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Babel-17 is all about the power of language. Humanity, which has spread throughout the universe, is involved in a war with the Invaders, who have been covertly assassinating officials and sabotaging spaceships. The only clues humanity has to go on are strange alien messages that have been intercepted in space. Poet and linguist Rydra Wong is determined to understand the language and stop the alien threat. (Paul Goat Allen)

192 pages, Hardcover

First published May 1, 1966

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About the author

Samuel R. Delany

276 books1,844 followers
Samuel Ray Delany, also known as "Chip," is an award-winning American science fiction author. He was born to a prominent black family on April 1, 1942, and raised in Harlem. His mother, Margaret Carey Boyd Delany, was a library clerk in the New York Public Library system. His father, Samuel Ray Delany, Senior, ran a successful Harlem undertaking establishment, Levy & Delany Funeral Home, on 7th Avenue, between 1938 and his death in 1960. The family lived in the top two floors of the three-story private house between five- and six-story Harlem apartment buildings. Delany's aunts were Sadie and Bessie Delany; Delany used some of their adventures as the basis for the adventures of his characters Elsie and Corry in the opening novella Atlantis: Model 1924 in his book of largely autobiographical stories Atlantis: Three Tales.

Delany attended the Dalton School and the Bronx High School of Science, during which he was selected to attend Camp Rising Sun, the Louis August Jonas Foundation's international summer scholarship program. Delany and poet Marilyn Hacker met in high school, and were married in 1961. Their marriage lasted nineteen years. They had a daughter, Iva Hacker-Delany (b. 1974), who spent a decade working in theater in New York City.

Delany was a published science fiction author by the age of 20. He published nine well-regarded science fiction novels between 1962 and 1968, as well as several prize-winning short stories (collected in Driftglass [1971] and more recently in Aye, and Gomorrah, and other stories [2002]). His eleventh and most popular novel, Dhalgren, was published in 1975. His main literary project through the late 1970s and 1980s was the Return to Nevèrÿon series, the overall title of the four volumes and also the title of the fourth and final book.

Delany has published several autobiographical/semi-autobiographical accounts of his life as a black, gay, and highly dyslexic writer, including his Hugo award winning autobiography, The Motion of Light in Water.

Since 1988, Delany has been a professor at several universities. This includes eleven years as a professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a year and a half as an English professor at the University at Buffalo. He then moved to the English Department of Temple University in 2001, where he has been teaching since. He has had several visiting guest professorships before and during these same years. He has also published several books of criticism, interviews, and essays. In one of his non-fiction books, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), he draws on personal experience to examine the relationship between the effort to redevelop Times Square and the public sex lives of working-class men, gay and straight, in New York City.

In 2007, Delany was the subject of a documentary film, The Polymath, or, The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman. The film debuted on April 25 at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,365 reviews
Profile Image for Mario the lone bookwolf.
797 reviews3,631 followers
May 23, 2021
It´s difficult to understand just pieces of this amazing work, as it´s complexity is so interwoven with special innuendos and the author doesn´t care about genre or even writing conventions, making my poor brain hurt.

For everyone with a background or profound knowledge in anything with linguistic, language, and all the similar fields, it might be the ultimate revelation, something to read again and again to dive deeper and enjoy while the puzzles unfold.

Today it might be hard to difficult to publish a work like this that is so specific and primarily plot and idea driven that just a small minority, even of the readers with interest in Sci-Fi, might find it satisfying. The social Sci-Fi, on the other hand, exploded and provides more and more different ideas that would have been taboo in the golden age of Sci-Fi and most parts of the 20th century, while the eccentric and idea focused works seem to have it harder and harder to get published. A, of course extremely evil, triumvirate of space opera, Hard Sci Fi with elements of cyberpunk, astrophysics, scientific theories,… and social sci-fi controls the output of the genre, leaving many of the too alternative concepts and narrative styles with less hope for large sales.

It´s a bit sad, and ironic, as especially the leaving behind of genre conventions and trying out unique world building elements has once been one of the driving forces of Sci-Fi. It´s not as if there weren´t enough independent publishers, self publishers, and indie authors who do write all these works, but they come with the immense problem of missing large scale rating to ensure the readers that the work is no waste of time. I´m already investing quite an amount of time in activism and am not altruistic enough to risk bad reads too, sorry.

Back to the book, Delanys´work is dealing with controversial topics and demonstrating the importance of the use and meaning of language, speech, the interpretation of both, and the Saphir Whorf hypothesis, an amazing concept that questions much about identity and opens large range for interpretations and philosophizing.

Just people who can find pleasure with unconventional works and don´t care about writing and genre conventions will be happy with this work, as the effort to read this relatively short book shouldn´t be underestimated, but the impacts it had on Sci-Fi is amazing:
and awed the heck out of me.

Tropes show how literature is conceptualized and created and which mixture of elements makes works and genres unique:
Profile Image for Nataliya.
745 reviews11.9k followers
April 26, 2023
I have always believed that the language you speak determines the way you think. How else can it be, really?

