Colin Wilson celebrates fantasy novel Babel, part of a growing trend for speculative fiction to include radical politics in work written by women, often women of colour.
The cover of Babel gives you no idea of what you are going to encounter. This is a fantasy novel with good reviews from the Guardian and Evening Standard. It won the 2022 Nebula – one of the two leading prizes for speculative writing – for the best novel. It’s set in an alternative-history version of Oxford in 1836 – a quote from the Times tells the wavering buyer that the book is ideal ‘for Philip Pullman fans’. In the first few pages you encounter, as so often in fantasy fiction, a map. It all seems like business as usual.
We meet our main character, a boy called Robin Swift. Originally from China, after his mother’s death he has been taken into the home of an Oxford professor and given an English name. He undergoes a rigorous training in Latin and maintains his Chinese through discussions with the professor. His linguistic expertise wins him a place at the Royal Institute of Translation in Oxford. Here his contemporaries are Ramy, a Muslim from Kolkata, a Haitian woman named Victoire and an English admiral’s daughter called Letty. The three students of colour face occasionally racism, the two women are barely tolerated by a university which formally admits only men. Robin has occasional involvement with a secret subversive organization, though he isn’t sure how seriously to take them. Footnotes make sarcastic references to British involvement in slavery.
But for several hundred pages the main focus is on the characters’ developing friendship, their occasional conflicts and their challenging studies. Alongside the amiable if cosseted students we learn that the Farsi word farang for a European has nothing to do with the English foreign, that French people refer to a dismal situation as ‘sad as a meal without cheese’ and that the Chinese character 古 (gǔ), meaning ‘old’, is part of the character 固 (gù), meaning ‘solid’. The intellectual excitement and fun of it all buries, for the most part, Robin’s gnawing sense that all this privilege is based on exploitation and imperialism.
And then, about two-thirds of the way through the book, these contradictions burst into the open. Long-simmering personal bitterness explodes. The student translators’ first trip abroad, acting as agents of the British empire – which is after all the main purpose of the Institute of Translation – does not go as planned. You begin to understand the book’s previously mystifying full title: Babel or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. Without giving away too many details of the subsequent events in Oxford, I will say that they involve secret tunnels, debates about the merits of persuasion versus the use of force, a student occupation, the involvement of a group of supportive Luddites, the reduction of a fair bit of Oxford and some parts of London to rubble and a stand-off with the British army. It is glorious beyond anything you could have expected.
It remains a fantasy novel – the Institute bears a certain resemblance to Hogwarts – but it’s a fantasy novel that describes solidarity between white British workers and the oppressed and colonized people of the empire. I found myself in tears several times. At the end of the book, the narrator describes what Creole-speaking Haitian Victoire has learned from it all:
She learned revolution is, in fact, always unimaginable. It shatters the world you know. The future is unwritten, brimming with potential. The colonisers have no idea what is coming, and that makes them panic. It terrifies them.
Good. It should.
Women have written radical sf and fantasy for many decades – books such as Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), Marge Piercey’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) or the work of Octavia Butler, who addressed themes of gender and race from the 1970s onwards. But Babel is an example of a new and growing trend – female authors, writing books including radical politics, where feisty female characters at least assert themselves against the powers that be or head up a rebellion against them. Often the authors and/or the characters are women of colour. This is happening across the spectrum, from tv series to books, from mass market to small presses, from fantasy to space opera.
For example, N.K. Jemisin not only became the first African-American author to win the prestigious Hugo award for best novel for The Fifth Season (2015), but went on to win the award twice more in subsequent years for the second and third novels in the Broken Earth trilogy, an unprecedented achievement. The books deal with gender, race and climate catastrophe, and leading characters have powers which could be interpreted either as either scientific or magical. Rebeccah Roanhorse’s Trail of Lighting (2019), nominated for the Hugo best novel prize, is set in Dinétah, formerly known as the Navajo reservation, and includes many Navajo characters. Her novel Black Sun (2020), the first in the Between Earth and Sky series, was nominated for many awards – the series is an epic fantasy inspired by pre-Colombian cultures. Silvia Moreno Garcia’s first novel Gods of Jade and Shadow (2019), set in Jazz Age Mexico and nominated for the Nebula best novel prize, includes a struggle with the Aztec god of death, and she’s continued in that vein with the prize-winning Mexican Gothic (2020). Finally, there’s the Bone Season series by Samantha Shannon (from 2013 and annoyingly incomplete at this point) in which bad-tempered young Irishwoman Paige Mahoney leads a network of street urchins with magical powers against the repressive cops and bosses who rule Britain.
On the tv, meanwhile, if the captain of the Enterprise in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is a white, male human, he’s the only one such on a bridge otherwise capably run by women and aliens. Central characters in The Expanse include the courageous, short-tempered ship’s captain Camina Drummer, who lives as part of a “queer poly family” in the words of the actor playing the role, and Naomi Nagata, one of the crew of the rebel spaceship Rocinante. Both women are “belters”, people of the Asteroid belt, members of the often-racialised space-faring proletariat, and both are portrayed by actors of colour.
It’s extraordinary now to look back to the 1960s – to see Uhura as the only woman on the bridge of the Enterprise, a role so exceptional in showing an African American doing skilled and responsible work that when Nichelle Nichols wanted to leave Star Trek no less a person than Martin Luther King persuaded her to stay. As King told her,
You turn on your television and the news comes on and you see us marching and peaceful, you see the peaceful civil disobedience, and you see the dogs and see the fire hoses, and we all know they cannot destroy us because we are there in the 23rd century.
Speculative fiction can offer visions of different and better worlds – as Ursula Le Guin famously put it:
We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.
All these books and tv shows are part of that resistance, provide an ever-expanding idea of the possible, and should be celebrated. There will be many more to come.
References (latest paperback edition, in order mentioned)
R.F, Kuang, Babel (HarperVoyager)
Ursula le Guin, The Dispossessed (Gollancz)
Marge Piercey, Woman on the Edge of Time (Penguin)
Octavia Butler’s best-known works are Kindred, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents (all published by Headline)
N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy: The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky (all published by Orbit)
Rebeccah Roanhorse, Trail of Lighting (Gallery/Saga Press) and Black Sun (Solaris)
Silvia Moreno Garcia, Gods of Jade and Shadow and Mexican Gothic (both published by Jo Fletcher Books)
Samantha Shannon’s Bone Season series to date: The Bone Season, The Mime Order, The Song Rising, The Mask Falling (all Bloomsbury, new editions due out in March)