Babel: dark and academic

Book cover: Babel - RF KuangLanguage, loyalty and exploitation come under the microscope in RF Kuang’s alternate history of a magically-fuelled British Empire. In 19th century Oxford, Cantonese scholar Robin Swift is about to learn that his unwelcome differences are also his route to influence… if he’s prepared to accept the terrible costs of power.

I have delayed reading Babel for about a year, largely because it’s an intimidating chonk. This spring I was finally game enough to tackle the audiobook, and while I’ve been (particularly) lax in reviewing this year, today’s Wyrd & Wonder prompt to discuss dark academia is my goad to sit down and gather some thoughts.

For the handful people in the world who aren’t familiar with Babel, it is set in Victorian Oxford in an alternate history where pairing the right two words and inscribing them on a bar of silver generates magical results. Their gifts with languages open doors that would otherwise be closed to Robin (half Cantonese), Ramy (Indian and Muslim), Victoire (Haitian) and even Letty (an Admiral’s daughter), with the novel following the course of their close friendship, academic studies and emerging awareness of how access to silver is shaping domestic and international politics to benefit a small few at enormous human cost. With varying levels of understanding of the realities of life beyond Babel’s halls, the cohort must decide whether they are prepared to be agents of Empire and enjoy the benefits offered a privileged few, or will lend their voices to the growing calls for a fairer world.

I admired Babel without particularly enjoying it while I was reading it. It was one of those books that was diverting enough while I was listening, but didn’t have me reaching for my headphones. I nearly bailed about three quarters of the way through, uncertain I wanted to witness the bleak developments of the final act. However, I have found myself thinking about it several times since finishing it, because it does many things very well indeed. Having let it settle, I can acknowledge that I don’t care for dark academia – and (somewhat to my own surprise) that I’ll entertain rereading Babel in future anyway.

So let’s focus on what worked for me: while I often get impatient with coming of age novels, I enjoyed Robin’s arc. He is a clever, sweet boy with a romantic streak fostered by a love of adventure novels – and a weak reed. He isn’t the fierce hero of his beloved books, he’s a small, naive lad who tends to bend under pressure. He desperately wants to find a place where he belongs, and people he can belong to. When he makes terrible choices – and he does – I believed in them absolutely; these are never narrative convenience, but bad decisions driven by what we’ve seen of who he is. And as his illusions are stripped away, he slowly gains the strength to stand up to power and demand better of it.

I also enjoyed the broader world-building, although I was more interested in how this was expressed beyond Oxford and its ivory towers. Consequently, while Babel isn’t primarily interested in the Industrial Revolution, I was glad that it acknowledged it. Here, silver and translation are the engines transforming society and deepening inequalities, and I appreciated that Kuang gave space over the course of the novel to the many resulting axes of oppression. While I found the pace frustrating at the time, in retrospect I think Babel’s has stayed with me in part because it does take the time to show its world through one lens – bright-eyed Birdy, in love with Oxford and ambitious to prove his worth by mastering silver-working – only to rip the scales from his eyes and have him see what I (and Ramy) had been growling at all along.

Surprisingly, I enjoyed (hating) Letty’s blind privilege and selfishness enough that her lack of empathy or character development didn’t bother me. I was more wearied by Professors Lovell and Playfair – but even they had sufficient stuffing to feel unfortunately, unpleasantly real. If there’s one thing recent years have shown me, it’s too many Lettys punching down while Lovells and Playfairs reap the benefits. Happily, I could love Ramy and Victoire without reservation, admiring their perseverance and banked rage.

While the academic structure and Oxford setting left me as cold as expected, I was inevitably delighted by the magical concepts. I learned 3 languages by the time I was 10 and studied 4 more before I was 20; I was thrilled by the notion that nuances in meaning and association between closely-related words in different languages could drive magical power (and I enjoyed the sharp commentary on the act of translation, which can never be a neutral act). I didn’t always agree with how this was expressed, but that’s academic (sorry not sorry).

Having sat with it for a couple of weeks, I find it difficult to focus on its flaws. Babel is considered, relentless and polished and Robin and Victoire have continued living in my head ever since I finished it. I did not enjoy the reading experience because it is both very long and rather slow and (in audio format at least) the footnotes were intrusive to the point where I resented them. I will be steadfastly avoiding anything marketed as dark academia for the foreseeable future, but I admired Babel enough to consider rereading it. I suspect I’ll enjoy it a lot more with full knowledge of its destination.