Babel by R.F. Kuang

Babel by R.F. Kuang

This was such a fun book. Don’t be turned off because it seems like a YA novel. It is a YA novel, but a fun one. I love the focus on etmolygy on meaning of words and translations between languages.

The story follows the boy Robin from Canton, modern day Hong Kong, who is ‘adopted’ by a British scholar who works at the Babel translation institute. Silver is imbibe there with magical power through the power of translantion word pairs. The same word in different languages with different meanings imparts the silver and consequently the object it is installed in with special properties. The British have corned the market on the silver trade and thus are the most powerful empire in the world.

The gears of history were turning fast in England. The world was getting smaller, more mechanized, and more unequal, and it was as yet unclear where things would end up, or what that would mean for Babel, or for the Empire itself.

The setting of the book is the mid 1800s. Most of the action takes place on the campus of Oxford University. I have never been there, but the author has done a lot of research to make the time period come alive.

Now, this is a sci-fi book, or maybe historical fiction and but the book is really about colonialism. Britain keeps the other nations down by selling them silver enhanced objects. They don’t teach other nations how to do the silverworking. At the same time Britain is exporting opium to China legally and illegally. This was also set around the time of The Opium war, didn’t I mention that?

Robin saw a great spider’s web in his mind then. Cotten from India to Britain, opium from India to China, silver becoming tea and porcelain in China, and everything flowing back to Britain . It sounded so abstract - just categories of use, exchange, and value - until it wasn’t; until you realized the web you lived in and the exploitations your lifestyle demanded, until you saw looming above it all the spectre of colonial labour and colonial pain.

The main character eventually learns about the evil things that Britain with the support of Babel is doing all over the world. He has to choose to continue working in his comfortable translation job, or rebel and try to bring down the empire.

Colonialism is not a machine capable of thinking, a body endowed with reason. It is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with greater violence. – Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox

All the parts of this novel: silver working magic, historical realism of Oxford University and The Opium war, and the criticism of colonialism make this a great read. I imagine it would be a fun novel to read in class with students, too. Students usually get US history jammed down their throat but are pretty ignorant of other world histories.

“It’s a cushy posting if what you want is to travel abroad on someone else’s money,” said Anthony. “But academics by nature are a solitary, sedentary lot. Travel sounds fun until you realize what you really want is to stay at home with a cup of tea and a stack of books by a warm fire.”

This is me for sure!

These quotes below really speak to the theme of colonialism in the book.

“There are no kind masters, Letty,” Anthony continued. “It doesn’t matter how lenient, how gracious, how invested in your education they make out to be. Masters are masters in the end.”

There is a rift between some characters who want to use violence to bring about the end of the British empire, and those that don’t.

“Violence shows them how much we’re willing to give up,” said Griffin. “Violence is the only language they understand, because their system of extraction is inherently violent. Violence shocks the system. And the system cannot survive the shock. You have no idea what you’re capable of, truly. You can’t imagien how the world might shift unless you pull the trigger.” Griffin pointed at the middle birch. “Pull the trigger, kid.”

Rating: ★★★★★

Book #5 in my 2023 Reading Challenge

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