Babel-17 / Empire Star

Babel-17 / Empire Star

by Samuel R. Delany

Paperback(2 BKS IN 1)

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Author of the bestselling Dhalgren and winner of four Nebulas and one Hugo, Samuel R. Delany is one of the most acclaimed writers of speculative fiction.

Babel-17, winner of the Nebula Award for best novel of the year, is a fascinating tale of a famous poet bent on deciphering a secret language that is the key to the enemy’s deadly force, a task that requires she travel with a splendidly improbable crew to the site of the next attack. For the first time, Babel-17 is published as the author intended with the short novel Empire Star, the tale of Comet Jo, a simple-minded teen thrust into a complex galaxy when he’s entrusted to carry a vital message to a distant world. Spellbinding and smart, both novels are testimony to Delany’s vast and singular talent.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375706691
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/08/2002
Edition description: 2 BKS IN 1
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 228,158
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

Samuel R. Delany was born and raised in Harlem, where he still lives. He is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Read an Excerpt


It's a port city.

Here fumes rust the sky, the General thought. Industrial gases flushed the evening with oranges, salmons, purples with too much red. West, ascending and descending transports, shuttling cargoes to stellarcenters and satellites, lacerated the clouds. It's a rotten poor city too, thought the General, turning the corner by the garbage-strewn curb.

Since the Invasion six ruinous embargoes for months apiece had strangled this city whose lifeline must pulse with interstellar commerce to survive. Sequestered, how could this city exist? Six times in twenty years he'd asked himself that. Answer? It couldn't.

Panics, riots, burnings, twice cannibalism—

The General looked from the silhouetted loading-towers that jutted behind the rickety monorail to the grimy buildings. The streets were smaller here, cluttered with Transport workers, loaders, a few stellarmen in green uniforms, and the horde of pale, proper men and women who managed the intricate sprawl of customs operations. They are quiet now, intent on home or work, the General thought. Yet all these people have lived for two decades under the Invasion. They've starved during the embargoes, broken windows, looted, run screaming before firehoses, torn flesh from a corpse's arm with decalcified teeth.

Who is this animal man? He asked himself the abstract question to blur the lines of memory. It was easier, being a general, to ask about the "animal man" than about the woman who had sat in the middle of the sidewalk during the last embargo holding her skeletal baby by one leg, or the three scrawny teenage girls who had attacked him on the street with razors (—she had hissed through brown teeth, the bar of metal glistening toward his chest, "Come here, Beefsteak! Come get me, Lunch meat . . ." He had used karate—) or the blind man who had walked up the avenue, screaming.

Pale and proper men and women now, who spoke softly, who always hesitated before they let an expression fix their faces, with pale, proper, patriotic ideas: work for victory over the Invaders; Alona Star and Kip Rhyak were great in "Stellar Holliday" but Ronald Quar was the best serious actor around. They listened to Hi Lite's music (or did they listen, wondered the General, during those slow dances where no one touched). A position in Customs was a good secure job.

Working directly in Transport was probably more exciting and fun to watch in the movies; but really, such strange people—

Those with more intelligence and sophistication discussed Rydra Wong's poetry.

They spoke of the Invasion often, with some hundred phrases consecrated by twenty years' repetition on newscasts and in the papers. They referred to the embargoes seldom, and only by the one word.

Take any of them, take any million. Who are they? What do they want? What would they say if given a chance to say anything?

Rydra Wong has become this age's voice. The General recalled the glib line from a hyperbolic review. Paradoxical: a military leader with a military goal, he was going to meet Rydra Wong now.

The streetlights came on and his image glazed on the plate glass window of the bar. That's right, I'm not wearing my uniform this evening. He saw a tall, muscular man with the authority of half a century in his craggy face. He was uncomfortable in the gray civilian suit. Till age thirty, the physical impression he had left with people was "big and bumbling." Afterwards—the change had coincided with the Invasion—it was "massive and authoritarian."

