Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Babel: An Arcane History

By R.F. Kuang.

This is a very odd book.  You can read it an anti-colonial work or as how an anti-colonial crazy might explain colonialism with a lot of imagination and no understanding of the real world.  Once you are in this parallel universe, there is a certain logic that if a bit heavy-handed makes sense enough and interesting enough to read through.

I an only giving away a little with this.  Imagine a parallel universe where the British Empire's power came not from the Industrial Revolution, the weapons it produced, and the entrepreneurial spirit of its often immoral businessmen but from a magic power produced by inscribing two words on opposite sides of a block of silver that means similar but not identical ideas in two different languages.  This produces more powerful coal-fired ships, faster horse-drawn wagons, sewage treatment, building reinforcement.  Now this is set in the 1830s before the first Opium War (which you may recall was to force China to allow Britain to import opium, which created a vast swarm of addicts in exchange for silver).

There are a lot of odd inconsistencies.   Many of the Silver Industrial Revolution products herein are not from the 1830s.  It also overlooks why China had so many opium addicts: an imperial government that made life very hard so that escape into a land of dreams was attractive.  (We have a similar problem here and again our government's policies have certainly contributed to widespread despair in black ghettos and rural America.  Some people also just like addiction.)

Also lost is that in our universe, part of Chinese weakness was not because Britain used this magical silver power but that the Imperial Chinese government was full of intellectuals who saw no reason to absorb Western technology.  When you are the center of world civilization why would you?  (Modern China and Mejii Restoration Japan were not so delusional.)

The Industrial Revolution in our universe played a major role in creating British dominance.  Steamships and quinine made possible European conquest of Africa, and well after the period of this novel.

It is a novel that exhibits great scholarship.  She has a M.Phil. from Cambridge, an M.Sc. from Oxford and is now studying for a Ph.D. at Yale.

It is sometimes hard to understand how much resentment the century of unequal treaties created in China and the resentment that survives until you read a book like this.

Back flap picture of her: knock-out beautiful as well as smart.

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