Goodreads review: “Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence” by R.F. Kuang

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: 5 of 5 stars

I hurried to buy and read this book on the recommendation of a well-known translator (well-known to other translators, that is), and I loved it. I’ve nominated it for a Nebula Award.

As the author carefully points out in a note at the beginning of the novel, this is a fantasy based on historical fact. If you’ve heard of the Opium Wars between China and Great Britain, then you know that it was a dismal time in history for the people subjected to imperialism. Meanwhile, back in Britain, the first industrial revolution meant exploitation, deepening poverty, and misery for the working class.

The author is also a translator, like me, and the book’s magic system turns translation into a weapon for imperialism and economic abuse — an unsettling idea, carefully constructed.

Babel follows the life of novice translator Robin Swift (we never learn his real name) as he discovers his place as a cog in the machine that turns his very thoughts into weapons and will cost him his dignity, what little love he is able to find, and the lives of the people he loves until all that remains is the necessity of violence.

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New material on the website

“To Find a Dress” — This story began as Spanish class assignment to write about the saying, “El hábito no hace al monje,” or “Clothes don’t make the man.” On that same day, I read a Wall Street Journal article about the Washington, DC, Hash House Harriers Red Dress Run, and I decided that maybe you are what you wear. Published in 2003.

Amadis of Gaul, Chapter IX — An excerpt from a medieval novel that I translated. This is how people at the time imagined a dramatic, heroic joust.

Dogs in Heaven” — Flash fiction with cute animals.

New in Articles:

The First Seven Chicons: A History of Ambition, Tradition, and Entertainment — Each year, the science fiction community organizes an event called a “worldcon.” The first one started sort of by accident. The second one, held in Chicago in 1940, made it into an annual event. This report was written for the Chicon 8 Souvenir Book.

Chicon 8: convention review — The 80th Worldcon went well, but times are changing.

Speculative Fiction: the future happens everywhere — Science fiction translators and some publishers want to make the genre reflect its world-wide authorship. This article was written for the Spring-Summer 2022 edition of The Source, the journal of the Literary Division of the American Translators Association.

Parallel Beauty — What set the standards for beautiful prose in English? The King James Bible, for one thing.

Why I’m not doing NaNoWriMo

As you may know, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) began 20 years ago as a challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days, specifically during the month of November. Hundreds of thousands of people do it every year, and I wish every one of them success.

I’m not doing it. Why? Mostly because I’m busy. Right now, I’m trying to finish the first draft of the third book, Usurpation, in the trilogy that started with Semiosis and Interference. I’m the kind of writer who struggles through first drafts, and 50,000 words in a month might be tough, especially given the constraints built into the trilogy.

I’m working on some smaller projects, too, and the publisher and I are putting the final touches on my next novel, which is coming out in May 2023, Dual Memory.

Still, NaNoWriMo is a great thing. New writers learn that they can write every day — and that when they show up to work, the muse will be waiting for them. It can seem like magic, and I’ve been living in that enchanted land for a long while. Experienced writers undertake NaNoWriMo knowing they will feel the thrill of creativity shared with an uplifting community.

Will I do NaNoWriMo in the future? Maybe. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo now, keep going! Tell us your story, please.

My Windycon schedule

This weekend I’ll be at Windycon, a science fiction convention in Lombard, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago (hence the name). It’s the Windy City’s longest-running SF con, usually with about 1,000 members. Events are mostly centered around science fiction and fantasy literary themes, but lovers of games, costumes, art, music, and media will find plenty to do. And in the evening, there are parties, with prizes in categories including best alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, best food, and best overall party.

I’ll be busy. Here’s my schedule. If you happen to be at Windycon, you know the drill: it’s one big family, so let’s say hi and catch up. Read any good books lately? Let me rave about Babble by R.F. Kuang.

Writers Workshop: Saturday 9:00 to 11:30, pre-registration required.

Common, But Annoying SF Tropes: Saturday 12:00 Junior BC. Science fiction is full of common ideas and repeated concepts that might have been fresh at one time, but now may indicate a laziness on the part of the creator. What are some of the common tropes in science fiction and fantasy that deserve to be mocked and retired? Hear our panelists’ bugbears and share your own. Sue Burke (moderator), Malda Marlys, Justin Matulonis, N. Frances Moritz, David “Ordo” Ordonez.

Fantasy Governments That Aren’t Monarchies: Saturday 15:00 Junior BC. The fallback political system in fantasy is often a monarchy — either a kingdom or an empire. But there are many other types of governments that get mentioned less often. Why aren’t these more democratic types of systems used more often? Do monarchies make for an easy story of saving the world from the Evil Empire or are they just the easiest to write? Why is this so? Geoff Strayer (moderator), A.M. Arktos, Sue Burke, Alexei Collier, Mary Anne Mohanraj.

Creating Rational Characters: Sunday 10:00 Lilac AC. Many SF stories dealing with supposedly advanced civilizations feature characters who act like they have never heard of the scientific methods! Perhaps it’s the fear of creating a Mary Sue; yet, rational characters are not necessarily infallible. Rational characters are interesting to follow — so why don’t we write more of them? Sue Burke (moderator), Mark Huston, Neal Litherland, Charles Ott.

Livable Future or Soft Landings: Sunday 11:00 Junior BC. Negotiating with the future … worldbuilding through the frame of what we imagine good outcomes for the near future to be? Some authors are writing optimistic solarpunk and basically trying to imagine futures that we would all be not only willing but happy to live in … without being too pie in the sky either. A.M. Dellamonica (moderator), Sue Burke, Alexei Collier, Kelly Robson.

Biology of Fantasy Creatures: Sunday 12:00 Junior BC. Panelists discuss how fantasy creatures could develop. It is easy to imagine a minotaur or a selkie, but how do you apply the known theories of biology to make beings in a logical and scientifically consistent way? Should you attempt to understand their biology or just hand wave to allow the reader’s sense of wonder take over? Sue Burke (moderator), Bill Fawcett, Lisa Freitag, Alice Liddell, W.A. Thomasson.

Transitions of Power: Sunday 13:00 Lilac BD. Panelists discuss the transfer of power in modern governments of all types. What are the traditions and what are the modern attitudes? Bill Fawcett (moderator), Sue Burke, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Neil Rest, Mark Roth.

The story of the madman in the bath

Here’s a little medieval Spanish story with a moral and a punch line. It comes from El Conde Lucanor (Count Lucanor), a book written in 1335 by Sir Juan Manuel (1282-1348), Prince of Villena and nephew of King Alfonso X the Wise of Castile.

The book is filled with “exemplary stories” to help the fictitious Count Lucanor deal with his concerns. In Example XLIII, the Count asks how much he should tolerate from bad people. His advisor Patronio tells him this cautionary story about putting up with bad behavior, whose final line became a medieval refrain (translation mine):

“A good man had a public bath, and one day a madman came to the bath when people were bathing. He hit them with buckets and stones and sticks and everything else he could find, so no one in the world dared to go to the bath that belonged to the good man. He lost his source of income.

“When the good man realized that the madman was making his business fail, he got up early one day and went to the bath before the madman came. He took off his clothes and got a bucket of boiling water and a large wooden club. Then the madman who had been attacking people arrived at the bath.

“The naked good man, who was waiting, saw him and ran toward him with courage and anger. He threw the bucket of boiling water at the madman’s head and grabbed the club and began to strike him again and again on his head and body. The madman was afraid he would be killed.

“He ran out screaming, and someone asked him why he was running and yelling. The madman told him:

“ ‘My friend, beware, there is another madman in the bath.’ ”