Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
Published: Ace Books (1966, first), Open Roads Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (2014, my edition)
Awards Won: Nebula Award
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award
“In the far future, the universe is divided by a war between two factions, the Alliance and the Invaders. The Alliance government has been recently plagued by sabotage, and their only clue about the perpetrator involves some indecipherable communications that they have labeled “Babel-17”.
After the codebreakers fail, the government calls on the universally famous polyglot poet Rydra Wong for help. Rydra realizes that the communication is not in code, but in an alien language that she is eager to learn. She gathers a crew and heads out to find and stop the saboteurs before it’s too late.” ~Allie
This is the second book I’ve read by Samuel R. Delany, and I enjoyed this one more than the last. I don’t think Delany is really my style, but after Babel-17 I think I can appreciate his work. Also, I seriously meant to review this for Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Sci-Fi Month, but then January got unexpectedly hard to handle.
Babel-17 features a space opera world that is unapologetically strange, and I found that I rather liked it. This is a world where there is a specific set of people you need for a starship crew, and that includes dead people, a triad, a group of children and a good wrestler for a pilot. A lot of the strangeness of the world also involved the methods of transfer of information. For instance, disincorporated crew members interpret information relevant to space travel through unusual synesthetic impressions, and a living captain has to have a strategy to take into account that their mind is going to immediately forget messages from them (sort of like The Silence in Doctor Who). The weirdness of the world and its methods of communication led to some very entertaining scenes and conversations.
The communication and information transfer aspects of the book also tie into its focus on how language affects thought. While I do think it is interesting to consider how language influences the way people see the world, I don’t really buy that it controls your thoughts to the extent that is shown here (which I think is considered the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). I think that even if you can’t express something in spoken language, you can still experience it, and just because a word has a certain accepted emotional subtext does not force you to feel a certain way about it. To some extent, then, I found the language-based climax of the story a little too unbelievable to take. All the same, it was pretty fun to read a space opera story that revolves around the impact of language on the thought process, even if I didn’t agree with its conclusions.
Though it was packed with a lot of neat ideas, Babel-17 was also a very short book with many characters. The focus on the unusual setting and various linguistic quirks meant that there wasn’t much time to flesh out Rydra’s crew and their relationships. I enjoyed Rydra, a hyper-competent poet with a large skill set, and appreciated her frustration that her near-telepathic ability to read others did not necessarily enable her to communicate with them effectively. Her romance subplot seemed a little too abrupt to be believable to me, though. Regardless, Rydra was an exceptionally fun starship captain, and I would have liked to read about her further adventures.
My Rating: 3.5/5
Babel-17 is a fairly short classic space opera set in an imaginatively strange universe. I liked the focus on communication and language, and how it led to some unusual scenes and conversations. Some of the linguistic ideas were a little too unbelievable to me, though I still enjoyed the story overall. The poet heroine Rydra Wong is a little excessively skilled, but I appreciated that she was not without flaws. I’m glad I finally managed to read Babel-17, and I expect it will stand as my favorite of Delany’s novels for quite some time.