Had Rydra Wong come to see him at Administrative Alliance Headquarters, he would have felt secure. But he was in civvies, not in stellarman-green. The bar was new to him. And she was the most famous poet in five explored galaxies. For the first time in a long while he felt bumbling again.

He went inside.

And whispered, "My God, she's beautiful," without even having to pick her from among the other women. "I didn't know she was so beautiful, not from the pictures . . ."

She turned to him (as the figure in the mirror behind the counter caught sight of him and turned away), stood up from the stool, smiled.

He walked forward, took her hand, the words Good evening, Miss Wong, tumbling on his tongue till he swallowed them unspoken. And now she was about to speak.

She wore copper lipstick, and the pupils of her eyes were beaten disks of copper—

"Babel-17," she said. "I haven't solved it yet, General Forester."

A knitted indigo dress, and her hair like fast water at night spilling one shoulder; he said, "That doesn't really surprise us, Miss Wong."

Surprise, he thought. She puts her hand on the bar, she leans back on the stool, hip moving in knitted blue, and with each movement, I am amazed, surprised, bewildered. Can I be this off guard, or can she really be that—

"But I've gotten further than you people at Military have been able to." The gentle line of her mouth bowed with gentler laughter.

"From what I've been led to expect of you, Miss Wong, that doesn't surprise me either." Who is she? he thought. He had asked the question of the abstract population. He had asked it of his own reflected image. He asked it of her now, thinking, No one else matters, but I must know about her. That's important. I have to know.

"First of all, General," she was saying, "Babel-17 isn't a code."

His mind skidded back to the subject and arrived teetering. "Not a code? But I thought Cryptography had at least established—" He stopped, because he wasn't sure what Cryptography had established, and because he needed another moment to haul himself down from the ledges of her high cheekbones, to retreat from the caves of her eyes. Tightening the muscles of his face, he marshaled his thoughts to Babel-17. The Invasion: Babel-17 might be one key to ending this twenty-year scourge. "You mean we've just been trying to decipher a lot of nonsense?"

"It's not a code," she repeated. "It's a language."

The General frowned. "Well, whatever you call it, code or language, we still have to figure out what it says. As long as we don't understand it, we're a hell of a way from where we should be." The exhaustion and pressure of the last months homed in his belly, a secret beast to strike the back of his tongue, harshening his words.

Her smile had left, and both hands were on the counter. He wanted to retract the harshness. She said, "You're not directly connected with the Cryptography Department." The voice was even, calming.

He shook his head.

"Then let me tell you this. Basically, General Forester, there are two types of codes, ciphers, and true codes. In the first, letters, or symbols that stand for letters, are shuffled and juggled according to a pattern. In the second, letters, words, or groups of words are replaced by other letters, symbols, or words. A code can be one type or the other, or a combination. But both have this in common: once you find the key, you just plug it in and out come logical sentences. A language, however, has its own internal logic, its own grammar, its own way of putting thoughts together with words that span various spectra of meaning. There is no key you can plug in to unlock the exact meaning. At best you can get a close approximation."

"Do you mean that Babel-17 decodes into some other language?"

"Not at all. That's the first thing I checked. We can take a probability scan on various elements and see if they are congruent with other language patterns, even if these elements are in the wrong order. No. Babel-17 is a language itself which we do not understand."

"I think—" General Forester tried to smile—"what you're trying to tell me is that because it isn't a code, but rather an alien language, we might as well give up." If this were defeat, receiving it from her was almost relief.

But she shook her head. "I'm afraid that's not what I'm saying at all. Unknown languages have been deciphered without translations, Linear B and Hittite for example. But if I'm to get further with Babel-17, I'll have to know a great deal more."

The General raised his eyebrows. "What more do you need to know? We've given you all our samples. When we get more, we'll certainly—"

"General, I have to know everything you know about Babel-17; where you got it, when, under what circumstances, anything that might give me a clue to the subject matter."

"We've released all the information that we—"

"You gave me ten pages of double-spaced typewritten garble with the code name Babel-17 and asked me what it meant. With just that I can't tell you. With more, I might. It's that simple."

