March 22, 2023
I recently finished reading Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of Oxford Translator's Revolution, by RF Kuang. Here are my thoughts on the book.
Warning: This post contains spoilers!
1830s, England. An alternate history with one crucial difference from reality: magic silver bars bearing "match-pair" words. In Kuang's world, you can write two words in different languages with similar meanings on opposite sides of a silver bar, and if someone who understands both words reads the match-pair aloud, magic...sometimes...happens. But only if they think really hard? The magical effect stems from the disparity in meaning behind the two words in the match-pair.
For instance, in the very first chapter, someone cures cholera using a bar bearing the words "Triacle" and "Treacle". According to the book:
the word treacle was first recorded in the seventeenth century in relation to the heavy use of sugar to disguise the bad taste of medicine. [This] traced back to the Old French 'triacle', meaning 'antidote' or 'cure from snakebite', then the Latin 'theriaca', and finally to the Greek 'theriake', both meaning 'antidote'.
When Professor Lovell uses the match-pair "Triacle/Treacle" on Robin, Robin tastes something sweet in his mouth and stops dying of cholera.
Another prominent early-book example: "Wúxíng" (Chinese: formless, shapeless, incorporeal) and "Invisible". This time, it's used to make people disappear, with the following description:
No, disappeared was not quite the word for it. Robin didn't have the words for it; it was lost in translation, a concept neither the Chinese nor the English could fully describe. They existed, but in no human form. They were not merely beings that couldn't be seen. They weren't beings at all. They were shapeless. They drifted, expanded; they were the air, the brick walls, the cobblestones. Robin had no awareness of his body, where he ended and the bar began - he was the silver, the stones, the night.
Later in the book, bars are used to speed up ships, assist with horse-driven cart steering, keep mining carts from jumping tracks, increase steam engine power, inflict crippling pain, injure thieves, reinforce foundations for structures that wouldn't otherwise hold themselves up, blow up someone's chest, make grandfather clocks sound exactly like real birds, and all kinds of other banal tasks you could absolutely accomplish without magic. Some of these tasks happen in an instant, activated and used once when a translator reads the match-pair. But many are "always-on", apparently activated once, then kept functional through an even more esoteric "maintenence schedule" run by the Royal Institute for Translation (henceforth in this review known as RIT). As we later see, much of that maintenence is done by RIT undergraduates, and doesn't require any translation or silverwork at all, mostly just polishing.
The only non-banal magic I can remember? At one point, our heros animate paper pamphlets to fly around and harass people. They use the match-pair "Polemic" and "Polemikós" (Greek: war). But right after Kuang mentions that pair for that purpose, a character technobabbles that despite knowing the word pair, they haven't quite figured out how to "connect the semantic warp with the right medium". Apparently that involved the Latin word "discuter", which means "to scatter or disperse", despite the fact that discuter is not part of the word pair.
A few other examples:
We're told at some point that cognates (words with a common ancestor, usually indicated by a similar form) are important. But not required.
Finer silver enhances the effect of a bar; tarnishing reduces it. Bars don't seem to last forever; some have a finite number of uses, and some only last a few years. But it's unclear how that manifests over time: does the bar actually degrade? Or does it just stop working?
The Treacle/Triacle match-pair uses something called "daisy-chaining" which is never explained.
Unfortunately, none of this makes any sense to me beyond the vague notion that if you write two kinda-similar words in different languages on a silver bar, you'll get a random magical effect that's kind of related to one of the words. This entire alternate history is based on a mechanic that is never fully fleshed out. Especially when it comes to the poorly explained "daisy-chaining", "semantic warp" and activation issues, I just don't think Kuang gives us enough material to even loosely understand silver magic. Maybe you find this frustrating, maybe you don't. But I find it difficult that the mechanic that forms the foundation for the entire universe just doesn't make sense to me. I have no problem suspending disbelief -- just ask the Harry Potter series on my bookshelf. But I find it very frustrating to partially explain a mechanic in pages and pages of "classes" devoted to that very mechanic, but never actually explain it in a satisfying way. Either lay out some magic system rules or commit to truly inexplicable magical realism.
On the bright side: Kuang did a great job researching and showing a compelling 1830s version of Oxford, right down to the pubs and street names.
OK, enough beating on a dead horse: we'll just have to accept that the core magic silver mechanic at the root of this universe doesn't really make sense. It sucks if you care about worldbuilding as much as I do, but it's one small part of a novel. Let's focus on the characters instead: who are they, and how do they develop throughout Babel?
