the Little Red Reviewer

Babel-17 by Samuel Delany

Posted on: January 6, 2015

babel17 cover open roadBabel-17 by Samuel Delany

published in 1966

where I got it: received review copy from Open Road Media










Samuel Delany wrote Babel-17 when he was in his mid 20s, and in a very short novel he offers up fascinating linguistic theories and applications, compelling characters and social situations, and intergalactic war.  The too long didn’t read version of this review is I absolutely loved Babel-17.  It doesn’t feel dated, Delany’s stylistic experiments paid off, and it’s just a damn gorgeous book to read. Everyone else must have thought so as well, as it was a joint winner for the Nebula Award for best novel, and nominated for a Hugo.


Rydra Wong is a young and intensely talented poet, and her books and poems are known throughout the galaxy. She doubts her own talent, and feels that she only writing what other people have already thought but couldn’t come up with the words for. Recruited by the government for her linguistics talents to decode a message picked up from the invaders, she quickly realizes this isn’t a code, but an entire language, and she soons become desperate to learn the entire thing.  On a mission to both acquire more snippets of the Babel-17 language and learn where it originated, Wong is given a ship and her choice of crewmates.


Nothing about Babel-17 is done or shown in an expected way, and I loved that. When Wong is looking to recruit a crew for her ship, she shops for a pilot at a wrestling match, tries to fix up a broken marriage with help from the morgue, and even recruits few completely discorporate (dead) crewmembers. Weird at first for me, but easy to get used to and hella fun.


My favorite things about the book were the discussions of language and communication, and the character interactions While in discussions with her mentor, Rydra mentions that she only reflects other people’s thoughts, she’s putting words to things they don’t (or feel they don’t) have words for. This is one of my favorite passages about how and why she writes poetry:


“You know what I do? I listen to other people, stumbling about with their half thoughts and half sentences and their clumsy feelings that they can’t express – and it hurts me. So I go home and burnish it and polish it and weld it to a rhythmic frame, make the dull colors gleam, mute the garish artificiality to pastels, so it doesn’t hurt anymore: that’s my poem.”

She’s a bit of a mind reader, so more often than not people read her poetry and say “that’s exactly what I was thinking, I just didn’t know how to say it”, and yes, it *is* exactly what they were thinking.  That dynamic reminded me a little of Siri Keeton from Blindsight, where he knows exactly what you mean, what you meant to say, even if he doesn’t really understand the words that come out of your mouth.  A galactically known celebrity and polyglot, Rydra is in more ways than one our perfect ambassador to an unknown enemy.


As Rydra comes to understand more about how Babel-17 works, she tries to explain it to a few of her confidants. She shows how a tiny made up word can easily carry fathoms of information, and references an alien culture friendly to Earth who uses one short phrase to describe the entire inner designs of a spaceship. We’ve all laughed about phrases in other languages that don’t quite translate to English, and this is a little like that, just on a much larger scale. There is also a lot of discussion of the connection between ideas and words, and what might happen when your language doesn’t have a word for something. Most science fiction novels focus around astrophysics as the science, some focus around biology. How fun to read a scifi novel about linguistics and how language reflects and influences our culture and thought processes.


The characters were fantastic too, especially her crew.  It’s the norm for navigators to be hired in a team of three, because you are hiring a married triple. Rydra sympathetically helps her two widower navigators find a bride because she too was in a triple and lost both of her husbands in an accident.  There are also her discorporate crew-mates who are responsible for a type of reconnaissance that is in effect radar and sonar, but is done through sound, sight and smell. Known as the ear, nose, and eyes, this triple consists of ghostly spirits who tell her what they see, smell and hear around the ship in a nearly synesthetic type way. For example, when asking for more details regarding the docking location, their answers include “In the sound of the E-minor triad”, “In the hot oil you can smell bubbling to your left” and “Home in on that white circle”.


Without special gear, regular humans immediately forget what they’ve been told by a discorporate, so Rydra often repeats their words to herself in Basque. She might forget the specific words she used, but she just thinks to herself “what was I just translating into Basque?” and she remembers the gist of the conversation.


This is not a long book, and the story clips along at a pretty fast pace without ever feeling rushed.  As I mentioned, there is a lot of discussion on how language and communication works, and since it is presented through discussion and example, you don’t need to know anything about it ahead of time. You also won’t feel like you are reading a dissertation on linguistics, because the novel is full of fun character, high octane action, and bizarre bad guys.  Babel-17 kept me thinking long after I finished reading it, and I have a feeling it’ll become one of those titles I return to over and over, always getting something new out of.


In previous years of doing Vintage Month, the books I read were directly influenced by what I could find in used bookstores. Not anymore!  Open Road Media and other publishers are converting older titles to e-book files so you don’t have to search through used bookstores.  Here’s a link to Open Road Media if you want to see the other Delany titles they have available as e-books.  (I’m not associated with them in any way, I just like and support what they are doing)


14 Responses to "Babel-17 by Samuel Delany"

I loved, loved, loved Babel-17! I just couldn’t put it down. Such a fun book and Rydra Wong is so cool.


Why haven’t I read this yet?! Why haven’t I read everything he has written yet?! Your review of this is making me drool even harder over this book than I already was. But that can only be a good thing.


Perhaps my single favorite Delany work — with Nova close behind.


This sounds fascinating, and it combines two of my interests — Sci Fi and language. 🙂 I’m adding it to my list. Thank you!


I need to check this out. I need to get through my backlog, so I can check this out.


Great review – and the book is amazing. My first Delany’s ever, it has hooked me to the author since then.


Ooh, I love the fact that this book welds poetry to space. Thanks for all the details in your review–1966 was an interesting time for sci-fi, just coming off the Fifties and just entering the actual space age. I’ve added this book to my list.


I loved this book a lot for the linguistics. Between college and highschool, I studied 6 languages, so a chunk of this book hit home for me. Plus, there is all that cool scifi stuff of modified humans, aliens, space travel. There is so much packed into this tiny book.


I had actually hoped to read this year year but it didn’t happen. Hopefully this year!


Maybe I should try this. Triton and Dhalgren didn’t work for me, but that may be user error?


Also? Babel-17 is super short.


I loved this book so much! Your review makes me itch to reread it!


I do like the sound of this one!! Damn – I’m going to need an extension on the house for all the books!!! (Hah – that would be the garage then???) – no, wait, the garage is too damp – we can live in the garage and the books can have the house. *simples*
Lynn 😀


I just borrowed from library this book and I plan to read it soon. Thanks for the interesting note.


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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