He thought: If it were that simple, if it were only that simple, we would never have called you in about it, Rydra Wong.

She said: "If it were that simple, if it were only that simple, you would never have called me in about it, General Forester."

He started, for one absurd moment convinced she had read his mind. But of course, she would know that. Wouldn't she?

"General Forester, has your Cryptography Department even discovered it's a language?"

"If they have, they haven't told me."

"I'm fairly sure they don't know. I've made a few structural inroads on the grammar. Have they done that?"


"General, although they know a hell of a lot about codes, they know nothing of the nature of language. That sort of idiotic specialization is one of the reasons I haven't worked with them for the past six years."

Who is she? he thought again. A security dossier had been handed him that morning, but he had passed it to his aide and merely noted, later, that it had been marked "approved." He heard himself say, "Perhaps if you could tell me a little about yourself, Miss Wong, I could speak more freely with you." Illogical, yet he'd spoken it with measured calm and surety. Was her expression quizzical?

"What do you want to know?"

"What I already know is only this: your name, and that some time ago you worked for Military Cryptography. I know that even though you left when very young, you had enough of a reputation so that, six years later, the people who remembered you said unanimously—after they had struggled with Babel-17 for a month—'Send it to Rydra Wong.'" He paused. "And you tell me you have gotten someplace with it. So they were right."

"Let's have drinks," she said.

The bartender drifted forward, drifted back, leaving two small glasses of smoky green. She sipped, watching him. Her eyes, he thought, slant like astounded wings.

"I'm not from Earth," she said. "My father was a Communications engineer at Stellarcenter X-11-B just beyond Uranus. My mother was a translator for the Court of Outer Worlds. Until I was seven I was the spoiled brat of the Stellarcenter. There weren't many children. We moved rockside to Uranus-XXVII in '52. By the time I was twelve, I knew seven Earth languages and could make myself understood in five extraterrestrial tongues. I pick up languages like most people pick up the lyrics to popular songs. I lost both parents during the second embargo."

"You were on Uranus during the embargo?"

"You know what happened?"

"I know the Outer Planets were hit a lot harder than the Inner."

"Then you don't know. But, yes, they were." She drew a breath as memory surprised her. "One drink isn't enough to make me talk about it, though. When I came out of the hospital, there was a chance I may have had brain damage."

"Brain damage—?"

"Malnutrition you know about. Add neurosciatic plague."

"I know about plague, too."

"Anyway, I came to Earth to stay with an aunt and uncle here and receive neurotherapy. Only I didn't need it. And I don't know whether it was psychological or physiological, but I came out of the whole business with total verbal recall. I'd been bordering on it all my life so it wasn't too odd. But I also had perfect pitch."

"Doesn't that usually go along with lightning calculation and eidetic memory? I can see how all of them would be of use to a cryptographer."

"I'm a good mathematician, but no lightning calculator. I test high on visual conception and special relations—dream in technicolor and all that—but the total recall is strictly verbal. I had already begun writing. During the summer I got a job translating with the government and began to bone up on codes. In a little while I discovered that I had a certain knack. I'm not a good cryptographer. I don't have the patience to work that hard on anything written down that I didn't write myself. Neurotic as hell; that's another reason I gave it up for poetry. But the 'knack' was sort of frightening. Somehow, when I had too much work to do, and somewhere else I really wanted to be, and was scared my supervisor would start getting on my neck, suddenly everything I knew about communication would come together in my head, and it was easier to read the thing in front of me and say what it said than to be that scared and tired and miserable."

She glanced at her drink.

"Eventually the knack almost got to where I could control it. By then I was nineteen and had a reputation as the little girl who could crack anything. I guess it was knowing something about language that did it, being more facile at recognizing patterns—like distinguishing grammatical order from random rearrangement by feel, which is what I did with Babel-17."

"Why did you leave?"

