I Don’t Know What to Make of R.F. Kuang’s Babel (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

The Magic System

The quick explanation of the magic system in R.F. Kuang’s Babel is: people engrave two or more words onto silver bars from different languages and the gap in meaning between the words create the magic. If the words are too close in meaning, nothing happens, and if they are too far apart in meaning, nothing happens, so there’s an art to choose words which are close in meaning yet have a difference in nuance. They must be words which are in current common usage, which excludes entirely extinct languages, but Latin and Ancient Greek words are still useful because Oxford compels enough people to stay fluent in those languages. An attempt was made to revive Old English so it’d be useful for magic, but that failed, thus Old English words are (mostly) useless for silver magic. The people who recite the words on the silver bars must be so fluent in all languages used they can dream in those languages, otherwise the magic won’t work. This limits the number of people who control this magic. In the case of spells which rely on English-Mandarin translation pairs, less than five people in the entire world can use those spells. Finally, as English, German, and the Romance languages are converging in usage, the spells based only on those languages are losing their efficacy, so the translators need to branch into more languages, such as Mandarin and Sanskrit, to make new, more powerful spells.

There’s more to the magic system than that, but that’s the overview.

As soon as one particular detail of the magic system was introduced (which I have NOT described), I rolled my eyes and thought, ‘of course the protagonist is going to exploit this in the climax, otherwise there’d be no point in explaining this.’ I was right, that was the exact feature of the magic system Robin exploits in the climax. Maybe I’m too genre savvy.

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I Don’t Know What to Make of R.F. Kuang’s Babel (Part 1)

I binged all the Amazon reviews of Babel by R.F. Kuang some months ago. Finally, this month, I cracked it open myself. Based on the reviews, I expected it would be a long essay on intersectional social justice politics and colonialism lightly dressed as fiction with shallow characters. I doubted I’d want to read it word-for-word, but I was curious enough to skim it. But first, I wanted to get as far as I could reading-word-for word and only skim when I lost patience.

I read the novel cover-to-cover.

For that alone, I must respect this novel, and give it 4 stars out of 5.

One section of the novel got me close to skimming, but I read one more scene, and the next scene convinced me to read in full, not to skim.

What made me turn the pages?

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Review of Outlaw Mage by K.S. Villoso

I backed the Kickstarter for Outlaw Mage: A Magical School Dropout’s Adventure, and recently read the eBook. So, here’s my review.

My history with Villoso’s books

I read about half of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. I DNF’d because I lost track of the plot and it didn’t seem worth it to figure out what was going on. However, something about the way Villoso writes her characters impressed me, and I remained interested in her future work.

I’m happy to say that I never got as lost in Outlaw Mage as I did in The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. Once I passed a certain tipping point, the story hooked me and I was flipping (eBook) pages to find out what happens next. So, even if you didn’t enjoy The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, you might enjoy this novel.

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This Isn’t a ‘Positive Scenario,’ It’s a Disaster

This essay from The Covid Underground offers three plausible positive endgames for the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the three ‘positive’ scenarios includes this:

In the next three years, the majority of the world population will be infected 6 or more times.

That leaves billions of survivors biologically aged, brain-fogged, bedbound, and betrayed by weakened immune systems. As in past pandemics, the millions of dead and disabled will create a labor shortage that empowers surviving workers.

Those who manage to minimize our Covid exposure will have the advantage in pushing for these changes.

We will start to see our numbers grow as more see the wisdom of avoiding reinfection.

I agree that this is a plausible scenario. Highly unlikely, but plausible. But to me it’s not a ‘positive’ endgame, it’s a nightmare.

I just don’t see how a future in which ‘billions’ of survivors are brain-fogged and bedbound is positive. Sorry.

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If We’re Talking about Bowdlerizing Roald Dahl, Why Not Talk about Danny, Champion of the World?

In case you don’t know, the new UK editions of some Roald Dahl books have some new edits suggested by sensitivity readers.

What I find most remarkable is that nobody has mentioned Danny, Champion of the World. Nowadays Danny is far less known than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, etc. Danny is the only Roald Dahl book I’ve read as an adult, so though I’m not sure if it’s as good as the more popular Dahl books, I assert it’s a well-written children’s book which can delight people of all ages, except…

… except Danny glorifies poaching.

