Book: Babel-17

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Author: Samuel R. Delany
Publisher: Ace Books

In the far future, after human civilization has spread through the galaxy, communications begin to arrive in an apparently alien language. They appear to threaten invasion, but in order to counter the threat, the messages must first be understood.


In 1967, Samuel R. Delany was young, gay, black and possibly the hippest person on the planet. He was to write more perfect books than Babel-17, but it is perhaps the most delightful, clever and sensual of his works. Its set pieces—an extended wander through space-dock bars as poetess and code-breaker Rydra Wong assembles a crew for desperate adventures; a high society dinner that turns into mayhem; Rydra’s subversion/seduction of the sinister Butcher, who cannot say, or think, I, me or mine—are glorious in their arrogant sense that no-one has ever been this smart before. Rydra is one of those protagonists whom the author loves because he identifies with her, whom we love because we are overwhelmed by his infatuation. And the plot? Invaders from another part of human space are using as code a language which cannot be broken, and Rydra must save the day. As a meditation on language and thought, this is as sharp as its decor. Most important, though, is the complex, polymorphous sexiness of the whole thing—its sense of surgical chimerahood, life after death, and clone assassins as just unbearably hot and really really cool. —Roz Kaveney

Barnes and Noble

After years of being out of print, two of Samuel R. Delany’s masterworks are finally available again. Delany, who is described in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction as “one of the most influential and most discussed within the genre,” published Babel-17 and Empire Star in 1966. The former went on to win the Nebula Award for Best Novel.

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 language and stop the alien threat.

While I love reading classic science fiction, many times I’m disappointed because the stories have become so dated. Not so with these Delany gems. After almost four decades, these stories are just as fresh as they were back in 1966—true classics. (Paul Goat Allen)

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