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Babel Seventeen (Babel-17) (S.F.Masterworks…
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Babel Seventeen (Babel-17) (S.F.Masterworks S.) (original 1966; edition 1999)

by Samuel R. Delany

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,330325,839 (3.71)65
Member:prezzey
Title:Babel Seventeen (Babel-17) (S.F.Masterworks S.)
Authors:Samuel R. Delany
Info:Gollancz (1999), Edition: Re-issue, Paperback, 193 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
Tags:language_fiction, ling, nebula, read, sf, sfmw_l, space, x8mj, african-american

Work details

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany (1966)

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» See also 65 mentions

English (31)  German (1)  All languages (32)
Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
Simply great science-fiction that reminded me why do I like the genre.

In a far future, language becomes a weapon and humanity defenses end up in the hands of a poet. This future universe is nicely hinted in details everywhere, setting a rich and interesting background without losing track of the real story.

Awesome reading. ( )
  ivan.frade | Jul 8, 2014 |
My reaction to reading this novel in 1998. Spoilers follow.

While I’ve read a few short stories by Delany before, none really impressed (though I think he has a knack with titles); however, I liked this novel.

My initial question, right at the opening of chapter one, is how much Delany influenced William Gibson and the other cyberpunks (I don’t recall him listed as an influence). Like the famous opening of Gibson’s Neuromancer, this novel opens with a port city and technological/industrial metaphors describing the color of the sky. Delany’s spacemen are a flamboyant subculture given to extensive body modifications just like Gibson’s cyber cowboys.

The central theme of this novel is communication. One version of this is Rydra Wong’s telepathy, rationalized somewhat cleverly, as a modulation of the very weak radio signals (I have no idea of this is true or not) given off by the human body and picked up by the miles and miles of nerves serving as antennas. It is a talent few have. Another form of communication (explored earlier in Frank Herbert’s Dune and, I believe, A.E. van Vogt) is the precise reading of people’s intents and emotions via body language. Rydra Wong, the novel’s hero, is a charismatic character sufficiently multi-talented – a poet, black belt in akido, starship captain, and very talented linguist – and charismatic for a space opera. (Everybody who meets her loves her, and I suppose the idea of an Oriental woman as a book’s hero was somewhat novel for 1966.) Her work as a writer leads to passages that are, I suspect, Delany exposing his own philosophy on writing: to not be mystical and very realistic in details, to mature it is necessary to not imitate or respond to others, to say what others can say for themselves.

The idea of communication is also in the close triples that transport people sometimes form, unions of sex, business, and profession, intimate bonds. I liked the parts where Rydra, unaware of her telepathic abilities, knows the thoughts of others (part of this is due to her reading of body language) and can express them though not always her own. This struggle for communication is set up right at the beginning with General Forester wondering at the quiet inhabitants of a port city who have suffered periods of embargo and resulting riots and cannibalism but now they seem ordinary. There is a gulf between the subculture and quasi-families of Transport crews (with the younger members literally kids patented by surrogate fathers and mothers).

The book’s core and most obvious variation on the theme of communication (and reason for its fame and acclaim) is its linguistic speculation. Delany tackles the classic linguistic question on whether language shapes or reflects our thoughts, that is can we think a thought for which we don’t have a word. Delany takes the view that we can not. There is a short, but interesting, passage about how the language of aliens shapes their behavior to the extent that some alien races are seldom seen. The alien Ciribians have a language so precise they can describe a vast “solar-energy conversion plant” precisely enough in nine words to allow its complete reconstruction.

The main invention of Delany’s, and it’s as plausible and interesting as many of the speculations of hard sf, is Babel-17, a language designed for battle and sabotage; where one word stands for entire categories of thing which somehow facilitates a very fast analysis of battle patterns of offense, defense, and enemy intent; whose lack of a singular personal pronoun facilitates unwitting sleeper agents (how these latter two things are effected exactly is never explained but then it’s too much to expect of Delany or any writer to explain how a new language affects thinking, processes. Babel-17 is a language more analytic than English and also capable of generating more logical paradoxes. How this is true with a language of such seeming imprecision is not explained.) and sabotage. Delany grafts these linguistic speculations on an essentially a space opera plot. (I understand his early finesse with space opera garnered his reputation.) Space travel (never really explained but half-rationalized with some nice poetic language) is reminiscent of the ocean with talk of currents. Unwitting sleeper agents, genetically engineered saboteurs and assassins, some nifty weapons in the mansion of Baron ver Darco, and a space war. Granted, the subornation of the TW-55 was expected as was the revelation that Butcher spoke Babel-17 and (I liked the modification of Babel-17 into the more useful, less bellicose Babel-18) would turn out to be connected with the sabotage incidents, but I still found the novel fairly exciting. ( )
  RandyStafford | Aug 21, 2013 |
I own this edition of Babel-17 as well. For some reason, I have a lot of duplicate Delany. I may have picked up this copy decades ago with a heap of Moorcock's Elric books at Science Fiction Book Shop in Greenwich Village. ( )
  OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
I think I liked the ideas a lot more than the prose or the plot. There is a lot of really great stuff in here, gene altered starship pilots who look like griffins or tigers or dragons, assassins and spies being built in a lab, a capable and interesting heroine building a starship crew and taking them out into adventures on the edge of known space. Lots of fun. The structure of the novel is off for me though, particularly the pacing which is kind of all over the place. Still, you can definitely see why Delany is a highly respected author. ( )
  bunwat | Mar 30, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
If Babel 17 were published now as a new book, I think it would strike us an great work that was doing wonderful things and expanding the boundaries of science fiction. I think we’d nominate it for awards and talk a lot about it. It’s almost as old as I am, and I really think it would still be an exciting significant book if it were new now.
added by paradoxosalpha | editTor.com, Jo Walton (Jun 23, 2009)
 

» Add other authors (14 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Samuel R. Delanyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Moore, ChrisCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Podwil, JeromeCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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--this one, now, is
for Bob Folsom,
to explain just a little of
the past year--
First words
RYDRA WONG

. . . Here is the hub of ambiguity
Its a port city.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0553201565, Mass Market Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:19:46 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

In a war-riven world, why will saving humanity require . . . a poet? At twenty-six, Rydra Wong is the most popular poet in the five settled galaxies. Almost telepathically perceptive, she has written poems that capture the mood of mankind after two decades of savage war. Since the invasion, Earth has endured famine, plague, and cannibalism—but its greatest catastrophe will be Babel-17. Sabotage threatens to undermine the war effort, and the military calls in Rydra. Random attacks lay waste to warships, weapons factories, and munitions dumps, and all are tied together by strings of sound, broadcast over the radio before and after each accident. In that gibberish Rydra recognizes a coherent message, with all of the beauty, persuasive power, and order that only language possesses. To save humanity, she will master this strange tongue. But the more she learns, the more she is tempted to join the other side . . . This ebook features an illustrated biography of Samuel R. Delany including rare images from his early career.… (more)

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