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Thursday, September 8, 2022

BABEL by R.F. Kuang - Review


Official Author Website
Read Daniel and Shazzie's Reviews of Babel HERE


OFFICIAL AUTHOR BIO: Rebecca F. Kuang is a Marshall Scholar, Chinese-English translator, and the Astounding Award-winning and the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award nominated author of the Poppy War trilogy and the forthcoming Babel. Her work has won the Crawford Award and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford; she is now pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale, where she studies diaspora, contemporary Chinese literature, and Asian American literature. 

FORMAT/INFO: Babel was published on August 23rd, 2022 by Harper Voyager. It is 560 pages long, split over thirty-three chapters and an epilogue. It is told in third person from Robin Swift's POV. It is available in hardcover, audiobook and ebook formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Robin Swift has a highly valuable skillset in the British Empire: he can speak multiple languages. In a world where magic is created by the meaning lost in translation, that makes Robin one of the few people in the world capable of producing the silver bars that power the whole empire. Half-Chinese, half-English, Robin’s whole life has been nothing but training in languages so that one day he can attend Oxford and its College of Translation. But while attending university, Robin meets a secret society that is fighting to undermine the exploitation of the colonies that Oxford’s magic allows. Increasingly torn in loyalty between England, the country that raised and educated him, and China, the country of his birth, Robin finds himself trying to please both masters, until one fateful trip makes it clear that Robin can no longer serve both sides.

Babel is a purposefully uncomfortable dark academia confronting the evils of colonialism, racism, and capitalism in no uncertain terms. This is a book that emphasizes the “academia” part of dark academia; the magic is largely minor and off-screen, here to set the stage of how Britain both exploits and cannot survive without all the other countries it encounters. If you tackle Babel, bring with you your love for discussions on language and entomology, for endless lectures and discussions about the nature of empire, colonialism, and capitalism. If those sound like things you’d enjoy (or at least find intriguing), congratulations, you’ll probably like Babel.

If you are here for dazzling displays of magic or the thought of studying makes you cringe, you might want to pick up something else.

Babel is not a subtle book, but it is also one that gradually builds up the pressure to an inevitable conclusion. In the past, I’ve equated Kuang’s other work, The Poppy War, as being a frog in a slowly boiling pot of water. By the time you realize how dire the situation is, you realize far too late that things were that dire all along, you just weren’t feeling it yet. Robin Swift is the frog of Babel, attempting to rationalize away the many problems and inequalities created by the translation magic he is learning; the art of translation (and the comforts of academia) are things he enjoys, and he doesn’t want to engage with the uncomfortable truths behind them. Once he reaches his turning point, he realizes that things didn’t get worse, they were always this bad and he chose to ignore it.

And yet, for all the terrible things Kuang points out, she also acknowledges that translation itself is a necessary evil. I flagged several poignant passages about translation (remarkable for me, as I’m generally not a highlighter or notetaker), but this stuck with me as the most hopeful view of the author:

“That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say. Showing yourself to the world, and hoping someone else understands.”

Translation may be an imperfect art, but in its purest form, it is trying to recalibrate your world view to understand how another language and people think about things. In fact, it’s what Babel itself is trying to do for the Western audience: make them understand how non-white peoples of the world felt about their treatment at the height of the British Empire. But in Kuang’s view, such idyllic attempts at translation and academia are impossible as long as there are those around to exploit the results.

Kuang examines all these aspects of translation and empire through her diverse cast of characters, including Robin’s fellow students, a microcosm of different reactions and ideologies about the problems at hand. They are more stand-ins for different viewpoints, from radicalization to believing empire is inevitable and not worth fighting, than deep characters, and yet when all those characters and beliefs came to a crashing confrontation, I still found myself deeply affected. Each believes so fervently that the others will come around to their way of thinking, it becomes all the more heartbreaking when reality sets in.

CONCLUSION: Babel is an evocative call to arms, an examination of a broken system. As I’ve said before, this isn’t a subtle book. The full title, after all, is Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator's Revolution. It has a thesis and it is going to make it crystal clear. Occasionally the book can feel overly long, especially as you encounter one terrible thing after another, but the story will stick with you long after you read the final page. It’s here to make you think about all the uncomfortable truths you’d rather look away from, and on that front, it succeeds on every level.

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