This post concludes my review of the Fantasy novel, The Fall of Babel, by Josiah Bancroft, the last in the set of four novels.
*Just a note: As always, the first time mention of a character’s name, it is in quotation marks, after that without quotation marks; titles and names, fictional or otherwise, are in italics when used the first time.
How does it end?
The plot focuses in part on the journeys of individual characters, and those parts have delicately described emotions and moments of poignancy. For the rest, it is battles, revolutions, natural and man-made disasters and coups d’etat on a cosmic scale. And I do mean cosmic: the final fight to end all fights is for freedom and for the future of mankind (species-kind?) and the hods.
From individual struggles, such as those of the unlikely hero, “Thomas Senlin”, who is looking for his wife “Marya” and his child, Bancroft amps up the scale of conflict to fights for literacy, battles against dictators, and the rescue and reform of the enslaved hods. The climax of the novel is preceded by scenes of hand-to-hand combat as well as outright attacks by mind-boggling machines, including the horrific multi-limbed, wall-climbing, rock-drilling machine, the “Hod King” itself.
And the whole thing ends with one massive, huge, enormous blast of planet-altering proportions. What goes boom? Ain’t telling. You can read it yourself.
Something for you and me and everyone
The story has many different endings. There as a few soppy happy moments, as well as terror, nasty deaths and impending oblivion. There is also sad, lonely demise. It seems that there is something for every kind of reader – even cynical types like me – in the book.
How to become a despot
Of the many complicated and ingenious devices and ideas, I was particularly taken with the cynical philosophy of the would-be ruler of the Tower, “Luc Marat”. The hods are his subjects and he sees himself as their king. One wonders how he ended up as the ruler of all the hods. Senlin, who is Marat’s captive, is not fluent in “hoddish”, their language, but Marat does not think he needs to get better at it. Marat’s explanation of how he came to rule the hods is one of the real ways in which despots get and keep their power:
“The wonderful thing about creating a culture from whole cloth, my dear Thomas, is that you can begin with the desired outcome and work backward. I wanted a devoted and fanatical core of uninquisitive drudges who perceived all outsiders, even other hods, as being either gelded or sinister. One way to accomplish that was by cloistering them with a new language. Those who spoke hoddish would feel included, those who didn’t, shunned. From there, it was easy to discredit all other opinions with the broad stroke of illiteratization and the destruction of books. Then, having extinguished voices both present and past, I fashioned myself as the only luminary, leaving them neither alter native nor the capacity for dissent.
“And the truth is: It wasn’t even that hard. It just required a little will and the realization that the human race is motivated not by aspiration with all its sharp edges and long drops but by the desire for certainty, inclusion, consistency.”
The Fall of Babel, by Josiah Bancroft, p. 459
Mmmm. Does it sound familiar? Is that not something you have read about in the history of despots and revolutions? Bancroft encapsulates the dreadful strategy well with Marat’s proselytizing words. However, Senlin, as a well-read man, knows better and recognizes extreme narcissism when he encounters it.
A knack for imagery
Bancroft’s writing, once he gets into the swing of things, is fluent and lyrical. He has the capacity for precise descriptions of everyday situations (within the limits of this fictional world) that come from careful observation and introspection. But he also creates convincing images of the most fantastical things.
For example, here he describes the reaction of perfectionist housekeeper, “Byron”, to Senlin and Marya’s small child; I think this type of domestic detail could only have come from Bancroft’s own experience as a first-time father.
“How one small human could make such an overwhelming volume of chaos was at first baffling. though Byron realized soon enough that the infant, while occupying the entire attention of one person (and often a second who was needed to take care of the first), was simultaneously creating a mess befitting a small army. A fine silt of talcum powder had settled over nearly everything. the ghostly stains of spit-ups still haunted the rugs, shams, and drapes of each cabin and stateroom. The dishes in the sink seemed to spring up like mushrooms overnight. Laundry, while a priority, was always in a state of utter crisis as it seemed that the infant was determined to leave her mark on every fiber available. And something essential was always missing: the tin of safety pins, a bonnet, a burp cloth, or the tub of rash cream – of which they had precisely one. These necessities were all constantly popping in and out of existence, either snatched away by gremlins or accidentally hidden by the absentminded insomniacs in charge of keeping one wriggling, roaring human spawn from expiring.”
The Fall of Babel, by Josiah Bancroft, pp. 300 – 301
Well now, readers who are parents, that should ring a bell with you.
As for the poetic depictions of imaginary things, the fantasy elements, there are many examples. For instance, here he describes the airship, the ship that sails through the air without sails, the State of Art:
“From a distance, the State of Art shone like a crack in a windowpane. Up and down the length of the Tower, lookouts gawked and watchmen rubbed their eyes. She had to be a mirage, a trick of the light. Much as wingless birds did not fly, silkless airships did not float.
Yet the State of Art did exactly that.
