Babel

The cover image of R.F. Kuang's Babel, a tower rising above Oxford with white birds in flight.

“But how does this happen?” he continued. “How does all the power from foreign languages just somehow accrue to England? This is no accident; this is a deliberate exploitation of foreign cultures and foreign resources. The professors like to pretend that the tower is a refuge for pure knowledge, that it sits above the mundane concerns of business and commerce, but it does not. It’s intricately tied to the business of colonialism. It is the business of colonialism.”

“Pamphlets. They’d thought they could win this with pamphlets.

He almost laughed at the absurdity. Power did not lie in the tip of a pen. Power did not work against its own interests. Power could only be brought to heel by acts of defiance it could not ignore. With brute, unflinching force. With violence.”

I didn’t like R.F. Kuang’s debut novel The Poppy War as much as most people I know. I wrote back in 2019 about how her voice and literary styling impressed me at the same time as I found myself frustrated by how much of the plot was taken directly from the headlines of the history of east Asia in the 19th and 20th century, which meant that I didn’t bother reading either of the sequels. However, I also speculated that the book would have been stronger had she abandoned the fictional world for the real one and expressed my interest in what Kuang put out subsequently.

Kuang did exactly what I had hoped for in her latest novel, Babel, or the necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator’s Revolution. The result was not only a brilliant fantasy novel, but also perhaps my favorite campus novel.

Babel is principally the story of Robin Swift, an orphan from Canton whose mother died in a Cholera epidemic in 1829 who comes into the care of Professor Richard Lovell, who whisks him off to England. Lovell rears Robin in his household for years, drilling him in Latin, Greek, and Chinese with the sole ambition of gaining him admission to the prestigious Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University, colloquially known as Babel, where Lovell is a professor.

This institute, which is housed in a tower at Oxford, is the radiant hub of Britain’s colonial empire. Scholars working at Babel discovered the latent power in the slippage in translation that they can inscribe onto bars of silver. With the right semantic links, British silver can do anything from create swift-moving transit to reinforce buildings to power weapons of war. They only require a steady supply of silver and a roster of fluent linguists.

“Professor Playfair put the bar down. ‘So there it is. It’s all quite easy once you’ve grasped the basic principle. We capture what is lost in translation—for there is always something lost in translation—and the bar manifests it into being. Simple enough?’

Upon making his way to Oxford, Robin joins the three other students who have been selected for admission to Babel, Ramiz Rafi Mirza (Ramy) from Calcutta, Victoire Desgraves from Haiti, and Letitia Price (Letty), a white woman whose father was an admiral in the British navy. The quartet settles into a routine, supporting one another during the grinding years of coursework. During this period, all four suffer what we might term micro-aggressions even though their affiliation with Babel insulates them from the worst effects of racism and sexism. However, it is also in this period when Robin meets Griffin, Professor Lovell’s previous ward and likely Robin’s half brother. A former student at Babel himself, Griffin introduces Robin to the Hermes Society, a secretive association of people dedicated to resisting Babel’s power. Before long it becomes clear that there is only one path forward: Robin and his friends must seize Babel and thus the means of magic production.

Babel is a fictional history, and Kuang notes in her author’s note that she moved certain chronological details to meet narrative needs, but it is also set against very real historical events and phenomena. The British Empire is a given, and the climactic events appear against a backdrop of the Opium Wars, but Kuang also introduces historical personages and linguistic texts omitted from most textbooks, which gives the setting the texture of reality.

At the same time, Kuang uses this story to address the very nature of the academy, without resorting either to the secretive cultishness of The Secret History or the (in my opinion) mean-spirited satire of Lucky Jim. Rather, the pages of Babel are filled with the characters immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent time in college. Lovell’s stern and reclusive scholar who wants to be engaged with the grand affairs of the day is one archetype, but so too is the female scholar who has to work twice as hard to receive the same recognition and junior researchers who sympathize with radical social movements but also have to keep their heads down to receive promotion. I laughed aloud at a scene where the energetic senior professor who puts on a show in lectures and arranges the security measures at the tower that can kill or maim expresses his outrage that they can no longer reveal exam results with a ritual where students attempt to enter the tower: those who fail trigger the tower defenses. This sort of erudite bonhomie in class juxtaposed with a cruelty around exams and “qualifications” is altogether too common. Thus, with Babel, Kuang offers an incisive portrait of an institution that claims to be a progressive meritocracy while perpetuating a structure that is fundamentally conservative.

Then an interlude chapter told from Letty’s point of view opens with this sentence:

Letitia Price was not a wicked person.

