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Strong recommendation for "Babel" by R.F. Kuang. It's a speculative fiction story set in 1830s Oxford with an, as far as I can tell, novel premise: one can cast spells (although they don't call it spells but it's just science in this world) by using two words that translate into each other, and the semantic difference between the two words - because no translation is perfect - is the effect of the spell. But the effect can only be achieved if you have a speaker who's fluent enough in both languages to have a native understanding of the difference.

One example would be the French parcelle and the English parcel, both meaning package, but the French still carries some of the former "to split into parts", with the effect that packages are lighter and easier to transport for the Royal Mail.

The story remains comfortable for the first half of the volume, with beautiful world building, character drawing, and the tranquil academic life of Oxford students, but then it suddenly picks up speed, and we can experience the events unfold with a merciless speed. The end is just in the right place, and it leaves me to yearn to revisit this world and the desire to learn what happened next.

The volume discusses some heavy topics - colonialism, dependency on technology, fairness, what is allowed in a revolution, the "neutrality" of science - and while we are still in the first half of the volume, it feels very on the nose, very theoretical - but that changes dramatically as we swing into the second half of the volume, and suddenly all these theoretical discussions become very immediate. Which does remind me of student life, where discussions about different political systems and abstract notions of justice are just as prevalent and as consequence-free as they seem to be here, at first.

The book was recommended by the Lingthusiasm podcast, which is how I found it.

I came for the linguistic premise, but I stayed for the characters and their fates in a colonial world.


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