You've got the "protagonist crew" of student translators at RIT:
The (literally) underground Hermes resistance movement:
And the college professors:
And a smattering of uppity, racist, rich white people with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. My personal favorite example? A rich Oxford undergraduate with an alcohol abuse problem, a penchant for sexual harassment, and a talent for writing some of the worst poetry known to man. At one point he spends several paragraphs attempting to light a magically protected stone building on fire. I'm sad to say that there are a lot of characters like this with no nuance at all. They exist mostly to reinforce the idea that Oxford, RIT, and the British Empire in general are corrupt, racist, and unjust. But I felt like they were hitting me over the head a little too hard to convince me of things I already know and already agree with.
The "protagonist crew" gets the most page time -- Robin provides the perspective for most chapters, and the other crew members each get a chapter devoted to their background and current mental state at some point in the book. We get the sense that these characters are all deeply flawed, but also care immensely for the rest of the protagonist crew. But, as the book continually reminds us at the beginning of a multitude of chapters, these characters will hurt each other eventually!
The Hermes movement is best described as "cool smart older students" but they never really get a chance to shine. For the first half of the book, all you know about Hermes is Griffin, Robin's half-brother and Hermes hookup. He exists mostly to taint Robin's love affair with RIT, and also to hint at general Important Things that Hermes is doing and Bad Things that RIT is doing without ever telling you anything concrete. Near the end of the book, you might start to think you're learning about Hermes... but then Kuang promptly murders all of the senior members we've ever met so we never get to find out anything specific. If you're hoping for one of those sweet, sweet lore dumps where a wizened veteran character gives us the lowdown on the RIT-Hermes struggle over the past decades, and the plan for future decades, don't get your hopes up. There is no lore here, just a few skinny undergrads hanging out in an abandoned library.
Most of the professors are best described as "old, slow, mean, and incompetent." Even the most sympathetic of these characters (Craft and Chakravarti) are overshadowed by the protagonists. Personalities are, at best, hinted at -- Craft loves tea and has no patience for freshers; Chakravarti is a little bit of a rebel. But in the end they are merely pawns, moved around the plot for the convenience of Robin. We don't know if they're married, have kids, their stance on any of the political issues that other characters discuss to death (sometimes in their presence) and in the final chapters of the book they mostly exist to lend gravity to suspicions and ideas that Robin has. In the end, Chakravarti decides not to participate in mass genocide or suicide, and ends up being horrifically tortured as a result. Professor Craft decides to participate in mass genocide and suicide. Robin doesn't spare a "thank you" or a "sorry" for either of them, and you'll likely forget their names before you finish the book.
Professors Playfair and Lovell are best described as "sort of smart and evil but not as smart as Robin because they're racist." I especially enjoyed the scene where Playfair pretends to be part of Hermes to try to trick Robin into giving up information: instead of a battle of wits between two razor-sharp minds, you get a scene that unfolds something like an elementary school student making up a lie about "someone having a crush" on the playground. At first, you can ignore these simplistic characters while you hope for more development. But as the remaining pages wane, you'll find yourself asking more and more: "is this it?"
At first, Robin shows signs of brilliance. He cares deeply about language and his friends. He's deeply motivated to be as good as he can be at whatever he chooses to do. He experiences emotional turmoil when he discovers the identity of his father, a secret half-brother he never knew about, and an invitation to participate in an underground movement with the ultimate goal of undermining the social injustice of Babel.
His arc is a twisted version of bildungsroman: Robin comes of age, learns about the dirty secret nastiness that permeates the "real world," but instead of rising to the occasion, he becomes a terrorist. He no longer cares about his friends, his family, his country, his adopted country, or the lives of anyone else. Worse, he's a bad terrorist: he requires help from people who sympathize with him, poor judgment in his enemies, and his terrorist acts inflict equal setbacks to his allies and enemies.
You might view Robin's development as a cynical take on what racism, reality, capitalism, and societal conflict do to a bright young kid. All he wants is to be accepted and successful. But Hermes pulls back the veil on the ugliness of Babel that he previously ignored. Robin can't decide between what is right and what is practical, and in the end, he chooses neither.
The least defined of the "protagonist crew." He cares deeply for his friends. He not-so-secretly harbors a hatred for white people, often engaging in elaborate lies and stunts to mock and cope with racism. He's not-so-secretly in love with Robin. He's brilliant in the first few chapters, serving as a mature foil for Robin's naivete. Once Robin matures into his college student phase, Ramy just kind of exists as a source of unimportant in-group conflict until he's eventually murdered.