I am a trilingual person who has quite a few monolingual family members, and I can't even tell you how many times in frustrated fascination I have contemplated the peculiarities of languages, the plays on words that are often impossible to translate, the confusing idioms, and the frustrating lack of certain concepts in one language as compared to another. So many times I realized that merely voicing a concept in a different language changes your understanding of it, its connotation, and therefore the parts of its meaning. Something can be well-intentioned in one language and come off as condescending or rude or dismissive in another. Once you think about it - how much of the stereotype of Italians being passionate and loving, or the Germans being regimented and strict, or the French being seductive comes from the mere way their language sounds to the ears of the observer? Indeed, what you speak determines in part who you are. Because can you even conceive of something when there is no way to express it?
"She taught him how to say I and you. They wandered through the graveyard in evening, and we hovered over them while they taught each other who they were."
Ever since my teens, I have been fascinated by Samuel Delany's Babel-17, a sci-fi classic about an eponymous mysterious alien language that Rydra Wong, a poet far in the future in the middle of intergalactic war, is trying to decipher. This book has more than just linguistic appeal, however, - it details the futuristic society with genetic engineering, changed concepts of love, star ships, stellar battles, futuristic technology (of course, now riddled with unavoidable anachronisms, but fascinating nevertheless), discorporate members of the society - all this told through Delany's vivid haunting imagery, told in the language that shifts between crisp and poetic, fluidly transitioning between scenes and concepts, illustrated by modernistic and surreal poems at the beginning of each section.

But even by my mid-teens I have read many books that belonged to the excellent science fiction tradition. What impressed me about this one, what set this particular book apart for the language-nerdy daughter of a literature teacher was exactly the portrayal of language in it, the mystery of the highly analytical Babel-17, the allure and the power the language has over people, their perception of the world, even their own selves.
"Nominative, genitive, etative, accusative one, accusative two, ablative, partitive, illative, instructive, abessive, adessive, inessive, essive, allative, translative, comitative. Sixteen cases of the Finnish noun. Odd, some languages get by with only singular and plural. The American Indian languages even failed to distinguish number. Except Sioux, in which there was a plural only for animate objects. The blue room was round and warm and smooth. No way to say warm in French. There was only hot and tepid. If there's no word for it, how do you think about it? And, if there isn't the proper form, you don't have the how even if you have the words."
Rydra Wong, the protagonist of this short novel, is a poet revered at the either side of the war, known and loved by the white and blue collar people alike (or, in the language of this world, the Customs and the Transport). She is strong, fiercely intelligent, and competent - a remarkable thing for a sci-fi novel written in 1960s, a time dominated by strong sci-fi manly men who usually got rewarded with beautiful sci-fi cardboard-cutouts women. She excels at reading people, their innermost thoughts and desires - be that through muscle movements or telepathy. As she cracks open the mystery of Babel-17, she discovers more about her inner world as well as some other deep secrets - revealed through the sheer power of language. And the way Delany gives us the glimpse into her - her mind, her reasoning, her perceptions - is so vivid and sophisticated that its almost unsettling, and begs for the reread of certain sections before moving on.
"You know what I do? I listen to other people, stumbling about with their half thoughts and half sentences and their clumsy feelings that they can't express, and it hurts me. So I go home and burnish it and polish it and weld it to a rhythmic frame, make the dull colors gleam, mute the garish artificiality to pastels, so it doesn't hurt any more: that's my poem. I know what they want to say, and I say it for them."
I figured out a big part of the conflict of the book rather early on, but it did not detract in the slightest from being fascinated and enthralled by it, and the fascination did not decrease at all during the reread. The ending is the only part that I have some qualms with - it felt a bit too rushed, too convenient, and lacking a bit compared to the wonder of the story leading up to the resolution. Thus, reluctantly, I have to take off a star.
I loved this book when I first read it as a teenager, funnily enough, translated into a different language than it was written in. Loved it when I re-read it now, in its original language. A masterfully written and smart sci-fi book about the power of language - what's not to love? Wonderful "vintage" sci-fi, a classic that has aged well despite the unavoidable anachronisms. 4 well-deserved stars.
"Growing older I descended November.
The asymptotic cycle of the year
plummets to now. In crystal reveries
I pass beneath a fixed white line of trees
where dry leaves lie for footsteps to dismember.
They crackle with a muted sound like fear.
I ask cold air, "What is the word that frees?"
The wind says, "Change,"
and the white sun, "Remember.
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 29 books13.7k followers
December 4, 2013
When you revisit something after a long interval, you never know what you're going to get. A few days ago, I read The Story of the Amulet, the third volume in the E. Nesbit trilogy that starts with Five Children and It. I had been meaning to check this out since I was about 7, but somehow never located a copy. I was worried that I'd left it too late, but in the event there was no problem: it was terrific.

