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Summary

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.

©2015 Samuel R. Delaney (P)2015 Blackstone Audio, Inc., and Skyboat Media, Inc.

What listeners say about Babel-17

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

interesting ideas, beautifully written.

Yes, it's the novel that brought the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis into the awareness of science fiction fans, paving way for thousands of stories about language altering our perceptions. As such it is a direct ancestor of such modern classics as Arrival.

Yes, it won loads of awards, and is widely seen as a genre classic. Yes, it has a wonderfully exotic (if sparsely described) setting.

But it hasn't aged all that well, and the linguistics in it are not that accurate or based on now largely discredited theories. And there are many things that date it badly. Punch cards program computers, recordings are made on tape reels. It feels very 1960s.

And it's a bit clumsy at times. A minor character with a role that should have put him regularly across the path of space travellers knows nothing about them, merely acting as an audience proxy for several exposition dumps and some wild world building.

But it's fun, crazy and it's central premise is engaging.

Enjoyable, but not brilliant.

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Very Interesting & Full of Action

Fascinating ideas around language amd a great sci fi romp... Found it a bit jumbled and chaotic however

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Many good but half-baked ideas

I struggled with this one. There is so much potential here, and you can tell the author is extremely keen to weave together a good story, but it falls short in its development of ideas and machanisms.

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Not my cup of tea but interesting concept

Like what I said in the title, just interesting enough for me not too return it, but it barely kept my attention

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  • Sophia Tavarez
  • 29-05-18

Looove it the story but...

The story is amazing and unlike nothing I've ever heard. My only complaint is that the narrator's voice is so deep that it's sometimes hard to understand. Sometimes it sounds like a low rumble or growl. I did find myself having to go back every now and again, but overall Mr. Rudnicki did well.

9 people found this helpful

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  • Joe Kraus
  • 12-03-17

Great Concept, Not Quite the Narrative Tech

What do you think the narrator could have done better?

He has a beautiful voice, but his register is so low that it's sometimes hard to hear.

Any additional comments?

Reading this book is a little like going back and playing one of those early home video games, something like the first generation of Castle Wolfenstein. There’s something to it, something you know you sensed when you played the game way back when, but you can also clearly see how the technology limited the final effect.

This one has a fabulous premise: the “bad guys” develop a language that corrupts its speakers. It functions less like a human language and more like Fortran or Basic – languages that direct a machine to do a thing without giving it the vocabulary to comprehend itself. Without that sense of self – without the concept of “I” – it isn’t possible to resist the codes one’s programmed to do. In the world of the novel, it turns its speakers into sleeper double-agents, people who aren’t aware of their own duplicity.

I can give that kind of a summary largely because of what I learn in the final pages of the novel, when one of the characters – having been reprogrammed of deprogrammed – explains the phenomenon to everyone else. Otherwise, this is a hard-to-follow story. We get a lot of quick cuts, a lot of characters introduced by pronouns rather than given names, and a lot of action committed by characters under the control of other wills.

Much of the story moves forward through dialogue, often a clunky narrative technology but especially so here. How, I ask, can we contemplate the power of language when we are so trapped in conversation. There are “technologies” that might work better – stream-of-consciousness, multiple narrators, deliberate fragmentation – but Delaney tends to stay with a conventional approach here. He does push against it a little – we get some attempts at weird-angle limited omniscient third person and he opens each chapter with long, allusive quotes from Marilyn Hacker’s poetry – but, ultimately, he doesn’t seem to have the tools to get his fabulous question across.

I don’t think he’s alone. I’m cooler on his contemporary Philip K. Dick than most, and there was a lot of other high concept, overly pedantic sci-fi in those era. It was common for sci-fi to come across as cold, peopled with characters who seem props for ideas rather than characters in their own right. In some ways, the original Star Trek had the same problems: big ideas without quite the special effects to pull them off. It took Star Wars (on screen) and Dune (in print) to begin to develop that technology, and now we have Guardians of the Galaxy (on screen) and Neal Stephenson (in print, when he’s on his game).

There’s certainly something here, and I also acknowledge I read this too quickly to get everything from it. I suspect I’d have been in awe of it if I stumbled onto it as a 13-year-old in 1978. I don’t mean to say I’d have gotten all the bio-linguistic points it raised, merely that I think I’d have sense it even then as pushing toward something it couldn’t quite yet say.

I have the chance to hear Delaney a few weeks from now, and I’m keeping an open mind. I’m blaming him here for a limited technology, but it’s just as possible I’m not bringing all the reading tools to this that I should.

10 people found this helpful

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  • Britta
  • 12-03-19

Babel 17

Reader's voice is very deep, which sometimes made the words difficult to understand, especially when driving. Story line felt like it jumped around a bit and was difficult to follow.
Story intrigued me enough to listen to the end of the story.

2 people found this helpful

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  • joey
  • 04-06-17

Defected recording

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Good book, would recommend to read but, not to listen. There recording is defected and narrator's voice is layered and unintelligible about half way throuh.

What about Stefan Rudnicki’s performance did you like?

Very good performance. The editors of this need to fix the defect in the recording.

Any additional comments?

Don't order this, as the defect makes the entire listening experience frustrating.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Reader X
  • 23-12-20

Recommended for first time Delany readers

If you're widely read in SF, this is probably your best introduction to Delany. It's one of the most conventional novels that he has written. It has a plot! Wow. And a bunch of SF troupes. Stick with it.

I've read most of Delaney. It's always a little off. The books got better once I learned something about the author's life and epoch.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Tom
  • 19-01-16

A bit dated

The story is focused heavily on ideas from linguistics, in particular the Sapir Worf hypothesis. While that may have been cutting edge in the 1960s, it is pretty outdated now. While words certainly can be used to frame arguments and manipulate people, that ability is not all that tightly bound up with the language itself.

7 people found this helpful

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  • J.S.
  • 27-12-18

Important book, terrible narration

This audio book ensures that I will never again listen to a novel with characters as an audio file unless the narrators are proven to be exceptional. The narrator delivered the lines of the central brilliant woman protagonist in a simpering whimper offensive to the politics of both book and its feminist queer author. Shame on the makers of audio books for continuing to deliver predominantly male titles with predominantly clueless, boring male narrators. Back to the drawing board.

2 people found this helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 19-05-21

Incomprehensible

The story is great, but as a different reviewer noted, the narration is difficult. The narrator clearly enjoys the depth of his voice and there's nothing wrong with that at all, except where it obscures meaning and clarity. Which it often does.

My main beef with this is the utter incomprehensibility of the language explanations in the story. I have a PhD from Cambridge in Linguistics but some of the writing herein is far and away too complicated for even an advanced linguist. I managed, with a great deal of concentration, to pick up and follow most of what was not obscured by the narrator but if you are looking for an easy listen, this is not it.

However it won some award or other is beyond me.

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  • Discerning consumer
  • 20-04-21

conflicted

incredibly challenging to follow, but the language aspects are very very interesting. not certain if I loved it or if I hated it

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  • Terry A.
  • 27-03-21

Average

The narrator was very pleasing to listen to. Story was average at any level. Neither good nor bad, simply acceptable.