Babel, the new standalone novel by R.F. Kuang (author of the Poppy War trilogy), has the lengthy subtitle: or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. It may seem strange to talk about violence, revolution and academic translators in one breath, but make no mistake, this is a compelling story of revolution in response to the concentration of wealth and power and the impact of racism in the British Empire in the 1830s. And it’s also clearly about the world as it is today.
Babel is part bildungsroman, part disquisition on language, part adventure of anti-colonialism and empire building, part love of Oxford and privilege, part alternate history of early industrialization, part story of deep friendships, part analysis of racism and power, and more besides. I was skeptical at first how this could all come together, but it does so quite brilliantly.
The story begins in Canton, China, where a young boy is dying from cholera after seeing the rest of his family wiped out by the disease. He is rescued by a gruff Englishman, Professor Lovell, who brings him back to health with the aid of a strange silver bar. When he’s better, the Professor offers the boy the chance to be raised and educated in England and then to go on to Oxford. Or he can go back to live in the poverty of his Cantonese home without family or much hope for any kind of future, just as early death. Not really a choice.
The Professor insists the boy adopt an English name. He uses Robin, taken from a children’s book earlier in his boyhood, and chooses Swift as a surname because of Gulliver’s Travels and the parallel between himself and the adventures of a man thrust into strange new worlds. Robin agrees to the Professor’s terms and sails to England. He lives in the Professor’s house where he is tutored in several languages but gets little or no personal attention or affection from Lovell. The Professor seems interested only in his development of linguistic proficiency, for his goal is to prepare him for attending the Oxford Translators Institute, housed in the massive tower named Babel in the heart of the exclusive Oxford campus.
It turns out in this alternate England of the 1830s that the whole country and much of the world is in the midst of the silver industrial revolution, and the center of the special magic within silver is Babel. The work of the Oxford translators is to inscribe silver bars with pairs of words from different languages that are rough translations but have important shades of meaning that provide an energy that the silver can work with. The result is a vast number of silver bars that do most of the things that keep British life and the empire going. They heal, make engines more efficient, smooth out coach rides, give structural strength to bridges, speed up the British fleet and can also kill. Babel is not only the central repository of silver bars as well as the translation and inscription process, it also contains a special room that generates the resonances that keep the silver energies working. Because of its importance, Babel is heavily protected by wards or spells that block intruders but admit the staff whose biometrics it recognizes.
In their search for linguistic talent, the elder scholars of Babel, Professor Lovell foremost among them, have persuaded Oxford, a bastion of white male English privilege, to admit foreigners and women. So it is that Robin, who is half Chinese, is allowed to study at Babel along with Rami, from India, Victoire, from Haiti, and Letty, who is white and English but a woman. These four meet and form a great friendship, as they share their love of languages, Oxford and each other. Though most of the novel records Robin’s point of view, we gradually learn the backstories of Rami, Letty and Victoire in interludes.
Their friendship is the lively center and the emotional heart of the novel. They are close but subject to explosive moments, angry separation, and betrayal. But the bond among them still holds, for better and worse. The four are forced to face the reality that Babel is the only part of racist and sexist Oxford that is accepting of them. As they learn more about how the system based on silver really works, they see their own roles in the exploitative British empire.
That knowledge is heightened by their meeting up with members of the secret revolutionary Hermes Society. One of its leaders turns out to be Griffin Lovell, Robin’s half-brother, who deeply believes that violence rather than working from within is the only way to deal with the raw power of imperial rule that accumulates more and more wealth while ignoring the needs of the rest of the world and its subject peoples. Babel closely interrogates through the conflicted relationships of the four friends the hard choices facing oppressed people living in a privileged world.
Babel also challenges the assertion of the subtitle, that violence is necessary to effect change, through the head-on clashes of its major characters. That makes for powerful scenes as the field of possible actions to change the world at all becomes more and more confined as the story progresses. Kuang builds the story to a mighty climax, but it is not one that ties everything neatly together or offers simple solutions to any of the characters.
This is a remarkable novel that has its nerdy components (criss-crossing notes on many languages and a supply of footnotes) but becomes an exciting story of friendship caught up in revolutionary times. Babel examines every aspect of the hard choices, brutal consequences and interplay of external forces and personal needs that beset its characters. R. F. Kuang is an impressive writer with four big novels in print, not to mention a batch of advanced degrees, at the age of 26. Fortunately for us, she’s just getting started.