Book Review: The Heirs of Babylon, Glen Cook (1972)

Detail from Dean Ellis’ (?) cover for the the 1st edition

3/5 (Average)

Glen Cook’s first novel, The Heirs of Babylon (1972), is one of a handful of science fiction works in his extensive catalog. He’s best known for two fantasy sequences, Chronicles of the Black Company and Dread Empire. Operating in standard post-apocalyptic territory (wrecked landscapes created by nuclear and chemical warfare), Cook weaves a disturbing tale of the power of militaristic fantasies and traditions. While suffering from diminishing narrative impetus as the ancient warship Jäger steams towards its inevitable end, The Heirs of Babylon transpires within a well-wrought Earth hellscape with a deeply flawed main character caught up in a ritual of war he cannot (or chooses not to) escape.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

The World: The year is 2193 and The Political Office in Gibraltar “rules” over a series of fragmented states that eek out their existence at the edges of Europe and the Americas. The resistance resides in Scandinavia, “spared the might bombs” (12). Kurt lives in the “quasi-medieval” society in the “bones of the fallen German” (12), one of a handful of states along the Baltic Sea coast that make up the Littoral. These states were occupied by the “Descendants of the Germans, Poles, Danes, Lithuanians, and Latvians” who lived in small, scattered settlements. Every generation the call goes out for the Meeting, the gathering of all available fleets, for the battle to end all battles against the enemy. Every year the technology of war  diminishes. Kurt’s city of Kiel prepares the Jäger, a 250-year-old American warship from WWII, repurposed by numerous nations in her long history. The men of Kiel, excited by the idea of battle, grow increasingly terrified at the real prospect of war.

The Story: “The fatherland. The best part. We’re maggots feeding on its corpse. We steal from the dead, create nothing new, waste what little we have on this endless madness—I’ll not damn our baby to it! Not just to give the Littoral another sailor to die at the next Meeting” (12). Before his departure for The Meeting on board the Jäger, Karen, Kurt’s wife, reveals two secrets–she’s pregnant and fleeing to Telemark, the city of the resistance. Kurt, who has the opportunity to accompany Karen, decides to follow his father and grandfathers footsteps.

Caught up in the machinery of war and the forces of tradition, Kurt attempts to keep the Jäger from running aground. The crew encounter wrecks and attempt to navigate shoals with charts in other languages. The majority of the story focuses on the daily events on this ship. In a strange sequence of events, Kurt becomes the confidant of Beck, Jäger‘s sinister Political Office. Disturbing events transpire on board–a murderer is on the loose. What are his motives? Is he an agent of the resistance?

Eventually Jäger reaches Gibraltar and waits for the accumulation of ships from the surviving navies of the Allies. In an effort to learn English to read the superior charts, Kurt meets the elderly Fitzhugh. From his teacher Kurt learns about the reality/ritual of the war–in distinctive Orwellian fashion. A new history of the conflict emerges…. one tradition sidesteps. But the voyage to Australia awaits…

Final Thoughts

For me, the most appealing element of The Heirs of Babylon will frustrated the majority of readers: the main character, Kurt, despite his revealed knowledge of the workings of the world, refuses to act. While those around him do—Karen flees to Telemark with his child, assassins attempt to murder Beck,  crews rebel against their leaders and refuse to complete the journey to the Last Meeting, and Fitzhugh dispenses knowledge right under the nose of the The Political Office—Kurt rather follow the path set out for him. Cook suggests that the forces of tradition and heritage can anchor us to distinctive paths—and some cannot break free even if the fetid inner machinations of destruction are laid bare. Kurt identifies what is wrong with the world, is sympathetic to the aims of the resistances, and holds no allegiance to the Political Office yet rouse himself to action. And despises himself for it.

The type of main character creates a narrative itself suffers from a lack of impetus. Exciting events and conspiracies occur yet Kurt tends to observe rather than participate. An engaging mystery within the crumbling Jager (who is the secret Political Office agent), yet Cook allows bodies to pile up too long. The mystery peters out as fewer and fewer suspects remain.