Ramy's a sacrificial lamb: a character too pure, too endearing, too perfect to exist in the book's nonsensical conclusion. So Kuang kills him off to silence him.
Hates white people slightly less than Ramy. Is more afraid of white people than Ramy or Robin. Surprisingly does NOT get murdered.
Victoire is another foil to Robin: instead of corrupting to the point of internal breakdown, she takes a practical stance to resisting the British Empire. She'll condone genocide, but not suicide. In Victoire's chapter, we learn her sad past: raised as a pseudo-slave in France after her benefactor unexpectedly passes away. She discovers a way to escape her circumstances through RIT. Trouble is, the very racism and inequality she's trying to escape are deeply rooted in RIT itself.
Victoire is an unbroken version of Robin, who learns how to think for herself instead of parroting whatever ideas role models espouse. But she is ultimately a tragic tale as well: sure, she escapes the mass suicide at RIT. But she ends up isolated from everyone she's ever known, with next to no leads on far-flung Hermes connections, and the added obstacle of being Black and a woman. It feels as if Victoire mostly exists to validate Robin's poor decisions, proving that their situation was so impossible there was no "win" scenario: only variations of "lose."
Betrays the rest of the "protagonist crew". Daughter of an Admiral in the British Navy, but likes to remind her friends that she's actually poor because her father is angry at her and cut her off (never mind the RIT stipend, which is so generous that Robin claims he can go out to dinner whenever he wants). Resents her family and society for prioritizing her idiot brother's education over her own.
I don't feel like the book gives us a compelling enough reason for Letty's betrayal. The entire first two-thirds of the book remind us over and over again how much the "protagonist crew" love each other.
In the middle of the story, the book hints at Letty's unrequited love for Ramy. Despite a semester of interpersonal conflict in the protagonist crew, Kuang eventually stops mentioning it.
After Robin murders Professor Lovell, Robin, Ramy, and Victoire start ignoring Letty entirely. She's clearly very upset about the fact that her friend group just covered up a murder. But the rest of the crew doesn't have any empathy for Letty; they just prod her along in the direction they want to go in. They refuse to discuss Hermes around her, and cut her out of communication entirely.
Eventually, the crew flees Oxford entirely and goes into hiding with Hermes. Hermes, which previously walled off information through a distributed cell structure, invites the entire crew right into their headquarters, makes them dinner, and starts immediately discussing their most detailed plans to disrupt RIT.
The distraught Letty soon betrays the entire group by leaving, alerting the police, and shooting Ramy. Oh also Letty is a really good shot with a pistol, because she's an Admiral's daughter. Feels like something Kuang could have set up earlier in the story, and it would have given Victoire an interesting character trait to boot.
Still, my criticism remains: despite the fact that the protagonist crew had their differences, it was both unexpected and unbelievable for Letty to decide to murder one of them, destroy the epicenter of Hermes, and betray all of her close friends. It is one thing to be upset with your friends; it is altogether another thing to shoot one of them in the heart. Kuang alludes to unrequited love as a reason for Ramy's murder -- something along the lines of "white girl couldn't bear rejection by Indian man." I'm willing to believe that storyline, but I never got the sense that Letty harbored that kind of latent racism. Sure, she's incredibly ignorant of the struggles faced by Ramy and Robin. But Babel goes to great lengths to explain the struggles faced by Letty and Victoire -- having to dress in slacks and pretend to be men when walking at night, not being allowed to room within two miles of campus, needing a male chaperone to borrow a book from the library or visit a museum.
Perhaps Letty's development goes over my head because I'm white. Maybe the entire point is a demonstration of systemic racism: illustrating that you can never translate the feeling of oppression to the oppressor. After all, Babel pretty much beats the reader over the head with the idea that white people who empathize with nonwhite people always have some ulterior motive. I suppose I just find that view a bit bleak: I may never be able to completely understand the day-to-day, gritty, lived experience of someone who grew up with an order of magnitude less money, or who speaks another language, or who is hurt by a system that benefits me. But I think that perspective both sells the imagination short -- I may never fully understand it, but I can damn sure empathize -- and pits people against each other for no good reason. After all, it's defeatist to say I can't possibly understand or care: isn't it better to have faith and expect the best of others?