The chapter goes on to dissect all of the problems with white feminism in just a few pages.

Put simply, Babel is a triumph, blending a clever magic system with a specific time and place, and themes that allow Kuang to speak to the present moment.

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This is the first of several posts on that I read in late 2022 when I became chaotically busy (I finished Babel in October). I read a bunch of good books in the intervening period, so my goal over the next few weeks is to get caught up.

The Poppy War

About a year ago I started to hear buzz about a new fantasy book in a world modeled on east Asia. I adore Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty books and other diverse settings for my fantasy novels, so The Poppy War quickly rose on the list of books I wanted to read. The fact that the author, R.F. Kuang, was a young Chinese-American woman studying modern Chinese history both added to the intrigue, even if it also threw up a caution flag.

The Poppy War opens with the official examination that will determine the future for the test-takers––that is, which academy they can attend. For Rin, a poor war orphan abused by her drug-smuggling adopted parents in the poor, rural, isolated South of the Nikara Empire, it provides one chance: earn the top score and earn admission to Sinegard, the academy for the children of warlords, or resign herself to an unwanted marriage.

Of course, getting into the academy creates new problems. Rin finds her new classmates, and particularly Nezha, insufferably arrogant, while they find her unprepared and uncouth. Most of her teachers don’t have the same concerns, as she shows potential and an flair for rash and risky solutions to impossible situations. Their problems arise in that Rin doesn’t always consider the consequences of her strategies. Nevertheless Strategy master Irjah and the eccentric Lore master Jiang take a particular interest in this impetuous student who, in addition to scoring well relative to her peers, is drawn to reexamining the official story of the destruction of Speer, a tributary of the Nikara, at the end of the last war with Mugen.

Rin thrives, despite the obstacles, but her life is again thrown into disarray when the neighboring nation, the Mugen federation, invades Nikara, determined to finish what they started in the previous war––a war only ended after brutal destruction of Speer and the intervention from distant powers. The trainees are thrown into war before they are ready; Rin is assigned to the shadowy Cike, a secretive force of assassins and shamans, and faces a choice: tap into her latent shamanic powers and destroy the Mugen by striking a deal with the Phoenix god or remain human and allow their crimes to go unpunished, losing all of Nikara, and quite possibly her life, in the process.

The Poppy War is a propulsive grimdark fantasy based on events in Chinese history where bad things happen and there are few good options. For all of the brutality and self-harm that Rin commits, though, its basic plot points, particularly through the first half of the book, follow a traditional wish-fulfillment path. Orphan works hard and turns out to be brilliant, goes to a school where she makes an enemy of one student and one teacher, but is adopted by the school’s eccentric master, who teaches her that she has powers she didn’t know about. Its Chinese setting and female lead are just trappings on this basic structure.

And this is fine. The novel is eminently readable and there are plenty of these stories built around white men, so there is virtue in putting this sort of story in Asian and female clothes. But neither did it make The Poppy War stand out.

What had initially piqued my interest in this story was the promise of Chinese history written. And is it. Chinese history oozes from the pages, starting with the map that posits Nikara (very)roughly the shape of China and Mugen Japan, the attention to bias within the Nikara empire, the primary geopolitical conflict modeled on the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) right down to the playing out of the Rape of Nanking, and a sage-strategist whose maxims are literally those of Sun Tzu. After the fact, I saw Kuang say she modeled Rin’s trajectory on that of Mao.

And here’s the thing: I didn’t love it.

The fact that stories were ripped straight from the headlines of history consequences. Kuang fictionalized the names and places, but kept the maxims, plots, and even broad geography, which, in some ways, diminished the world-building because it came across like her contribution was to add a spot of magic and then strip away the complexity and depth of the real world. There were a couple of points where this wasn’t true in ways that hinted her promise, but these were the exception. Either dropping this story as a fictionalized history (think: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) or keeping the plots while doing more to fictionalize and develop the setting would have, in my opinion, mitigated all of these problems.

This is what I meant when I said that Kuang’s youth raised a red flag. Both of these features strike me as common to young authors. The fact that she wrote a propulsive, engaging, and fun novel while tackling an ambitious set of humanistic and moral questions, including radical inequality, is an enormous achievement. I enjoyed The Poppy War, even if I was simultaneously disappointed. While I am not going to hail it as the next great fantasy novel, my main takeaway is that I hope Kuang has a long career and am excited to see what she puts out next.

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I have been on a fantasy kick of late, in large part because I’m too tired to do the heavy lifting of some of the Literature I have on my shelf. I recently finished S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and just began George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Blood.