by Samuel R. Delany

Cover image

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: 1966
Format: Mass market
Pages: 173

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After the first couple of pages of this book, I was worried that I was in for an annoying read. The prose starts out rather purple, something that isn't generally to my taste. Rather to my surprise, though, it settles down fairly quickly, as soon as the viewpoint character shifts, into a competent SF adventure and puzzle-solving story, admittedly with a bit of a dated premise.

To understand Babel-17, it's useful to be familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, since it heavily influences the main science-fiction content of the book. (Be careful reading this page, though, as there's a spoiler for Babel-17 in the references at the bottom of the fairly long article.) Briefly summarizing the excellent Wikipedia article, the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that human thought is constrained by language, and therefore people who speak one language may be able to think thoughts that others who speak a different language without words for those thoughts simply cannot think. (And, not as strongly, that some things will come much more easily and readily for people who speak one language than for people who speak a different language.)

In the above strong form, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been fairly thoroughly refuted by Noam Chomsky and others, so Babel-17 does feel a bit odd if one is familiar with the theory. If one forgives that with suspension of disbelief, though, such a theory makes for an intriguing concept on which to base a story, and is handled well here.

This book has much to recommend it in other areas. I found Delany's stellarmen with their culture of body modification fascinating, as was the use of ghosts for some stations on a starship and the unconventional relationship pairings of the navigators. It's unfortunate that there isn't more room in the story to explore some of that culture more; I would have liked to read more about it.

Babel-17 is quite short, more of a novella than a novel. It tries hard at establishing a good background for the story, but one mostly gets a flavor for the world rather than a real understanding, and some of the background props are rather undeveloped. There just isn't room. I wasn't completely happy with the ending; the explanation of what had been going on was delivered partly as a chunk of exposition that was difficult swallowing. That being said, the rest of the ending does salvage that a bit and go back to tie up other loose ends in a more rewarding way.

While Babel-17 does show its age in places, there's a bit more of a pulp feel than I personally prefer, there's a touch too much exposition in the payoff, and the theory on which it's based has been discredited, it's still a good read. It's mercifully well-paced and doesn't waste a lot of time getting down to the business of telling the story, something that many recent novels have trouble with.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-08-23

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21