Babel-17 – by Samuel R. Delany

Cover of 1969 Ace Books edition

Style – While entirely focused on Rydra as uncontested protagonist of the story, the third-person narration switches between multiple points of view for a dramatic effect: at first, in fact, we’re not made privy to the main character’s thoughts and inner life, and instead we see her through the eyes of secondary characters, at the same time preserving a sense of mystery and offering a few first-hand examples of the strong impression she tends to make on other people. Later on, when we have access to Rydra’s own point of view, we get acquainted with her linguistic speculations, as well as with the way the process of learning Babel-17 is affecting her own thoughts, even though the full implications will only become clear – to us as well as to Rydra – at the very end of the book.

The prose is rich and vibrant, even luxuriant in its imagery, in a way that may perhaps be perceived as overindulgent, but that’s certainly very creative and memorable. While many classic SF authors treated language as means to an end, adopting a perfunctory style not to steal any glimpse of attention from the content, Delany seems to be equally devoted to sharing thought-provoking concepts and to crafting pieces of luscious beauty.

Plot StructureBabel-17 is divided in five parts, each named after a significant character or location; the first sequence works as an introduction to both the main character and setting at large, as well as laying out the mystery Rydra is asked to unravel; the following three have the story move forward, and the enigma only get puzzling with each subsequent tableau; while the final part comes with a very deserved resolution.

For all its undeniable philosophical bent, the book has no shortage of daring action, from underground fights to space battles, embracing its own pulpy side with no embarrassment whatsoever. The “mystery” itself, while somehow abstract in its nature, is gripping enough to keep the reader invested, especially as the additional threat of an elusive traitor is added to the mix.


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