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Friday, September 2, 2022

Book review: Babel by Rebecca F. Kuang (reviews by Daniel & Shazzie)


OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: 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.

ANALYSIS (SHAZZIE): Is it an understatement to say that this is one of the most anticipated fantasy books this year? I'd think not. Never in my wildest dreams did I anticipate that I would receive Advanced Review Copy, and now that I have read it, I doubt my ability to type out a succinct review. This is one of those books that make me acutely aware of my privilege as a reviewer.

I read The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang as soon as it hit the shelves, thanks to a lovely review I read on Goodreads. I was impressed, and I waited for each subsequent book in the trilogy excited, and put time aside to read them in an uninterrupted fashion when they were released. When I heard of Babel, I couldn't not want to read it. If nineteen year-old Kuang understood how to write compelling stories, she presently knows how to make those older books look like they were her training wheels.

Babel opens with Robin Swift, being rescued from his mother's house in Canton, as she succumbs to the plague, by a British professor, Mr. Lowell, who sponsors his move to London, and takes on the responsibility of seeing him schooled and placed at Oxford, one of the most prestigious universities in the British Empire. Robin is initially enthralled by his fortune, since all he needs to do is to earn sufficient competence in variety of subjects taught to him, and use the knowledge he gains at the Tower of Babel, the prestigious linguistic institute in Oxford, to serve the interests of the British Empire. Most of the book is written from Robin's perspective, but does contain a few chapters with other points of view.

One of my favourite parts of this book is the detailed worldbuilding it presents. Kuang has done her research, and it is clear that this is a tale written by someone with a love for the academic. It is astonishing, the amount of detail Kuang has managed to pack in a single fantasy novel. Babel is a book that takes place in very few distinct locations, but that does not take away from her ability to ensure that the reader has a feel for events that occur far and wide that are even mentioned in fleeting. Don't let this give you the wrong idea; the stakes in this book feel rather personal, but they have the ability to influence events on a global scale.

The magic system is unusual, clever, and is based on using the effects of loss in translation on silver. We all know that languages play a big part in our cultural and personal identity, that they shape out thoughts in ways that can't be explained to one who speaks another language, and this is shown to be one of the reasons for migrants from different parts of the world to be given a place to study, and later work in the tower of Babel, in order to further the interests of the British Empire, help it function, and retain control over it's colonies.

I can't help but think how much more well-rounded the characters in Babel are, compared to those in Kuang's debut trilogy. I found myself intrigued by each of their motivations to make their respective choices. The dialogue, is fantastic. I would not be lying if I said that the author has almost perfected the art of conveying certain difficult ideas and sensitivities in a few lines of conversation between two or more of the characters, in an remarkable execution of the concept of showing, not telling.

But most of all, what I can't shake away is the feeling that Kuang has written a 500+ page book that manages to make a reader think and question certain things, and yet, manages to maintain a pace that keeps the story entertaining, and moving. If I tried to write down a list of all the ideas this book is probably intended to convey, I am sure I'd miss out on quite a few. One of the biggest aspects of the worldbuilding in this book is a reimagined British colonisation of many parts of the world that draws parallels to many events in world history. The book contains a steady stream of uncomfortable events that show sexism, racial sterotyping, colonial entitlement and superiority, false narratives used to justify power grabs and maintenance of the status quo, all of which are phenomenally scoped to the idea of the central plot, without being preachy, while also showcasing a resistance to the system that was not always fueled by working towards the common good. This book raises many thoughts, the most dominant of which asks if a system can be changed from within, and if or when more than dialogue might be necessary to change a widely accepted and rarely questioned way of life.

CONCLUSION (SHAZZIE): Babel is ambitious, engaging, impactful, and executed with brutal effectiveness. If you have never read R. F. Kuangbefore, you'll find it impressive, and even more so, if you already have.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (Daniel): My interest and motivation in reading something seems to correlate inversely with the hype that surrounds it. The anticipation and hype for Babel couldn’t have been greater.

I ended up deciding to read and review it to accompany Shazzie’s review here only based on her collegial coercion. (Though I also could recall in my mind a once-upon desire to read Kuang’s debut The Poppy Wars back when it had first come out. But I
had never gotten around to it.) Starting Babel, I knew little to nothing about its plot,
genre, or themes. And I had a healthy dose of skepticism over the excited buzz flitting about the novels release.

OK. The hype is justified.

