Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
From award-winning author R. F. Kuang comes Babel, a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal retort to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of language and translation as the dominating tool of the British empire.
Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.
1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation—also known as Babel.
Babel is the world's center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver working—the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars—has made the British unparalleled in power, as its knowledge serves the Empire’s quest for colonization.
For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide….
Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence?
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|Listening Length||21 hours and 46 minutes|
|Author||R. F. Kuang|
|Narrator||Chris Lew Kum Hoi, Billie Fulford-Brown|
|Audible.ca Release Date||August 23 2022|
|Best Sellers Rank|| #624 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
#1 in Alternate History Science Fiction
#2 in Alternate History
#7 in Historical Fantasy (Audible Books & Originals)
Top reviews from Canada
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This is a very ambitious and fascinating piece of work, that had a great potential of being remarkable.
I was enthralled from the beginning.
It’s the writing, the gorgeous prose, that kept me interested.
If you like lectures about etymology you are in for a treat, especially in the first 40% of the book, but I’m sure that this book will not please everyone.
It’s long (198k words) and nothing really happens (a surprise at 55%, a betrayal at 70%…). The pacing is very uneven. Also, some events or dialogues felt a bit repetitive. But the characters were interesting enough to hold my curiosity.
I thought that this book started very strong.
I enjoyed the concept and the storyline, and I felt entertained, but I wished for that thrill that never came, that mesmerizing factor that I found in The Poppy War.
The last 20% I found boring and disappointing.
I was expecting something very special with the magical silver, but it was almost quite pointless.
This is a historical fiction, and as the author said in the beginning of the book, keep that in mind when reading this book.
PS. My published Canadian edition was free of footnotes. I’m saying it because I read a couple of reviews that mentioned the excessive use of footnotes. Perhaps that was a special edition or ARC, so next time I enter a book store, I will check for the especial edition.
Top reviews from other countries
There is no dog, though. They could have done with a dog.
There are two particularly good things about Babel. The first is that it is a page turner: five hundred and something pages and I finished it in a day. Secondly, the central conceit (interesting word) is intriguing. This is that small differences in meaning between languages are, given the technology imagined by the author, the motive power of the Empire, and that imperial Britain therefore depends for its continuing material success on exploiting the languages of its colonies, which, inevitably, it is busy eliminating.
The book reads as if it was written in a hurry and that no one read it again, let alone edited it, between the author’s breathless sessions with Microsoft Word and publication. Words are sometimes used in a way that is simply wrong. The account of Oxford in the 1830s is full of anachronisms. These may or may not matter, as it is a work of fiction, but it would be nice to think that they were deliberate.
None of this is as important as the way the characters talk. There is no attempt to make them think or talk in any way other than that appropriate to the Twenty-First Century. People have ‘bragging rights’; they use the ‘quite the …!’ construction; someone is ‘othered’. People didn’t talk, and therefore think, like that then. If as a writer you can’t imagine your characters talking appropriately to the setting you have put them in, you lose your claim to the reader’s sympathy, and (which seems to matter to this author more) you lose the right to judge them. For a book which is all about language, that seems to me to be a significant failing.
Lastly, there is the author’s political line. The moral balance sheet for the Empire can be debated, but there is no doubt that the Opium Wars were indefensible. It doesn’t help, however, to beat the reader over the head, throughout the five hundred and something pages and the even more hectoring footnotes. White characters seem to have only two possible roles. One is to provide the cohort with huge feed-ups involving eggs (further echoes of Enid Blyton) and the other is to roll their eyes evilly and sneer at its members for not being white or male, or, in the case of Victoire, either.
Actually, that is not quite true. Towards the end, a good trade unionist is introduced. He is unironically called Abel Goodfellow. Any writer can get carried away, but that is just silly.
In short, I wish that someone along the way had had the bottle (interesting word) to say: we have the makings of a very good book here; let’s work on it.
I complemented my reading with its unabridged audiobook edition, allowing for an immersive experience. The audiobook was narrated by Chris Lew Kum Hoi and Billie Fulford-Brown.
What an extraordinary novel! As I have been disappointed by a few highly anticipated fantasy novels this year, I approached ‘Babel’ with caution. However, right from its opening pages I found myself enthralled and completely caught up in its story, characters, and setting.
Having previously read Kuang’s ‘The Poppy War’ trilogy I probably should have had more faith as I had been impressed by her writing and skilful blend of history and fantasy.
‘Babel’ is a substantial novel in size and complex in its subject matter. As such it is difficult to summarise, so just a few details for context.
