Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

Babel-17 concerns an alien invasion attempt but that doesn’t really matter.  Samuel R. Delany’s main concern in Babel-17 is language.  What is the future of language?  How might exposure to alien language’s affect us. As a sub-plot, or sub-concern, there is a question of what my sexuality look like in the future something Delany has often been interested in.

He has some intriguing ideas.

Babel-17 features a set of characters who are a trio, two men and one woman.  They more than love each other, they have minds that function together to help pilot the space ship in the novel.  Many such sets of three exist in Delany’s future.   The two men in this story are looking for a woman to replace their original third who has died.  Their captain helps them find a woman who was formerly part of trio. Her two mates, both men, died years ago.

This is really interesting idea, if a somewhat squeamish one.  I’ve long admired Samuel R. Delany, and other science fiction writers of his generation, for their willingness to examine how sexuality and love might change in the future.  It’s an interesting aspect of Babel-17, thought not the book’s main concern, as I said.

The main concern is language.  The hero of the novel, the ship captain mentioned earlier, is a famed poet and an expert in language.  She has been put in charge of deciphering the new alien language Babel-17 as a means of defeating the invasion.  She is somewhat telepathic, something many people will be in Delany’s future, so she is able to hear language where others cannot.

Much of this book went over my head.  It’s something that would benefit from having a professor guide you through.  I meant to look it up on-line before typing up this review and may get around to it someday.

But while I didn’t understand all of it, I did enjoy it and I do admire Delany’s writing. There is a wonderful passage where the ship captain is dreaming in the new language.  We read this dream as a single, four page, sentence interspersed with block of text that describe what is going on outside the ship captain’s dream in the “real” world.

I thought it was terrific.

So terrific that I am keeping my copy of Babel-17 on the to-be-reread-in-retirement shelf.

Sometimes you get so much more out of a second reading.

2 thoughts on “Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

  1. I reviewed this one on Sept. 27, 2012 in case you’re interested. One of the keys to understanding the story is knowing that it was based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of language, which is also part of the plot of the recent movie Arrival.

  2. Hm, the fact it features aliens would be a turn off for me. Add to that the likliehood that most of it would go over my head also and I come to the conclusion this wouldnt be one for me to read

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