Book Review: Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

A few weeks ago I reviewed Samuel R. Delany’s enigmatic book, “The Einstein Intersection.” Today, I’m going over another one of his New Wave novels–no, not “Dhalgren” (though that will appear on here eventually)–but “Babel-17.” Written when he was just 23 years old, it tied with “Flowers for Algernon” for Best Novel at the Nebulas in 1967.

Even at a young age, Delany writes in a beautiful poetic prose. The world of the book is also fascinating. The premise is that far in the future, during an interstellar war, Earth’s side begins to pick up bizarre radio signals during attacks. They christen this code, or language, as Babel-17, and enlist a genius poet/linguist to crack it. Along the way, she gets an oddball crew of her own to pilot a ship to help her in her quest to solve the mystery.

The problem is just how interesting this world is. Between ghosts, poetry, people genetically modified to resemble dragons, Delany’s world is brimming with life, but at only 180 pages, there’s inadequate time to fully explore everything. I also was a little disappointed with the ending, but for the exact opposite reason. Delaney explains everything about Babel-17 and the attacks and–it’s a bit anti-climatic. A part of me feels like it would have been much better had Delany left a bit more mystery there.

But “Babel-17” is still a hell of a read. It confirmed Delane as one of my favorite writers and is never a chore to read. It’s not perfect, but it is a great book.

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Book Review: The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany

The New Wave movement in science fiction was an attempt at composing more “literary” genre books: less escapism, more beautiful writing and deep themes. Writers associated with this include Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, and many others. Among them, one of the most prominent was also one of the youngest: Samuel R. Delany, who won a Nebula award for best novel when he was only 24. In these earlyish works, his prose reads like pure poetry and the ideas behind his books are incredibly thought provoking. “Babel-17,” the book that won the award, explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language effects how we think and express ourselves. His follow up, published just a year later, would win him a second Nebula.

“The Einstein Intersection” is the New Wave at the New Waviest. It’s the story of aliens who have come to live on Earth and live out humanity’s myths. The main plot follows a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, but there are also biblical hints of Jesus, the Minotaur, and contemporary figures who presumably got myth status in the future (like Ringo Starr). Preceding each chapter are quotes from philosophers and occasional passages from Delany’s journal as he wrote this.

My only reservation about this is the length. It’s more novella than novel with around 140 pages. It’s incredible just how much Delany can get out of that few pages but I would have liked to see more of the interesting world he built, with three genders, dragon wranglers, genetic mutations, and, of course, the myths.

Fans of light, adventurous science fiction will probably not like this. There are a few action scenes but they are never the focus. Upon a first read, most people will probably be confused at a number of parts, especially the ending. When it first came out and garnered acclaim, there was a fair amount of backlash labeling it “pretentious literary nonsense” (and other New Wave books as well). Even at his most tame, Delany is still controversial (and this is by far Delany at his most tame. His later works are…pornographic).

Though I cannot bring myself to recommend this to everyone, if you’re intrigued by the premise, check it out. One of the best I’ve read this year.