Babel-17: A dazzling new-wave SF space opera from the 1960s

Reposting to include Kat’s review of the new audio version.

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany science fiction book reviewsBabel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

Babel-17 won the 1966 Nebula award for best novel, tying with Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon. Samuel Delany’s space opera novel is dated in many ways, but still holds up.

In the future, humans have colonized many star systems. Currently, the Alliance is engaged in a war with the Invaders, who, despite the name, are also human. The Alliance has intercepted many dispatches in a code they can’t break. They’ve labeled it Babel-17. Desperate, they turn to the inter-galactically renowned poet Rydra Wong to help them decipher it.

Wong is in her late twenties, a linguistic, semantic and telepathic genius, a starship captain, and so compelling that the general who meets with her falls in love with her almost instantly. There is more than a bit of fantasy wish-fulfillment in this character. (Don’t believe me? Say this out loud: “Inter-galactically famous poet.” Yeah.) Wong instantly sets the general straight; Babel-17 is not a code. It’s a language. Learning it will help the Alliance identify targets for sabotage and assassination. Wong is the only person who can translate it, so she can write her own ticket — picking her own ship and her own crew with no military people included at all as far as I can tell. With her colorful crew, some of whom are discorporate (technically, dead) she jets off to track down the source of Babel-17.

From there, it’s extreme body enhancement, genetic engineering, psychological conditioning, space pirates, semiotics, plural marriages, “thought patterns” of dead people stored in databanks; space battles and banquets; risk to the ship, sabotage and games of marbles (yes, marbles). This brief novel is packed with strange imagery and solid action scenes. There is even, maybe a bit of meta-fiction — or maybe it’s product placement — as Wong and a young crewmate discuss his favorite book, Empire Star. Empire Star was a real novel written by… who’s that guy? Oh, yeah, Samuel R. Delany, in 1966. Delany also managed to use his wife Marilyn Hacker’s poetry throughout the book, and it is interesting to see how well that works. Did the poems come first and partially inspire the book, or was this a case of creative feedback, each inspiring the other?

Wong is a bit too smart and a bit too perfect (see fantasy wish-fulfillment, above) but the book was so short that I didn’t have time to grow really irritated by it. My complaints with the story come from the speed in which Wong learns Babel-17, although this is explained at the end, and more seriously, the ease with which Wong and another character, Butcher, have the breakthrough that solves the puzzle.

Some things, like the bag of marbles, are laughingly dated; some of these ideas are still being used, and maybe not as well, by current writers of the genre. I thought Babel-17 would be worth reading because it was Delany and because it was sort of a time-capsule. It was both of those things, and a fun engaging read with colorful characters and a few surprises.

The cover of my Random House Vintage Books edition is a disappointment. Wong is an Asian woman. The model on the cover is blue-eyed and white. Seriously, Vintage?

Babel-17 is worth reading because it comes from the New Wave era and Delany was a premiere New Wave writer, but mostly because it’s still a fun read.

~Marion Deeds

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany science fiction book reviewsSamuel “Chip” Delany wrote Babel-17 at the tender age of 23. It is 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 how the mysterious code Babel-17 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.

How to properly describe the plot of Babel-17? There are space pilots (including threesomes), mercenaries, space battles, bar scenes, psychiatrists, zero-g wrestling matches, personalities stored electronically, ghosts that can only be spoken to via telepathy, an assassination during an opulent banquet aboard a spaceship, an unstoppable assassin who is almost incapable of speech, and an accountant who gets a dragon tattoo. All against the background of interstellar war and the unbreakable code/language called Babel-17.

It’s quite an amazing accomplishment to pack all that into what would only be the intro to today’s modern doorstopper space operas (I’m talking about writers like Alastair Reynolds, Peter Hamilton, Vernor Vinge, etc.). The tiny details scattered throughout the story are suggestive of a much bigger tapestry without going into interminable expositions or info-dumps. It’s the difference between a Miles Davis jazz riff and a Wagnerian opera.  In that sense, Delany was much more of an artist and less of an engineer, and yet the book still somehow holds together.

Anybody who is a SF fan will have seen Samuel R. Delany‘s name come up again and again as a daring young talent pioneering the new-wave SF of the 1960s and 70s, and being a young bohemian, black, gay poet and writer in the East Village of NYC at the height of the counter-culture movement must have been an incredible time to be involved in the genre. It’s no surprise that when he was writing this he was married to poet Marilyn Hacker (before he became openly gay), who inspired his protagonist Rydra Wong.

He had 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 either brilliant, unreadable, or both) with books like Dhalgren and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.

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

In any case, at this point I’m only willing to allot time to reading his shorter, earlier works like Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, and Nova. Sure, the “science” aspects of the book were fairly ridiculous, such as hypercurrent transmitters, data spools, messages still sent by envelope, full-course banquets in zero-g, etc. But I really wasn’t expecting much from the book in terms of realistic extrapolation.

Babel-17 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. Babel-17 succeeds in producing a literate, intelligent, and memorable SF novel that mirrored the dramatic social changes of the late 1960s.

~Stuart Starosta

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany science fiction book reviewsI did not like Babel-17 quite as well as Marion and Stuart did. While I thought the exploration of language and perception was really cool, I had a hard time getting past the datedness of the story. I know that’s not really fair, but I can’t help it. It’s not the kind of datedness that’s charming or nostalgic, but rather the type that makes me glad that I, as a woman, did not grow up in Delany’s generation.

Skyboat Media and Blackstone Audio released an audio version of Babel-17 in November 2015. Stefan Rudnicki, who narrates it, is one of my favorite readers, and his interpretation of the text is spot-on as always, but I would have preferred a female narrator in this case. As much as I love Rudnicki, his deep husky voice isn’t suitable for a young female protagonist. I think a younger female reader could have helped mitigate the old-fashioned feel. Babel-17 is just under 7 hours long in audio format.

~Kat Hooper

SHARE:  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail  FOLLOW:  facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrsstumblr

MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

View all posts by Marion Deeds

One comment

  1. Sandy Ferber /

    I read this book around 40 years ago and remembered little of it except for the heroine’s name: Rydra Wong! Love that name!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *