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Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

Babel-17 - Samuel R. Delany

Rydra Wong, an ex-military cryptographer, a poet, and a linguist, has been approached by the military once again to help decipher the Babel-17 code used by the alien invaders in their many attacks. Rydra realizes that Babel-17 is not a code, but a language. After obtaining some of the original recordings, she has an intuitive guess as to where the next attack will occur. With the military’s blessing, she dusts off her captain’s wings and assembles a very colorful crew to head out to meet the threat and hopefully get to the root of the Babel-17 attacks.

I read the paperback version of this book some years ago as part ofLittle Red Reviewer’s yearly Vintage Science Fiction event. It was great then and I enjoyed it even more the second time through. There is a lot going on in this little book that was first published in the 1960s. First, our main hero is Rydra, a woman. Second, the cast of characters are quite varied – several have body modifications such as tattoos, spurs, enhanced bones, etc. Third, one of the core themes of the book is that language can influence thought patterns and behaviors of the speaker. I once studied a variety of languages, so I really enjoyed this aspect to the story.

Rydra is first introduced as a beautiful poet and, back in my first reading years ago, I thought this would be like so many beautiful damsel in distress SF stories that came out of the 1960s. Pretty quickly, we come to realize that Rydra is so much more that a poetic pretty face. For much of the book, she’s the one calling the shots and keeping her crew safe. I also liked her backstory that we learn mostly through her psychiatrist turned mentor and confidant. Rydra wasn’t always good at expressing herself.

Brass was my second favorite character. I picture him as a big lion that can leap about on all fours or walk on two legs, depending on what he wants to do. He’s a friendly brawler. He recently lost a loved one. It’s takes three to fly a ship and those three have to be in sync with each other and quite often the three are a loving triple. Rydra finds Brass and his partner a third at the morgue. Yep. There are dead flying zombies in this book, though the word ‘zombie’ is never used. In fact, Rydra’s search for a crew was quite amusing. She needs a port authority to approve the psych indices of her crew, so she hauls his reluctant butt around the port bars so he can approve on the spot and they can get in the air. He learns quite a bit that night and goes from looking down on such people to admiring several and continuing to visit the bars and watch the fights.

There’s this whole espionage feel to the quest. Babel-17 is an insidious language and slippery to describe, let alone translate. Rydra intuitively knows some of this but as she pieces more and more of it together, and as ‘accidents’ stat happening with her ship, she becomes more aware of just how important Babel-17 is to the attackers. Later in the story, we meet an escaped convict, the Butcher, and he becomes an important part of the story. Without spoiling anything, I just want to include that little snippet here to point out that the book has this continuing way of making the reader look at the second layer to each character. Rydra is more than a poet. Brass is more than a wrestler. The Butcher is more than a convict. These fascinating characters make for an excellent story.

Towards the end, the story leaves the comfort space of science fiction and gets a little fantasy genre on us. The first time I read this story, I didn’t understand all of what happened here but I understood enough to feel the story had a solid ending. The second time through, I get it a bit more but there’s still a few cloudy areas. I say this is probably the only weak spot to the story, but if you were to ask me after a third reading, I might disagree with myself. At any rate, the story does have a clear and solid ending that makes sense, even if the minute specifics of how we got there are a little muddled. It’s definitely a worthy read.

I received a copy of this audiobook at no cost from the publisher (viaAudiobook Jukebox) in exchange for an honest review.

The Narration: Stefan Rudnicki did a great job with this book. Some parts of it are a bit tricky to vocalize; for instance, the character Brass can’t shape the letter P, so Rudnicki had to leave any Ps out of Brass’s ‘accent’. He did this smoothly and I can only imagine that he had to practice a bit. He brought each character to life and managed all the accents described in the book, including the foreign (made up?) languages.