"I've given you two reasons. A third is simply that when I mastered the knack, I wanted to use it for my own purposes. At nineteen, I quit the Military and, well, got . . . married, and started writing seriously. Three years later my first book came out." She shrugged, smiled. "For anything after that, read the poems. It's all there."

"And on the worlds of five galaxies, now, people delve your imagery and meaning for the answers to the riddles of language, love, and isolation." The three words jumped his sentence like vagabonds on a boxcar. She was before him, and was talking; here, divorced from the military, he felt desperately isolated; and he was desperately in . . . No!

That was impossible and ridiculous and too simple to explain what coursed and pulsed behind his eyes, inside his hands. "Another drink?" Automatic defense. But she will take it for automatic politeness. Will she? The bartender came, left.

"The worlds of five galaxies," she repeated. "That's so strange. I'm only twenty-six." Her eyes fixed somewhere behind the mirror. She was only half-through her first drink.

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Babel-17 / Empire Star 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
dmsteyn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wow! Exhilarating stuff, this. Two books for the price of one, and both, in their diverging ways, brilliantly conceived. Both are, nominally, SF novels, but that hardly does them justice. They are much more concerned with the limits of language and plot, and only use some well-known SF tropes in order to knock them down.In Babel-17, Rydra Wong is a young poet and brilliant code-breaker. She is approached by the military arm of the Alliance to decode certain strange messages in a cypher dubbed Babel-17. She soon realises that Babel-17 is more than a mere code. Rather, it is a complete autonomous language, the most complex she has ever encountered. So she sets off on a strange quest to figure out the code, assembling a band of misfits to crew her spaceship and help her solve the mystery.So far, so fairly typical. But it is what Delany does with the story that really matters. He is master of word and plot games, but they are nearly always functional. An example is where Rydra visits the Alliance War Yards. The commander of the Yards takes her on a tour of the latest weapons, most of which he denounces as `Gross, uncivilized weapons¿. There is, however, a secret weapon, the TW-55, a super-engineered human spy. As the commander says, `To find among ordinary men someone who can function as a spy, is willing to function as a spy, you must search the fringes of neurosis, often psychosis.¿ Obviously, this is a problem, as the Alliances enemies, known only as the Invaders, also have psyche-indices with which to determine the psychological profile of possible spies. The TW-55, however, will register perfectly normal. These spies can even expound with scholarly acumen for an hour and a half on a subject ¿ incidentally, this specific one¿s is `haptoglobin groupings among the marsupials¿.Now, you might by this point ask, what are you getting at, Mr. Delany? Well, the kicker comes a while later, as the commander is assassinated by an unknown young man. Funny thing is, this unknown young man spoke to Rydra shortly before killing the commander. And what did he say?[Referring to the crowd below] `They make such odd faces when they glance up here to see if it¿s you, Miss Wong.¿`They leer,¿ she said, shortly.`Bandicoots. That¿s what they look like. A pack of them.¿He laughed. `Bandicoots with thalassanemia!¿Delany slips this in so delicately, and over so many pages, that you¿d have to get up pretty early in the morning to catch it first time round. Luckily, he explains it (to a degree) to the slow reader (i.e. me) a few pages later when Rydra realises who the assassin was. But Delany plays these games throughout the book, and I doubt I picked up on all of them.The book is based on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and, although that has been disproved, it still makes for a wonderfully intelligent book.Empire Star, much shorter than Babel-17, is a quasi-Bildungsroman, concerning one Comet Jo. But like Babel, it is much more. In fact, Empire Star is supposedly a novella written by one of the characters mentioned in Babel. It features many overlapping narratives, which switchback on themselves, with many of the characters appearing in different incarnations throughout. I read it twice, and I still don¿t understand how all the pieces fit together. Not because it is unclear. Rather, as Delany writes, because there are `simplex, complex, and multiplex¿ interpretations on offer for the action in the book.Oh, and did I mention that there is a computer in the book called the Lump who continually makes literary allusions? Or that Delany wrote it in 10 days? No? Well, then try these books for yourself. Not only are they excellently written and engaging, but they also present a very stimulating mental exercise.
