Books of 2024, #6: Babel by R. F. Kuang

You’d think I’d get tired of hating books the SF critics love, but here we are again.

Babel is a mess. It’s yet another coming-of-age tale in SF, which is something I’m getting really tired of across the board; I mean, is it impossible for authors to imagine something interesting happening to adults? Fine. Whatever. If that was the only thing I disliked, this would be a different post.

The basic argument is that our point of view character (Robin) is a half-Cantonese youth orphaned by a cholera outbreak. Predictably, he’s “rescued” from poverty by an English academic, who adopts him as his “ward” and takes him back to Oxford to join the fictional Translation Institute there.

In the world of Babel, a sort of magic exists based on the user of silver bars engraved with matched-pairs of words in translation. The effect is derived from the tensions and implications inherent in translation. This is clever, but not NEARLY so clever as Kuang clearly thinks it is; one serious shortcoming of the book is an ENDLESS PARADE of footnotes describing this-or-that matched pair. Often, the footnotes are in untranslated Chinese, because I guess why not?

But even this bit of babble isn’t the main problem with the book. Publisher’s Weekly says it better:

Publishers Weekly negatively reviewed the novel, saying, “Kuang underwhelms with a didactic, unsubtle take on dark academia and imperialism.” They explained, the “narrative is frequently interrupted by lectures on why imperialism is bad, not trusting the reader or the plot itself enough to know that this message will be clear from the events as they unfold. Kuang assumes an audience that disagrees with her, and the result keeps readers who are already aware of the evils of racism and empire at arm’s length. The characters, meanwhile, often feel dubiously motivated.”

This is something I’ve joked about before as “Rand’s Disease.” Like lots of bright kids, I read Atlas Shrugged in high school. Ayn Rand’s books are notionally novels, but they’re not REALLY. What they are are long tirades about her philosophy masquerading as fiction. The characters are wooden and poorly fleshed out. Motivations are questionable. Reactions are bizarre. This is what happens when your priority is something other than the novel itself.

Kuang falls prey to this at every turn. Her characters are wooden and shallow. Motivations are sketchy at best. They all feel like sock puppets in a pantomime about the evils of colonialism. I’d say “cut out the endless rants and you’d have something,” except absent the pages and pages of anticolonialism I’m not sure what would be left.

And yet: it won the Nebula. I think SF people just must not care very much about the actual craft of fiction, and consider Big Idea shit to be the higher value, because holy hell this is a problem I run into a LOT when I read an “award-winning” SF text. In Babel’s Nebula year, it beat out the drastically better crafted Nona the Ninth, for example. Reading backward in the list of Nebula winners, I see only 7 genuinely excellent novels in the winner slots since 2020 (Butler’s Parable of the Talents; Gaiman’s American Gods; Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Unions; Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl; Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; Jemisin’s The Stone Sky; Wells’ Network Effect).

Others obviously disagree, but I think my takeaway is that the Nebula isn’t a good indicator for quality for ME. (The Hugo list is marginally better, but there’s other issues there.)

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