Babel-17 is a 1966 science fiction novel by American writer Samuel R. Delany in which the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (that language influences thought and perception) plays an important part. It was joint winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1967 (with Flowers for Algernon)[2] and was also nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1967.[3]

Delany hoped to have Babel-17 originally published as a single volume with the novella Empire Star, but this did not happen until a 2001 reprint.[4]

First edition
AuthorSamuel R. Delany
CountryUnited States
GenreScience fiction
PublisherAce Books
Publication date
May 17, 1966[1]

Plot summary

During an interstellar war one side develops a language, Babel-17, that can be used as a weapon. Learning it turns one into an unwilling traitor as it alters perception and thought. The change is made more dangerous by the language's seductive enhancement of other abilities. This is discovered by the beautiful star-ship captain, linguist, poet, and telepath Rydra Wong. She is recruited by her government to discover how the enemy are infiltrating and sabotaging strategic sites. Initially Babel-17 is thought to be a code used by enemy agents. Rydra Wong realizes it is a language and during her journey, has a traitor on the ship. Rydra later finds herself becoming the traitor as she learns more about Babel-17. She is rescued by her dedicated crew, figures out the danger, and neutralizes its effects.

The novel deals with several issues related to the peculiarities of language, how conditions of life shape the formation of words and meaning, and how the words themselves can shape the actions of people.


The language portrayed at the center of Babel-17 contains interesting linguistic features including the absence of a pronoun or any other construction for "I". The heroine finds her perceptions (and even her physical abilities) altered once she has learned Babel-17. In this Delany's novel influenced a generation of writers: Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, Embassytown by China Miéville, "In Luna Bore Coda" by Joshua Nilles, and, more evidently, the short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. It also resembles a few preceding science fiction novels which deal with how languages shape the political and cultural stratum of societies, such as The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance or Anthem by Ayn Rand, and language as a weapon was adapted as a plot device in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash.

Other media

In 2014, the work Babel-17 was told in tandem with a partial biography of Samuel R. Delany's early years in the form of a play The Motion of Light in Water, based on a 1988 autobiography with the same title, produced by Elbow Room, an Australian theatre company directed by Marcel Dorney.


  1. ^ "Books Today". The New York Times: 44. May 17, 1966.
  2. ^ "1966 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-08-24.
  3. ^ "1967 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-08-24.
  4. ^ Delany, Samuel R. (December 2001). Babel-17 / Empire Star. Vintage Books / Random House. ISBN 0-375-70669-0.


External links

Empire Star

Empire Star is a 1966 science fiction novella by Samuel R. Delany. It is often published together with another book, most frequently (three times) with The Ballad of Beta-2. Delany hoped to have it first published as part of an Ace Double with Babel-17, but instead it was published with Tree Lord of Imeten by Tom Purdom. It was finally bundled with Babel-17 in a 2001 reprint.The story revolves around the protagonist, Comet Jo, and a narrator named Jewel. Nominally a tale of Comet Jo’s coming-of-age, his education into galactic society (and as such can be considered a mini-Bildungsroman), his efforts to deliver an important message to Empire Star, and the attempt to bring an end to slavery, the story has several layered loops of events which run back upon themselves—and the concepts, layering, and ordering of the events are as important as the story itself.

Experimental language

An experimental language is a constructed language designed for linguistics research, often on the relationship between language and thought.

One particular assumption having received much attention in fiction is popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. The claim is that the structure of a language somehow affects the way its speakers perceive their world, either strongly, in which case "language determines thought" (linguistic determinism), or weakly, in which case "language influences thought" (linguistic relativity). (For a list of languages that are merely mentioned, see the relevant section in List of constructed languages.)

The extreme case of the strong version of the hypothesis would be the idea that words have a power inherent to themselves such that their use determines not just our thoughts, but even that which our thoughts are about, i.e. reality itself. This idea, however, is more properly treated within ontology than linguistics.

Falling Free

Falling Free is a science fiction novel by American writer Lois McMaster Bujold, part of her Vorkosigan Saga. It was first published as four installments in Analog from December 1987 to February 1988, and won the Nebula Award for Best Novel for 1988. It is included in the 2007 omnibus Miles, Mutants and Microbes.

Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon is the title of a science fiction short story and a novel by American writer Daniel Keyes. The short story, written in 1958 and first published in the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. The novel was published in 1966 and was joint winner of that year's Nebula Award for Best Novel (with Babel-17).Algernon is a laboratory mouse who has undergone surgery to increase his intelligence. The story is told by a series of progress reports written by Charlie Gordon, the first human subject for the surgery, and it touches on ethical and moral themes such as the treatment of the mentally disabled.Although the book has often been challenged for removal from libraries in the United States and Canada, sometimes successfully, it is frequently taught in schools around the world and has been adapted many times for television, theatre, radio and as the Academy Award-winning film Charly.

List of science fiction themes

The following is a list of articles about recurring themes in science fiction.

Man Plus

Man Plus is a 1976 science fiction novel by American writer Frederik Pohl. It won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1976, was nominated for the Hugo and Campbell Awards, and placed third in the annual Locus Poll in 1977. Pohl teamed up with Thomas T. Thomas to write a sequel, Mars Plus, published in 1994.

No Enemy But Time

No Enemy But Time is a 1982 science fiction novel by Michael Bishop. It won the 1982 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and was also nominated for the 1983 John W. Campbell Memorial Award. It was included in David Pringle's book Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels.

Samuel R. Delany

Samuel Ray Delany Jr. (; born April 1, 1942), Chip Delany to his friends, is an American author and literary critic. His work includes fiction (especially science fiction), memoir, criticism and essays on sexuality and society.

His works include Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection (winners of the Nebula Award for 1966 and 1967 respectively), Nova, Dhalgren, and the Return to Nevèrÿon series. After winning four Nebula awards and two Hugo Awards over the course of his career, Delany was inducted by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2002. From January 2001 until his retirement in May 2015, he was a professor of English and Creative Writing at Temple University in Philadelphia. In 2010 he won the third J. Lloyd Eaton Lifetime Achievement Award in Science Fiction from the academic Eaton Science Fiction Conference at UCR Libraries. The Science Fiction Writers of America named him its 30th SFWA Grand Master in 2013.

Seeker (McDevitt novel)

Seeker is a 2005 science fiction novel by American writer Jack McDevitt. It won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2006.

Slow River

Slow River is a science fiction novel by British writer Nicola Griffith, first published in 1995. It won the Nebula Award for Best Novel and the Lambda Literary Award in 1996.

Soft science fiction

Soft science fiction, or soft SF, is a category of science fiction with two different definitions.

It explores the "soft" sciences, and especially the social sciences (for example, anthropology, sociology, or psychology), rather than engineering or the "hard" sciences (for example, physics, astronomy, or chemistry).

It is not scientifically accurate or plausible; the opposite of hard science fiction.Soft science fiction of either type is often more concerned with character and speculative societies, rather than speculative science or engineering. The term first appeared in the late 1970s and is attributed to Australian literary scholar Peter Nicholls.

Speed of Dark

Speed of Dark (released in some markets as The Speed of Dark) is a near-future science fiction novel by American author Elizabeth Moon. The story is told from the first person viewpoint of an autistic process analyst. It won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2003, and was also an Arthur C. Clarke Award finalist.

Stations of the Tide

Stations of the Tide is a science fiction novel by American author Michael Swanwick. Prior to being published in book form in 1991, it was serialized in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in two parts, starting in mid-December 1990.

It won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1991, was nominated for both the Hugo and Campbell Awards in 1992, and was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1993.

The Complete Nebula Award-Winning Fiction

The Complete Nebula Award-Winning Fiction is a 1986 collection of short stories and novellas by American writer Samuel R. Delany. The collection includes those works by Delany that have won the Nebula Award.

The Einstein Intersection

The Einstein Intersection is a 1967 science fiction novel by Samuel R. Delany. It won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1967 and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1968. Delany's intended title for the book was A Fabulous, Formless Darkness.

The novel is purportedly influenced by Marcel Camus' 1959 film Black Orpheus. The protagonist, Lo Lobey, is loosely based on the character of Orpheus, and the character of Kid Death is likewise based on Death in that film.

The Falling Woman

The Falling Woman is a 1986 contemporary psychological fantasy novel by Pat Murphy.

The Healer's War

The Healer's War is a 1988 science fiction novel by American writer Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. It won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1989.

The Quantum Rose

The Quantum Rose is a science fiction novel by Catherine Asaro which tells the story of Kamoj Argali and Skolian Prince Havyrl Valdoria. The book is set in her Saga of the Skolian Empire. It won the 2001 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 2001 Affaire de Coeur Award for Best Science Fiction. The first third of the novel appeared as a three-part serialization in Analog magazine in the 1999 May, June and July/August issues. Tor Books published the full novel in 2000.

Stand-alone novels
The Fall of the Towers
Return to Nevèrÿon
Short stories

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