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Publisher's Summary

Babel-17, winner of the Nebula Award for best novel of the year, is a fascinating tale of a famous poet bent on deciphering a secret language that is the key to the enemy's deadly force, a task that requires she travel with a splendidly improbable crew to the site of the next attack.
©2015 Samuel R. Delaney (P)2015 Blackstone Audio, Inc., and Skyboat Media, Inc.
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
3 out of 5 stars
By Joe Kraus on 03-12-17

Great Concept, Not Quite the Narrative Tech

What do you think the narrator could have done better?

He has a beautiful voice, but his register is so low that it's sometimes hard to hear.

Any additional comments?

Reading this book is a little like going back and playing one of those early home video games, something like the first generation of Castle Wolfenstein. There’s something to it, something you know you sensed when you played the game way back when, but you can also clearly see how the technology limited the final effect.

This one has a fabulous premise: the “bad guys” develop a language that corrupts its speakers. It functions less like a human language and more like Fortran or Basic – languages that direct a machine to do a thing without giving it the vocabulary to comprehend itself. Without that sense of self – without the concept of “I” – it isn’t possible to resist the codes one’s programmed to do. In the world of the novel, it turns its speakers into sleeper double-agents, people who aren’t aware of their own duplicity.

I can give that kind of a summary largely because of what I learn in the final pages of the novel, when one of the characters – having been reprogrammed of deprogrammed – explains the phenomenon to everyone else. Otherwise, this is a hard-to-follow story. We get a lot of quick cuts, a lot of characters introduced by pronouns rather than given names, and a lot of action committed by characters under the control of other wills.

Much of the story moves forward through dialogue, often a clunky narrative technology but especially so here. How, I ask, can we contemplate the power of language when we are so trapped in conversation. There are “technologies” that might work better – stream-of-consciousness, multiple narrators, deliberate fragmentation – but Delaney tends to stay with a conventional approach here. He does push against it a little – we get some attempts at weird-angle limited omniscient third person and he opens each chapter with long, allusive quotes from Marilyn Hacker’s poetry – but, ultimately, he doesn’t seem to have the tools to get his fabulous question across.

I don’t think he’s alone. I’m cooler on his contemporary Philip K. Dick than most, and there was a lot of other high concept, overly pedantic sci-fi in those era. It was common for sci-fi to come across as cold, peopled with characters who seem props for ideas rather than characters in their own right. In some ways, the original Star Trek had the same problems: big ideas without quite the special effects to pull them off. It took Star Wars (on screen) and Dune (in print) to begin to develop that technology, and now we have Guardians of the Galaxy (on screen) and Neal Stephenson (in print, when he’s on his game).

There’s certainly something here, and I also acknowledge I read this too quickly to get everything from it. I suspect I’d have been in awe of it if I stumbled onto it as a 13-year-old in 1978. I don’t mean to say I’d have gotten all the bio-linguistic points it raised, merely that I think I’d have sense it even then as pushing toward something it couldn’t quite yet say.

I have the chance to hear Delaney a few weeks from now, and I’m keeping an open mind. I’m blaming him here for a limited technology, but it’s just as possible I’m not bringing all the reading tools to this that I should.

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3 of 4 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars
By sanug on 02-07-16

Wonderful performance

Samuel Delany wrote a masterpiece. Lots of things to make you think about language and meaning. Good work on how creating a future society, and what it would look like, and how folks would get along with one another. Normalized being in a threesome sexually.

Performance of both male and female parts was extraordinarily well done.

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1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
2 out of 5 stars
By Lachlan on 06-26-17

Many good but half-baked ideas

I struggled with this one. There is so much potential here, and you can tell the author is extremely keen to weave together a good story, but it falls short in its development of ideas and machanisms.

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3 out of 5 stars
By carl on 05-25-16

Not my cup of tea but interesting concept

Like what I said in the title, just interesting enough for me not too return it, but it barely kept my attention

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