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

by Samuel R. Delany

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,546414,750 (3.74)94
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)

  1. 40
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» See also 94 mentions

English (38)  Italian (2)  German (1)  English (41)
Showing 1-5 of 38 (next | show all)
What struck me most about the book was the idea that language determines how you think and see the world. ( )
  raizel | Nov 27, 2016 |
Rydra Wong, an ex-military cryptographer, a poet, and a linguist, has been approached by the military once again to help decipher the Babel-17 code used by the alien invaders in their many attacks. Rydra realizes that Babel-17 is not a code, but a language. After obtaining some of the original recordings, she has an intuitive guess as to where the next attack will occur. With the military’s blessing, she dusts off her captain’s wings and assembles a very colorful crew to head out to meet the threat and hopefully get to the root of the Babel-17 attacks.

I read the paperback version of this book some years ago as part of Little Red Reviewer’s yearly Vintage Science Fiction event. It was great then and I enjoyed it even more the second time through. There is a lot going on in this little book that was first published in the 1960s. First, our main hero is Rydra, a woman. Second, the cast of characters are quite varied – several have body modifications such as tattoos, spurs, enhanced bones, etc. Third, one of the core themes of the book is that language can influence thought patterns and behaviors of the speaker. I once studied a variety of languages, so I really enjoyed this aspect to the story.

Rydra is first introduced as a beautiful poet and, back in my first reading years ago, I thought this would be like so many beautiful damsel in distress SF stories that came out of the 1960s. Pretty quickly, we come to realize that Rydra is so much more that a poetic pretty face. For much of the book, she’s the one calling the shots and keeping her crew safe. I also liked her backstory that we learn mostly through her psychiatrist turned mentor and confidant. Rydra wasn’t always good at expressing herself.

Brass was my second favorite character. I picture him as a big lion that can leap about on all fours or walk on two legs, depending on what he wants to do. He’s a friendly brawler. He recently lost a loved one. It’s takes three to fly a ship and those three have to be in sync with each other and quite often the three are a loving triple. Rydra finds Brass and his partner a third at the morgue. Yep. There are dead flying zombies in this book, though the word ‘zombie’ is never used. In fact, Rydra’s search for a crew was quite amusing. She needs a port authority to approve the psych indices of her crew, so she hauls his reluctant butt around the port bars so he can approve on the spot and they can get in the air. He learns quite a bit that night and goes from looking down on such people to admiring several and continuing to visit the bars and watch the fights.

There’s this whole espionage feel to the quest. Babel-17 is an insidious language and slippery to describe, let alone translate. Rydra intuitively knows some of this but as she pieces more and more of it together, and as ‘accidents’ stat happening with her ship, she becomes more aware of just how important Babel-17 is to the attackers. Later in the story, we meet an escaped convict, the Butcher, and he becomes an important part of the story. Without spoiling anything, I just want to include that little snippet here to point out that the book has this continuing way of making the reader look at the second layer to each character. Rydra is more than a poet. Brass is more than a wrestler. The Butcher is more than a convict. These fascinating characters make for an excellent story.

Towards the end, the story leaves the comfort space of science fiction and gets a little fantasy genre on us. The first time I read this story, I didn’t understand all of what happened here but I understood enough to feel the story had a solid ending. The second time through, I get it a bit more but there’s still a few cloudy areas. I say this is probably the only weak spot to the story, but if you were to ask me after a third reading, I might disagree with myself. At any rate, the story does have a clear and solid ending that makes sense, even if the minute specifics of how we got there are a little muddled. It’s definitely a worthy read.

I received a copy of this audiobook at no cost from the publisher (via Audiobook Jukebox) in exchange for an honest review.