Oxford, 1836. In this alternative Victorian Britain, the city of dreaming spires is the nexus point of all knowledge and progress in the world. At its centre is Babel, the Royal Institute of Translation, the tower from which all the power of the Empire flows. Magic associated with enchanted silver has provided the foundation for the growth of the British Empire. Yet at what price?
As a young boy Robin Swift had been orphaned in Canton and brought to Britain by Professor Lovell, who takes on the role of guardian, albeit a stern one. Initially Robin receives private instruction in a variety of subjects, including languages, until he is ready to be admitted to Babel. There he bonds with a small group of his fellow ‘Babblers’. He inadvertently stumbles across a secret society and after learning of their goals agrees to aid them. Yet there are conflicting factors that will, as the full title indicates, eventually bring about a revolution.
With ‘Babel’ R.F. Kuang has written a powerful historical fantasy that unflinchingly addresses issues linked to colonialism and racism. It is bold yet sublime. I found her world building detailed and immaculate as its various aspects emerged organically.
With respect to the audiobook, I felt that both narrators were excellent. Chris Lew Kum Hoi served as the main reader and I felt that he brought a great deal of energy to his narration. The footnotes that appear in the text were read by Billie Fulford-Brown. I found that hearing a different voice helped with the narrative flow between the central story and the footnotes that served to expand on various points in this fictional history.
Overall, I feel that ‘Babel’ is a masterpiece, a scholarly work of dark academia that boldly addresses the legacy of history. Without doubt ‘Babel’ is one of my top novels for 2022.
Very highly recommended.
Babel alters the history of the Industrial Revolution. Instead of (or in addition to) the coal and steam-based revolution that actually occurred, there is a Silver Industrial Revolution, that depends on the ability to do magic with silver bars on which are inscribed untranslatable words in two languages. A native speaker, saying the words, can cause an effect corresponding to the gap in meaning between the two words. The upshot of this alternative technology is that foreign language scholars become invaluable assets. The Oxford Institute of Translation, nicknamed Babel, becomes immensely powerful.
Because they need foreign language speakers, Babel admits students who would not normally be admitted to 1830 Oxford: women and non-Caucasians. The story principally follows four such students, Letty (a white English girl), Victoire (a girl of Haitian extraction), Rami (an Indian Muslim boy), and Robin (a half-Chinese boy from Canton). The story is told mostly from Robin's point of view. In the first half of Babel, which is fairly sedate, we follow their first three years as students at Babel. The consistent theme throughout is othering. Letty, Vikky, Rami, and Robin are not the type of students who are supposed to be admitted to Oxford, and they are treated as foreign bodies.
This relatively sedate story breaks into active violence after the four travel to Canton with Robin's English father, Professor Lovell, so that Robin can serve as an interpreter in negotiations between opium merchants and a representative of the Chinese Empire. On return to Oxford, Letty, Vikky, Rami, and Robin find themselves in the thick of a fight, about which I will say no more to avoid spoilers.
Kuang's biography (from her website) describes her as follows:
"Rebecca F. Kuang is a Marshall Scholar, translator, and the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award nominated author of the Poppy War trilogy and the forthcoming Babel. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford; she is now pursuing a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale."
There are a few points of note. First, Kuang is herself a person of the type that her alt-history version of the Industrial Revolution brings to Oxford. Second, she has spent time at Oxford. In her Acknowledgements, she writes
"Thank you to Julius Bright-Ross, Taylor Vandick, Katie O’Nell, and the Vaults & Garden cafe, who made those strange, sad months in Oxford bearable."
The MSc program at Oxford usually lasts nine months, so that is undoubtedly what "those strange, sad months in Oxford" refers to. (They were strange and sad in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
One last point, as a Chinese-American woman at Cambridge, Oxford, and Yale, Kuang has certainly experienced the kind of othering she portrays.
*The Opium Wars are one of the most shameful episodes in the history of Great Britain. Perfidious Albion wanted to sell opium (which they got from poppy farms in Turkey) to the Chinese. The Qing Emperor forbade the use and sale of opium in China, on pain of death. (Opium sale and use was likewise illegal in England -- Parliament was under no illusions about how harmful the stuff was.) Great Britain, wanting the extraordinary profits to be obtained by selling addictive drugs to the largest nation on Earth, made war on China. Thanks in part to the gathering industrial revolution, Britain was militarily irresistibly superior to China. They forced the submission of the Emperor and the opening of the opium market. This is one of those historical events that, if you saw it in fiction, you would think implausible.
Reviewed in the United States on August 30, 2022