Babel by R. F. Kuang – Book

From a Google Image Search – Orange County Register

Science fiction and social commentary are for all practical purposes in love and married to each other. Writers of sci-fi may build worlds but they generally have something to address in the actual world we occupy. In her book Babel: or, The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator’s Revolution, R. F. Kuang creates a new world right on the nineteenth century campus of Oxford University. England runs a bit differently than it does in our histories. In Kuang’s novel England runs on silver and language, and the whole system is run by translators.

The eight-floor high tower of Babel sits on the Oxford University Campus and only translators and their professors are allowed inside. Students enter on the first floor and work their way up to the eighth floor where their language skills allow them to make powerful decisions that keep the Empire running smoothly. 

Although the quality of people’s lives is affected by the silver/linguistics technology, England is otherwise the same colonial power as history records. Wealthy Brits believe that other nations on other continents are full of savages with primitive intelligence and backward customs, even in the case of a culture like China which existed for centuries before the English arrived. China opened its doors to trade for a brief period in the nineteenth century providing England with much coveted Chinese tea, but England is running out of the silver it needs to keep its wealthy citizens happy. China is not willing to mine silver for England or let England mine China’s silver. England plans to secretly flood China with opium to make it a quiescent nonentity. Surprise, surprise. China figures out this secret plan and does not agree with it.

Because the silver effect is controlled with word pairs from two different languages and by the etymological connections between the meanings of the paired words, this system does not work without the translators. All translators must have a firm grasp of Latin and Greek and at least two other languages. One of the languages must be English. Students must study for three years before they get to work in the silverworks on the eighth floor. 

In order for word pairs to function the words must not both be in common use. As the age of discovery and colonization begins to connect nations words that once belonged to a single geographic region become popular in common use across many nations. This makes it more difficult for England’s translators to come up with unique pairs. Suppose you want the sewer system throughout the country to function well and the rivers to stay clean, the drinking water to stay potable. Silver bars with the correct word pairs can make this happen if you happen to live in an elite neighborhood or an important village.

As England looks around the world for more esoteric languages, they find ways to parent children with native women, or they seek out talented children and they place them in the homes of wealthy sponsors or professors and offer them all the comforts of a wealthy life while they force these children to learn Latin, Greek, and English. They must also retain proficiency in their native language. What happens when these children grow up and attend Babel to become translators is the crux of this novel and the part where social commentary comes to the fore. How do you think children from nations Brits feel are inferior are treated at Oxford? Where does violence come into the picture? 

R. F. Kuang’s novel is complex, perhaps a bit too complex. The action should reach a crescendo at some point, but the intensity seems to be tamped down to a sort of monotone. The social commentary is clear, but it ends too abruptly in a simple epilogue. Will the actions the central characters finally choose have the desired effects? The author does not really answer that question. Does heroic sacrifice work as an alternative to violence? Will any of the voracious appetites of the wealthy be kept under control? The book is interesting, and the characters affect us much as the characters in Harry Potter do, but the book needs to go on to the aftermath for a bit. Perhaps there will be a sequel. It was an interesting read. The book has echoes of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver Trilogy, except that he is a small g “god” of sci-fi.

The Last Chairlift by John Irving – Book

From a Google Image Search – CBC

It took me a while to adjust to John Irving’s bizarre characters and plotting details in The Last Chairlift, but John Irving knows how to have his way with his loyal readers. Will new readers of Irving like this book? Can an old activist discuss the wide array of modern genders without being guilty of cultural appropriation? Well, he has his tricks but perhaps only true readers, celebrated in this book, will go the course, ski the diamond runs.

John Irving is from New Hampshire. Skiing and skiers are things he probably knows quite a bit about. In The Last Chairlift his mom is a ski instructor and Adam is her one and only (child). She begat him in Aspen at the Jerome Hotel from a boy just entering puberty. She lives in a sort of dorm full of raucous and fun-loving girl ski instructors with her partner, Molly, a trail groomer, and a big old reliable girl with a sweet spirit. A number of women in Irving’s book have a big problem with penises. Then there are the characters who see ghosts and those that don’t. Adam and Little Ray (his mom) both see ghosts, especially at the Jerome Hotel but several ghosts visit Adam in the attic bedroom at his grandmother’s house where he lives while is mother is busy at various ski mountains. 

Adam is from a family of small people. His father, who does not appear until late in his life is small, his mother is small, thus the nickname “Little Ray,” she marries the very small Elliot Barlow (not too small to be a good wrestling coach, just the right size for a man who should have been born a woman). Small size does not make these characters small in spirit. 

Adam has a big cousin, Nora, a lesbian, and a true activist, bold, creative, and outspoken and much admired by Adam. Nora’s girlfriend, with the legendary wild and loud orgasms, is actually mute. These two have a comedy act at a NYC club that resembles The Stonewall Inn, called Two Dykes, One Who Talks. Em doesn’t talk but she becomes a master of awkward pantomime. She’s the pretty one. Adam loves all these people, but it seems he is in unrequitable love with Em (McPherson).

Moby Dick plays a big role in this novel, perhaps similar to the role the dog, Sorrow, played in Hotel New Hampshire, as a source of literary content, social commentary and “dick” humor. Repetition is one of the ways Irving gets us to immerse ourselves in his mayhem. Irving plays his usual comic tricks that never fail to provide humor that makes us shake our heads because it is so outlandish and sick. Adam’s early sexual liaisons with injured women, one on crutches with twitchy nerves, one with a cast, one who is a bleeder, might prove as obstacles to normal sexual development to a young man who did not have Little Ray and Molly and his nonchalant grandmother in his corner. 

But love is all around, and it tempers all the many disasters in this long tale. It is typically Irving, over-the-top, endearing social commentary intended to change your views and make you suspend your disbelief. Who decides when a great writer is too old to write? It’s a thing between writers and readers. This may or may not be Irving’s last novel, but in this one he’s still got his writer mojo.