I was drawn to Babel’s beautiful cover and the promise of a novel employing alternate history and fantasy to examine colonialism and racism.
The fantasy element is an alternate Industrial Revolution based on silver as a source of power and control, concentrating energy released by the linguistic dissonance of similar words in different languages engraved on the metal. A concept hard for me to grasp, until I thought of the power of silicon in the computer chip, when code is applied. Oxford University, at the centre of this magical technology, is a Hogwarts-like setting, with arcane rules and etiquette; a city of enormous libraries, golden light, overworked scholars and black-gowned professors.
The political element of the book is the racism and misogyny of the institution, and of the British nation. It’s illustrated by the experiences of the protagonist, a half-Chinese student, and his companions, an Asian man, a Creole woman and a white woman. Of course, women were not actually admitted to Oxford during the historical period described but the author dodges around that. In her preface she makes it clear that she is manipulating history for the sake of the fictional story. The drawback to this approach is that it weakens her depiction of colonialism and racism, as it becomes hard to tell truth from polemic.
My other reservation about ‘Babel’ is the amount of research on display. Every couple of pages there is a paragraph on how a magical silver effect works, with an analysis of the derivation of similar words in different languages. The author’s etymology scholarship is admirable. But, like all research, it interrupts the action, and as this is a longer novel than average, I wondered if it could have been edited down. Historical research is also wedged into the text in big chunks, in a way that most historical fiction writers try to avoid. Moreover, due to the book’s fantasy/ alternate history genre, the reader doesn’t know how much of the research to believe. There are extensive footnotes which seem to combine fact and fiction.
On the positive side, the prose is of a stellar quality. There are extraordinary scenes that shock, amaze and chill the reader. Overall, it’s an exotic, exciting and well-plotted story that is richly written and builds suspense well. It would make a good film if visual short-cuts could animate the linguistic mechanics of the magic and display the historical background.