Babel-17 Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

Samuel R. Delany

Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

Babel-17 was one of nine novels that Delany published in a burst of creativity at the beginning of his career between 1962 and 1968. It was chronologically the seventh, after The Jewels of Aptor (1962), Captives of the Flame (1963), The Towers of Toron (1964), City of a Thousand Suns (1965), The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965), and Empire Star (1968), this last written after Babel-17 but published earlier in the same year. Babel-17, though, was the work that clinched Delany’s reputation in the science-fiction community: It was his first work to win a Nebula Award by ballot of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

His writing up to that time, although often showing as high a quality as his later works, and the same interest in communication, had not reached as wide a readership as it would later. The Ballad of Beta-2, for example, was published by Ace as half of a paperback “double-novel,” one novel piggybacked with another, each having its own cover, each upside down with respect to the other. Empire Star and Babel-17 had been written with that sort of publication in mind, a lowly form, subject to the ephemeral life of a genre paperback, on the shelf for a few months and then never seen again. After Babel-17, however, Delany began to gather critical attention and praise with almost every novel, and his later works especially became longer and much more philosophically ambitious.

Finally, no study of Delany’s fiction should overlook his own criticism, especially his collection of essays on writing science fiction, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (1977), in order to understand and appreciate one of the most thoughtful and articulate of today’s authors.