Babel by Gill James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the second book in a Young Adult trilogy with an exciting ‘premise’: in a fractious interplanetary empire the Peace Child is half-negotiator, half-hostage. With an interesting twist on the classic ‘prophecy/chosen one’ narrative, we meet Kaleem and wonder, what will he be called upon to do, and will he be able to deliver?
The story opens with a ritual euthanasia (‘Switch-off’) whose Master of Ceremonies, although evidently quite experienced with his role in a practice which appears to have been customary for some time, is nevertheless haunted with guilt.
Only in the story’s closing chapters do we find out why.
The cultural background has some reflections of our own world, including culture shock – we meet young women who are dealing with the differences between progressive planet Zandra and more ‘traditionalist’ planet earth (‘Terrestra’). One point that puzzled me and which was never fully explained was the agonising over why they ‘had to teach’ somebody from Terrestra ‘about there not being a God’, when this didn’t seem particularly necessary.
We get to meet the two main characters very much ‘from the inside’, with plenty of inner monologue of their thoughts and plans and, in a nice ‘nothing-ever-changes’-type touch, Rozia’s diary. Her notes seem a little soppy at first, but we soon see her true character. The portrayal of awkward teenage love is particularly realistic.
Although many of the earlier chapters end with wrap-ups, there are still some good points of tension:
What was Kaleem’s mother’s involvement with the immiserated and resentful ‘Z Zone’?
Will Kaleem’s antagonist succeed in raising the population there against him?
And will Kaleem succeed in reconciling the freedom-embracing, impoverished but life-loving people of the Z Zone with the more ‘civilised’, complacent, and even a little selfish (through having had life too easy), people of the Normal Zone?
An interestingly prescient aspect of the plot is the source of the movement against ‘Switch-Off’ in the Normal Zone. No spoilers, but they wouldn’t have been ‘the usual suspects’ for radical thinking when the book was written, back in 2011.
The story confronts the reader with a moral dilemma – ‘Switch-Off’ vs. letting people fall ill and die naturally. The premise is that the fight against illness will sharpen people’s minds and empathy, and indeed the medics’ expertise in dealing with imperfection, for example when people get injured, or have to deal with new diseases such as the ‘Starlight Fever’ mentioned as an incident in the past in the opening chapter.
My one criticism would be that the prose is uninspiring – there’s too much “he was anxious” “she was relieved”, “there was something bad going on and he had no idea what it was,” and the like, when better and more immersive expressions could easily be found. And we never get convinced of why ‘Switch-Off’ is so dreadful that it must be stopped – other than its being the only way of reconciling Z-Zone with the rest of Terrestra.
‘Babel’ is a very Moral tale – bordering on too moral (depending upon your point of view). The choice of name for the population management programme particularly jarred, at least with me.
However, in the end the ‘Chosen One’ trope gets a nice twist, and we are left wanting to know what happens in the next book of the trilogy.
Babel by Gill James