reading_fox on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Really enjoyable. Two novellas one twice as long as the other. For some bizzare reason they've been printed back to back and upsidedown from each other. I assueem this is deliberate because the back cover is also in this format. Empire Star A multifaceted, multi timed, short account of a boy's life growing up on a simple mining community until and encounter with, well with what is kind of the point of the tale, changes his life and direction with the simple command that he must take a message to Empire Star. It's starts out simply and rapidly becomes complex and then multiplexed. But it's easy to follow, fun and makes you think - basic requirements of all short stories well executed in this one. Babel-17 Longer and both more and less complex than Empire Star. It follows a few months in the life of one Rydra Wong, a poet of astounding accuracy and empathy appreciated on both sides of a galactic war between the Alliance and the Invaders. She is approached by the military to help decode a fragment of transmission captured shortly before a sabotage event. As she works on this porblem she realises it is more than just a code but a complete language, compact, precise and with an exceptionally high information content, where a single word denotes, time, manner place and much else besides. In an attept to understand more she gathers a crew from the dregs of a wonderfuly diverse port and heads into space. Where the effects of the language start to seem even more overwhelming than she first appreciated and she meets a dangerous man, 'The Butcher' who seems ot be the only person who cna understand what she's experienceing.... Both these tales are wonderfully crafted expressions of how time and langauge are artifacts of the culture you experience them in, and like all the best SF, true experiences of how a world might be If Only this was true. The future galatic empires are little more than backdrop but even here they are exceptional constructs peopled with a wide variety of 'beings' and full of wonder with the sole exception of an arachic reference to spelling Bee that somehow I doubt will survvive 4000 years in the future! Read, enjoy, think and consider. Excellant Short SF......................................................................................................
HollyinNNV on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I did not find that this book captured my interest as much as I hoped it would. I did like the main character. In fact, I thought the characterization was strong. I think that the biggest annoyance was that the future was pretty dated. I've read other reviews that disagree with me. But, from the beginning when chairs inflated like balloons, I was pretty unimpressed. I did think that the main storyline was successful. There was conflict throughout the book that served to thrust the story forward and provide plenty of tension. For some reason, I just couldn't conceive of a future like Delany, so I never fully committed myself to his vision.
selfnoise on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I haven't read Empire Star, but Babel 17 is excellent: intelligent, fun, fast-paced SF with a nice kick of interesting ideas.
KingThale More than 1 year ago
Two brilliant displays of science fiction storytelling for the price of one! Empire Star, a novella which was also published in collections of shorter works by Delany, tells the story of a simple boy from a relatively inconsequential planet called Rhys who stumbles upon a quest to free an enslaved species known as the Lll. He must take a message to Empire Star, the seat of the galactic empire, with the emperor's daughter, a crystallized alien, and a massive multiplex computer as his only companions. The true complexity and difficulty of his task become ever clearer the farther he gets: things start to seem familiar to him, and he begins to realize he's done all this before- or has he? Babel 17 is the story of a linguist and poet, Rydra Wong, who discovers a language known as Babel 17. She teams up with people from all classes of futuristic society, from the crowds of freakish dive bars to military officials, dead and undead alike (her discorporate companions, the essences of the dead, aid her invaluably in her quest). Their mission is to discover a ship that communicated a distress signal in Babel 17 and was never heard from again. The language is so precise, succinct, and powerful in its meanings that describing the world in terms of Babel 17 lends Rydra preternatural abilities as she begins to learn it. These capabilities resemble superpowers such as telepathy, superhuman reflexes, and an ability to predict the future. They come to her aid in the final climactic battle against space pirates, and lead to a multitude of other discoveries. Samuel Delany, one of the most talented sci-fi writers who ever lived, here combines these two works the way he originally intended to have them published- back to back in one dual novel! It doesn't matter which one you start with, they're both excellent, and could forever change your ideas of what is possible in science fiction.