The Narration: Stefan Rudnicki did a great job with this book. Some parts of it are a bit tricky to vocalize; for instance, the character Brass can’t shape the letter P, so Rudnicki had to leave any Ps out of Brass’s ‘accent’. He did this smoothly and I can only imagine that he had to practice a bit. He brought each character to life and managed all the accents described in the book, including the foreign (made up?) languages. ( )
  DabOfDarkness | Jul 31, 2016 |
There's a lot to love in Babel-17 - most of all the heroine Rydra Wong. Like all the best protagonists of golden era SF, she's hyper-competent, super-smart, relentlessly pro-active, upbeat - the ideal of humanity. Renowned poet, master strategist, and so beautiful that every other character falls in love with her at first sight. You might be rolling your eyes and thinking that surely such a perfect character must be tiresome, but Rydra is also believably, touchingly flawed. Afraid of her own burgeoning powers, but courageous enough to use them. She makes mistakes, and fixes them. And she's cool.
The whole book is cool. Sometimes, too cool. It's about language, and in the glorious stylistic flair of the sweeping story, the minor workaday details of world-building get lost. How, exactly, do the discorporate people exist? It doesn't matter. What matters is that they can feel the whole universe in ways that puny human brains cannot even begin to comprehend. The broad strokes are great for setting the mood of the scene - the camaraderie of the crew is evoked with very few words - and not so great for exploring the ideas.
The great idea of the novel is that language not only determines how we think, but what we think. If your language has no word for a concept, then you cannot conceive of that concept. I don't really understand how anyone could take this hypothesis seriously. Surely everyone has experienced the sensation of learning a new word that perfectly expresses a feeling or concept you have already had (there should be a word for that!). For some hilarious examples, have a look at this Douglas Adams dictionary 'The Meaning of Liff'.
Still, its a fun idea to explore. Babel-17 is a language that encodes information more densely, and with more clarity, than any other language. The definition of the word is encoded in the words themselves. When she thinks in Babel-17, Wong's mind works faster and the structure of the language helps her to effortlessly solve problems that are muddled in lesser languages. But it wasn't really clear to me how the language goes from being super informative and useful to also creating hidden sub-personalities in your mind for treasonable purposes.
A better book for the limits of language might be [b:Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle|4420281|Don't Sleep, There are Snakes Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle|Daniel L. Everett|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320405439s/4420281.jpg|4468447], in which Christian missionary Daniel Everett discovers that he can't preach to the Pirahã people, because their experiential grammar hilariously prevents him from presenting gospel in a plausible way.
( )
  Flick-Imrie | May 15, 2016 |
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. ( )
  apatt | Dec 26, 2015 |
Please read the full review on Weighing A Pig Doesn't Fatten It...

Babel-17 failed to connect with me. I felt this classic is way past it sell by date. Since it’s mainly a book about ideas, the ideas must remain fresh and crisp for a 21st century reader to enjoy it. Sadly, this isn’t the case. The most focussed on ideas in the book are about the nature of language. Even when reading it in 1966, I doubt that someone with a fairly basic knowledge of language philosophy could have enjoyed this. It’s not so much the matter that the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been discredited to some degree, but it’s simply just the general sloppiness of the ideas and little tidbits about language Babel-17 tries to force feed you. I’ll briefly illustrate that (...) ( )
  bormgans | Dec 15, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 38 (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)
 

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Samuel R. Delanyprimary authorall editionscalculated
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--
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It's a port city.
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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.
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.
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Wikipedia in English (2)

Book description
The commander of the Earthpeople's Alliance journeyed into the bizarre depths of Transport Town to seek Rydra Wong, the cosmic poetess whose words reached across space and whose mind could perceive the meaning of all the world's tongues. And his request placed her into the heart of the vile interstellar war between the Alliance and the Invaders.
The new weapon of the Invaders was Babel-17, a menacing hum clogging up Alliance space communications. Rydra had to decipher the communications power of Babel-17 before it could lead to intergalactic defeat. And to do that, she would have to be the target of the next outer-space attack. 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.
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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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:00:38 -0400)

(see all 3 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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