The proud Tower | Beamer Books


The proud Tower | Beamer Books

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What goes up, must … ?

Running up to the longest day of the year, the Beamers tackled the longest book of the year, Babel by Rebecca F. Kuang, partly thanks to the controversy over its omission from the 2023 Hugo Awards and partly due to its reputation as a work of speculative linguistics, a science that holds a strong fascination for many of our group. With the related controversy of translation as betrayal (versus the idea of “fidelity”), would the Beamers be climbing ever higher to fiction heaven, or would we find our vaulting ambition tumbling to the hard ground of our razor-sharp criticisms?

Fourth time is the charm!

Babel is the fourth novel written by Ms. Kuang, following on her Poppy War trilogy, a more fantastic reworking of the actual Opium Wars that devastated China in the 19th Century.  Where the Poppy War books are set in a separate world with its own myths and gods, Babel is located squarely in our world, with its history of British imperialism overturning the social and political order in India and China (among other spots).  The introduction of magic based on the slippage of words in translation written on silver bars does separate the setting from the mundane world, though, and introduces the reader to the protagonists, native speakers of non-English languages who use their facility to discover and exploit those discrepancies, such as using the Chinese word for “steam”, qi, and leveraging its broader meaning of “energy” to create high-efficiency steam engines for the British navy.  Since the energy needs to channel through silver, the currency of this linguistically charged world is that precious medal.

Which is not too far from our world, still.  The correspondence of the world of Babel with our world was a cause of both praise and criticism in our discussion.  Much of the history is cleanly moved over, so the British of 1838 are anxious to export opium into China and find a market that will return hard currency to their pockets after their own purchases of many Chinese products (a trade deficient running back to the Romans buying much silk, before finally stealing the worms for themselves).  Our discussion of colonialism as portrayed in the book did not stray far from the historical roots, though we did wrestle with the sense of trade and how advantages in commerce might be fair or unfair.  The subtitle of the book, “The Necessity of Violence”, set up a debate on exactly that issue of when or how violence might be appropriately introduced.  Operating within science fiction, we had to recognize the legendary adage of Dr. Asimov: “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”  But Alan offered that sometimes the last refuge is the only one, as in cases of self-defense against murderous attack.  Kathy countered that any situation that was allowed to descend to that level could have been prevented or diverted much sooner, so incompetence is still involved.

Why are you hitting yourself?

Violence directed against knowledge was especially tricky for us to parse.  Would we burn the Library of Alexandria?, Alan questioned.  I thought it was dependent on who has the privilege to borrow from it, which is the basis for the Babblers’ complaint, that they are translating from their native languages only for the benefit of the English lords who hoard the energy-conducting silver bars for their own use.  Our protagonist, Robin Swift, watches his mother die of cholera in Canton, even as his English father could have brought a healing silver bar to save her.  Again, our debate moved around the idea of cultural and knowledge exchanges and the fairness thereof.  Should we hold back and watch people suffer?, Roberto challenged, or move them up and into the United Federation of Planets, itself a type of empire.  To which I added that would ignore the Prime Directive, which also may force us to ignore social problems like racism or sexism, to allow less sophisticated cultures to develop according to their own impetus. 

Hero or zero?

Robin himself was a subject of much discussion, with Arielle noting his deep alienation from any family ties or social connections being painfully displayed throughout the novel.  His only solid relationships were with his fellow Babblers, and even there, the issue of betrayal was involved.  A sense of nihilism overlays much of Robin’s thoughts and his final action, collapsing the tower of the Royal Institute of Translation (aka Babel), costs him his life, a suicidal impulse that unsettled a number of Beamers.  The general loss of characters by the close of the work came as a surprise to Alan, who did not think that the author would be so callous towards them.  Realistically, though, revolutions involve a lot of sacrifice, so I was surprised in a more positive way by a distinct lack of a “happily ever after” ending.  In fact, the lack of an ending in a definitive sense of did the characters win or lose was a sticking point for most of us.  Ambiguity is usually a strong plus in our reading, but perhaps a more suggestive epilogue would have lessened the feeling that it may all have been for nought, nihilism for the win.

Resolved: That this book causes a lot of debates

Again, given the subtitle, we were prepared for a philosophical polemic, and how we enjoyed it depended on whether we were engaged with the argument.  For some, the rather simplistic divide in nationalities (“English bad, non-English good”) rendered the conflict too obvious.  I found some leavening with the introduction of the working-class English who come to the aid of the Babblers, but only one of them really has standing as a named character.  Even the overall setting, the provocation of a war to allow opium exports into China, seemed shallow to David, lacking in much of the historic detail that would bring the repugnance of polluting an ancient culture with drugs to more horrifying life.  One visit to an opium den a moral refutation does not make. 

Regardless, we were engaged with the fiction as a whole.  Penn, who does not tolerate much reading without likeable characters (at least by page 100), was immersed in the narrative and kept reading to the end.  Chris, fortunate to hear Ms. Kuang discuss her writing with another book group, was impressed by her ability with languages and her dedication to her writing.  The clever idea of translation as magic was a nifty innovation that really kept all of us looking forward for another word pairing and etymological deep dive.  And footnotes!  Even multiple footnotes per page!

So, even with our occasional philosophical disagreement or our sense that a bit more editing could have tightened up the rambling discourses and saved us a little time, we did not regret having spent our time reading Ms. Kuang’s ode to translation and tract against colonialism.  Nothing lower than a ‘7’ was awarded, and even a comparison to Ursula Le Guin’s imaginary if realistic middle-Europe country of Orsinia was offered.  We may not have agreed on why we liked Babel as much as we did, but we could agree that liking it was not much of a stretch for our polyglot party.

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