December 29, 2005


Babylon Babies. By Maurice G. Dantec. Translated by Noura Wedell. Semiotext(e) Native Agents/MIT Press. $19.95.

     Cross Tom Clancy with Robert Heinlein, throw in some Michael Crichton and a touch of William S. Burroughs, add cyberpunk sensibilities and a set of characters of whom the most interesting is a machine, and you have something of a hodgepodge.  Which is what Babylon Babies is.

     Maurice Dantec’s book was originally written in French, and it appears to suffer in Noura Wedell’s translation, which includes such words as “heteroclite,” “volute” and “millefeuille” (yes, used as a translated word), and has trouble with tenses: “Speeded” is used as the past tense of “speed,” and “fit” rather than the correct “fitted” to mean “attached.”

     Still, it would be unfair to lay all the inelegance and stylistic uncertainty at the translator’s door.  After all, it is Dantec who writes in one paragraph of “clouds shaped like zeppelins” and then, two paragraphs later, of “clouds…like menacing zeppelins.”  It is Dantec who writes, apparently without humor or irony, the following one-sentence paragraph: “It wasn’t easy being a closet.”  It is Dantec who has his central character, in another one-sentence paragraph, think, “Brilliant plan, in fact” – and, on the very next page, in yet another one-sentencer, “It was a perfect plan,” which means every reader knows that the plan is going to go tremendously wrong.

     Yet Dantec has genuinely interesting ideas, if he could only control them a bit and not sprawl quite so much: the book runs 526 pages.  The central character is a sort of Everyman named Toorop, if an Everyman is a for-hire fighter in small and large wars worldwide, with expertise in all forms of weaponry and survival.  Toorop’s latest job is to lead a three-person team escorting a young woman from Russia to Canada, and then to deliver this human package, Marie Zorn, to a specified recipient.  The whole thing involves the Russian Mafia and a set of real or incipient double- and triple-crosses, and Marie turns out to be both psychotic and enormously valuable – not because of who she is, but because of what she is carrying within her body…which is something that could end human life as we know it.

     Babylon Babies is part thriller, part Messianic fantasy, part an updated Dr. Strangelove (a lot of the bad guys seem to be near-cyborgs).  Its characters are types rather than people, except for the fascinating machine called Joe-Jane, “a bionic brain, a network of artificial neurons, grown on DNA biofiber and plugged into input-output electronic devices that served as organs of perception.  She is alive, or at least considers herself as such, which is, apparently, the distinguishing trait of living beings.”  Joe-Jane steals every scene in which she appears – too bad there are not more of them.

     The plot veers between adventure story and future dystopian fantasy.  Early on, Dantec writes, “Toorop told himself things were going from outlandish to sci-fi,” and the reader would do well to tell himself or herself the same thing.  Babylon Babies, for all its stylistic and structural flaws, is jam-packed with ideas, some of them fascinating and some truly outré.  Because scenes of genuine excitement alternate with ones of banality, it can be a frustrating book to read.  But it is also a fascinating one, and some elements will leave you thinking after you finally turn the last page.

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