Michaele Jordan Review: Babel

Babel or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang.

Spoiler alert: this book is brilliant.

Review by Michaele Jordan: We all raged over the Hugo nominations scandal. We wrote angry letters, we excoriated the self-appointed censors, we bemoaned the tarnish on our beloved awards, we vowed to make sure this never happens again. And then we had to move on, get on with our lives. So I grabbed up a number of books that I’d heard might have been nominated if the committee had played fair and honest. I started with Babel or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang.

And now I’m angry all over again. Because this is one of the best books I have EVER read. It is a masterpiece. That it should be censored, not for any evil accusations against China — which is treated with respect – but simply because it mentions China (which would be difficult to avoid in a book about British colonialism and the Opium Wars) is not merely ugly – it is evil.

I can almost hear you muttering, “’a book about British colonialism and the Opium Wars’? Doesn’t sound like a masterpiece to me. Sounds really dull. And what’s that got to do with SFF, anyway?”

It’s set mostly in Oxford in the 1830’s – which is depicted with a stunningly authentic realism, except for one little thing: an extra college (with its associated building, the tower of Babel)  has been inserted into the university. It’s small, prestigious college and hard to get into. Candidates are required to speak at least three languages fluently to qualify and, having gained entry, spend years studying more languages. It’s a school of translation, and translation is the central power source of the magic that keeps the empire running.

It’s a very subtle magic. It works by inscribing two words (called a match pair) onto a silver plate. The first word (usually English) suggests what the user wishes to do. The second is the same word in a different language. But, as any fluent speaker can tell you, translation is never precise – every language has its own nuances, its own associations. That slight difference in meaning infuses the silver. The resulting power causes the silver bar to operate much like an electric battery. And so it’s everywhere, keeping ships afloat, keeping mills operating and street lamps lit, and managing the empire. And it all runs on silver.

So Britain needs silver to keep everything running. Silver is NOT an infinite resource, but the need for it is. We therefore remain in a truthful analog of Britain in the 1830’s. England is conquering the world, and angry about China’s refusal to enter into a “normal” trade relationship, i.e., two-way trading. China has silver, but they won’t buy anything from the west, so their silver remains in China. Britain can only find one thing that the Chinese will buy: opium. Opium is illegal in China. But the British insist on selling it to them anyway. This will not end well.

A novel needs characters to put a human face on political strategies. We have four main characters – students in a very small class at the university. Two are dark-skinned and two are light skinned. Two are boys (one white and one black) and two are girls (again, one white and one black) Three of them are immigrants of some sort. Robin is half Chinese and pale (in a dim light or from a distance, he can pass as white. Ramy is Arab, and so dark-skinned. Victoire is French, but she’s originally from Haiti. And lastly, we come to Letty, the only one who is not an immigrant. She’s a classic English rose,

Oxford considers itself the creme de la creme. Which means it expects itself to be all white and all English. Robin, Ramy, and Victoire suffer daily insults and indignities. Letty, not so much. But she’s still female, and women are not normally admitted to Oxford. So even she is viewed with a mixture of condescension and suspicion.

Even if I wanted to commit spoilers, it would take pages and pages to explain the story. (Hey, It took Ms. Kuang hundreds of pages to tell it.), So I’ll leave off now, and let you discover for yourself what happens next.

But, please, read this book.

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7 thoughts on “Michaele Jordan Review: Babel

  1. I agree, it was my favorite read last year and I was upset that it didnt make the nomination – and angr when I learned why.
    Its an angry book btw. Angry in a good way. There is a lot to discover and, yes, its brilliant.

  2. It is one of the few sf/f works I have been able to read, with both pleasure and admiration in a long time.

  3. This was a fantastic novel, well deserving of the Nebula and Locus Awards it did win.
    One quibble/correction: Ramy is not an Arab, but an Indian Muslim.

  4. In fairness, the author presents Ramy, with his mix of Arab and Persian sounding names, as an unreliable source about his own history. This was in homage to Dean Mahomed, the low caste born entrepreneur who put ‘shampoo’ in the English language and who claimed variously to be of Arab or “Persian aristocratic” descent. Ramy too gets a kick out of making up what he thinks of as Orientalist myths about himself. The reveal (SPOILERS) is that even though Ramy feels like his father’s pretentions to aristocracy are a dubious joke, dad seems to have been the real deal, and taught his son Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and English. Ramy’s bitterness over the Raj stealing his family’s fortune deepens his connection to his Arab and Persian heritage, yet his family’s precise ethnic background is kept deliberately vague.

  5. I had to hold off posting here for a couple of days because I was just finishing the novel myself.

    Anyway, I just want to say that I actually ended up liking this a lot more than I thought I was going to when I started! Over the last few years, I’ve been starting to feel a bit overdosed on 18th/19th century Britain. And I know it still has devoted fans (otherwise there wouldn’t be so much of it), so my initial reaction was “oh god, here we go again.” And there are still plenty of good books that use the setting, so my reaction wasn’t really negative so much as mildly disappointed.

    But I quickly realized that Kuang’s version was not being seen through the rose-colored-glasses that so many other authors seem to wear when viewing the era! And, it turns out, that’s exactly what I needed to make the setting work for me again! This wasn’t just a well-written and interesting story; it was a well-written and interesting story that I sort of needed to hear right now!

    Of course, this may make it harder for me when I encounter the next 19th c. fantasy where the worst thing happening is the plight of the Cockneys. But that’s a price I’ll happily pay for the pleasure of reading this excellent work!

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