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Comment: Independent bookstore since 1970. In stock, quick shipment with delivery confirmation on domestic orders. 2002. 1st Vintage Books ed. Paperback. Small publisher's mark on text block. Otherwise, Fine.
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Babel-17 / Empire Star Paperback – January 8, 2002

4.2 out of 5 stars 120 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“The most interesting writer of science fiction writing in English today.”–The New York Times Book Review

From the Inside Flap

Author of the bestselling Dhalgren and winner of four Nebulas and one Hugo, Samuel R. Delany is one of the most acclaimed writers of speculative fiction.
Babel-17," winner of the Nebula Award for best novel of the year, is a fascinating tale of a famous poet bent on deciphering a secret language that is the key to the enemy's deadly force, a task that requires she travel with a splendidly improbable crew to the site of the next attack. For the first time, Babel-17 is published as the author intended with the short novel Empire Star, the tale of Comet Jo, a simple-minded teen thrust into a complex galaxy when he's entrusted to carry a vital message to a distant world. Spellbinding and smart, both novels are testimony to Delany's vast and singular talent.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 311 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage Books ed edition (January 8, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375706690
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375706691
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (120 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #62,818 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Michael Battaglia on February 13, 2003
Format: Paperback
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.Read more ›
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Format: Paperback
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.

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Format: Paperback
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.
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