Babel-17 Samuel R. Delany

Jun 28, 2015 review (read between Feb 17, 2015 – Mar 1, 2015)

1st reading read review on Goodreads

Note: The book also came with the novella Empire Star, also written by Samuel R. Delany, but I only read the Babel-17 portion of it.

I finished Babel-17 a little over three months ago but neglected to write a review until now. Mainly due to work and other circumstances, but also because I was so put off by the book. I can’t say I’ve ever read an award-winning science fiction novel that disagreed with me as much as Babel-17 (I absolutely loathed Forever Free by Joe Haldeman but that wasn’t an award winning book).

Which isn’t to say that the book is necessarily bad. Babel-17 was first published in 1966, around the time when science fiction began exploring new and speculative subject matter (Frank Herbert and Ursula K. Le Guin come to mind) and I’m sure back then Samuel R. Delany and Babel-17 helped expand the genre’s realms. Reading it now, however, I just see a jumbled mess of a narrative with some interesting ideas. And I think the jumbled mess of a narrative was intentional.

The main issue is that I’m not overly interested (or familiar) with the central themes of Babel-17: language/linguistics and its power. As a result, I found the book incredibly obtuse and confusing. It was also awfully dense, although I think that’s more because Delany tried to fit this linguistic mystery set in a grand sci-fi setting into less than 200 pages. The most disappointing thing for me is that between the lengthy monologues and expositions on language (urgh) there are the makings of a grand adventure in an incredibly interesting sci-fi universe. The alliances and wars spanning multiple galaxies, the discorporeal crew members (the crew in general was kinda wild)… Unfortunately, Delany just glances over world-building and by the second half of the book it’s practically nothing but the hardcore linguistics stuff. I should have seen it coming, especially when they introduced the main character, the heroic starship commander and poet. Bleh.