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3.79  ·  Rating Details  ·  7,360 Ratings  ·  407 Reviews
Babel-17 is all about the power of language. Humanity, which has spread throughout the universe, is involved in a war with the Invaders, who have been covertly assassinating officials and sabotaging spaceships. The only clues humanity has to go on are strange alien messages that have been intercepted in space. Poet and linguist Rydra Wong is determined to understand the la ...more
Hardcover, 158 pages
Published June 1st 1978 by Gregg Press (first published May 1966)
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Grass by Sheri S. TepperParable of the Sower by Octavia E. ButlerThe Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat by Harry HarrisonThe Anubis Gates by Tim PowersBlood Music by Greg Bear
Most Under-rated Science Fiction
14th out of 1,122 books — 1,304 voters
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Excellent Space Opera
76th out of 359 books — 1,957 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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I have always believed that the language you speak determines the way you think. How else can it be, really?

I am a trilingual person who has quite a few monolingual family members, and I can't even tell you how many times in frustrated fascination I have contemplated the peculiarities of languages, the plays on words that are often impossible to translate, the confusing idioms, and the frustrating lack of certain concepts in one language as compared to another. So many times I realized that mer
When you revisit something after a long interval, you never know what you're going to get. A few days ago, I read The Story of the Amulet, the third volume in the E. Nesbit trilogy that starts with Five Children and It. I had been meaning to check this out since I was about 7, but somehow never located a copy. I was worried that I'd left it too late, but in the event there was no problem: it was terrific.

So when I saw a copy of Babel-17 in a second-hand bookstore yesterday, I was optimistic. I r
Jul 01, 2015 Elizabeth rated it really liked it
This is one science fiction’s classics and I can see why. Delany’s writing is magnificent. It’s very literary compared to a lot of SF and actually a lot of the plot is to do with language. It centres around a woman called Rydra Wong who is a gifted poet and linguist in a far future where analliance ofhumans and aliens is at war with other aliens. She is approached by the military to decode a strange language that appears to be being used to sabotage weapons and ships across thegalaxy. Delany’s p ...more
Dirk Grobbelaar
The linguistic issue introduced here is not entirely new. For example, in The Languages of Pao (Jack Vance) a similar theme is addressed. Babel-17, however, is considered a Science Fiction classic. It was released around the same time as Dune, with a year or so separating them. Therein lies the problem. Dune had become the new standard, or benchmark, against which all Space Operas were gauged. And it had set the standard pretty darn high. So, Babel-17 is a colourful, clever book, but it's no Dun ...more
Jan 23, 2015 Stuart rated it really liked it
Wow, Samuel "Chip" Delany wrote (at the ripe young age of 23!) an amazing new-wave SF space opera about a starship captain, linguist, poet, and telepath named Rydra Wong who is desperately trying to solve the mystery of what Babel-17 is and how it is being used by the Invaders against the alliance. It explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of language and how it shapes personality, thought and actions, and spins off dozens of other fascinating ideas and images in just under 200 pages.

Anybody who i
Dec 06, 2012 Apatt rated it really liked it
Samuel R. Delany was on a short list of famous sf authors I have never read, the list includes Cordwainer Smith, Henry Kuttner, C. J. Cherryh, Stephen Baxter and Neal Asher. I will try to get to all of them next year, any recommendations concerning these authors would be welcome.

Babel-17 is a very short novel (too long to be a novella may be) about the power of language, a culture called The Invaders creates a language which can be used to control thoughts and actions through the structure and c
Ben Loory
Nov 27, 2011 Ben Loory rated it really liked it
gets a little confused/confusing after the midway point, but delany's writing (at least on these early books) is so fast and fun and clear and smart, it's easy to overlook the flaws... this kind of space opera is so much more fun than the heavy realistic dune-type stuff that kinda took over the genre soonafter... there's so much more room here to feel and breath and enjoy things, it's really exhilarating... not as brilliant and expansive as Nova, maybe, but just as vivid and alive... makes you w ...more
Jo Walton's take:

12.0% "Liked the kindle sample and picked it up. Seems much more likeable than Einstein Intersection. :)"
17.0% ""He was unkempt and towheaded and sapphire-eyed, but the only cosmetisurgery evident was the bright rose growing on his shoulder.""
35.0% ""The discorporate crew deperceptualized.""
50.0% "I'm swimming in language theory, and it's cool."
81.0% "Now it's being weird."