So when I saw a copy of Babel-17 in a second-hand bookstore yesterday, I was optimistic. I remembered thinking it was great when I was 14, so why not re-read it? But this time - oh dear. I clearly recalled finding this novel intelligent and sophisticated, but now it was, I hated to say it, naive. The characters were flat. The ending was ridiculous. And, worst of all, the linguistics was all wrong. Since it's a novel where language is absolutely central to the plot, this was a disaster.

Maybe the problem was that I just liked the book too much as a teen. I thought Rydra Wong, the poetess/linguist heroine, was so amazingly cool that I must have unconsciously internalized some of her valuations. I think I became much more interested in languages partly as a result of reading Babel-17 at an impressionable age, so really it had a very good effect on me. (How about that? An SF heroine who's actually a positive role-model for a teenage boy?) It was unreasonable to expect the book to work a second time: I'd used it up.

I still love Rydra though. I wonder if a bit of her went into Lisbeth Salander? And I'm keeping the four stars I originally gave it. After careful consideration, I think my 14-year-old self judges the book more fairly than I do.
Profile Image for Scott.
291 reviews302 followers
June 26, 2018

That’s what disliking a book with the reputation of Babel-17 feels like. This novel is a recognised classic, re-printed many times, including as an SF Masterworks edition, and it has been rated highly by reviewers whose tastes I share and whose opinions I trust.

I’m a fan of classic SF, and I expected to like Babel-17. Sadly, I feel this novel hasn’t aged well.

The underlying story is pretty interesting.

An intergalactic war is being waged. Humans on one side and… humans on the other. Humanity appears to have split in two- the Alliance, who are Earth based and the Invaders who are pretty minimally described, but appear to control one or more other galaxies outside the Milky Way.

The invaders have somehow been mounting damaging sabotage attacks deep into Alliance territory, with only strange, coded radio messages giving any clue to how they are being carried out. Linguist and renowned poet Rydra Wong is brought in to decipher the code, which she names Babel-17, and she gathers a crew and a ship to travel to where she believes the next attack will be.

On her travels she begins to suspect that Babel-17 is less a code than a unique language, a language that could be an extraordinarily powerful and profound threat to the Alliance.

So far so good. The execution of this story, however, really failed to float my reading boat.

There are some interesting ideas in the narrative around language and the way that the structure of language profoundly influence the way we see and interact with the world but I found myself constantly distracted by elements of the story and its execution that didn’t gel for me.

I struggled to empathise with Rydra Wong, and her crew felt more like a living tour around a weird future than a set of real characters.

Babel-17 feels dated too. I usually don’t mind the way that older SF (this was published in ’66) is often full of temporal markers that give away the era in which it was written. I make a sport of spotting such markers- characters reading paper newspapers on starships in the year 2500 for example, while they chain-smoke filterless Camels.

Babel-17, however doesn’t just have a few markers- it feels mired in them. Characters refer to darkness as being like ‘the inside of a coal scuttle’ (a reference that was surely dated by the 60s, let alone in the distant future). Characters play marbles. They use reel-to-reel tapes. They refer to punch cards.

The overall effect is more Thunderbirds than bright, technological future, hell, a ‘heat-ray’ makes an appearance at one point, and an evil character in a protagonist’s past is un-ironically named ‘Mr. Big’.

Still, I could look past all this if the story was engaging. For me, it wasn’t. I've enjoyed concept based SF many times before, and I loved China Mieville's Embassytown, a novel that plays with some fascinating ideas around language and culture. Not so with Babel-17. I hauled myself to the end of this one out of duty, dragged along by the feeling that I should finish such a well-regarded work.

Two spaceship eight-track decks out of five.
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,868 reviews16.5k followers
September 30, 2020
Samuel R. Delaney’s 1966 Nebula Award winning novel and Hugo nominated book continues to excite and baffle SF fans more than 50 years later.

Delaney bases much of his writing in the book on the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis which suggests that the structure of a language affects its speakers' world view or cognition, and thus people's perceptions are relative to their spoken language. So we are introduced to a mysterious language that presents problems for our hero.

Poet and linguist Rydra Wong (one of the better SF protagonists and high in the running for best name) is on the trail of assassins and saboteurs and has come across some clues about the language and our space adventure is off.

This is certainly a novel idea and makes us think and has no doubt been wildly influential in the genre. I thought of Alfred Bester’s work as well as China Mieville’s 2011 novel Embassytown. The writing and setting are a bit dated though and I’ve just never been a huge fan of his work.

Still, good classic, SF and one for which a fan of the genre will want to read.

Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
666 reviews868 followers
March 12, 2021
“And on the worlds of five galaxies, now, people delve your imagery and meaning for the answers to the riddles of language, love, and isolation.” The three words jumped his sentence like vagabonds on a boxcar.

Samuel R. Delany | Jacket2

With a strong and interesting heroine and its focus on linguistics, I was quickly drawn into Samuel Delany's Babel-17. The alien language (Babel-17) is intriguing because learning it changes your mindset. While that's not a new idea (probably not even in 1966 when this was published), I thought it was well done. Babel-17 was an engaging read, but deep down, I felt like it didn't deliver on its potential. Still, it makes me want to read more of Delany's work.

