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Issue #123 - November 2005

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Found in Translation

By Cheryl Morgan

One of the limitations of our science fiction community is that it is still, by and large, an English language community. David Brin pointed out in last monthís issue that a lot of SF is being written in Asia, and I hope to bring you a lot more information about Japanese SF in the run-up to the Yokohama Worldcon. In this issue I report on the some of the results of the French Grand Prix de líImaginaire. But just who are the winners in the French language category? Are they any good? Are they, perhaps, like Andreas Esbach, a German writer recently picked up by Tor, superstars throughout Europe but practically unknown in the English-speaking world? Every so often we get a fine book such as Cosmos Latinos that gives us a sample of the quality SF that is being written in other languages, and I know from a mis-spent youth reading the likes of Druillet and Moebius in translations of Metal Hurlant that the French have lost none of their edge since the days of Jules Verne. Which is why, when Semiotext(e) offered me a review copy of a classic French cyberpunk novel, that I jumped at the chance.

Like Venusia, the other book Semiotext(e) sent me, Babylon Babies is a real SF novel, not something by a mainstream author slumming it. The author, Maurice G. Dantec, includes in his acknowledgements thanks to Norman Spinrad, Philip K. Dick and Donna Haraway. The book also contains quotes from Karl Popper, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sun Tsu. M. Dantec, it would appear, is a very well read fellow. He also won the Grand Prix de líImaginaire in 1996 for his novel, Les Racines du Mal (The Roots of Evil). It all sounded very promising, and so it proved.

Cyberpunk? Well, sort of. Babylon Babies certainly starts out sounding rather like a mid-period Jon Courtenay Grimwood novel. Something around the time of redRobe. It quickly takes on more of the flavor of Signs of Life, M. John Harrisonís biotech thriller. And towards the end it develops a strong aftertaste of Illuminatus! Thatís the overview. Hereís the detail.

The hero of our story, Hugo Cornelius Toorop, is a French-Dutch mercenary. He started out in the business in Bosnia in the late 20th Century. Discovering that he had a liking for soldiering, he moved on from the Balkans to Central Asia where for the past decade or so he has been embroiled with various factions in what has become known as the Chinese Civil War. When the group of tribal freedom fighters who are currently paying him gets badly betrayed and massacred he is forced to flee to one of his few friends in the region, Colonel Romanenko, the Russian Secret Service chief in Kazakhstan who has been his principal arms supplier of late.

Toorop is an interesting character, as much given to reading about war as fighting, and determined to make sure his men get properly trained so that they have a chance of living more than a few months. He likes to sing and recite poetry to the corpses of men he has killed, and he is prone to philosophical thoughts such as this:

War was probably the easiest thing to do, but it was the most difficult to succeed in.

Romanenko, meanwhile, has his own problems. With his primary munitions customer at least temporarily out of the game, he needs to find a new faction to keep Moscow happy. More to the point, he has lost his immediate source of revenue. Russian Secret Service operatives are expected to supplement their income. This drives him into the arms of Anton Gorsky, one of the more ambitious bosses in the Siberian mafia. Gorsky has a job he needs doing, for which Toorop might be the ideal agent. He has a piece of merchandise that he needs transported to Canada and kept safe for a few months. Naturally Gorsky wonít say much about the merchandise. All that Romanenko and Toorop are to be told is that it comes in the form of a Canadian girl called Marie Zorn. Romanenko, on the other hand, is well aware that the chances of himself and Toorop coming out of this job with a profit depend heavily on their knowing a little more about what they have got themselves into.

Give a horse to whomever speaks the truth, says the Afghan proverb, he will need it to flee.

The truth, of course, has a way of coming out. It isnít long before Romanenko discovers that Gorsky has links with an illicit biotech clinic in the Chingiz Mountains. Then Toorop, now safely in Montreal, discovers that Marie is pregnant. It doesnít take too many brain cells to work out that whatever is in her womb is not exactly human, perhaps not even remotely so. What is worse, a couple of odd religious sects, each with their own heavily-armed gang of biker thugs, have taken an interest in affairs. Soon things take a distinct turn for the worse.

All that Shadow understood was that a genuine civil war had just pitted some rival gangs against each other on the Plateau Mont-Royal. Theyíd found bodies of Hellís Angels, Rock-Machines, Russian-American gangsters, Ontarian thugs, Chinese, Jamaican and Colombian hit men.

The police were at a loss as to how to put all the pieces together, both literally and figuratively.

From then on Gorsky and Romanenko are scrambling desperately to get back in control of the situation. Marie is on her own, with only the voices in her head (or perhaps her womb) for guidance. And Toorop, last seen with a messy red stump where his right hand used to be, is missing in action. In fact he has fallen in with a loose confederation of transhumanists. These are people whose interests include artificial intelligence, cyborgization, extreme neurosurgery, psychotropic drugs and shamanic magic. They are people who think it a fascinating intellectual challenge to try to program their robots to take on some of the more interesting human characteristics such as transvestism. They might just be useful allies, which is just as well because Toorop is fast coming to the conclusion that he, and the rest of humanity, might have far more to fear from Marie Zorn than from any bunch of criminal thugs.

At over 500 pages, the book is a little slow for cyberpunk, especially as rather too much of the plot is revealed in the back-cover blurb. Grimwood would have wrapped it up in 200 pages less, or would have made two equally pulse-pounding books of the story. Dantec is a little more interested in the philosophical aspects of his novel, in particular in expounding some of the theories of the anthropologist, Jeremy Narby. It gives the latter half of the book much more of a 1970s feel.

One potential flaw of Babylon Babies is that Dantec himself clearly isnít a scientist. Consequently he is prone to comments such as this:

It was as unconcerned by the human constraints of time and space, of biological and physical limits, as the acrobat or the astronaut is unconcerned by the laws of gravity.

Any SF reader will know that both acrobats and astronauts have a strong and healthy interest in the laws of gravity. They are technologists fighting their environment, not magicians free from the laws of nature. And anyone with high school chemistry will know that Avogadroís number is not the number of atoms in the universe. They might even remember that it is (approximately) 6 times 10 to the power 23; not 10 to the 25 or 26 as Dantecís characters variously claim.

Iím also slightly worried about the translation. The actual English is perfectly competent, but Dantec spends a lot of time describing hallucinations and I suspect that the original French may be a little more lyrical than the translation. Is has to be a hard thing to get right, given that the original language is likely to be highly imaginative.

Those minor gripes aside, Babylon Babies is a very interesting book. Besides, how can I not love a writer who begins a chapter with, "The Wallabies were roughing up the Springboks on her screen"? Can we have some more of M. Dantec, Semiotext(e), síil vous plait?

Babylon Babies - Maurice G. Dantec (tr. Noura Wedell) - Semiotext(e) - trade paperback

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
Masthead Art copyright Steven Stahlberg (left) and Gerhard Hoeberth (right)
Additional artwork by Frank Wu & Sue Mason
Designed by Tony Geer
Copyright of individual articles remains with their authors
Editorial assistants: Anne K.G. Murphy & Kevin Standlee