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Babel Seventeen (Babel-17) (S.F.Masterworks…

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

by Samuel R. Delany

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1,508404,904 (3.73)94
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
Tags:language_fiction, ling, nebula, read, sf, sfmw_l, space, x8mj, african-american

Work details

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany (1966)

  1. 40
    Embassytown by China Miéville (kevinashley)
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  2. 30
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  3. 00
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  4. 11
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    LamontCranston: Space Opera, updated. Strange mystery, assemble a crew of lively characters, go explore it. Sound familiar?
  5. 11
    Ringworld by Larry Niven (LamontCranston)
    LamontCranston: Space Opera, updated. Strange mystery, assemble a crew of lively characters, go explore it. Sound familiar?

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» See also 94 mentions

English (37)  Italian (2)  German (1)  All languages (40)
Showing 1-5 of 37 (next | show all)
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 |
Babel-17 is a strange book.The main character is Rydra Wong, a poet with a captain's licence. She's galaxy famous as a poet and has a strange gift of cracking up any code. She's also a polyglot. One day she gets proposed by an army's general to crack a code named Babel-17, which is linked to sabotages on the Alliance territories. Alliance is at war with the Invaders who are sending this code. However, she understands early on that Babel-17 is not a code but a language in itself, and to crack a language she needs to find out more about it. So she gathers a colorful crew of characters and they are of on their journey.
Everything would be fine if this book kept on that track. However Delany starts to insert more and more language theory as the book goes on. I think the most important idea he wanted to relate is that language we speak defines who we are, how we perceive the world and ourselves and at the end of the book it postulates that it's even powerful enough to change/replace our own personality, our ego.
A quote that supports that:
"Mocky, when you learn another tongue, you learn the way another people see the world, the universe."
Now call me crazy, but that is not an earth shattering revelation right there. Maybe because I already speak and think in more then one language and while I certainly agree with that sentiment, it is something I noticed early on in my English or Japanese learning and I'm sure anybody who starts learning a new language notices in one way or the other.
What Delany is trying to do is write about language theory in a sci-fi setting. And it just doesn't work. The writing is choppy and it makes the plot flow badly. I would much rather he wrote a straight up paper on his language theory on one hand, and sci-fi novel on other. Because this hybrid doesn't work.
What I did like is a variety of interesting characters considering this is a 200 page book. I especially liked his ideas on body modifications in the future and discorporate humans existing after death.
Overall it was ok, but I sure hope some of his other books are better than this. ( )
  Jaskier | Dec 1, 2015 |
Delany expresses himself in creative and poetic prose, but there is still a pulpy, somewhat old-fashioned tone to this book. The characters are interesting for what they do, and not what they are. The ending was a complete miss.

Not quite in the class as Wolfe or Banks. However, I am willing to try more of his works, especially Dhalgren and Nova. ( )
  crosbyp | Nov 14, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 37 (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 (13 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--
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It's a port city.
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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