“When you learn another tongue, you learn the way another people see the world, the universe.”
Profile Image for Adrian.
562 reviews197 followers
January 12, 2021
I can’t work out if this book should be 5 stars and in my favourites folder, or if it was just quite good.
How strange. Need to deliberate.

So here I am 24 hours later, and I'm still undecided. It was a really interesting book. Some people have delved deeply into the linguistic nuances of this book and I have to admire both their knowledge and insight, to me though it was just a well written book, with the interesting linguistic focus.
I suppose the issue is why am I shying away from giving it 5 stars, if I have the slightest issue, then surely it cannot be 5 stars.
In the end I am guessing that I will give this 4 stars and say it was a really enjoyable SF book, nothing more, nothing pretentious, nothing deep, just a good book. Yes it is very much about an alien language discovered during various acts of sabotage around the galaxy, and it also focusses on a star ship captain who happens to be a linguist and poet who is tasked with investigating the acts of sabotage.
This is the story of her and her crew as they travel through the galaxy investigating the sabotage and coming to an understanding about the saboteurs language that may help them solve the problem affecting the whole of humanity and its allies. She assembles a motley crew of cosmetic/surgically altered humans and a number re-animated dead people for her star ship, and a rip roaring adventure ensues.

Nah, I think it has to be 4 stars I'm afraid, but it is still great book
Profile Image for Monica.
594 reviews622 followers
August 16, 2019
I liked this one. I found it to be quirky, weird, fascinating and unexpected. Another arrow in the Galactic secret agent quiver quest. The exploration of language as an ultimate tool for conquering and domination was...really interesting. This one was dated, riddled with anachronisms and some retro slightly offensive views on race and gender. Not uncommon for a book conceived and written in the 60s. There is more Delany in my future.

3.5ish Stars

Read on kindle.
Profile Image for Markus.
473 reviews1,526 followers
August 16, 2019
A fascinating exploration of linguistics theory more than a science fiction novel, Babel-17 leaves you intrigued but unsatisfied. It is arguably a fantastic intellectual experiment, but the literary enjoyments are few and far between. Still, while perhaps not a 'must read', it is definitely a 'should maybe read' for fans of sci-fi and those interested in gaining a broader understanding of the genre.
Profile Image for Baba.
3,562 reviews861 followers
October 29, 2020
SF Masterworks (2010 relaunch series) #6: A deceptively short book that feels like a bit of a saga, and I mean that in a good way. In a far future when man alongside a few other races is spread all over the universe, a universe where a number of these races, include the humans have been at war for decades. An alien communication, Babel-17 is picked up and adventurer poet, Rhyda Wong has to put together a space crew and investigate.

Delany exploded on to the sci-fi scene with this fabulous far future tale where humans have held free reign over how they look and are for centuries, and come in thousands of difference shapes and sizes, where some people are brought back to life as zombies to do difficult jobs, where there are aliens but the differences in communication, let alone sustenance sees them rarely directly engage, and there's plenty more imaginative future world building; but what Delany utterly nails is showing the power of language itself. I could guess the book was written in 1960s, but it still shines thanks to his idea of language itself being an organism, an entity, dare I say, a weapon?

Also huge plus points for super diverse cast, for a book written in the 1960s! ... so let's call it 7 out of 12.
Profile Image for Claudia.
954 reviews535 followers
February 17, 2020
Surprisingly fresh for a SF novel written in 1966. It has a lot of interesting ideas, the main one being the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In fact, the whole story is based on the development of this idea and those passionate about linguistics will find a real gem within its pages. It is even more surprising that Delany was only 23 years old when he wrote it.

The writing is quite enthusiastic and lyrical – the main character is a poet, after all. It’s also an exploration into the human mind. It lacks worldbuilding, but it would have been irrelevant to the story, anyway.

All in all, it’s a thought provoking novel and quite unique in its category, and I think it is a must read for all SF lovers, mostly because of its originality.
Profile Image for Apatt.
507 reviews781 followers
December 6, 2012
Samuel R. Delany was on a short list of famous sf authors I have never read, the list includes Cordwainer Smith, Henry Kuttner, C. J. Cherryh, Stephen Baxter and Neal Asher. I will try to get to all of them next year, any recommendations concerning these authors would be welcome.

Babel-17 is a very short novel (too long to be a novella may be) about the power of language, a culture called The Invaders creates a language which can be used to control thoughts and actions through the structure and content of the language itself, more like brain washing than mind control or hypnosis. The concept is based on the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" which (if I understand it correctly) posits that ideas can not be thought of without words to facilitate them. The theory has since been disproved so I wouldn't give too much credence to it. Excellent basis for an sf novel certainly.

