Babel, or the Necessity of Violence:
An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution
by R. F. Kuang
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted September 10, 2022
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R. F. Kuang's fourth novel is the best I've read this year, and perhaps for several years. The publishers, Harper Voyager, were obviously aware of its quality, since they authorized several different special editions, some including illustrations, and all released at the same time. I should have bought the simplest of those but instead settled for the Kindle version, because by the time I realized my library was not going to be able to deliver it in a timely manner all the hardcovers were back-ordered everywhere. The subtitle on the cover is simply "An Arcane History," but the title page has the complete subtitle as I've entered it above.
UPDATE! Babel is the winner of the 2022 Nebula Award for Best Novel.
It has a multi-faceted plot with the focus shifting several times throughout. An alternate history with an academic focus on linguistics, etymology, and philology, it is also an indictment against colonialism, as well as being an intimate portrait of several immigrants to England. They are prized for their mastery of several languages, but are ultimately betrayed by the system. There is another speculative aspect to the plot aside from being an alternate history. The first we see of the fantastical element is when it is used to cure Robin Swift (not his real name) of the cholera which had killed the rest of his family. This is in Canton, China, in 1830. The man who saves him is Richard Lovell, a professor at Oxford's Royal Institute of Translation. We never learn Robin's real name; Lovell quickly stops him when he is about to say it. Lovell wants him to pick an appropriate English name. He chooses Robin from the nursery rhyme "Who Killed Cock Robin," the surname because his favorite book is Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Robin is taken to England where he lives with Lovell in his Hampstead home in north London. He is tutored in many languages, Greek and Latin, and Mandarin, but also encouraged to retain his native Cantonese. After several years Robin is enrolled at Oxford, where he meets his first year cohort; Ramy from India, Victoire, born in Haiti but raised in France, and Letty, the odd lady out in the group, since she is white and British. Her brother had previously been an Oxfordian, but befell a tragic accident.
They have access to various Oxford institutions, including the Bodleian Library and others, but most of their matriculation takes place in the eight-story tower known as Babel. The faculty and students are euphemistically referred to as Babblers. They are not there just to learn languages and translate foreign texts. Babel is much more important than that, in fact it may be the most powerful and influential organization in the world. Here's where the major speculative element comes in. Babel controls what is sometimes called the "Silver Industrial Revolution." Silver bars engraved with "match-pair" symbols power almost everything, from trains to trolleys, ships to industrial machines, street lights to household devices. The match-pair includes a foreign word and an English equivalent, which is where etymology and philology informs the proper translation to imbue the desired effect. Great Britain has a monopoly on this technology, reluctantly sharing it at times with other countries, but in essence they are stealing other languages, and the world's silver, to facilitate their hegemony. There are historical events from our world going on at the same time, with real people mentioned, but slightly altered to accommodate the technology of silver powering the world. One of those events is viewed from the opposite angle as Kuang did in her previous trilogy; the Opium Wars in China. We don't see the full extent of that here, since that action is opposed by some of the translators in rebellion, but it might be featured if there is ever a sequel.
Literature can be both entertaining and informative. Part of this story is one of friendship, another is the rigors of academic life while still maintaining the friendship angle. Each of Robin's friends have their own back story, which we see in occasional interludes, all sharing an invigorating love of learning. The only one who actually chose Oxford was Letty. She was the beneficiary of white privilege, while at the same time suffering the condescension of the patriarchy. The only reason she got the chance at higher education was the death of her brother, and the fact her father couldn't stand to be around her. He had wanted another son, and he blamed Letty for the death of his wife in childbirth. All four are grateful for the opportunities they have been given, but none are blind to their limitations; Letty because she is a woman, Robin because he is Chinese, Ramy because he is brown, Victoire because she is black. Their struggles tie into those of others who have been thrown out of work due to innovations of silver powered machinery. In addition to the aspects of colonialism, with England raping all the other lands and stealing their silver, then controlling the world's access to the benefits of silver power, the plight of labour being cast aside ties into themes relevant to the real world today. There had been a loosely organized group opposing Babel, known as the Hermes Society. Robin is recruited by a former Babbler, but kept mostly in the dark as to what Hermes was doing and how many others were involved. All the tensions come to a head, forcing Hermes into direct action, with the reluctant Robin becoming the face of the organization.
I'm not a good enough reviewer to do this book justice, but I will say Babel is a staggering work of genius. That's not hyperbole, I mean it sincerely. There is probably more tragedy here than triumph, but even when something or someone is lost, others are still inspired to carry on the fight. It is written in third-person, focusing mostly on Robin, but he's not my favorite character. I won't identify who is, nor will I reveal who is lost along the way, who is still standing at the end. No matter who you identify with and care about, there will be multiple times you will fear for their safety. Even the most tragic losses propel the plot and the later actions of others. Come for the love of languages, stay for the intense personal drama. Soar with Robin and his cohort as they revel in the ecstasy of learning, fear for them as they face the evil of a system content to crush them in order to maintain power. I don't know if we can expect a sequel, but I will read it if that happens. While not necessary, it would be interesting to see what happens next, especially because my favorite character is among the survivors. Babel gets my highest of recommendations.
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