Maurice Dantec, “Babylon Babies” (1999) (translated from the French by Noura Wedell) – It’s not a great sign when the title of your experimental cyberpunk novel — published by “semiotext(e),” MIT’s theory imprint, yet! — has a title that makes you think of the Muppet Babies except everyone is in those big hats and beards. I thought maybe it’d be better in French — “Enfants de Babylone” doesn’t sound so dumb — but nope! Dantec gave it that English title despite the novel itself being in French.
Anyway… for a 560 page novel replete with references to literature, history, and especially high theory like Deleuze (presumably by it got translated into English by a theory-specialist academic press), I haven’t got that much to say about the actual plot. A magical girl holds the key to a future of Deleuzean schizo-something or other, where the boundaries between people, machines, animals, plants, et al break down and everything gets all freaky and liberated (but in a scary way) somehow. I don’t hate that kind of theory in the way vengeful nerds often do. Some of it I even get something out of. But more of it strikes me as posturing obfuscation, not offensive so much as uninteresting. Perhaps in keeping with the muddle of this kind of postmodern thought, it’s not entirely clear how the girl, or one of multiple hard-to-distinguish cults with an interest in her, is going to effect this change- something about viruses and genetically engineered babies? Who knows.
This magical girl (Marie- natch) needs to be escorted by the main character, Toorop, a Flemish mercenary with a philosophical bent, initially hired by the Russian mob but then wooed away to save the girl and one of the nicer cults, or… something. Honestly it got hard to keep track. At 560 pages and numerous digressions into High Theory you’re not doing cyberpunk, you’re doing cyberprog. There’s some cool stuff in here; it’s not the worst laid out near-future dystopia I’ve seen, and there’s some good twisty crime stuff. But it gets overwhelmed by sheer volume of (basically indistinguishable) characters, digressions, and just words. It’s too long and confusing to work as a novel. The translation doesn’t help- among other things, there’s mistakes even someone who can maybe quarter-read French could pick up, like translating “ancien,” as in “former,” to “ancient,” so you get stuff like “Toorop was an ancient soldier” when really he’s a retired, hence former, soldier, only in his forties. Sloppy, or “post-modern”? You decide!
I will say I’m curious about this Dantec figure. He died a few years back, but apparently cut quite a swath in French-language literature, a sort of love-him-or-hate-him kind of guy. Supposedly his real magnum opus is where he pulls a Leon Bloy and wrote something like 3000 pages about how all of the rest of contemporary French literature is awful, and written by awful people. Untranslated, alas, and even the wikipedia article in French isn’t that informative- seems to be one of those literary fights waged fiercely in its circles and not making its way out, certainly not to Anglophone schlubs like me. Apparently, Dantec was on the political right, a supporter of the Iraq War and Israel. He selects some interesting backgrounds for his characters- Toorop fought for the Chechens against the Russians and the Bosnian Muslims against the Serbs, and his two friends on his mission are an American emigrant to Israel and a Protestant militant from Belfast… the romance of small nationalisms? A lot of our contemporary very-online far right seems to prefer big nationalisms against smaller forces seen as disintegrative, ala Russia, the US, Syria… but you do get the other side too, the fantasy of breaking apart the liberal global monolith through multiple secessions of militant nationalities, eccentric enclaves and ministates, and so on, which is pretty in keeping with cyberpunk tropes… anyway, who knows if that’s what Dantec was in to, but I’m basically more interested in that than the theory-inflected stuff. **’