The weaponized language is the eponymous Babel-17 which is being used to sabotage the war efforts of The Alliance, the side of the war the story is narrated from; whether this is the "right" side is not really dwelled upon in the book. The protagonist is genius poet turned starship captain Rydra Wong, she puts a crew of some very odd people together to find the secrets of Babel-17 in order to put an end to the seemingly unstoppable sabotages. Members of her crew are all genetically modified and some are actually dead but serving as a kind of high tech ghosts. The dialogue concerning a language without the concept of I and Me is one of the highlights of the book. The denouement at the in the last chapter is fascinating, though the actual ending is a little abrupt.

While I found the ideas and concepts very interesting and thought provoking I also found the pacing to be a little uneven, a couple of chapters simply dragged, in a short novel like this I expected a tighter narrative. The character of Rydra Wong is well developed, she is complex and believable, though I don't find her particularly appealing. Given the short length of the book the other characters are at least adequately developed, but again I did not feel any emotional investment in them.

I would recommend this book to sf readers looking for a short and thought provoking read. Don't expect edge of the seat entertainment, but plenty of food for thought.
Profile Image for Dirk Grobbelaar.
550 reviews1,065 followers
January 17, 2011
The linguistic issue introduced here is not entirely new. For example, in The Languages of Pao (Jack Vance) a similar theme is addressed. Babel-17, however, is considered a Science Fiction classic. It was released around the same time as Dune, with a year or so separating them. Therein lies the problem. Dune had become the new standard, or benchmark, against which all Space Operas were gauged. And it had set the standard pretty darn high. So, Babel-17 is a colourful, clever book, but it's no Dune. To be fair: it is a very good book, but the language gets too flowery in places and the excitement of the plot waxes and wanes a bit too much, alternating between dullness, psychedelia and high drama. It's almost as if the author is too 'clever' for his own good.

In the end, it was enjoyable enough. There are some absurdities, especially concerning the oh-so-strange cast of characters, which I rather enjoyed. If you're a Sci-Fi connoisseur, you'll have to read this. If you're catching up on the Sci-Fi classics, ditto. If, however, you're neither of the previous, you might consider reading the likes of Dune first.

Note: I do realise I am biased, since Dune is a personal favourite. You might want to bear that in mind as well.
Profile Image for Timothy Urgest.
507 reviews264 followers
December 30, 2019
Until something is named, it doesn't exist.

Does thought create language? Or does language create thought?
Mind-opening science fiction about language and its power.
Profile Image for Craig.
4,993 reviews116 followers
June 21, 2021
Babel-17 is probably Delany's most read novel (most -known- would be Dhalgren, quite a different thing), and is certainly one his very best. (My favorite is Nova.) It tied (with Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes) for a Nebula Award in 1967 for best novel of the year. It's a very nicely written science fiction story set during an interstellar war that examines how language influences thought and perception, and how words can be used as weapons. The protagonist, Rydra Wong, is one of Delany's best drawn characters; star-ship captain, linguist, telepath, poet, and spy, she ironically seems straight out of a Heinlein novel that Delany professed to not embrace. She's been recruited to investigate how the enemy is able to infiltrate and commit acts of sabotage. It's believed that Babel-17 is the code which the enemy agents use to communicate, but as she comes to understand more about it she realizes that she herself is being changed by it as she learns more and delves deeper. Luckily, she has a good crew who are able to save the day. It's mid-1960s New Wave sf at its best, and one of the best linguistically themed novels from the field.
Profile Image for Anthony.
Author 4 books1,866 followers
October 8, 2018
Trippy, invigorating, delightful, and beautifully written, this book is totally original, and the fact that it was written over 50 years ago by a 24-year-old young man makes it all the more amazing. I needed to have my head and heart stirred and stimulated in precisely the way that this book did after reading a couple of stolid, predictable books recently. It’s certainly not for everyone; I can imagine folks who want something a little more cleanly depicted and structured could get frustrated by it. But I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to take a surreal, entertaining, enlightening, provocative journey into a wildly imagined future.
Profile Image for YouKneeK.
645 reviews79 followers
October 27, 2019
Babel-17 is a standalone science fiction book from the 60’s, although I’m not sure I would have guessed it was from the 60’s if I’d read it without knowing that. It’s progressive in many ways, especially for its time. For example, the main character is an intelligent woman in a leadership role. It also plays with writing styles in a way that seemed very different to me than other books I’ve read from that era. I had mixed feelings about the book.

It's set in the far future. Humanity has encountered other races from other galaxies, some of whom are part of an Alliance with them and others who are enemies referred to as Invaders. The main character is a famous poet named Rydra who has some expertise in cracking code. She’s been asked to help crack the Babel-17 code, which appears to be a code used by the Invaders during acts of sabotage. At the beginning of the book, Rydra has already determined that Babel-17 isn’t a code, it’s a language. Her love of languages and her fascination with this particularly unique language leads her to get directly involved in seeking it out and learning more about it, and the rest of the story spurs off from there.