“She seemed to sail upon the light of a sunset she carried in her bilge. Though clad in steel from stem to stern, she flew as deftly as a dragonfly and more swiftly than a hawk. When the Sphinx’s flagship had still dangled from a fragile bag of gas, the generals of the great houses had admired her in a condescending sort of way. What a pretty little sloop! How shiny! How sleek! They had a passing interest in the Sphinx’s return, though it seemed a curtain call for a play that ended long ago. The Sphinx was a vestigial myth from a former era, and his tin ship was a lonesome antique.
“But all that smugness evaporated the moment the State of Art dropped her sails and transformed into a flying axe-head. She shrugged off Pelphia’s cannonballs like a man brushes rain from his shoulders and fired her own guns with such ruthless rapidity, she made a whole ringdom kneel in the course of an evening.
“She was a fleet of one, a navy in herself.”
The Fall of Babel, by Josiah Bancroft, p. 223
Doesn’t that sound gorgeous? Can’t you just picture it? – the beautiful killing machine floating on a slick of fire.
By the way, look up “airships” on the Internet and you will see many illustrations of this type of imaginary vessel, as fan art, or as designs and illustrations for games and animated films. Some look very much like the picture I had in my mind of the State of Art. Some visualizations are more steampunk in design, while others are more futuristic and Science Fiction-like. Bancroft does introduce elements of Speculative Science Fiction in his descriptions of the end of Nebos – the solution is, ultimately, technological and futuristic.
Every time I read that name, the State of Art, I thought of Iain M. Banks’ Science Fiction short story (or novella), The State of the Art, which features sapient starships, and in which the protagonists from the “Culture” try to fix the mess that humans have made of everything on Earth. That being the theme of Banks’ famous story, I wondered whether Bancroft had made this reference on purpose.
The end of the Tower, and the start of a new series
At the end of any book, the reader wants to know, what comes next? In this case, nothing. Here is where the story of the Tower stops. All right, it stops with a bang and not a whimper, but no more Books of Babel are in the pipeline.
However, Bancroft has already been commissioned, and already has a publisher for his next Fantasy series. That should cheer his fans up a bit.
On December 3, 2021, a month after the release of The Fall of Babel, Orbit Books, the publisher of Bancroft’s novels, announced that they have acquired a new book series from Bancroft, called The Hexologists.
What’s the meaning?
What more is there to this narrative than just fantasy? What is Bancroft saying to the reader, after all those words have been consumed? There are clues, both in the book and in the online discussions about it.
On Reddit, there is a very entertaining thread on the occasion of the release of The Hod King in the UK. Bancroft mentions there that, at that time, his newborn, Maddie, had been taken to hospital. In the 147-question thread he responds to questions from fans about the finer details of the Tower and the characters. Goodness, but people are inquisitive! They just want more! Considering that the thread is three years old and archived, I’d advise fans to go read it before it disappears.
Recurring, connected themes in the novel are freedom, choice, and independence: for instance, the freedom of the hods, the choice that “Adam” makes to challenge the social order in Nebos, and the independence that allows “Edith” and her crew to confront the leaders of the ringdoms and their established mindset. As “Voleta” thinks to herself: “Sometimes, it was difficult to tell the difference between independence and imprisonment, The two could look an awful lot alike. Were they refugees on an ark or conscripts aboard a warship? Of course, the only reliable means she knew for discerning freedom from captivity was to try the door.” (p. 617)
Secondly, in the Acknowledgements (pp. 637 – 638), Bancroft sheds some more light on what makes him tick, which has bearing on the deeper meaning of the novel.
I suspect he wrote it tongue-in-cheek, but I think there may be truth in his description of himself as being in a state of “…laconic depression or manic frustration” while writing it. He describes “…my love of literature, my fascination with language and antiquity, and my belief that there is a higher calling in life than the enlargement of one’s own ego and capital.”
Remember, his protagonist Thomas Senlin, who features in all the novels, is a bookish school teacher, which makes him an unlikely hero, and this last mention of a higher calling is exactly what Senlin explains to the hod children when he takes up teaching again at the end of the story.
Thinking about what the deeper meaning of these novels are, it is perhaps about this higher calling to which Bancroft refers in the Acknowledgements.
Senlin tells his hod students a story called “The Inheritance Chest” – which, by the way, I had never heard before, but which has a clever twist. He points out the moral of the story of “The Inheritance Chest”, which is also the main moral or idea that I think Bancroft wants to convey to his readers:
“The reason we study and learn, the reason we take only what we need, is because we have all been given a great gift – the gift of civilization, the gift of understanding, the gift of mastery over our environment – and if we misuse these, if we take these things for granted, the ones who will suffer most are our sons and daughters. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the fruits of our ancestors’ labors. We should relish the pudding. But that privilege does not relieve us of our responsibility to be faithful custodians of the world we leave for our children.”
The Fall of Babel, by Josiah Bancroft, p. 632
Beautifully said, Mr. Bancroft.
I think that makes a fitting close to the series and to this review.