If my reading lately has a theme, it seems to be stories about storytelling. Or in the case of Babel: An Arcane History, stories about language. The power of words. Writers are so meta sometimes, eh. In this alternative history, R.F. Kuang confronts the very real-life history of British colonialism and imperialism and asks us to consider how our relationship with language affects our willingness to participate in—and perhaps even incite—systemic change.
Newly orphaned Robin is plucked from Canton, China, by Professor Lovell of the Royal Institute of Translation, also known as Babel. For years, Robin studies under Lovell, first privately as his ward and then as a student at Babel. He is one of four translators in his year cohort—two others, Ramy and Victoire, are similarly racialized, imported for their facility with language or languages, while the other, Lettie, is a white woman determined to buck the trend that says women neither need nor desire an education. But all is not right at Babel. Robin quickly finds himself in the middle of, shall we say, shenanigans most dark. His loyalties divided, Robin must decide what role he wants to play in this system. Does he want to be a collaborator? A dissident? A rebel leader? A fugitive? A martyr? Or something else entirely?
So I’m reading this book, and quite honestly by about page twelve I realized that Kuang is both smarter and better read than me, and I’m here for it. Like we’re talking some Umberto Eco–level shit. Kuang’s writing here will run circles around most readers, which some will find intimidating, but if instead you’re willing to set aside your ego and soak up the majesty of the moment, you will not only learn but be entertained. For Babel is a book perched on a pinhead: sprawling and epic in some ways; powerfully precise in others.
Let’s ease into the discussion by talking about the magic, for it’s probably the least interesting or important part of the story, and that’s saying something. In Babel, you can engrave words from different languages that are connected in some way into silver bars. When you speak these “language pairs” out loud, the bar activates some kind of magical effect—for example, some pairs can create invisibility; others might help make a garden more serene. One can only activate a bar if one understands the languages used on it, for the actual magic needs human understanding to close the circuit. Hence Robin’s utility as a Mandarin speaker. The British are preeminent in the field of translation and silver-working, but they are running out of pairs to mine from European languages, so they have cast themselves further afield but need minds that understand these increasingly foreign (to them) tongues.
The magic system is neat, a nice twist on the eternal quest to seek a balance between rigidly systematic spellwork schemes versus visualize-it-and-it’s-done willpower schemes. This system requires both the rigorous academic knowledge acquired only through years of study, as we see Robin and his peers embark on, along with the kind of understanding and mental awareness that goes deeper than mere scholarship. Its exclusivity, lack so many magical systems, creates a power dynamic that Kuang slots neatly into the existing class system of nineteenth-century Britain.
Which brings us to the politics of Babel. Holy shit. I was expecting the trenchant analysis of colonialism but I wasn’t quite prepared for the intense focus on labour (more fool me)—that hit me harder than I anticipated given the current political situation in Ontario and my own involvement in unionism. (It is, of course, all connected, as Kuang seeks to demonstrate.)
There’s more to be analyzed here than I can manage in a simple review (I hereby summon the literature undergrads to pick apart this book in a thousand essays). Suffice it to say, Babel is a hot mess—intentionally so. The main theme is simple: revolution is messy, and dismantling the intersecting structures of colonialism, white supremacy, capitalism, etc., are not without compromise. We see this most acutely in how each character wrestles with the consequences, both real and potential, of decolonization. How, even for oppressed people in the system, there are conveniences and perks that maybe we aren’t willing to give up. This felt so real to me, because it’s something I see in a lot of my white colleagues when I start talking about antiracism work—and if I am being honest, it is of course something I feel within myself, as a white woman. Changing this system—truly dismantling it and building something better—will be uncomfortable because it does mean giving up some of the things we currently enjoy, either because they are part of the package of privilege bound up in our whiteness or the end result of unsustainable, extractive processes that are both dehumanizing and degrading.
So Babel is a masterclass in depicting how colonial structures persist only because of compliance of the masses. Sometimes this compliance is forced or coerced, as in the case of enslavement; other times it is cajoled. For people whose marginalization exists outside of racial and ethnic axes, our compliance is usually purchased through irresistible convenience. There is a climactic moment in the story—resolved, actually, in a footnote, because that is how Kuang rolls—where Robin’s actions indirectly lead to a dramatic incident that kills people and destroys an important London landmark. And … no one cares. Or rather, people implicitly decide that maintaining the structure of society as it exists requires the sacrifice of some people’s humanity and dignity. Kuang pointedly comments on this through several characters, and it resonates given what’s happening right now in Ontario, as municipalities like Toronto simply refuse to open warming centers for unhoused people, or in the US, as various state legislatures compete to see who can most creatively precipitate trans genocide.
