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.