Having had your world view expanded by Babel-17, be ready to have it totally turned upside down, twisted into circles and hyperboloids by Empire Star, where a person's world view can be described as simplex, complex, or multi-plex. Here we find Comet Jo, a simplex person who observes an organiform star-ship crash and who is given a message to take to Empire Star by one of the ship's dying members, who looks exactly like himself. In the process of taking the message, we watch as Jo grows to complex, then multi-plex maturity as he meets San Severina, owner of seven Lll slaves (ownership of which causes the owner to experience continuous unbearable sadness), LUMP (a linguistic ubiquitous multi-plex computer), and learns about the battle to free the Lll slaves. But at just about the point where you think you have a standard, straight-forward story, curve-balls of time-travel, causality, and mirrored relationships come to the fore, and twist this story (and by its relation to Babel-17 that story also) into a pretzel of deep complexity that will leave you scratching your head while fully satisfying your emotional requirements.
Within these two stories, Delany packs more original ideas than most authors would in ten novels, and does it with great style and panache. Written very early in his career, they fully deserved the Nebula Award and Hugo nominations they received, and read just as well today as when they were first published.
---Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
on October 12, 2006
This is THE work of genius. As far as I am concerned, there is no other masterpiece that surpasses the ingenuity of this book.
How could the author have possibly written this in the 60s? His vision of the multi-lingual future of the humanity and its effect on the human (and machine) behaviours is almost psychic. I would not have understood any of this, had I read it in the 60s.
The book is full of surprises, vivid and memorable episodes, and intricate and profound word plays, which will start to show double, triple, and quadruple meanings as you read on.
Do not get distracted while you read this one, because one little sentence maldigested here and there might spoil your fun later.
Truly intelligent piece of work that has a remarkably liberating and empowering effect on you. Highly recommended.
on December 4, 2014
A decent little sci-fi story.
Though I felt a bit...hmmm, held at arm's length throughout the story.
We got a bit of Rydra's backstory with the Myrna bird, but beyond that, I felt like I didn't really know her as a person, more of a sum of her ability and talent as a poet...and that's pretty much how the rest of the cast is portrayed. I could have used a bit more depth in characterization, but I think it perhaps wasn't the style of sci-fi at the time it was written.
Then again, maybe I'm wrong. For as much as I think of myself as a sci-fi fan, I've just recently realized that I need to branch out from Asimov, Orwell, and Bradbury!
on February 3, 2014
"Babel-17" is an early work by that grand master of SF, Samuel R. Delany. It was published way back in 1966, but like all classics, it is still fresh and wonderful in the early 21st century. It has one of Delany's unique trademarks as a novelist, in that the background details are as important as the center-stage plot. No one can make the future seem as strange yet alluring as Delany. In the novel now known as "Trouble on Triton", he perfected this interplay of background and foreground, making them equal to each other. However, when I re-read that novel, it was the background that stimulated my imagination. The same is true of Babel-17: you will find yourself transposed to this future world of space travel and extra-terrestrial contact, and may find yourself inventing your own cast of characters and plot line occupying Delany's imagined world. That's what I did when I re-read. But don't think this means the plot of Babel-17 is weak: NO WAY! This one of the most creative approaches to the theme of hostile alien contact. In a nutshell, an alien race is attacking vulnerable earth colonies without provocation. But Earth governments have no way to communicate with the aliens. So they engage Rydra Wong, an astronaut and a poet! Yes, a poet is the heroine of this novel, and she employs her sensitivity to, and understanding of LANGUAGE to break through the barrier between species and effect rapproachment. Does that sound too intellectual? Well, there is plenty of action and excitement in the novel but also this current of mental activity as the poet dedicates her life to saving both species. I taught a SF course in high school English for over two decades. What I learned from Delany and applied in my classroom is the importance of moral issues in SF. Most SF TV shows (with the exceptions of "Star Trek" and "Babylon V") and most SF movies (fill in your own exceptions) ignore the moral issues that animate literature in general. After you read Babel-17 you'll agree: this would make a great SF movie. Yeah!
on February 10, 2014
I enjoyed reading this book again very much, although (after 40+ years) I'm surprised that the only thing I remembered was when Rydra goes to the morgue to pick up Mollya!
However, please be aware that this new 2014 Kindle version does not include "Empire Star" (as does the paperback)!
on July 1, 1999
Delaney explores the influence of language on thoughts en indentity. Would we be who we are when we had grown up, using a language with no word for me or I or, for that matter, you? Would we be able to think better or faster when we used another language for our thoughts? Is that a way to define intelligence? Can language be used to manipulate so sharply that it becoms a weapon?
A must-read SF classic, not only because of the theme, but also because of the vivid new (1966!) universe he created, and the way he sees our future. Delaney avoids the trap of (some) older SF-writers: to focus on the theme instead of the plot. It's an excellent read.
Babel-17 won the Nebula Award in 1966.
on January 15, 2016
I'm trying to read all of the nebula award winning novels. This is my second one. Dune, by Frank Herbert, was the first and I did not like that one much. This novel brings hope back to my reading future. This is pretty much everything you want in an SF novel. The characters are interesting, fully developed, and unique. The future depicted is not just some rehash of the past, it is a vibrant exploration of a culture that could exist. The plot is fast-paced and the problem to be solved is interesting enough to keep you thinking and turning the page.
A couple of things I really liked:
1. Diversity: Finally a novel that mixes men and women. Not all men (as usual) or all women (which is what people tend to do when they have a woman protagonist). There are even homosexual and plural relationships. In addition, the cast consists of enough of a variety of people that everyone who reads it should be able to identify with someone.
2. Science: Maybe this isn't "hard science" since it does not involve the physical sciences, or even biological sciences, but it does explore linguistics in the same manner as most hard SF uses the sciences. I love reading an SF book where I feel like I've learned something.
This novel deserved the Nebula Award.
on February 23, 2016
From the first page I was blown away. My version of the book had a foreword which talked about Delaney the person and how he was so young when he wrote this. Those words continued to resonate with me as I read because regardless of the age of the author, he has a masterful control of the language.
The book is very much about language and how we use it and has undertones in that language can be used to control or as a weapon. This is true of all languages. Our protagonists come to discover the subtlety of words and it gave me pause and made me reflect upon all the times I didn't choose my words wisely. So many unintended consequences arise from poor word choice. Sometimes I think the Queen's English would be much cleaner and nicer if every word had only one meaning, but then where would Shakespeare be?
No spoilers here, but I will say the only disappointment, for me, was in how neatly the book was wrapped up. That may be a 1960s thing. Not sure. But even without the tidiness of the last 10% the first 90% makes it a wonderful, thoughtful read.