Anyway, I find it unfair to base a pivotal betrayal on the idea that Letty comes from money, and therefore is willing to kill her best friends and loved ones because they don't come from money. The explanation for Letty's action is ultimately unsatisfying: perhaps if we saw a more nuanced conflict -- instead of outright betrayal, Letty flees, is captured, tortured, and leads to the death of a friend -- I'd be more willing to accept her story.
He's smart! He's evil! He beats children with a cane (strategically, to avoid breaking bones)! He cheats on his wife! He hates non-whites! He loves languages! He's conspiring to start a war with China so they can sell Chinese people more opium and fix the silver trade deficit between China and England! He doesn't remember Robin's mom's name! He won't admit he's Griffin's or Robin's dad! He literally gave Robin a murder weapon, then antagonized Robin to the point where Robin killed him! So I guess he's not so smart.
Lovell is the racist, white, wealthy, manipulative ruling class of the British Empire incarnate. Overconfident, obsessed with power, inconsiderate of ethics or feelings or fairness. Overall I feel like Lovell is underdeveloped: other than his two illegitimate kids and the knowledge that he has a legitimate family he married into for a wealthy dowry and connections, we really don't know anything about Lovell. I think Lovell's origins are a missed opportunity: I'm very interested in seeing how Lovell became the megalomaniacal sadist that he has very much turned into by 1830s. Did he begin his life an idealist like Robin or Griffin? Did he know foreigners during his own education, or mentor some at RIT who defected to Hermes and poisoned his impression of non-whites? Why is he so hellbent on pumping opium into China to extract silver -- does he benefit in some way?
Kuang really should have exploited this when Robin goes through Lovell's office after murdering him. Or perhaps during the Robin-Lovell face-off after Robin fesses up to a Hermes' theft actually perpetrated by Victoire and Ramy. But instead we just get a mustache-twirling megalomaniac. Historically accurate? Sure. But I don't find such one-dimensional characters very interesting. I think it's better to acknowledge that evil behavior has roots in people who think they're doing the right thing.
Not as smart as Robin. At first, more of a terrorist than Robin. Eventually Robin becomes more of a terrorist than Griffin. Dies because his pocket ace magic silver healing bar didn't work on magic silver hurting bullets.
Babel hints at an actual arc for Griffin. We know that Lovell moved him from Canton to England at an early age -- so early, in fact, that he's not truly a native Chinese speaker. As Griffin puts it, he doesn't dream in Chinese. As a result, he struggles to use silver magic, and only sometimes succeeds in activating bars.
We know that he started in a highly competitive cohort several years before Robin comes to RIT. Since then, Griffin murdered another student in his cohort who tried to gather take down Hermes, faked his own death, and became an important (and violent) part of the Hermes operation.
He appears to Robin soon after Robin arrives in Oxford, and immediately begins corrupting Robin. First, through the Surprisingly Actually Coincidental circumstance where Robin comes to the rescue of a group of Hermes thieves when Griffin fails to activate an "invisible" magic bar. Later through secret meetings with Robin where he plants the seeds of doubt about RIT's ethics. And finally by recruiting Robin to secret Hermes missions where he completes the daring task of opening a door for thieves.
So what's the point of Griffin? He demonstrates the dark path of resistance, growing increasingly haggard, desperate, and violent in his struggles against RIT. For a time, it seems like Robin heeds the warning: better to resist RIT in comfort from the inside, rather than struggling on the outside. But eventually Robin finds it just as impossible as Griffin to aid the British Empire.
But in the end, Robin does take a very different path from Griffin. Griffin ends up dying in the street to save some captured and tortured Hermes members. Robin ends up dying in a pile of rubble, taking out a massive heap of silver and a half-dozen RIT members with him. I suppose Griffin makes you question whose sacrifice was more meaningful: Robin, because he made a bigger bang? Or Griffin, because he actually helped somebody?
A quick synopsis:
Robin learn languages. Robin go to school. Robin join underground resistance group. Robin scared of underground resistance group. Robin go to China. Robin kills dad. Robin goes back to England, rejoins underground resistance group, gets the entire Oxford group of resistance members murdered. Letty turns to the dark (white?) side. Robin takes over the translation school in a fit of domestic terrorism. Robin kills self, all sympathetic translation school members, and ruins a big pile of silver to fuck over the British Empire's magic silver supply. Victoire escapes to probably get other underground resistance group members murdered, accidentally.
