Last year, for my birthday, I decided to get myself a little treat, and so I tracked down The Heirs of Babylon, Glen Cook's first published full-length book (he already had his porn novel, The Swap Academy, released under the pen name Greg Stevens, and some short stories and Clarion contributions published by the time). Of course, with the TBR pile as high as it was, I haven't really had a chance to read it. Actually, no...that's not 100% true. Like many other books by Cook, I tried a few times to read it, getting a few pages in, before I could actually sit through it. It's a strange thing; I'd put him as my favorite author; and yet, it's like the stars need a certain alignment for me to be able to commit to the long haul of finishing one of his books.
Well, I decided I would get it done by this birthday. 100%. And, of course, that passed over two weeks ago... But hey, this is as close to being on schedule as I can get these days, so I'll take it.
The Heirs of Babylon is an interesting little novel. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world, two hundred years after nuclear and chemical warfare has annihilated almost the entirety of the global population. And yet, for some reason, maybe the inherent madness of man, the war continues. Every few years, there is a Gathering; where the remaining territories must cobble together a Tribute: man and naval power, and trudge off the the "Meeting", and do battle with the phantom enemy. Few, if any, ever return.
Our protagonist, Kurt Ranke, is a young man that lives in the Littoral, the ragged remnants of Germany. Impulsive action and obstinate pride have committed him to participation in what High Command (the ruling force for the West) has deemed the "Final Meeting". We meet him as he is bidding farewell to Karen, his new wife. Before leaving, she hits him with two curveballs; one, that she is possibly pregnant, and two, she is contemplating absconding to Telemark, Norway, to join a pacifist faction up there. She begs him to join, but he commits to duty. And so, he boards his ship, the Jager, and sets off on his appointment with destiny.
For the most part, the book details life aboard the ragtag destroyer. This is what Cook has always excelled at; taking something seemingly normal, and adding fantastic elements to it. Due to the loss of the technology of two centuries past, those attending the Gathering can still put mighty ships in the water, but they are often patchwork craft, often running on steam power.
This part of the story works because of the authenticity of the naval portrayal. As Cook even mentioned recently in an interview, a lot of what was written here was drawn upon from his Naval service a few years prior. So, if the day to day actions of a Quartermaster don't appeal to you, a good chunk of this novel won't work.
Now, as these things are wont to happen in a militaristic system of government, High Command has a sort of "propaganda police bureau" known as the Political Office, to make sure that everyone keeps marching in step. These feared agents are clad in black, and inspire fear and command respect wherever they go. Think SS officers or Warhammer 40K Commissars.
Our protagonist, Kurt Ranke, finds himself smack dab in the middle of this ideological maelstrom. Cook has, in Kurt, presented us with a very real, human lead. He is a young man who is not non-violent, but simply not violent. He is not anti-war; he just cannot quantify hating an "enemy" that he has never seen. He is not pro-High Command, but he understands that life is much easier when one follows a set path (even though in the back of his mind he realizes that this path is probably a one-way trip). He also recognizes the goals of the resistance; he even finds excitement in them, and a desire to help bring about change. Of course, he ends up committing again to the path laid out for him, and hating himself for his laziness. Kurt is very much like us in this way; we can rage over political and social issues in the news and on social media, then finish our coffee and head off to our work pods.
Even though Babylon borrows from other anti-war and anti-totalitarian works, it is not a propaganda piece. It is, like so many of Cook's other works, a story seen from the everyday soldier's point of view.
Towards the middle, Cook borrows a page from 1984 and has Kurt visit a small shop, where upon him is bestowed a book which illuminates some of the mechanics of the current societal structure. He picks up some rudimentary English skills, and sets about translating the tome.
As the rickety armada trudges off to its final rendezvous, the clamps from High Command are tightened, and the seeds of mutiny truly begin to blossom. At this point, it all becomes a matter of time....
There's really two main ways to look at a book like The Heirs of Babylon. If you are reading it today, it's most likely because you are a Glen Cook fan, and perhaps a completist of sorts, and are interested in seeing what his earliest works were like. Perhaps you want to see if you can see parallels between older and contemporary books by him, and see if you can chart the evolution of his writing prowess.
Or, you can look at it as a standalone. Imagine you plucked this off the spinner rack at a bygone drugstore, or found it in a used-books box at a flea market. In that case, you can appraise it on its own merits as a standalone book.
On its own, The Heirs of Babylon is an enjoyable enough book. It is post-apocalyptic, but not in an insane, "Mad Max" manner. Given this, it might come off as a tad boring for some. In fact, this may be the first instance of Cook "self-critiquing" himself in-book (remember when Croaker savaged Murgen for how he recorded his Annals?). As Kurt is translating the forbidden book, he notes how it is much more boring than he expected, and after a certain point he was just continuing to turn pages in the hope that something exciting would happen. Babylon isn't boring, but it isn't chock full of explosions either. The action scenes, when they come, are fast, furious, and intentionally confusing. Terrifying, too. You know, just how they'd be in real life.
I'm not going to give away too much in regards to the climax. Suffice to say, Cook surprises us by not giving us what we expect, and yet delivering something entirely believable. If you are hoping for either a lofty, heroic ending; or an overly dramatic, sad one, you will be disappointed. Cook knows that in the end, soldiers do what they need to do to survive (remember, soldiers live and wonder why). Ergo, this story ends the moment that the war ends for Kurt. This yields a finale which is both immensely frustrating and completely satisfying at the same time.
In the end, I'll just say that The Heirs of Babylon was much better than I expected. Cook exhibited smooth polish even as a young writer, although I wonder if he would've written from the first-person perspective if he had written it later in his career. If you are a fan, and have $5-10 kicking around, it's totally worth hunting down a copy.
Not bad at all. The ships are beyond basic, and the faces in the mushroom cloud remind me of the onionheads in the original Don't Be Afraid of the Dark movie, but it's still fairly evocative.
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