Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

25 September, 2012

They call it Babel-17, this mind-twisting, multi-dimensional language – and it frightened Rydra Wong. For Babel-17 was not just a system of words, Babel-17 was a whole new way ot thinking. Lightning-swift and horrifyingly effective, it was the Invaders’ subtlest weapon, clawing constantly at the Alliance’s Imperial outposts. Only Captain Wong could comprehend it, but could even she, the Alliance’s most brilliant poet, hope to control the corrupting power of its words?

My friend H first introduced me to Samuel R. Delany over a year ago. She has been slowly going through his novels and spoke about him every time we met. I was intrigued for Delany sounded different to the conventional sf writer; visionary, intellectual, radical. I was a little afraid to try him but then I came across a copy of his book at my local charity shop and snap it up I did. And then I got an e-mail from Aarti inviting me to participate in her blog tour for A More Diverse Universe and I thought Babel-17 would be perfect. For Delany is African-American and gay (although his sexuality and relationship status is rather complicated).

And you know what? I was totally. blown. away. Babel-17 is a slim book and yet it is a substantial one in thought and idea. Delany’s writing style is sophisticated and you immediately sense that here is someone who knows how to write. You know when you get that tingling feeling that you’ve stumbled upon a masterpiece? Yes, that.

Set several centuries in the future where life has spread out far from Earth, there have been several incidents of sabotage and terrorist bombs against the ruling hegemony, the Alliance. In this technologically advanced, decadent and deteriorating society, someone has been sending signals that no one can decipher. Except for one person. Rydra Wong is a celebrated poet with a gift for languages. She is given the commission of decoding this mysterious cypher known as Babel-17. She soon discovers that it’s not actually a code but a language like no other and her interest is peaked. Gathering herself a handpicked crew, she embarks on a journey to deconstruct this language and in doing so, come to terms with her traumatic past.

But Rydra’s ship is soon captured by a vessel situated in the region between the two warring factions, just out of the jurisdiction of Rydra’s society. Full of societal misfits, Rydra soon gets to know the captain and his comrades including the mysterious convict named The Butcher. After gaining their trust, the captain agrees to escort Rydra to the next suspected destination of planned attack. And it isn’t long before Rydra realises the full extent of their enemy’s power and treachery.

This sounds like a conventional quest for the self but it is so much more. Considering Delany published Babel-17 in the late 60s, it has worn its age extremely well. He could have published it this year and no one would blink an eye. The ideas, projected advances in technology and culture seem contemporary in a Blade Runner and Neuromancer kind of way with hints of Michael Moorcock’s The Dancers at the End of Time. But what makes Babel-17 so special is the language and the thought processes behind it which reminds me strongly of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. Delany’s gift is that he holds back rather than overwhelm you with too much information, making you want to delve further into his world. There is a sparse beauty to his writing and since Rydra is a poet, she explores the complex beauty and power of language. And in this instance, the power that the language holds is immense. For Babel-17 will take over your thoughts, your memories and your actions. It’s a weapon like no other.

Like the language Babel-17, Delany’s story and style is subtle. You realise it while you are reading the book and it hits you again when you finish, as you try and work your mind around it. It’s certainly one that I would like to re-read. It’s been a while since I’ve read an sf book that has stunned me with it’s complexity and readability and I urge you all to try it. I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Delany’s books, although I have heard that some, such as Dhalgren, are rather extreme.

I read Babel-17 as part of A More Diverse Universe reading tour. If you are interested in more diverse sff, do check out the link where you’ll find lots of titles!

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27 Responses to “Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany”

  1. Carl V. Says:

    I have a lovely old copy of this book that I’ve been meaning to read for some time and your review makes a nice reminder. I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed it so much and am especially happy to hear that it doesn’t feel dated and feels relevant. Not that I particularly mind dated science fiction if the story is good, but it is extra special to read older stuff and find that it mostly feels as if it could have been written any time.

    • sakura Says:

      I don’t mind sf that’s dated either. In fact, I expect it to be inevitable so it’s a wonderful surprise when it isn’t. I’d love to see what you think of the book, Carl:)

  2. Shan Says:

    I’m always intrigued by older science fiction that stands the test of time and how the lessons they gave back then still hold true (or are coming true) now. This sounds fantastic, thanks for the review!


  3. […] and a stronger plot in POC-centered science-fiction, I’d suggest Nova, Babel-17 (reviewed at chasing bawa and to-be-reviewed at Necromancy Never Pays on Thursday), or Trouble on Triton over The Einstein […]

  4. Liviania Says:

    You compared this one to several books I LOVE. I’ll have to find a copy of this one!

  5. Laurie C Says:

    Wow! Great review! This one sounds fantastic! Love books about language and thought. I’ll have to try Iain M. Banks’ books too.

  6. Gavin Says:

    I have not read this one, but your review has me adding to my list. Thank you!

  7. aartichapati Says:

    This book sounds very difficult to read but perhaps is worth all of the effort it takes. I’m so glad it blew you away 🙂

    Thanks so much for participating!

    • sakura Says:

      It’s not actually difficult to read, rather that it explores some really interesting ideas which are quite deep and makes you think and it’s wonderful.


  8. Great review and sounds like a compelling read indeed. Love how these little gems pop up into our vision through charity shops or the like having resided in the subconscious for some time working their way into grabbing our attention – and then to read it and discover how great it was. I often wish those books that are just meant for us could somehow signal themselves off the shelves!

  9. Jeanne Says:

    I’m posting a review of this one on Thursday, and it’s a re-read for me, so my take on it was different. I enjoyed yours–it’s great to see someone new get acquainted with Delany’s spare style! And I so agree that it’s not dated. A SF author of my acquaintance says it’s hard to write so that events don’t overtake the science, but he certainly did a lasting job of that 50 years ago.


  10. […] by Susan Ee 4] Heather @ Capricious Reader – Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler 5] Sakura @ chasing bawa – Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany 6] Athira @ Reading on a Rainy Day – Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie 7] […]

  11. Val Says:

    I read this one a while ago. So far it is the first of Delany’s novels I’ve read and it does indeed work very well even today. I do think his treatment of hte Sapir-Whorf hypothesis does mark it as a novel of its time though. That idea is not nearly as popular in SF as it was in the late 60s and early 70s.

    • sakura Says:

      I had to google the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis after reading your comment! As I’m unfamiliar with it, I didn’t feel it was dated. However, it would be interesting to re-read the novel after learning a little of the theory so thank you:)

  12. Chinoiseries Says:

    Your review made me realise that I need to catch up on a lot of classic SF. (Am adding them to my tbr now). Babel-17 sounds like a brilliant book (written in the ’60s, really?) that SF fans will enjoy.

    • sakura Says:

      I haven’t really read much classic sf except for Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov so I’ve got a lot to catch up on. My friend who introduced me to Delany has been reading a lot of classic sf which her father collected so I’ll try and get some recs from her!

  13. amymckie Says:

    Thanks for this review, I’ve heard of Delany but never really read much about any particular work. This sounds like a great one so I’ll add it to my wish list!


  14. […] to be the season for reading classic Science Fiction authors that I haven’t read before. Sakura from Chasing Bawa reviews Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany published in 1966. After reading the review I went to […]


  15. The only one of his that I have on my shelves is Dhalgren, but I’m thinking that I should add this one: it sounds like a great place to begin with his work!

    • sakura Says:

      Dhalgren looks more complex (and bigger) but it is one that I do plan on reading soon. But yes, Babel-17 is quite slim so possibly quite a good one to start with. I’ve only read one book by Delany but it’s certainly whetted my appetite for his writing.


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