Babylon Babies by Maurice Dantec
Reviewed by James A. Trimarco
21 February 2006
There are writers who write in silence and there are those who write to music. Even without a full page of musical acknowledgements (extended to the likes of Portishead, Bjork, and Nine Inch Nails), I would place Maurice Dantec in the latter category based on any page of his writing. His prose—even in a translation that is often flawed—is taut, and strives for a rhythmic succession of clauses and images, while the narrative often resorts to a language that has more to do with a harmonics and tonality of character than any linear statement of ideas. Some of the most interesting achievements of this consciously avant-garde revisitation of cyberpunk themes are stylistic ones, and those who enjoy a hard-boiled yet experimental approach to language will no doubt appreciate translator Noura Wedell and the Semiotext(e) Native Agents Series for making this writer, already a figure of fame and controversy in France, available to the English-speaking world. At the same time, however, Dantec's attempts to portray a grimly futuristic tableau are frustrating for a variety of reasons, including an inexplicable downplaying of state power and a reliance on exotic locales.
The book begins with the hardscrabble life of Toorop, an aging Dutch mercenary whose personality has been scarred by conflicts from Sarajevo to Grozny. While traveling to a meeting with a secessionist leader of Uyghur rebels in Western China, Toorop is caught in a crossfire that eventually delivers him into the hands of a corrupt Siberian official who offers him a scrappy price to transport a young woman named Marie Zorn to Quebec and keep her safe there. The plot thickens when the official offers Toorop a higher bounty if he can determine what cargo the woman carries. At this point the novel is packed with interesting characters, stocked with highly-trained-but-now-redundant military types from various corners of the world, and it sticks well enough to its supposed identity as a "techno-thriller" that I read the first 300 pages or so in just a few days. While Marie Zorn's personality remained a bit of a cipher, Dantec's battle-scarred narrator had a realism that won my sympathy and, as the signs grew that the woman's cargo was a part of her own body, the cold suspense took on new edges.
Later scenes involve a raid on Toorop's base in Quebec and a struggle between rival gangs, millenarian cults, cyborg/hacker collectives, and more Siberian Mafiosi to learn what's happened to Marie Zorn and take control of her dangerous cargo. The book loses steam in these later chapters, however. In part this is because so many characters join in the fray that the reader needs a notepad to keep track of them all. Another problem is that some of Dantec's philosophical goals, which were relatively unobtrusive in early sections, rise to the surface towards the end. The book dialogues very closely with the work of scholars such as cyborg-studies maven Donna Harraway, anthropologist of global hallucination Jeremy Narby, and philosophers of deterritorialized space Gilles Deleuze and Feliz Guattari. If you follow the work of any of these writers, this book is attempting to speak to you. If you don't know who these people are, however, the theory could get in the way of the story. While a book like, say, J.G. Ballard's Super-Cannes works as both a mystery and a treatise on contemporary social psychopathology, it's hard to keep reading Babylon Babies as a thriller after some of the plot threads peter out and don't lead anywhere.
In addition, with the exception of Friedrich Neitzsche, whose emphasis on the will to power is all over this text, I could also ask whether the book really lives up to its intellectual inspirations. For instance, Jeremy Narby is an anthropologist who has worked in the Amazon rain forests for decades, and although his earlier work focused basically on indigenous resource use and state policy, his later writings dealt with the indigenous use of psychedelic substances. In The Cosmic Serpent, Narby puts forward evidence that suggests that shamans in nearly every indigenous society in the world experience hallucinations depicting serpents of some kind. Narby hypothesizes that the serpent image may represent the DNA molecule itself, and wonders if drugs and shamanic practice could be a sort of communication system between humans and their DNA. Dantec makes a daring move in trying to utilize Narby's complex ideas and use them to theorize a post-human future, but we only see it in action for the last thirty pages or so and therefore it remains underdeveloped.
Similarly, while Deleuze and Guattari are extraordinarily difficult writers whose work I'm sure Dantec knows better than I, I question the way in which the book is "deterritorialized." Dantec does show us a future that sprawls from secessionist provinces in Western China to the mountains of Kazakhstan to autonomous native areas of Canada, with all of these places more connected to multinational networks of crime, finance, and influence than to any sense of local place. Science fiction needs to learn to represent twenty-first-century globalization and make projections about its future, but when the author removes all trace of the local from the locations he portrays, he leaves them as empty signifiers with exotic names. We rarely see actual characters from Central Asia, and never get a sense of how they speak or live. Most of the organized crime and human trafficking that give the book its techno-thriller plot are already happening today, yet the book has nothing to say about the poverty and underdevelopment of any of these zones. All of these critiques intersect with recent jeremiads against Dantec in France for his pro-military views. The author clearly savors the irritation he inspires in certain circles of the European left, but a modicum of engagement with the social realities of the regions in question is not too much to expect from a writer of Dantec's obvious erudition.
Babylon Babies is not perfect and its politics will be disappointing to some. However, it is a book that anyone seriously interested in world science fiction will enjoy taking on. It is frustrating and it is flawed, but it's hard not to admire its ambition, swagger, and musical sense of gritty awe. The beauty of its surface is marred at times by a translation which is often painfully literal, but it engages with literary traditions that few SF authors in the English-speaking world are willing to go within miles of. It's a book of intellectual science fiction in the tradition of Dick, Pynchon, and Burroughs, and those who care about that tradition would do well to pick it up.