Details: (c) 1996 AS Byatt; Pub Chatto & Windus 1996; ISBN 0701137185
Verdict: Babel Tower is utterly wonderful!
Reasons for reading it: Babel Tower is one of my favourite books in the world. I don't reread it as often as I would like to, because I own a very heavy and inconvenient hardback copy. In fact, I got told off (in a friendly way) by a random woman for bringing such a heavy book on the bus!
How it came into my hands: I bought it in a remainder shop not long after it first came out, I think probably because I was confusing AS Byatt with some other similarly named author I either liked or expected to like.
I think if Byatt had set out deliberately to write a book to appeal to me, she couldn't have done much better! It's about language, and Tolkien, and genetics (Steve Jones' snails play a prominent role!) and reading, and teaching, and liberal values (which it examines rather than taking them for granted), and there is a huge cast of very well drawn characters. The core story which the whole beautiful complex structure centres around the experience of being a female intellectual in a world that theoretically accepts such creatures but still has a lot of hangovers from an earlier, more sexist culture. As an additional bonus, it's beautifully written; there are very few writers who wield language the way Byatt does, and she surpasses herself here. It's also about some themes that I'm somewhat less interested in: BDSM, and the 60s as an era, and motherhood. But it's the sort of book that can make absolutely anything interesting.
It's a little bit embarrassing to rave about AS Byatt's books, because one of the things she's really good at writing about is just how a really good book works emotionally. The joy of reading it, the way it becomes part of your mental framework, the satisfaction that comes from having read it and being able to refer back to it in relevant real life situations, and all that kind of thing. But hey. All those things.
As with Possession, Byatt takes a great risk in including extracts of the imaginary book, Babbletower. For the story to work, it has to be plausible that the pretend novel is good enough for the literary establishment to get excited about. On top of this, the obscenity trial has to be plausible, so the book should be sexually explicit in a morally troubling way; it would fall flat if the only reason for anyone to raise problems with the book was because they were all prudes in "those days". I'm not the best audience to judge whether Babbletower succeeds as a work of literary sadism. I certainly feel repulsed by it, but that's at least partly because I don't deal well with that kind of subject matter; I don't know at all whether it counts as a depiction of sadism that would work for a reader who was into that kind of thing. It's very tempting to skim those sections, especially on rereading, but I think they do reward attention if only because the clever twists in the way the book-within-a-book reflects and comments on the external events.
I don't like Frederica very much as a viewpoint character, and that's the reason that I don't reread the two earlier books in the quartet. (I haven't actually managed to find the fourth volume, A whistling woman (2002) yet.) I should note that in spite of being the third in a quartet, Babel Tower is absolutely fine as a standalone, and indeed I read it without realizing that it was part of a series. It just works so superlatively well that I care about Frederica in spite of her annoyingness, and I do think that now I'm closer to her age I have a bit more sympathy for her than when I first read it. I can more readily relate the temptation to do something which is stupid in the long term just because it's the easiest course right now; I hope I wouldn't succumb to it, but who knows what might happen if I were thrown off balance by a major personal tragedy. I still have a hard time forgiving her for sleeping with some guy when she is in the middle of a legally tricky divorce and suffering from an STD, mind you.
The battered wife theme I find increasingly disturbing every time I read it. In some ways, one of the aspects that makes it really horrifying is that in spite of everything Frederica goes through, she's almost unrealistically lucky; her abusive husband is stupid enough to do something as blatant as throwing an axe at her, something that really nobody is going to make excuses for. Not to mention that he hurts her in front of witnesses, and beats up her father and brother-in-law, all actions which greatly diminish his power over her. And she's lucky in having friends who just happen to be in the vicinity when the crisis comes and she runs away, and who take her seriously (probably because of the aforementioned total lack of subtlety on the part of her abuser). And having run away, she manages to find accommodation and decently paid but flexible employment so easily that it almost seems like magic. Still, the portrayal of people making presumptions against her even though they think of themselves as not being at all sexist is really chilling.
The other thing that's cool about Babel Tower is that it brings an SF sensibility to what is unquestionably a mimetic work. It's a little older than some of the currently trendy "slipstream" stuff which shows off by including out of date and simplistic SF ideas, and it's not doing that kind of annoying thing at all. It just deals with elements of how technology and scientific knowledge shape society, and responds directly and explicitly to SF books among all kinds of other influences. The fact that in some ways Babel Tower is midrash on The Hobbit makes me very, very happy.
Conclusion: Babel Tower is definitely better than Possession, even though it's not nearly so well known.