Study Guide


by Samuel R. Delany

Babel-17 Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Babel-17, Delany’s first novel to receive a Nebula Award, was also the first to address issues found in many of his later works. Part novel and part philosophical inquiry, Babel-17 explores the degree to which language shapes the perception of reality. Babel-17, the artificial language from which the novel receives its name, is described by Delany as lacking both first-and second-person pronouns. As a result, Delany suggests, speakers of this language would not have any ability to be “self-critical” to separate reality from what the language has “programmed” them to see as reality. On the other hand, Babel-17’s analytical superiority over other languages is said to ensure that its speakers develop technical mastery over most situations.

One of the questions raised by the novel, therefore, is how much one’s language dictates the way in which one perceives the world. In Babel-17, the word for a member of the Alliance would mean something roughly translatable as “one-who-has-invaded”; this, Delany suggests, causes those who think in the Babel-17 language instinctively to view the Alliance as a hostile force that must be destroyed. As one reads the novel, one wonders how much one’s own linguistic structures—including, for example, such expressions as “upper class,” “Far East,” and “New World”—not only reflect, but also actually determine, a system of values.

With a poet as its protagonist,...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

Babel-17 Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Babel-17 is much more a spy story set centuries in the future than a space adventure of the Flash Gordon kind. The novel takes its name from the central mystery of the plot: A group of planets—the Alliance—is under attack by forces called the Invaders. The Alliance is hampered in the struggle by sabotage attempts on their defense installations, and the only clue is that each attack has been preceded by a radio transmission in an unknown language, a language that the Alliance has called “Babel-17.” Alliance general Forester consults Rydra Wong, a famous poet and a superlative student of language, and asks for her help in breaking the code.

Rydra agrees to help, and to pursue the saboteurs she immediately begins enlisting a crew for her spaceship. Much of Delany’s inventiveness is shown in the recruiting scenes of the story. The demands of galactic navigation make it impossible for normal humans to carry out some necessary tasks, so these duties are handled by “discorporates,” beings who are essentially ghosts. Rydra finds one such, Mollya, to add to her crew.

During the voyage of her spaceship Rimbaud, Rydra suspects one of her crew of being an Invader agent. She survives one sabotage attempt and, after a landing at a defense installation, returns to the ship only to have it blast off under someone else’s control. When she regains her senses after blacking out, she finds herself imprisoned in a web, on a...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Babel-17 Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Babel-17 is the story of the poet Rydra Wong and her successful attempt to decode Babel-17, the secret language used by the Invaders in their continuing aggression against the Earth-based Alliance. Though divided into five parts, the novel consists primarily of three episodes that take place in increasingly remote sections of Alliance territory. The first episode begins in a conventional Earth setting but quickly “defamiliarizes” readers with the description of the working-class Transport quarters and the ultimate dead end of the Discorporate sector. The second episode concerns events that take place at the Alliance war yards at Armsedge, including the assassination of leading armaments developer Baron Felix Ver Dorco. The last episode of the novel concerns the events taking place during and immediately following the arrival of a ship carrying Rydra and a crew in the no-man’s-land of the Specelli Snap, a frontier in the war against the Invaders. In each of these settings, readers are introduced to a new variation of the linguistic adventure that Rydra undertakes at the beginning of the novel.

Soon after Rydra accepts the mission offered to her by General Forester, she begins to assemble her crew from the unconventional Transport and Discorporate sectors, the former peopled by working-class characters who have a taste for cosmetic surgery, wrestling, and alcohol. Upon leaving Earth, however, she begins to experience spells of dizziness, and...

(The entire section is 545 words.)