Samuel R. Delany is the perfect example of a writer’s writer. Although he won two Hugo Awards, his fame stems mostly from the respect of his fellow science fiction and fantasy writers, as evidenced by his winning four Nebula Awards, including one for this novel, Babel-17.
The novel follows a poet, linguist, polyglot, and code breaker named Rydra Wong, who is tasked with translating Babel-17, thought of previously as a code before Wong discovers that it is actually a language. Not long after the story begins, she gets a crew together with the intention of traveling into space to find the origin of the language in an effort to complete her translation.
Among science fiction heroines, Rydra Wong really is on the top of the pack. She’s perfectly written, with brilliance and real depth that speaks to the quality of Samuel R. Delany’s writing ability. Babel-17 isn’t an action centric novel, but Wong seems always capable of solving every problem using her intellect. To make things more interesting, her work as a poet has made her an intergalactic celebrity, so she is treated differently in the novel than other characters on the strength of her artistic work. It is clear very quickly that she is a lot more than a good poet.
Babel-17 as a novel is a linguistic wonder, as Delany plays with language in a story about interpreting language, in a wonderfully created piece that, despite some occasional pacing issues, is the kind of novel that writers read and think “I wish I had written this.” Getting a digital copy of the novel is nearly impossible without illicit means, but it is well worth finding it in print. One should stop sort of saying that it is one of the all-time classics of the genre, as the plot doesn’t really do much and the narrative is more of a vessel for creative investigation into the nature of linguistics. Babel-17 isn’t really about the story; it’s about the way stories are told. Definitely a worthy, clever read that was deserving of its previous accolades.
Rating: 4 stars (of 5)
Most of Samuel R. Delany‘s work is still available in physical form from Amazon, including Babel-17. Unfortunately, the ebooks are hard to come by outside of the U.K. (where they are released mostly under the SF Masterworks label).