The first half of Babel reminds me of many magical coming-of-age stories: our hero works incredibly hard, long hours to master a difficult subject. The reader enjoys Kuang's rich, detailed, often disturbing portrayal of minorities struggling to fit into 1800s Oxford. The protagonist crew bonds, has good times and bad times together. They study for tests and get up to tomfoolery. It's a compelling universe and the characters are interesting. I couldn't help myself from wanting to learn more about silver, more about RIT, more about all of the peripheral characters whose detailed stories seem to lurk just beneath the surface. It was quite the page turner.
The second half of Babel is frustrating. It becomes clear that the magic system is not very well thought out. You begin to realize that side characters and even major story aspects like Hermes don't actually have much depth to them. If there's one point in the story where my optimism died, it's when Robin saves Victoire and Ramy, who almost get caught raiding RIT for silver bars on behalf of Hermes, by taking the fall for them. It is at this point where I feel characters stopped behaving rationally, actions no longer had meaningful or realistic consequences, and I stopped caring about the plot. This problem only gets worse after Robin murders Professor Lovell, with the protagonist crew plotting perhaps the least convincing murder coverup I have ever heard of. For no good reason, they return to England, muddle their way back to Oxford (leaving a breadcrumb trail of hints about the murder the whole way), narrowly escape being caught and tortured by the RIT staff, and then manage to take down a huge chunk of Hermes with them in their bumbling series of unfortunate decisions.
Finally, Robin and Victoire walk into RIT with no coherent plan and actually manage to take it over. Nobody resists meaningfully. Two professors and multiple students join their resistance for reasons unknown. During the occupation of RIT, every other character fades into the background and Kuang treats us to multiple chapters of Robin thinking to himself about racism. We don't get any meaningful debate, perspectives from the highly educated and sympathetic professors who have been discontent with this system for longer than Robin has been alive or the single named representative of the "working class" who puts up barricades and protests all over Oxford to help Robin's resistance.
And then everyone except Victoire and a faceless undergraduate decide to commit collective suicide to ruin a few tons of silver and all of the collective knowledge stored only in the RIT Babel tower.
I originally thought magic silver would be an interesting comparison to software in our modern world. Like software, magic silver is based on infinitely reproducible language. You can gatekeep the knowledge away from people (especially in developing countries) and use the advantage to exploit them. The people who work on silver and software rarely get to see the full picture, and frequently dodge that pesky issue of ethics because they're just doing knowledge work, not actually exploiting people with that knowledge work. Both magic silver and software contribute to broken systems that exacerbate inequality to exploit more inequality, which exacerbates inequality. Both magic silver and software rely on resources -- for magic silver, languages and native language speakers; for software, rare earth metals, manufacturing, and cheap IT workers -- sourced from poorer regions of the world. Both magic silver and software rely on a subscription model to maximize revenue: intentionally forcing consumers to continually buy upgrades, improvements, and fixes so they can never get off the hamster wheel of capitalism.
It's interesting to think about but the silver mechanic in Babel is so poorly thought out the entire comparison just falls apart eventually. And the conclusion isn't inspiring either; I guess I can read the moral as "don't commit genocide or suicide because it's futile and you'll never manage to make a difference anyway"? Or you can just leave the system like Victoire, but you likely won't make a difference either. Just don't go down like Professor Chakravarti -- he's going to be tortured by the other Oxford professors for the rest of his life because he wouldn't endorse genocide or suicide.
The world of Babel is an interesting one. I just wish the mechanics were better fleshed out, the characters were more interesting, and the underlying subject was approached with a little more nuance. As it stands, it reads like a college student's 500+ page rant about how racism is bad. I would much rather explore why the villains of the story, despite their immense intellect, have such a massive blind spot for racism. The protagonist's struggle is ultimately a failure; he's inflicted serious damage to the British Empire's silver dominance, but even in his dying moments acknowledges that within a few years they'll bounce back. Hermes ultimately accomplishes nothing aside from making a few translation students disappear and stealing some silver from RIT.
A better story would explore how the underground resistance movement and the protesting workers could actually band together to make change happen. Not in a single, ill-fated protest, but on a longer timescale where both organizations could collaborate to ensure equal benefits from magic silver. There would be a whole lot less murder, a whole lot less violence, and plenty of opportunity for the antiracist monologues that Kuang loves so much. My feelings about the book reflect my feelings about the full title "Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of Oxford Translator's Revolution": Kuang just didn't know when to stop.