All done. I think I liked the first half better than the second ha
A lively, interesting young novel that is very clearly written by a very young man, who is very impressed with himself. I found I wanted to like it more than I actually did - because I like what it is trying to do, both ideologically and artistically, but I'm not convinced by how it's actually done. Overall feels rather light and stilted, and I found it particularly annoying how Delany would happily lecture his readers on any subject that came to hand, despite being monumentally and disintereste ...more
Lit Bug
Babel-17 is one of the greatest classics in the history of literary SF, and I now know why. Delany is a veritable genius - what we gush about today in Mieville is but a more sophisticated, more complex offshoot of Delany's ingenious conceptions of making the abstract concrete.

Language is what defines us, our thoughts, our perceptions. What separates our critical thinking processes is the perception of I as different from you, the awareness of an independent conscious existence

What happens when y
I don't get this book.
Worse, I don't buy its setting. If it was comedy or possibly allegory, fine. But it seems to be Big Idea SF. Or is it? It's so preposterous and baroque (it's even got ghosts) that I'm not sure. I don't find it particularly funny anyway.
Still worse, the ending is painfully bad. Exposition! The mysteries are revealed! Lots of books are like this but this time we get preached bad science and plain nonsense. The final clever trick theatratically revelead to the reader involves
Matt Weber
Jan 15, 2013 Matt Weber rated it really liked it
"Ruby and Python are on display this evening." This is, unfortunately, the line that will probably most stick with me from the book -- in a book written in 1966, that compares natural and computer languages using the examples of Fortran and Algol, how can you not love this? (Ruby and Python are wrestlers in context; the line is a throwaway. It's just such a fantastic coincidence.)

Beautifully written, obviously, but the idea of weaponizing language does fall a bit short of its potential, and ther
Nov 28, 2010 DoctorM rated it liked it
Samuel R. Delany was always one of the great wasted talents of sci-fi. In the very early Sixties, he was one of the first writers to bring a deliberately literary edge to sci-fi, to try to go beyond the hard-science, alien invasion, starship wars conventions of the genre. Delany's early books just turned genre tales inside out, and by the time he reached "The Einstein Intersection" and "Nova" at decade's end, he was writing beautiful, eerie, thought-provoking tales that let you feel part of new ...more
Feb 18, 2012 Algernon rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012
[9/10] Spectacular. I can see whay it has won some literary prizes back in its day. It packs quite a lot of ideas for the number of pages it has. Most of those ideas relate to language and communication, but there is also weapon development, faster than light navigation, genetic enhancement, a bit of battle action and a memorable trip through a dystopian city peopled with oddball characters, both alive and incorporate.

Beyond the scientific speculations, I have to comment on the narrative style o
Jan 13, 2015 Craig rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: afrogeek
Critics and fans tend to divide the work of Samuel R. Delany into two periods: pre-and-post Dhalgren. The argument is that Dhalgren marked a change both stylistically ( non-linear narrative, postmodern techniques) and subject matter (eroticism, power differentials, and liminality).

While Babel-17 does have a more straightforward, genre-cognizant plot, the trippy, mind-fuck aspects of his later work are very much in evidence. The story concerns a poet/linguist/starship captain(!) and her attempts
Linguistics, yay! You know, I've studied linguistics besides of computer science. So, this important work of mixing SF with linguistic motives was interesting 20 years after university.

At the time Babel-17 was published in 1966 (and won the Nebula Award), Linguistic relativity - in short: language structure forms the world-view - was considered to be a valid theory. I don't want to bother you with details like the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or absence of pronouns. Just let me tell you that I
James Chatham
Babel-17 is a classic far-future science fiction novel revolving around language and communication. It opens following a military official, General Forester, as he searches for a famous poet, Rydra Wong, to ask her to translate a message broadcast in an alien language (Babel-17) alongside an Invader attack.

