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.