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 incredibly beautiful prose. True, it can be a bit dense, but it also reads like pure poetry and any effort on the reader’s part is well worth it.

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, 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, and the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, the 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 Delany as one of my favorite writers. It’s not perfect, but it is a great book.

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