- A Standalone Novel
- First Published in 1967
- Reprinted under the Gollancz SF Masterworks banner
- Social SF
- 193 pages
A series of attacks have seemingly been planned in code. But when cryptographers are unable to decode the transmissions, they hand the recordings to a renowned poet, who soon learns that this is no code, but a language unlike any previously encountered . . .
You can say what you want about Samuel R. Delany (and I’ll have my share of criticisms later in this review) but it’d be difficult to deny that he is one of the most distinctive writers of science fiction out there. In terms of both ideas and prose style, it’s hard for me to name any other author, living or dead, who has similar work, though I can think of a fair few who cite Delany as one of their primary influences. It’s no secret that I’ve had occasion to dispute the ‘Masterworks’ label of Gollancz’ famous reprint series, but when it comes to Delany you’ll get no argument from me. I’m not always a fan of what he does, but his work is absolutely worthy of note, and of praise.
For the opening section of the novel (which is divided into five clear acts) I was absolutely enthralled by Delany’s story. His prose is incredibly vivid, and in just a handful of pages he builds an engaging setting, intriguing characters, and a central mystery that had my attention from the off. There were parts written in verse, which is only fitting for a book about a poet, and while I prefer my poetry more structured (I am, truly, the structure guy), it was relatively easy to follow. Having read Nova only two months ago, I thought I had a handle on Delany’s more esoteric tendencies.
Reader, I was mistaken.
Babel-17 goes to some very strange places. Thematically, there are some very interesting conversations about how our interpretation of reality is controlled by the languages we speak and think in. To be quite honest, a lot of this went straight over my head. It’s quite clear that Delane and I have differing philosophies on the nature of existence, but I enjoy hearing differing perspectives, so this wasn’t too much of a problem. Sometimes I read an author who is operating on a different level to me, and this definitely felt like one of those times.
Where Delany loses me is with how out-there his prose can be. I’m a big proponent of nice, simple writing. The more complex the ideas you’re dealing with, the more important it is that your explanation is easy to access. At least, that’s my perspective, because Delany clearly has different ideas. For a start, one of his characters never speaks the letter ‘p’ which makes reading dialogue a pain in the neck. Then the prose and verse flows together, meaning you get so caught up in the rhythm of a sentence, you can’t focus on the content. Oh, and later on in the book paragraphs float around and don’t actually connect to the main narrative. I have no idea where I am supposed to place them, and puzzling out how to read a book is not my idea of a good time.
Having read two Delany novels and found similar issues with each, I think I can safely conclude that Delany is not the author I should be reading for leisure. Nevertheless, I have nothing but respect for most of what he is doing, and encourage readers to seek him out and investigate for themselves.