The preeminent accomplishment for Kuang with Babel would be the novel’s brilliant and nuanced critique of colonialism and academia within the framework of language and translation. The magical basis of Babel’s alternate fantasy reality gives physical embodiment to the benefit/cost tradeoffs of translation. It digs down into the core components of culture to take something both symbolic and practical – language – and frame it as a tangible commodity for exploitation. Kuang takes a defining character of immaterial humanity and demonstrates through fantasy how colonial systems of power exploit such features just as effectively as geological resources or bodies and labor.

Babel is dizzying in how well it portrays the conflicting emotions of the colonized individual. Robin is awestruck by the academic trappings of Oxford, the lure of knowledge, the beauty of language, and the potential of magical silver work that uses both. But, he’s also devastated by the selfish disregard of the system, the injustices, and the willful ignorance of – and bigotry against – other cultures. Robin slowly begins to realize that the glories and leisure around him are only maintained for an elite, and are obtained only through casual acceptance of exploitations and racism.

Unable to morally accept the situation, he can only try and figure out how to act in response. And there’s the rub. The system only changes when it becomes massively unprofitable and untenuous for those in power to hold on their grasp. But, is there anything within Robin’s power – or his colleagues – to compel real change?

Babel is a novel about inevitable imperfections, and the types of violence that both cause and result from those. That overriding theme is symbolized in the act of translation that sits at the core of the novel’s plot and extends to the progression of the novel’s action and Robin’s character arc. In many ways Babel is a celebration of imperfection. An acknowledgement that this is how things are in a world of different cultures, that must be lived with. To reduce all cultures to one destroys the resources available from diversity. But to have the benefits of many will come with that unavoidable cost of conflict and destruction. How to minimize it? How to find hope amid feelings of being powerless? What is it worth sacrificing? Kuang doesn’t always offer clear answers. This is something for readers to decide.

Beyond the thematic depth and brilliance of Babel, Kuang also writes it with a compelling pacing that flows fluidly along with Robin’s development from young age into mature student and revolutionary. It’s a gripping novel of not only ideas, but action. And it pulls at the emotional heartstrings of not only social justice, but personal human empathy in seeing all that is taken from Robin: his culture, his very name, his passions, his… well I don’t want to spoil all the corners of the novel.

For all of its successes in theme, world-building, and its protagonist’s arc, Babel must exist with imperfections as surely as any translation. No novel can have everything. Robin’s fellow students and friends Ramiz, Victoire, and Letty are just as intriguing as the protagonist, with their own strengths and foibles alike. However, I still wish there was more to them, and that they could further transcend fulfilling transparent structural roles (types) for the plot as influences on Robin. Even more so the adult

On the other hand, I loved the almost cartoonish villainy of Professor Lovell, the pure self-serving bias and racism. It seems extreme. Until one realizes that this very likely is exactly how someone in that time period, in that position of power, would probably act and react.

The largest disappointment I had with the novel was in its conclusion, specifically the predictability of what Robin would likely do and turn to using to resolve the situation that he faces. Chekov’s gun may be generally good advice, but sometimes the inclusion of an obvious device is detrimental. I definitely felt the latter here, hoping as the novel drew to a close that an interesting novel translation word pair might be worked out in ways I never expected to usher in a surprise.

Nonetheless, Babel overall was a joyful reading experience, even with its tragedy and
its dark themes. In large part this came from the interest I shared with the characters in things academic (including language, words, translation) and a huge familiarity with the love-hate relationship one can have with academic systems, traditions. Kuang’s powers of observation, perception, and processing of reality to place it all in the historical fantasy world here is ambitious. Which makes it all the more impressive of how she does things far better than I could ever imagine doing myself. Babel is a literature of criticism. And a large part of criticism is love, caring for at least some central core of what is there to try to make it into something more honest, better. I see that present in the novel with the culture of academia, not just the cultures of the historically colonized and colonizer. Working the parallels between these two sides of humanity into the novel, showing how they are linked, is enlightening.

CONCLUSION: Babel is a remarkable literary achievement that gives voice and embodiment to those paradoxical feelings born from the intersection of human cultures: the contradictions of love and loathing, power and vulnerability, respect and bigotry, joy and sorrow, admiration and hatred, creation and destruction that all coexist in colonialism (and academia). It’s a riveting story that draws readers in with a compelling pace, and fascinating nerdy factoids that will excite any lover of languages and books. This is a novel that readers will want to talk about with others, to delve into its themes and how they relate to our own personal experiences in this world, across cultures.



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