Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence by R F Kuang (speculative / historical fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5

An alternate / speculative history version of the British Empire in the 1830s where the wheels of commerce are driven by magic, imbued to bars of silver through the machinations of Translators. Robin Swift is plucked from Canton in the midst of a cholera epidemic by a Professor at the Royal Institute of Translation in Oxford. Robin’s gift of languages has made him valuable to the empire, and he goes from an impoverished childhood to one of plenty: plenty of material goods and plenty of work. I absolutely loved the first part of the book which built a world based on the impossibility of accurate and precise translation and the extractable magic embedded in the difference. The author is Oxford and Yale educated, specializing in Contemporary Chinese Studies and East Asian Languages, and I thoroughly enjoyed the linguistic forays and the consistency of the model she built.

From there — unfortunately from my perspective — the story veered into the politics of oppression, injustice, and racism. Robin and a group of (also foreign and dark skinned) classmates become enraged at the impending war Parliament is likely to launch on the Chinese who have declared Britain’s Opium contraband and burned the lot. Embracing violence — with all the complications that entails — comprises the plot of the rest of the book (in case you missed it, the subtitle is “On the necessity of violence.”) I didn’t like this part and was not convinced (at all) by the argument.

The story is very well-written, the characters have depth, and the history is accurate. While I said it was an “alternate” or “speculative” history, that only applied to the “magical” components — the rest followed real history accurately until the very end. I enjoyed the philosophical discussions of morality, ethical behavior, and fairness, though I wish she had not made the representatives of empire so absolutely nasty and clearly wrong (I always think there is more subtlety to any individual than is apportioned to novelistic portrayals).

Not surprisingly, I learned a few new words:

  • synecdoche — a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa.
  • discursive — digressing from subject to subject (too many people write and talk this way!)
  • rhotic — of, relating to, or denoting a dialect or variety of English

Some quotes:

“That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say.”

“English did not just borrow words from other languages; it was stuffed to the brim with foreign influences, a Frankenstein vernacular.”

“Their minds, enriched with new sounds and words, were like sleek muscles waiting to be stretched.”

“The poet runs untrammeled across the meadow. The translator dances in shackles.”

“It was like tunneling into the crevasses of his own mind, peeling things apart to see how they worked, and it both intrigued and unsettled him.”

“What was a word? What was the smallest possible unit of meaning, and why was that different from a word? Was a word different from a character? In what ways was Chinese speech different from Chinese writing?”

“Every language is complex in its own way. Latin just happens to work its complexity into the shape of the word. Its morphological richness is an asset, no an obstacle.”

“London had accumulated the lion’s share of both the world’s silver ore and the world’s languages, and the result was a city that was bigger, heavier, faster, and brighter than nature allowed.”

“Robin saw immediately that London was, like Canton, a city of contradictions and multitudes, as was any city that acted as a mouth to the world.”

Thank you to Avon and Harper Voyager and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 23rd, 2022.

The Battle of the Linguist Mages by Scotto Moore (Audio Book — Science Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 4/5 World building: 5/5
A wild ride blending linguistics, gaming, technology development, and yes — saving not just the planet or the universe, but reality itself from the “Thunderstorm” which simply unravels reality as it progresses. This reminded me strongly of the feeling I got from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash — one of my old favorites — plenty of action and a recognizable world which has developed in unexpected and pretty cool ways through technology. A main difference — this story is propelled by girl power — most of the very strong, very capable, and very imaginative characters in this book are women. Plenty of men, too, and the hero(ine) / evil nemesis extremes are liberally distributed among both sexes so it doesn’t set off my wild stereotype alarm. Warning: There is glitter.

There is plenty of snark which the audio book reader pulled off almost too well. Very interesting and convoluted world building in terms of blending linguistic concepts with symbiotic alien lifeforms, influences on the way we think, and embedding power in language. Lots of blurring between “game” life and real life, supported by the ability to move the action (with real implications) between the two. Although I listened to this — and so was unable to highlight great lines — the writing was very good with an impressive vocabulary and well structured thoughts. Way above the quality of your typical SF fare (I say this as a long time SF fan). Some over the top disdain for rich white guys and distrust of big government (which is beginning to bore me) but honestly very little and not the main point.

Original.

Thank you to RB Media and Net Galley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on January 11th, 2022.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Writing: 5 Plot: 3 Characters:4

Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction
Women’s prize for fiction short list

New words (to me):
– Amphibrach – a metrical foot consisting of a stressed syllable between two unstressed syllables or (in Greek and Latin) a long syllable between two short syllables.
– Stomatologist – One who practices oral medicine (at the interface between medicine and dentistry).

Simultaneously poetic and cerebral, this is an extended and (perhaps unintentionally) comic coming-of-age story that follows Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, through her first year as a Harvard student. Her thoughts and experiences are meticulously analyzed and comically documented as she takes classes, meets new people, tutors locals, and goes to Hungary to teach English in a small village over the summer. The text considers the perspectives of several foreign students — for example, her best friend Svetlana is from Belgrade and Selin has a book-long infatuation with Ivan, a mathematician from Hungary. While she takes Russian, we are exposed to Russian culture as perceived via primer texts, and part two of the book is a hilarious travelog of her summer experiences in Paris, Turkey, Budapest, and the Hungarian countryside. Selin’s take on things is fascinating — her observations are honest and get to the root of the experience.

The novel is full of intellectual quirkiness: a class visit to a display of E.O. Wilson’s “favorite” million ants; a discussion of aesthetic vs ethical principles; lots of comparative linguistics such as the similarities between Turkish and Hungarian (both agglutinative, have vowel harmony, no grammatical gender) and the use of the miş suffix in Turkish (something that states the degree of subjectivity in what was said). That is just the tip of the iceberg — I loved her commentary on what she was learning and how it was taught — a far cry from the party oriented “college fiction” I was expecting!

This book documents Selin’s development through the year. She is excessively self-aware and says of herself, “The eternal pauper in the great marketplace of ideas and of the world, I had nothing to teach anyone. I didn’t have anything anyone wanted.” While one reviewer called her “young and stupid,” I think he missed the point completely. She is a social innocent for whom interactions are difficult. She tries to use her intellect to make sense of the irrational word of social discourse and the observations and commentary are hysterical.

The writing is wonderful. Although I wouldn’t bill this as a comedy, I kept laughing out loud. Batuman has this ability to swerve the sentence or phrase half way such that the ending is a jolt that makes you laugh in surprise. This pattern was writ large with the ending (which I will not give away) — similarly abrupt and surprising.

Some favorite lines:

“I said I was easy to entertain. Bojana said it was clear I had never spent five weeks in an Eastern European village.”

“The sky looked like a load of glowing grayish laundry that someone had washed with a red shirt.”

“Is there any way to escape the triviality dungeon of conversations?”

A great read if you’re in the mood for a long ponder (my usual state).