I thought the plot was pretty thin, and often the details about what was going on were obfuscated, at least for me, by the way the author experimented with writing styles and particularly in the way he expressed the internal thoughts of his characters. The book is at least as much about language as it is anything else. I enjoy occasionally learning a bit about language differences, and especially how a language reflects or affects the culture that speaks it, but language isn’t something I have much aptitude for or a particularly strong interest in, so this was a bit much for me. I prefer it in smaller doses.

There was some interesting world-building, though. It’s not at all a scientific science fiction book, but I enjoyed reading about how spaceship crews were formed and operated, as well as the various details about how this fictional future society itself operated. Some parts of it seemed pretty unique, especially considering how ideas from books published in the 60’s have often been re-used and feel like old hat when one reads them for the first time in the present day. I didn't get that feeling at all here. I liked the characters, but I wasn’t terribly invested in them. I think part of that was because the author’s style of writing their thoughts made me feel disconnected from them.

So, as I said, mixed feelings. There were a lot of interesting things here, and I think somebody who is more interested in language than I am and/or appreciates experiments with writing styles more than I do would probably like this more than I did. Either way, it’s a short and fast read and I don’t regret the time spent on it.
Profile Image for Allison Hurd.
Author 3 books703 followers
September 28, 2018
Well, that was wholly unique! This is not so much a story as a poet-linguist's exploration of the significance of language.


Things to love:

-The language. I mean, that's really all there is. Every way we communicate (and I mean every way) is mentioned and symbolized. He then messes with all of it so that you have time to think about what it would be like if one of the ways we express ourselves was different.

-The different writing styles. Each section is broken up with a new experiment in writing to demonstrate what we're doing in this part. I didn't love all of them, but I appreciated the talent it takes to do it.

-The fantastical. Oh man! So many cool ideas and visuals!

-The messages. Mental health, sex positivity, "strong female protagonists," people of color...this book was really "ahead of its time," most of the time.

Things that weren't as strong:

-Dialogue. Sometimes I felt like I was missing a lot of context. Possibly because I am so far removed from the time (and less familiar with psychotropics than many of the era lol) and possibly because of the subject matter.

-Plot. It was just shoed in to talk about concepts. Don't look too deep. Just enjoy the ride.

If you're a language nerd or can get lost in cool ideas, just relax, this one's short, rather witty, and unlike anything else I've ever read before. If you bounce hard off stories with no, well, story, just relax, this one's short, rather witty, and unlike anything I've read before. ;-)
Profile Image for Jemppu.
500 reviews91 followers
May 20, 2021
Loved the concept of Babel-17 the language. And enjoyed the interactions and relationships between the characters. But somewhere along the line the overall plot just got lost on me. The writing seemed all over at times.

Would gladly read of more linguistic ruminations, and learn all there is to know of the societal structures of this world, without the need for war or assassination plots.
Profile Image for Thomas Wagner.
140 reviews908 followers
January 16, 2023
If ever a book was ahead of its time, that book would have to be Babel-17. Written while Samuel Delany’s career as a novelist was still fairly fresh, it’s a book one can easily imagine being released in the 21st century. Delany casts an Asian woman as the captain of a spacecraft at a time NBC was telling Gene Roddenberry that he couldn’t have a woman serving as first officer of the Enterprise because audiences wouldn’t accept it. He pays close attention to the cultures and subcultures of his future, and isn’t shy about redefining relationships and gender roles. He has the conscious minds of dead people serving as ship’s crew, decades before the transhumanists regularly began writing about upload civilizations. And he loves to play with ideas, both scientifically and philosophically, in the context of a fast-paced pulp space adventure that’s as entertaining now as it was so many decades ago.

The idea underpinning most of Babel-17 is something called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, a long since debunked linguistic idea that was kind of all the rage among intellectuals in the ’60s. Language, it was thought, could alter perception. Merely talking or even thinking about something in another language, not your own native language, could change your entire understanding of the thing. Not true, really. (I’m pretty sure that when a French person and an American person think about pizza, we’re thinking of the same thing apart from the toppings.) But it’s a hell of a premise for a work of speculative fiction, and Delany runs it all the way home in a book that’s barely 200 pages.

We’re far in the future, and an interstellar war is raging between the human Alliance and alien invaders we know only as the Invaders. Rydra Wong is a military veteran, linguist and popular poet — Delany includes poetry by his then-wife Marilyn Hacker as examples of some of Rydra’s work — who is approached by Alliance command for help in deciphering the Invaders’ communications cipher, Babel-17. Rydra has figured out that Babel-17 is neither a code nor a cipher, but an actual language. (Continued...)
Profile Image for Janelle.
1,161 reviews141 followers
February 13, 2021
Really enjoyed this SF novel from the mid 60s. There’s adventure and space battles and futuristic technologies with a brilliant female lead character but the book is mostly about language and communication.
Rydra Wong is a poet and sometime code breaker who is asked by the military to translate communications that have come from “the invaders” around the time of attacks and sabotage. These communications have been given the name Babel-17. Rydra discovers it isn’t a code but a language.
There’s lots to take in from this book, forms of communication from body language to computer languages, poetry and more. A very precise language can be more informative and more concise than one where words have more than one meaning or aren’t exact.
In many ways this is a perfect SF novel, fun, thought provoking and timeless.
Profile Image for Stuart.
718 reviews268 followers
January 23, 2015
Wow, Samuel "Chip" Delany wrote (at the ripe young age of 23!) an amazing new-wave SF space opera about a starship captain, linguist, poet, and telepath named Rydra Wong who is desperately trying to solve the mystery of what Babel-17 is and how it is being used by the Invaders against the alliance. It explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of language and how it shapes personality, thought and actions, and spins off dozens of other fascinating ideas and images in just under 200 pages.

