R. F. Kuang: Babel Rebecca F Kuang is the new wunderkind of fantasy literature. Babel is her fourth novel out of five, and she is meant to be working on a sixth, if she has not already been crushed under the weight of plaudits, awards, award nominations, advanced degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge, and her current work towards a doctorate at Yale. And she’s still only 27. The story unfolds in a fantasy Oxford in the 1830s, where the jewel in the Oxfordian crown is the Royal Institute of Translation — the Babel of the title — the tallest structure in the city and the foundation of the wealth of the British Empire. It is here that translators inscribe, on silver bars, words in various languages and close cognates in English. But no word in one language ever has a precise equivalent in another, and the magic invoked by the ineffable gap in between – the, um, je ne sais quoi, if you like – is used to make steam-powered ships sail faster, rifles shoot truer, carriages run more safely, gardens bloom more prettily, looms spin more quickly, and massive buildings stand tall on otherwise wobbly foundations. Anything, in fact. The Empire runs on silver bars from Babel. And Babel runs on gifted young people brought from all corners of the world to enrich its stock of languages and translations. People such as Robin Swift, rescued by a mysterious guardian from a cholera-infested slum in Canton and brought up to swell Babel’s ranks. But as Robin grows up, he learns that he is a pawn in at least two great games — to maintain the Empire, or to bring it crashing down. It’s a great premise, the writing is lucid and the characterisation is realistic and sensitive. However, the book has its problems. First is the inevitable Harry-Potterishness of a lonely boy finding his feet in what is effectively a special and magical school. Second, it’s that although supposedly set in the 1830s the characters all speak in a very contemporary idiom, which is occasionally jarring. Compared with, say, Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell, another magical period piece, the tone seems anachronistic. Third, the author loves to show off her considerable erudition in long expositions about etymology. I found this fascinating, but some might find that it holds up the action. Fourth are the copious footnotes, in which the author threatens to wreck the suspension of disbelief by telling us her opinions on events in the real world, as opposed to her fantasy creation. Fifth (and this is my main bugbear) is that it is utterly and quite unashamedly sanctimonious. The British Empire is rapacious, racist, ruthless, misogynistic and exploitative. So it was, but to be harangued about this on every page becomes wearisome. And nothing good can ever be said about any white person who is not working class, especially if they are male. There is virtually no humour: the author obviously missed the parallel with the Peoples’ Front of Judea (in Monty Python’s Life of Brian) when a small and seemingly ineffectual group of characters is plotting the downfall of a vast and powerful empire. And I swear that there is a conversation where one character declares to another, in almost as many words, about the Violence Inherent in the System, a line straight out of that other Python film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I could have done with a lot more of the fantasy and a good deal less of the social justice warfare. By the end I was left wondering about the source of the author’s deep well of animus. Then I read the acknowledgements, in which she thanks the people ‘who made those strange, sad months in Oxford bearable’. There’s someone on the banks of the Cherwell whose ears are burning.
Ian Stewart: Loophole Many will be familiar with Ian Stewart as a mathematician and one of the few of his profession who can explain maths cogently to regular mortals. Many more will know him as an honorary wizard of the Unseen University and co-author (with Terry Pratchett and Jack Cohen, late and lamented both) of the four volumes of The Science of Discworld. But he’s also a considerable author of SF on his own account, and Loophole is his latest. It’s a rambunctious romp involving super-powerful but dotty aliens, a terrifying plague of Von Neumann machines, and a clash of two universes that are not quite as different as they first appear. This is more than just Hard SF. Or Wide-Screen Baroque. With a fiendishly clever plot so twisty it will turn your brain into a Möbius pretzel, it verges on Wrap-Around Rococo. The science is absolutely Out There, but with Stewart as your guide you can be confident that it’s reliable, in one universe or another. At the same time the characters are human, humane (especially the aliens) and there is a generous dose of humour to lighten what might otherwise be a heavy load. If you’ve read The Science of Discworld, or any of Stewart’s books with Jack Cohen (such as Figments of Reality), you’ll know what to expect. DISCLAIMER: I provided an endorsement for the author and received a pre-publication copy.
Dimitra Fimi: The World of J. R. R. Tolkien I don’t often listen to audiobooks. However, having listened to The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion courtesy of Audible, this one came up as a suggestion. It’s a series of lectures by Dr Dimitra Fimi, Senior Lecturer in Fantasy and Children’s Literature at the University of Glasgow. The course covers Tolkien’s life and works and delves fairly deeply into such matters as his invented languages; his sources among the mythic traditions of Europe; the nature of evil; his influence on popular culture; and the sometimes vexed questions of race and gender raised by Tolkien’s work. If you have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and possibly The Silmarillion, but haven’t had the energy (or desire) to get stuck into the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth and the other intimidating edifices of Tolkien’s work edited and published posthumously by Christopher Tolkien, his son and indefatigable literary executor, this course is the easiest and most entertaining way to become ridiculously well-informed about the life and works of the Great Hobbitmonger. DISCLAIMER: the author is a personal friend who I’ve bumped into at various Tolkien-related events.
Michael Cobley: The Ascendant Stars This is the final episode in the author’s Humanity’s Fire space-opera trilogy. You’ll find parts one and two reviewed here and here, respectively. By now the redoubtable and horny-handed residents of the colony planet Darien find themselves assaulted on many fronts, not only by the forces described in the earlier episode, but also some completely new ones. It’ll be no surprise to learn that everything turns out well for the good guys in the end — with the help, I regret to say, of a few McGuffins seemingly plucked from
hyperspace the air — but the roll-call of characters, civilisations, plots, counter-plots and counter-counter plots has by now grown so long and the story arcs so labyrinthine that I quite lost track of what was going on and in the end had to simply let myself get carried along for the ride. The ride, such as it was, was a lot of fun, but at times I just longed for it all to end. One can have, it seems, too much of a good thing.
William Boyd: Any Human Heart I first came across William Boyd with Brazzaville Beach, a novel about infighting among scientists studying chimpanzee behaviour, and which features entirely appropriately on the LabLit List of novels featuring scientists in their natural habitats. The behaviour in Any Human Heart is, however, entirely and poignantly human. The book consists of extracts from the diaries of Logan Gonzago Mountstuart (1906-1991), a literary figure so insignificant that he is entirely fictional, for all that he rubs up against real people such as Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Ian Fleming and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor during his long and eventful life. For me it has echoes of Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess and The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham in its evocation of creative talent just trying to burst through the conventions of their times, not always successfully. It’s a testament to Boyd’s skill that you can’t help but like Mountstuart, despite the fact that he is an adulterous, philandering, voyeuristic drunk. At various times a nerdy schoolboy, celebrated author, art dealer, war correspondent, impoverished pensioner, urban guerrilla (failed), English lecturer, columnist on arts and letters, prisoner of war, paedophile (inadvertent), boulevardier and spy, he is both betrayer and betrayed. His adventurous life encompasses four continents and almost the entire twentieth century. Perhaps it’s the twentieth century that’s the real protagonist, a period that saw perhaps the greatest changes in the entire history of our species, full of unparalleled marvels and horrors, buffeting its human cargo with haymakers of contingency and fateful swerves like no other, and so richly documented in this affecting novel.