Babel-17 by Samuel Delany


Rating: ★★★

I’m giving it three stars because ultimately I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.

Rydra Wong is a poet and something of an expert in language. The Alliance needs her help translating the language of the Invaders, what they refer to as: Babel-17. They believe transmissions of this language coincide with attacks and assassinations happening around the galaxy. Rydra gathers up a space flight crew and sets out to gather as much information as she can about Babel-17.

I don’t want to say the plot is a mess- because I actually enjoyed the plot. I liked the mystery/conspiracy of it and thought it was very clever. But I also felt confused a lot of the time. I got hung up on a lot of the details that made some aspects of it very fuzzy.

There were no long info dumps- which is good- but neither was there any natural unfolding of the history between the Alliance and the Invaders. So while the plot was fun- I was sort of left with this feeling of: “Yeah but why?” Why do I care? Why am I being told this story? Why are the Invaders invading? Who am I rooting for here?

The world building was pretty good for a short book. It’s very impressive that this was written in 1966. Not being up-to-date on some of the classics- it’s hard for me to say definitively this inspired a lot of what came after- but it certainly feels that way. We have disincorporated crew members (dead people- but I’m still not sure if they were ghosts or zombies), insane cosmetisurgery (one guy installs a dragon in his shoulder?), and all manner of skin colors and sexualities. The world (which I think is earth) felt nothing like the earth today.

The concept of the book, language, how we use it, the different types that there are, how it shapes how we think, was absolutely brilliant. It will get you thinking about language in ways that probably never occurred to you before. I think if you are passionate about language or speak multiple languages- you will appreciate the book more than I was able to.

I think I just felt too confused about a lot of things happening to really push it into the realm of a four or five star read for me. I often had a difficult time imagining the setting and the sequence of events. I always felt like I was missing some key piece of information. If this had been given another hundred pages to hammer down the details I think I would have loved it.


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