In a way it all plays into Cook’s thematic core—the inevitability of martial conflict, the  lives it will consume, and how youth who go along with their orders generation after generation. The Heirs of Babylon is a study in inaction, the passive consumption of the dictates from above, even when the lies are for all to see.

Somewhat recommended for fans of 70s post-apocalyptic fiction.

Dean Ellis’ (?) cover for the 1st edition

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Heirs of Babylon, Glen Cook (1972)”

  1. Frozen characters whose inabilities define them aren’t my jam, but you made this terrible future sound interesting enough that I hesitated more than a nanosecond before deciding not to read it.

    1. There are a lot of interesting threads in this one. 1) It’s hard to not read this as a study in why American soldiers went to Vietnam, even knowing that reason for the war was ill-defined. And when Canada was so close… 2) Unlike many stories of the elite manipulating the people, the people know what is happening and could act–and many do. Yet the narrative focuses on Kurt who doesn’t. 3) I find it humorous that Kurt’s wife, despite a mere 12-page presence (before the ship heads off to war),has more agency than Kurt does in the entire book. 4) The decaying warship, a 250 year-old behemoth repurposed over and over again, is a fun arena for action. I’m not sure it’s used well in the story. Other than parts breaking here and there, it never feels old or hodge-podge or lived in.

      There are some first novel struggle zones: 1) the narrative problems I indicated above. 2) A weird aside that the chemical warfare did not kill all Caucasians — and specifically many Germans (the blue-eyed/blond sort) survived. Not sure why this was present… Kurt and Karen are deliberately presented as “Aryan” (9) 3) Is Cook trying to comment on why German soldiers fought in WWII? Some of the choices feel muddled.

      It shows as a first novel but was readable.

  2. I didn’t know the Cook wrote SF. I‘ve read his Black Company trilogy – but I guess I‘d rather pick up book 4 there than this debut novel.
    All that German background made me curious if Cook has some connections there. Maybe a holiday there or ancestors?

    1. As an aside, nothing about the novel or characters feels like it takes place (at least partially) in a future Germany — other than their names. Cook makes no real effort to present these German survivors as actually from the region they claim to be. It could have been Americans. This is one of the bland elements of the novel.

      1. That’s an interesting idea: how would I expect a US author to write about German protagonists? There’s be multiple projections involved: dystopian setting – Cook‘s opinion – my own view.
        Ah, that‘s maybe a slight case of overanalyzing this novel. 😁

        1. Even as someone of partial German descent, I don’t know. But I also know that people write about other nationalities and races all the time — they don’t need to have a connection to the place.

          I suspect Cook’s novel is a more generalized commentary on the forces that compel the young to wage war (perhaps a product of American views on the Vietnam War) than a specific commentary on Germany or German history.

  3. Reading your description put me in mind of Mark Geston’s Lords of the Starship, which I think you read a couple of years ago.
    Back when the Dread Empire books were first coming out they were huge sellers for us. They filled a gap in the fantasy market that Terry Brooks had created with his post-Tolkien Shanarra books. Don’t think they ever got decent UK distribution though so over here he remained a fairly niche author mainly available only in specialist sf&f bookshops like the one I worked in back then.

    1. The basic premise — conflict/vast fake building project as an instrument of control is similar between the two novels. That said, in Cook’s vision, almost everyone seems aware from the get go that it’s at least mostly a charade. But they do it anyway (well, Kurt does even when he learns English in Gibraltar and reads history books that describe the “real” origins of the conflict). Geston’s premise is far more traditional (if I remember correctly) where over time people figure out (conceptual breakthrough!) what is really happening, etc. In Cook’s vision both the people and the leaders are complicit in the perpetual waging of useless conflict.

      But yes, I reviewed it here: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2012/12/23/book-review-lords-of-the-starship-mark-s-geston-1967/

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