Babel – big themes wrapped in an gripping story

This is a work of speculative fiction set mainly amongst the ivory towers of Oxford in 1830s England. Babel is one such tower, officially known as the Royal Institute of Translation, which is rich with silver rather than ivory.

Herein is the industrial revolution, the opium wars in China and the lack of opportunity for anyone other than wealthy white men in a familiar but also distorted world.

The book challenges the reader to think about the British Empire and its reliance on not only foreign trade but also diverse languages and colonised peoples to maintain its wealth and power. It resonates with the big questions of how we should confront colonisation and its consequences, as well as the growing gap between the haves and the have nots. Is violence justified and in what form? What about collateral damage? What is the role of withdrawal of labour and do strikes* ever achieve longlasting results?

The description of Oxford as a place of learning seemingly outside the politics of everyday life is rich and unsettling.

The more fantasy aspects focus on silver working, a metaphor for, amongst other ideas, the power of words to bring about change – often in unexpected and frequently unwanted ways.

Fiction is a powerful medium through which to confront the status quo. Sometimes there is a little too much exposition in the text but overall this is a gripping tale that instructs as well as entertains.

*For language lovers, there are interesting snippets of etymology and the evolution of words. For example (p. 458) strike originally meant submission – ships would drop or strike their sails when surrending to the enemy. In 1768 sailors demanded better wages, striking their sails and witholding their labour to prove how indispensable they were – changing the word’s meaning from an act of submission to one of strategic action.

Babel by RF Kuang. Published by HarperVoyager 2022

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