This review refers to the translated trade paperback by Semiotext(e) 2005.
Babylon Babies marks both the inauguration of Semiotext(e)’s new Native Agents imprint and the first novel by French author Maurice G. Dantec to be translated into English. First published in French in 1999, Babylon Babies is a science fiction techno-thriller involving cybernetics, alternate states of consciousness, schizophrenia, hallucinogenics, organized crime, new age religion, philosophy, spacefaring, war, and motorcycle gangs.
The year is 2013, and French/Dutch career soldier, mercenary and philosopher Toorop just lost his current employer, a warlord in central Asia, to a rival’s attack that obliterated the warlord’s base. The ultimate survivor, Toorop escapes a similar fate and falls into employment with Romanenko, a Russian colonel with connections to the Russian mafia, who gives him a deceptively simple mission: escort a young woman named Marie Zorn to Quebec.
Toorop and two other escorts, a Northern-Irish assassin named Dowie and a veteran of the Israeli army named Rebecca, bring Marie to Quebec and await further orders. The escorts soon realize that Marie is a human transport, carrying something inside her body. In fact, she is pregnant. Then she begins suffering from seizures and showing signs of schizophrenia, and to make matters even worse, Marie’s unstable mental condition appears to be affecting Toorop, Dowie and Rebecca. As Toorop puzzles over the mystery that is Marie Zorn, he starts to notice that despite his group’s attempts to remain inconspicuous, strange people are watching them.
What is Marie carrying, and to whom is she being delivered? Why did Toorop’s employers conceal Marie’s “cargo” from Toorop? Who is watching Toorop’s group, and what do they want with Marie?
Dantec challenges the reader seeking the answers to these questions in a variety of ways. In the early portions of the novel Dantec conceals much more than he reveals. This leaves the reader, like the hero Toorop, with only glimpses of what is really going on. Dantec tells the story through the perspectives of various characters, some of whom are introduced with little explanation as to who they are, only to have their roles in the drama revealed much later. Many of the sections written from Marie’s point of view show the refracted perspective of someone suffering from mental illness, flashbacks, and hallucinations. Lastly, Dantec’s references are numerous, wide-ranging, and often incredibly obscure. This combination makes reading Babylon Babies a rigorous mental exercise.
The translation, by Noura Wedell, is very good but contains conspicuous inconsistencies. Some oddities of translation simply puzzled me, from descriptions such as an “aristocratic machine laugh” to the repeated references to a mysteriously italicized smoked meat. There were also several instances of awkward dialogue that broke up otherwise smoothly flowing passages. Such idiomatic conflicts, most likely originating in the French text, could have been more effectively resolved while remaining consistent with the spirit of the original text.
Shifting through various characters’ perspectives (and their respective agendas), the story moves at a fast pace. Unfortunately, the story reaches its climax (in explosive fashion) about halfway through the book, followed by a long denouement that provides a lot of explanations but not enough interesting story. Dantec ties up some loose ends in style, but for the most part the action is over, and with it, the story’s momentum. Furthermore, even with all of the explanations provided, the ending is still less than clear. Dantec’s mystifying imagery, entertaining throughout the novel, at the end proves too mystifying to comprehend.
What is apparent in the story’s conclusion, and what it portends for humanity, is couched in rather ruthless terms. The brave new world at the end of Dantec’s tale is presaged by the conflicts depicted in its early pages, where everything is a Nietzschean struggle for survival, so such an ending should not surprise. Nonetheless, I found the world Dantec has created, and the “good guys” embracement of it, cold and unsettling. Such criticism is a testament to Dantec’s ability as a writer to envision a realistic future possibility, even if it is not an entirely palatable one.
That being said, I recommend this book to those who want to be challenged as readers, and particularly as readers of speculative fiction. In Babylon Babies, Dantec has created a compelling story with evocative ideas that may prove even more illuminating with subsequent readings, and a reader who undertakes the arduous journey from cover to cover will be rewarded with an entertaining tale. I look forward to reading future offerings by the Native Agents imprint.