Anybody who is a SF fan will have seen Delany's name come up again and again as a daring young talent riding the new-wave SF of the 1960s and 70s, and of course being a young behemian, black, gay poet and writer in NY at the height of the counter-culture movement must have been an incredible time to be involved in the genre. I just remember all the cheap old Ace Doubles with the cheesy artwork and always saw Delany's name.

He has such a varied output, with his earlier books (Empire Star, Babel-17, Triton) hewing to more typical SF tropes but introducing much more sophisticated themes than Golden Age SF, and later getting into much more literary and challenging territory (at which point readers think his work is brilliant or unreadable) with books like Dhalgren and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.

Finally, he has this intriguing series of Neveryona novels using the trappings of sword-and-sorcery, which apparently explore very hefty issues like slavery, domination, the dawn of civilization, the nature of narrative, and semiotics, but these books are so self-reflexive and experimental, I wonder if anyone other than literary critics can actually enjoy them.

In any case, I'm only willing to allot time to reading his shorter, earlier works (with Nova and Einstein Intersection on deck), and I really enjoyed Babel-17. Sure, the "science" aspects of the book were laughable, such as hypercurrent transmitters, data spools, messages still sent by envelope, full-course meals with place-settings being eaten on starships, etc. But I really wasn't expecting much from the book in terms of realistic extrapolation.

Delany wants to create a baroque far-future universe in just a few hundred pages, and he manages to do that incredibly well. The events of the story are quite unpredictable, but they always have a poetic flair and leave images and phrases etched in the mind's eye. So although the story itself doesn't add up to much in the end, I enjoyed the journey for it's oddball characters and stylistic writing.

The book has certainly been influential on the genre, and it would be nice for someone to do an in-depth study of the differences between this book and China Mieville's Embassytown, which I though was a much more mature and accomplished exploration of how language shapes our thoughts and minds. But this book was still very good, and despite being incredibly dated in terms of future gadgets, succeeds well in producing a literate, intelligent, and memorable SF novel that mirrored the dramatic social changes happening at the time.
Profile Image for Algernon (Darth Anyan).
1,496 reviews962 followers
February 18, 2012
[9/10] Spectacular. I can see whay it has won some literary prizes back in its day. It packs quite a lot of ideas for the number of pages it has. Most of those ideas relate to language and communication, but there is also weapon development, faster than light navigation, genetic enhancement, a bit of battle action and a memorable trip through a dystopian city peopled with oddball characters, both alive and incorporate.

Beyond the scientific speculations, I have to comment on the narrative style of Delany - beautiful and haunting images, understated but powerful emotional content. The choice of a poet as the main character is an apt one. Other authors have used this device in the form of SF writer to help them insert in the text essays about the role of science fiction in shaping the future. Delany goes further in analyzing the way we use language to connect with one another and to find structure / meaning in the world around us:

Poet in Greek means maker or builder

even more relevant :

You know what I do? I listen to other people, stumbling about with their half thoughts and half sentences and their clumsy feelings that they can't express, and it hurts me. So I go home and burnish it and polish it and weld it to a rhythmic frame, make the dull colors gleam, mute the garish artificiality to pastels, so it doesn't hurt any more: that's my poem. I know what they want to say, and I say it for them.

a worthy pursuit this for any aspiring author.

When it comes to actual poems by the fictional Rydra Wong, they are modernist in feeling, making me think of stream of conscience drawlings on piece of paper in a bar. I wonder if Delany ever published his poetry in a collection. Must check on wikipedia. Until then here's the one poen I liked best from Babel - 17

Growing older I descended November.
The asymptotic cycle of the year
plummets to now. In crystal reveries
I pass beneath a fixed white line of trees
where dry leaves lie for footsteps to dismember.
They crackle with a muted sound like fear.
I ask cold air, "What is the word that frees?"
The wind says, "Change,"
and the white sun, "Remember."

152 reviews31 followers
July 26, 2012
I don't get this book.
Worse, I don't buy its setting. If it was comedy or possibly allegory, fine. But it seems to be Big Idea SF. Or is it? It's so preposterous and baroque (it's even got ghosts) that I'm not sure. I don't find it particularly funny anyway.
Still worse, the ending is painfully bad. Exposition! The mysteries are revealed! Lots of books are like this but this time we get preached bad science and plain nonsense. The final clever trick theatratically revelead to the reader involves among other terrible plot devices... a mind moving form one part of the brain to the other by making new neural connections! And even if you grant its preposterous premises, some the exposition doesn't make sense anyway.

