Babel Review by RF Kuang – An Innovative Fiction About Empire | fantasy books

WWelcome to Babel: The Great Oxford Institute of Translation in an alternate version of Victorian England, where translators hold the keys to the British Empire. Every device and engineering technique, from steam trains to building foundations, relies on enchanted silver bars in “matching pairs”; Words in two different languages ​​that mean similar things, but with a huge gap between them. The bars create the effect of difference: emotion, noise, speed, stability, color, and even death. Magic comes from “that sublime and nameless place where meaning is [is] created”.

Intelligent children are taken from all over the empire, fluent in Chinese or Arabic, raised in England, and assigned to work at Babel for translation, thus finding new matching pairs and making new magic – used only for the benefit of wealthy Londoners, and at the expense of those translators who must To leave behind in their colonial homelands. We follow Robin Swift from his early childhood in China, during his time in Babylon, and from his hope that translation would be a way to bring people together, to the terrible realization, in this colonial setting, “The act of translating is an act of betrayal.”

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. This is a science book written by a brilliant scientist – Kwang She herself translated. Pages are full of margins; Not the most usual antics, in the style of Susanna Clark or Terry Pratchett, but Swift and his Oxford friends must study in parodies of 19th-century volumes. The conversation of characters flies from translation theories to quotations from Sanskrit, and from Dryden to Shijing authors; They are pretentious, but also weak, and the balance is beautiful.

Fictional elements are the basis of real history rather than altering it. Silver magic is what makes everything happen, and the greatest event that causes it here—the fulcrum around which the novel revolves—is the First Opium War. The British Empire is endlessly thirsty for more silver, and in order to get it, it becomes a huge drug cartel, growing poppies in India and forcing China to buy opium. The young Babylonian translators become hopelessly entangled in the problem of whether to serve the corrupt institution that gave them opportunity and education, or their own people. This is not far from Kwang’s approval poppy war A trilogy, based on 20th century Chinese history, so fans will be in familiar territory.

Even against a backdrop full of clever things, the victory here is the narrator. Swift is a complicated man. Born into poverty in China but raised by a wealthy father in England, he embodies all kinds of contradictions. On the one hand, he’s the forbidden middle-class Hamletti brat, whose headaches are always worse than anyone else’s. It comes as an illustration to him that working-class kids are going through a hard time, because he doesn’t know anything. But he’s also brave and noble, endlessly willing to be taken on his worst side by his friends. He’s a little kid who decides that his father’s housekeeper cakes are the “platonic proverb of baking.” He is a naive student so shocked by the injustice of the world behind all his money and his university that he struggles to see how to live in it. Like a host of serious silver match pairs, these discrepancies can’t quite translate each other, and they have explosive results.

This is a grim and horrific novel. Many of the characters have toxic opinions about race, and Swift’s bitterness is getting increasingly bitter. Opponents are closer to demons than humans, with no nuance, and they do disgusting things. Often the allure of fiction is an escape from the real world, but there is no escape here; Kwang’s use of this genre does not soften the real history but rather exacerbates it. Babel asks what people from colonial countries are supposed to do when they reach positions of power – while they are set in a time and place where, in the real world, access to those positions would be impossible. It’s a work of fiction, alternately moving and angry, with an end to tearing down walls.

Babel published by RF Kuang by Harper Voyager (£16.99). To support Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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