We keep underestimating the depths of cognitive dissonance we are willing to practise, as a society, to uphold the existing structure rather than risk discomfort and chaos.
Robin and his peers have different views on this fact and what their role should be in revolution. While the three racialized characters agree the system is bad and should be dismantled, none of them agree exactly on what that process should look like. Lettie, meanwhile, very much acts as a stand-in for white feminism, and I am here for it. Kuang’s desire to present revolutionary activities as nuanced not only mirrors myriad examples from history but helps the reader conceptualize the difficult truth: that movements are not monoliths, that some people who say they are allies balk when that means following up with acting as allies (and accomplices), that there is always an unyielding pressure to surrender to the inertia that is “that’s just the way it is.”
Kuang’s willingness to explore the messiness of revolutionary politics is what makes Babel such a standout work. The revolution, when it comes for us, will not be neat or orderly—indeed, it probably won’t even be a single, discrete revolution. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, by the end of the book, Robin and his allies haven’t toppled the British Empire. At the same time, the empire is irrevocably changed as a result of their actions. And their revolution, Kuang very explicitly points out, was more successful as a result of the gains won from previous revolutions, strike actions, revolts, etc.—a single act cannot unmake a system, but consistent pressure over an era can erode it to the point of collapse. So although in terms of our characters’ journeys, without spoiling much, this book might be deemed a tragedy, Babel seems to be a relentlessly optimistic story.
The characters—and more specifically, their relationships with each other—might be the weak point of the book for me. Robin is decent as a viewpoint protagonist; I often had to take a step back and remind myself that I’m seeing the story from a wider angle than him and have the benefit of a twenty-first–century perspective on colonialism that he fundamentally lacks by dint of being in the thick of it. But Robin was also a little … I don’t know, boring? I found myself a lot more interested in the internal lives of Ramy, Victoire, and even Lettie. Aside from occasional interludes told from the perspective of each of them, Kuang keeps the book firmly focused on Robin, for better or worse.
And Robin just … kind of exists, his relationships attenuating and then springing back to tautness like an elastic. He and Ramy have this initial spark of attraction that I thought was going to become so much more. His relationship with Lovell is marred by the latter’s one dimensionality as an antagonist. Similarly, I never saw him truly connecting with Griffin or his other revolutionary comrades. So while I could feel Robin’s angst, especially as he wrestled with his sense of guilt over his class privilege, I never quite felt that connect to the struggles of the characters around him.
Nevertheless, even if some of the characters strike me as one dimensional or otherwise unsatisfying, I think Kuang overall has put a lot of thought into what she is trying to say with each character, and that’s valuable. As I mentioned at the top of this review, her intelligence and the breadth of her knowledge is apparent on every page—but it is most apparent, I think, in how each of the main characters connects to their personal backgrounds, cultures, and histories. The way that Kuang weaves in allusions to English literature, Haitian politics, or the repression of Punjabi people under British rule in India … seriously. This is no shallowly researched yarn spun for entertainment. I can only imagine the binders, real or virtual, of notes that gird this manuscript, which itself is a hefty thing.
I pitched Babel to someone on Twitter (a linguist) as “Neal Stephenson but without all the squick of ponderous white male privilege,” and I stand by this comparison. This is a novel that overstays its welcome deliberately and without apology. It demands your attention and your thoughtfulness. Yet unlike many other researched and dense books that do this, Babel carefully balances its heavy themes with plot and characters that remain entertaining and fun and, yeah, heartbreaking. Kuang’s writing flits from being bold and brash to quiet and understated. While I don’t think everything she attempts in this book works, longtime readers of my reviews know that I much prefer big swings, even when they don’t completely land. And in the case of Babel, it hits far more than it misses, which is impressive. If science fiction shows us what our society could be (for better or worse), fantasy shows us what our society is, albeit reflected through the funhouse mirror of alternative histories and worlds. Babel achieves this.