Delany’s prose has won me over wholeheartedly. I love the atmosphere, I love the characters, and I love how unabashedly pulpy it gets at moments. It’s a fun ride, and fans of linguistics or languages will find a lot to enjoy in Babel-17 in particular. I would personally recommend first reading Empire Star and following it up with Babel-17, as there is a bit of crossover that has greater impact if read in that order. While both contain a few clichés (a protagonist named “Comet Jo” or your typical barbarian style off-worlder), I think we can chalk that up to the time period in which it was written – there’s something to be said for writing in a style that will actually be published and make some money with a broad audience. These books were part of a wave of writing that laid the foundation for modern literary science fiction.
The writing is encrusted with flourishes and filigree, both in terms of prose and in worldbuilding. A strange dragon or lion-man here, ship navigators who must form a polyamorous three-person relationship to fulfill their duties, or genetically engineered assassins. I wish there had been a bit more background on some of these, however – I’m pretty unclear on why ships need a team of 12 orphan children as maintenance techs, for example. Fortunately, the prose carries on over and around these kinds of questions, making them easier to brush aside. Delany drops you right into the middle of his world, assuming you will catch up without an introduction.
In Empire Star, I’d also like a moment to appreciate the main character’s companion animal. It is a devil kitten. Kitten. Six legs. Horns. Sometimes vicious. Grows to the size of houses! Is generally awesome. Comet Jo, being a rather simplex being at the time, names it D’ik (devil-kitty to ‘kitty to D’ki). D’ik may not get a huge amount of screen time, but I very much enjoyed him nonetheless.
It was nice to see a woman as a protagonist, Rydra Wong, in Babel-17 – especially given that the novel was published in the 60s. As far as role models go, she’s rather impressive. Intelligent, quick, and tactical: all attributes rarely assigned to women during this era of scifi. Most importantly, she’s also flawed and human and isn’t merely a cardboard cutout of a Strong Female Protagonist. While Empire Star’s protagonist is a boy, one of the main secondary characters is another example of a fantastic woman who isn’t pigeon-holed into feminine stereotypes.
Babel-17 also does some fun things with linguistics, though most of the mechanics are behind the scenes. The overall premise deals with Rydra Wong attempting to stop terrorist attacks which are being planned over public channels using a new, unique, compact, and incredibly descriptive language. She’s always had a gift for language, and is using this to learn to communicate with the perpetrators of the attacks.