Babel by RF Kuang Review – a genius fantasy about empire | fantasy books
WWelcome to Babel: the great Oxford Translation Institute in an alternate version of Victorian England, where translators hold the keys to the British Empire. Every device and construction technique in existence, from steam trains to the foundations of buildings, relies on silver ingots enchanted with “matchsticks”; Words in two different languages that mean similar things but with a significant gap between them. The bars create the effect of difference: feelings, sounds, speed, stability, color, even death. The magic comes from “that sublime, unnameable place where meaning [is] created”.
Brought from all corners of the Empire, bright children who speak fluent Chinese or Arabic, grew up in England and are employed in Babel to translate, thus finding new mates and creating new magic – always employed only for the benefit of the rich London, and to the detriment of those who must leave the translators behind in their colonized homelands. We follow Robin Swift from his earliest childhood in China, through his time in Babel, and from his hope that translation is a way of bringing people together, to the terrifying realization that in this colonial setting, “an act of translation is an act of treason “.
If it sounds complicated, then it is. This is a scholarly book by an eminent scholar – Kuang is a translator herself. The pages are full of footnotes; not the more usual quirky Susanna Clarke or Terry Pratchett-esque ones, but academic notes, bustle and sermon in a parody of the 19th-century tomes Swift and his friends are forced to study at Oxford. The characters’ conversations fly from translation theories to Sanskrit quotations, from Dryden to the authors of the Shijing; They are pretentious but also vulnerable and the balance is wonderful.
The fantastical elements reinforce the true story rather than altering it; Silver magic makes everything possible, and the biggest event it causes here – the fulcrum around which the novel revolves – is the first Opium War. Endlessly hungry for more silver, the British Empire turns into a massive drug cartel, growing poppies in India and forcing China to buy opium to get it. The young Babel translators are hopelessly caught up in the problem of whether to serve the corrupt institute that has provided them with opportunity and education, or their own people. This isn’t far from Kuang’s celebrated at all poppy war trilogy based on 20th-century Chinese history, so fans will be treading on familiar ground.
Even against a whole background of clever things, the narrator triumphs here. Swift is a complicated man. Born into poverty in China but raised in England by a wealthy father, he embodies all sorts of contradictions. On the one hand, he’s an overprivileged, middle-class Hamletty brat whose headaches are always worse than everyone else’s. It’s a revelation for him that working-class people have a hard time because he doesn’t know any. But he’s also brave and noble, and willing to let his friends watch his worst side. He is a young boy who decides that his father’s housekeeper’s scones are “the platonic bread ideal”. He is a naïve student who is so shocked by the unfairness of the world behind all his money and his university that he has a hard time understanding how to live in it. Like a series of dangerous silver matchsticks, these contradictions can never quite translate into one another, and they have explosive results.
This is a dark and harrowing novel; Many of the characters have toxic opinions about race, and Swift grows increasingly bitter. The antagonists are closer to demons than humans, devoid of nuance, and they do disgusting things. Often the appeal of fantasy lies in escaping the real world, but there is no escape here; Kuang’s use of genre doesn’t deviate from the real story, but sharpens it. Babel asks what people from colonized countries should do when they attain positions of power – while being transported to a time and place where attaining those positions in the real world would have been impossible. It’s a fantastically made work, alternately moving and infuriating, with a wall-tearing ending.