I loved the exploration of the themes of language and the differences between languages and how different peoples communicate; however, I felt that the philosophy of language and communication
Feb 13, 2010 Gabriel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
To read something so playful in language, so inventive in language, is a treat. To read something so intelligent regarding language, to decide what language is important and how it becomes important and why different languages may possibly lead to different cultural ideas (and vice versa) is also a treat. To have it wrapped in a wonderful bundle of book full of spies, "pirates", Galactic War, far-flung trips through space, aliens, futuristic foods and body modification ... goes beyond the richne ...more
Jun 29, 2013 sologdin rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: speculative
Nutshell: intense translation thriller in which the military very rationally calls upon a poet to stop intergalactic invasion.

I’m starting to think that there’s nothing in Mieville that wasn’t first in Delany. I’ve not read Embassytown, so it’s not the linguistic stuff. Rather, the remade bodies, the lyric prose, the high-minded philosophy, the leftwing politics. I guess if Delany is SF’s James Joyce, Mieville will be content to be SF’s Pynchon.

Antecedent to Scott Bakker to the extent it lays ou
DeAnna Knippling
Apr 22, 2016 DeAnna Knippling rated it it was amazing
Shelves: diverse-books
Chip Delaney is smarter than I am, or will ever dream to be. This was amazing.

I had a hard time coping with the lack of setting detail, until I went, "Oh, this is more like a radio drama," and things clicked into place. But really, it could have just been that the author didn't give a damn whether I suspended disbelief or not--and, because I just assume that writers are supposed to suspend their readers' disbelief, it felt awkward. A translation issue :)

Jackie "the Librarian"
Oct 08, 2015 Jackie "the Librarian" rated it it was amazing
I found this book at the University of Washington bookstore, in the textbooks and assigned reading section, what better place to find deep, interesting books, right?

I was in high school, and the premise, about the power of language to convey information wrapped in a SF thriller, blew my teenage mind. I'm not surprised this has never been made into a movie - even with the crazy futuristic body modifications and space ship pirates, this is a book about words and meanings. How the way you think can
Oct 08, 2011 Rob rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
...Babel-17 certainly deserves its status as a classic of the genre. Although a linguist would probably have a field day pointing out all the errors in Delany's novel, and the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is currently considered disproven, Delany has managed to build a very good novel around these concepts. It is a novel that does what science fiction ought to do, provoke thought on scientific theories and concepts that are packed into a good story. It's obvious why this novel ma ...more
Jim Parker
Jul 05, 2014 Jim Parker rated it it was amazing
This is the 2nd book by Samuel R. Delany that I have read. The first was his classic science fiction work, Dhalgren. Babel-17 is very different from Dhalgren, yet the prose and poetry are still far above most literature in this genre. To say that the world of Dhalgren is dystopic would be an understatement.

Babel-17 is on the surface a space battle but the underlying them is language. The female protagonist of the book is a combination poet, space captain, and linguist. Anyone who cares for scie
Zachary Jernigan
Jun 23, 2015 Zachary Jernigan rated it it was amazing
OBJECTIVE RATING (my best stab at looking at the book's merits, regardless of whether or not I enjoyed it all that much): 4.5

PERSONAL RATING (how much the book "worked" for me personally): 5

Though Delany would go on to write more mature and nuanced works, Babel-17 is still my favorite of his novels. It shows the author at his most straightforward and geekily science fictional, giving vent to the urge to write an adventure story with clear literary pretension.

Not everything works in the story, o
Feb 16, 2016 P D rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In science fiction, Clarke's "sufficiently advanced technology" tends to extrapolate from the far advancement of one particular branch of science or technology: warp drives, positronic brains, what have you.

In this book, the particular science extrapolated into near-magic is linguistics.