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What Would Machine-Learning-Generated Novels Mean for Readers?

Many people now talk about ‘artificial intelligence’ (which I prefer to call ‘machine learning’) writing works and replacing human writers. Some people even discuss the possibility that within a few years, machine-learning based software could write novels and displace human authors.

If such a thing to come to pass, what would that mean for people who read novels?

Writers have increased their use of ‘machine learning’ for years. For example, I’ll use ProWritingAid, which relies on machine learning, to proofread this blog post. It’s more powerful than a mere spellchecker, while costing much less than a human proofreader.

Nobody complains about tools like ProWritingAid taking jobs away from copyeditors and proofreaders. In fact, the professional copyeditors/proofreaders themselves use machine-learning based software because it enables them to get more done in less time.

Software programs writing novels inspires much more dread. But why? Computers have been able to generate crappy novels for decades. A ton of computer-generated novels can’t stop someone from writing a novel for personal fulfillment. The fear seems to be that computer-generated novels would take readers from human novelists.

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A Test of Sincerity

Over the past year, I figured out a test for sincerity in words: does it sound original?

Let me explain.

It’s easy to repeat things I’ve read or heard many times. It requires less effort, and it’s also safer. If someone else said something, and nothing bad happened, then the risk is low if I say it too.

This is copy and pasting other people’s thoughts. It’s so easy it doesn’t require me to think through things as thoroughly. I might end up copying someone else’s thoughts, which don’t reflect my most sincere sentiments.

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What Sending Fanmail Taught Me

One of my ‘pandemic’ hobbies is sending fanmail (both emails and physical letters).

In sending fanmail, there’s the question, ‘will they read this?’ Some people say, ‘I’d send them a fan letter if I knew they’d read it, but I don’t know if they would.’ I understand this. Nobody likes the idea of putting effort into a letter which the recipient will never see.

I once sent a fan letter and received no reply for half a year. I wondered, did she read it? Did she read it and hate it? Later, I sent a much shorter letter congratulating her on her new project. She replied, and said that she loved my first letter, and had even written a draft of a response, but she hadn’t sent it.

Some celebrities say they read all fan mail, but because of the limits on their time, they sadly can’t reply.

Before I started this hobby, I expected that less famous people would reply more often and more quickly than more famous people. That’s… not the case.

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Is it okay to enjoy reading about toxic relationships in fiction?

Sometimes, I enjoy reading about abusive relationships in fiction. This isn’t an endorsement of abuse in real life. I’m open to talking about the toxic nature of this fictional relationships (or I think I am). Yet I don’t slap on a ‘yes, I know this relationship is messed up’ disclaimer every time I mention them.

Purging fiction of all toxic behavior is ridiculous. Many people experience abuse, and they deserve to see themselves in fiction. They need to know they’re not alone.

Some time ago, I read an essay by a bookseller who feels uncomfortable whenever 12-year-olds buy Colleen Hoover books. (I haven’t read anything by CoHo). This bookseller read one of her novels and felt that it romanticized relationship abuse. She doesn’t want 12-year-olds to think that’s acceptable behavior. Yes, she sells them the books anyway upon request.

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Have My Civic Ideals Faded?

Now I’m reading Boundless by Jack Campbell. It’s a military science-fiction novel. The story begins in a multi-planet democracy which verges on collapse. Some characters—reasonably—believe their democracy is doomed.

Why? A faction diverted military resources to building a secret fleet of AI-controlled spaceships which only they control to ensure nobody else—including a majority of elected representatives—can take power away from them. Most of these AI-controlled spaceships were destroyed in the previous book, but a few still exist, and the people who built them still haven’t been held accountable (yet, I haven’t finished the book).

Many characters fear that the admiral who defeated the rogue AI spaceship fleet is so popular he can—and will—install himself as a dictator. Heck, some characters want that to happen.

On top of all that, they’ve contacted several alien species. The alien species are interested in humans, yet their goals are unclear. This is rocket fuel for conspiracy theories—which already motivated two assassination attempts.

This democracy is in trouble. And yet… most of the senators give a damn what their voters think. They care enough that they will piss off other senators to meet their voters’ demands.

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