Review: Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution

Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It will be very interesting to compare this book to Seize the Stars when I get to it next year. Both involve the seeming impossibility of pushing for justice against a society and economy that is dependent upon injustice. Whereas this book is relatively realistic, Ms Fan’s book is YA and may turn out to be more hopeful than realistic.

I think this book should be mandatory reading for anyone who truly wants to change the world. Having listened to episodes of The Dollop and other history podcasts about women gaining the right to vote in England and America, I began to realize how much history had been papered over. Whether it’s a true conspiracy (in the sense of those who write the histories wanting things to seem tamer than they are “for society’s sake” or because the “kids aren’t ready for the real truth”) or whether it’s simply the fact that humans like neat stories that don’t make them feel uncomfortable with the truth (or a combination) we are often missing the fact that violence was necessary to achieve progress. The suffragettes in England had to literally destroy shops and break windows in the houses of Parliament to be taken seriously. And, even then, they were beaten, jailed, and force-fed.

RF Kuang shows the true cost in terms of lives and livelihoods that is necessary. Pamphlets (the tweets of the 1800s) are not enough. Protesting is not enough. The common person just wants things to work without fuss. The powerful don’t want to change unless they’re forced. Kuang builds up a beautiful friendship within a cohort of students at the Babel section of the university. They do such a good job of this that the inevitable issues that arise (and are foreshadowed in an interesting narrative structure within the book) really cause the reader to feel for the protagonists.

On the surface level, this isn’t just about how hard change can be. It’s also a takedown of colonialism and the exploitation of the weaker countries. Below the surface, however, Kuang (intentionally or not) also makes a critique of modern society. The magic system in this book underpins an automation of 1800s British society akin to steampunk, but with magic instead. I saw various analogies to our current technology revolution. As one example, the magic system is used to make carriage rides safer by keeping them on the road and keeping them from crashing. When things go awry with the magic system, suddenly people have forgotten how to drive. Immediately I though of the Tesla AutoPilot crashes of the past few years.

I listened to the audiobook and the narration was splendid. The main narrator (deeper-voiced) did all the main narration. Meanwhile there was a high-pitched voice who narrated the footnotes and precise pronunciation of Chinese words. This made it very clear when the narrative was being interrupted for footnotes – much clearer than other books (both fiction and non-fiction) that I’ve listened to in the past.

This book has been featured on my best of 2022 lists and I think it deserves all those accolades. Highly recommend especially if you:
– like steampunk
– like urban fantasy
– like 1800s fiction
– I’m not 100% sure if it’s a neat fit, but also seems at least to be siblings with Dark Academia

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