Set against a backdrop reminiscent of other science fiction classics—spaceships, an ongoing conflict, even a lively counterculture—we meet Rydra Wong, a poet with an extraordinary gift for languages who has been
Buck Ward
Some random thoughts on Babel-17

My initial reaction, at the beginning of it, was that it was like Ted Chiang's The Story of Your Life, but then, it diverges, and it really isn't like that at all.

I found the shifts a little jarring. There are changes of scene, story shifts without segues. It takes awhile to realize what's going on now with the story, but then it gradually begins to flow again, until the next shift.

I was amused at a couple of interesting what-they-can-do-in-the-future things. A c
Tudor Ciocarlie
Jul 04, 2011 Tudor Ciocarlie rated it it was amazing
Shelves: jo-waltons-rec
Wonderful book! I don't care that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the idea that language shapes perception to such an extent that thinking in a different language gives you a different perception) is now disproved. SF is all about the scientific method. And Delany exploration of a fascinating world in which the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis works and his journey into the human condition, is science-fiction at its best.
Tim (Urges)
Oct 11, 2015 Tim (Urges) rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Until something is named, it doesn't exist."

Does thought create language? Or does language create thought?
A mind-opening sci-fi about language and its power.
May 04, 2010 Steven rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“Abstract thoughts in a blue room: Nominative, genitive, elative, accusative one, accusative two, ablative, partitive, illative, instructive, abessive, adessive, inessive, essive, allative, translative, comatative.” Delany's work is always intriguing, and I enjoyed this more than The Einstein Intersection, which dealt more with music than language. Rydra Wong and her ragtag crew of cosmetically altered misfits fly in the ship Rimbaud, named for the legendary French poet, on a mission to find the ...more
Nov 01, 2011 Maree rated it liked it
The discussion of communication in this book was fabulous. How language shapes us and our impressions with incomplete meanings and how some words are simple to one culture and incomprehensible to another. I realize that in the context of this book, we're talking about alien cultures, but really, this could be applied so close to home it's not even funny. We've gotten better in recent years as we've come closer to single uniting language, but English (or French) is still not perfect for exact exp ...more
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Samuel Ray Delany, also known as "Chip," is an award-winning American science fiction author. He was born to a prominent black family on April 1, 1942, and raised in Harlem. His mother, Margaret Carey Boyd Delany, was a library clerk in the New York Public Library system. His father, Samuel Ray Delany, Senior, ran a successful Harlem undertaking establishment, Levy & Delany Funeral Home, on 7t ...more
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“ABSTRACT THOUGHTS in a blue room; Nominative, genitive, etative, accusative one, accusative two, ablative, partitive, illative, instructive, abessive, adessive, inessive, essive, allative, translative, comitative. Sixteen cases of the Finnish noun. Odd, some languages get by with only singular and plural. The American Indian languages even failed to distinguish number. Except Sioux, in which there was a plural only for animate objects. The blue room was round and warm and smooth. No way to say warm in French. There was only hot and tepid If there's no word for it, how do you think about it? And, if there isn't the proper form, you don't have the how even if you have the words. Imagine, in Spanish having to assign a sex to every object: dog, table, tree, can-opener. Imagine, in Hungarian, not being able to assign a sex to anything: he, she, it all the same word. Thou art my friend, but you are my king; thus the distinctions of Elizabeth the First's English. But with some oriental languages, which all but dispense with gender and number, you are my friend, you are my parent, and YOU are my priest, and YOU are my king, and YOU are my servant, and YOU are my servant whom I'm going to fire tomorrow if YOU don't watch it, and YOU are my king whose policies I totally disagree with and have sawdust in YOUR head instead of brains, YOUR highness, and YOU may be my friend, but I'm still gonna smack YOU up side the head if YOU ever say that to me again;
And who the hell are you anyway . . .?”
“Sometimes you want to say things, and you're missing an idea to make them with, and missing a word to make the idea with. In the beginning was the word. That's how somebody tried to explain it once. Until something is named, it doesn't exist.” 12 likes
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