Babel-17 (from 1966) is basically about the effect of language on the human mind. The main character, Rydra Wong, is a poet who used to be a cryptographer. She gets a call from the military asking her to try and decrypt a transmission that is discovered at the site of a number of attacks in an intergalactic war.


Rydra recognises it’s a language and gets together a spaceship crew to go to the site of what she thinks will be the next attack in an attempt to figure out the puzzle. Assassinations, space battles, betrayals and love affairs occur before she finally discovers the language’s secret.

Many people thought the book was overwritten, but I enjoyed the imagery. I also enjoyed the world building, especially the idea of the discorporate spaceship crew and the body modifications. The characters I thought were well drawn, with the possible exception of the love interest. The central premise – language’s control over our mind – was also interesting.

Unfortunately, too many scenes seemed to me to have little function. I don’t like world building for the sake of world building or characterisation for the sake of characterisation. I like these elements to be built into scenes that have a real function in the plot. Many will disagree with me, but I felt the thread of plot was thin in a lot of scenes.

For example, why did we need to go through a drawn out discussion of how Rydra knew what people were thinking but not saying? Sure it’s necessary to know she has this ability, but did we need Rydra and her mentor to analyse her ability ad nauseam? Similarly, why did the reader need to know about the long process of selecting a spaceship crew? There were some great images and character revelations, but couldn’t these have been done in a more useful scene?

The other reason I’m not a big fan of this book is that I didn’t like central concepts being thrust piecemeal into discussions between two characters or into paragraphs of analysis inside the main character’s head. It feels too much like I’m being lectured.

That’s why I’m only going to give this book a 3/5. Before all you die-hard fans bring out the knives, I do have to admit that I’m not really a Science Fiction Masterwork kind of gal. So sue me.