Part of the problem with Babel-17 is how dated it's become. Some SF and/or fantasy written around the same time has aged pretty well so that's not a given.
The cryptography in the first chapter must have been dated even when the book was written. In the 21st century, it's become simply laughable. Add to that the notion of a society so technologically advanced and energy-rich that it borders on the preposterous would suffer from famines and the first 15 pages or so already had me in a critical mood.

The pervasiveness of 20th century culture in a story purporting to be set in humanity's far future was also an annoyance... so much so that I wondered if there was some kind of allegory to the sixties I was too thick to get.

That said, there's much to like about Babel-17. It's often a pleasant and colorful read. I guess it could be a good read if you were willing to suspend your critical faculties.
It's also an influential book so I guess it's worth reading for those interested in the history of SF, intertextuality and all that stuff.
Profile Image for Radiantflux.
427 reviews409 followers
February 4, 2020
16th book for 2020.

Well that was a surprise. Given this book's reputation I had been expecting something much more interesting than what was on offer. The plot is paper thin; the characters even more so. Delany plays around with the Saphir-Whorf hypothesis, but it's so poorly interpreted to be almost unintelligible.

The only thing going for it was a strong female main protagonist, something rare in 1966.

2-stars—probably closer to 1.5.
Profile Image for Andreas.
482 reviews131 followers
October 10, 2014
Linguistics, yay! You know, I've studied linguistics besides of computer science. So, this important work of mixing SF with linguistic motives was interesting 20 years after university.

At the time Babel-17 was published in 1966 (and won the Nebula Award), Linguistic relativity - in short: language structure forms the world-view - was considered to be a valid theory. I don't want to bother you with details like the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or absence of pronouns. Just let me tell you that I think that Delany embraced the idea masterfully.

He was not the only one embedding linguistics into SF, for example check out the earlier The Languages of Pao or The Embedding. There even is a GR list for Science fiction using linguistics as plot device.

The novel is not only about linguistics but also a great space opera - with interstellar fighting, space pirates, telepathy, body modification and future family constructs like triple marriage.
Delany presents a very dense setting and manages it to build a complete world view within 160 pages!

That's where China Miéville should have learned from for his Embassytown but failed (cf. this article).

A nice coincidence is that this week Delany was elected as a Grand Master of SF.
Profile Image for Ben Loory.
Author 25 books679 followers
November 28, 2011
gets a little confused/confusing after the midway point, but delany's writing (at least on these early books) is so fast and fun and clear and smart, it's easy to overlook the flaws... this kind of space opera is so much more fun than the heavy realistic dune-type stuff that kinda took over the genre soonafter... there's so much more room here to feel and breath and enjoy things, it's really exhilarating... not as brilliant and expansive as Nova, maybe, but just as vivid and alive... makes you wanna run out of your house and DO STUFF, FLY AROUND, MEET PEOPLE, ENJOY LIFE, FIGHT FOR THE BETTERMENT OF THE WORLD, ETC... on the other hand, i often don't know what he's talking about... can always skip those parts, though...
Profile Image for Mareike.
Author 4 books56 followers
October 27, 2018
This was so much fun! Part of me wants to re-read it right away to figure out what things I may have missed the first time around.
There isn't a word out of place in this book. Delany created a whirlwind of a plot that is delightful in its strangeness but at the same time allows for quiet scenes that capture and vibrate with longing and sadness.
Anyone who loves books that play with language should absolutely read this.
Profile Image for Jonfaith.
1,858 reviews1,370 followers
July 6, 2016
There are two types of codes, ciphers, and true codes. In the first, letters, or symbols that stand for letters, are shuffled and juggled according to a pattern. In the second, letters, words, or groups of words are replaced by other letters, symbols, or words. A code can be one type or the other, or a combination. But both have this in common: once you find the key, you just plug it in and out come logical sentences. A language, however, has its own internal logic, its own grammar, its own way of putting thoughts together with words that span various spectra of meaning. There is no key you can plug in to unlock the exact meaning. At best you can get a close approximation.

After a soft patch the weather turned greedy. The humidity laps at you, mocks your sweat. I was left pink and dripping form the ten minutes it requires to mow our lawn. Weeding and sweeping left me parched. I gulped down some tap water and turned my attentions to this jewel. Not your neighborly space opera nor is Babel-17 Ted Cruz's Starship Troopers. This is an evocation on language and identity, it purposes and provides. There is a rite to Delany's reign: he is impossibly prescient. He is prophetic without the store issue black fire, he is the Ark of Kristeva, the deft Derridean dance of Helene and JL(Nancy). he fathoms and fugues where we stumble and scratch.

Some future space conflict has raged, punctuated with halts and sieges. A code is discovered which may be signalling sabotage. A poet is assigned to resolve such and that's where things both twist and are unfolded. Paradoxes are the accepted currency here.
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