WHORES OF BABYLON by Ian Watson (Review)

The situation, the setting, seems simple enough at first. Out in the Arizona desert, the city of Babylon (ancient Babylon, with the Tower of Babel and The Hanging Gardens) has been rebuilt. The date set is quite late – not the heyday of Babylon, but 323 BC, when Alexander the Great lay there dying.

A theme park? No, it is serious sociology, organised by the University of the Future at Heuristics (yes, really). American (and other) volunteers are trained and taught ancient Greek and arrive in Babylon as (ancient) Greek tourists. But they are there for good. There is no way out unless you leave – as a tourist – within a month. Otherwise, you learn Babylonian and you stay.

Was the autumn of a culture marked by vast, capricious building projects? By exercises in architectural metaphysics, designed to stem the tide of time? […] Was Babylon the psychic salvation of the American Dream, or the very symbol of its decay?

Very reminiscent of J.G. Ballard!

Yet when Alex Winter, our hero, descends from the hovercraft outside the Ishtar gate, though the experiment has only been under way for about five years, everything is old, everything is ”normal”, and, weirdly, the people seem to have been there for ever: they are people of the ancient, not the modern world.

Alex arrives in the same batch of newbies as the beautiful Deborah, falls in love with her, and wants to ‘enjoy’ Babylon with her. However, she adapts fast to the utterly different way of life while he is still being the all-American boy-tourist, and after a couple of days she drops him as an embarrassment to be with.

Searching for her, he meets and makes love to the rich and aristocratic Thessany at the Temple of Ishtar, goddess of love and fertility; and when he gets into debt it is Thessany who pays his debts for him, and thus, as it turns out, purchases him. He becomes her slave. Unable to adapt, to believe what is happening, he is forced to submit by two arrogant but very adaptable women, Deborah, who treats him with complete disinterest, and Thessany, who, while seeming to be his friend, buys him, and has him whipped and branded – and goes on sleeping with him. They are the whores of Babylon. But he, the cynic, has become by the end of the book a true Babylonian, too; and he adores them both.

Actually, Alex is all along very effeminate. A real man would adapt to what was, after all, very much a man’s world. The opening lines of the book are: When Alex was thirteen, he and the other kids in his age group used to fight with knives. Every Saturday morning for months on end they practised single combat, and pairs, and two-against-one. Alex hated it. The blades were made of stiff rubber but the bruises were real. This sounds like the opening of a TG sissy-boy story, and I am surprised that in Babylon he doesn’t get castrated, a perfectly normal procedure in that world at that time. Still, at the end of the book he is still hardly more than a boy and after being whipped and branded, what else can happen to him? But that will come in the still unwritten sequel.

But what is happening? It is too real to be artificial, yet it is not quite real: there are anachronisms. For instance, Alex finds a cassette – which everyone but him refers to as a strange “scroll”. And when Alexander (yes, Alex meets his namesake, Alexander the Great) quotes the Greek philosopher Eratosthenes, General Perdiccas mutters “Not born yet.” “Never mind,” responds the King. On the other hand, Alex gets to watch Euripides’ Andromeda, a lost play of which only a fragment is extant. Impossible if this artificial.

I think we can safely say it is time travel. Nothing else fits. Most of the population are native ancient Babylonians. Then there is a small group of time-travellers, some aware, some unaware. Of the characters in the book, Alex and Deborah are unaware on arrival, though she becomes aware later, I think. The substitute Alexander the Great and a few of his closest associates are aware. Thessany is probably a native. Unusually for me, I cannot decide whether I identify with Thessany or with Deborah, the American girl who becomes a priestess in the Temple of Marduk.

Alex, on the other hand, is a complete wanker with an obsessive urge to interfere, and deserves all he gets – and more. Yet even he soon comes to understand that all is not as it seems, or rather seemed when they first arrived. This is from near the beginning of the book:

All of a sudden Alex really saw these people in the street, not just witnessing them but experiencing them.

Slaves. […]

What if the slaves ran away? Would sldiers hunt them down inthe desert, using dogs to track and spears to chivvy? Could one escape across a state line from baylonia into America and be free again?

America didn’t yet exist. America was unknown. Any state line was a fault line in time, behind which Babylonia had slumped into the past, had submerged itself like a whale sounding deep into the abyss of history …

Great writing and a great book.


4 thoughts on “WHORES OF BABYLON by Ian Watson (Review)

  1. Sorry Kate, I’m not convinced about this time travel interpretation of Whores of Babylon. Alexander is not real, nor is he really dying, he is part of the decor, like the artificial river and the Tower of Babel, which houses modern electronic wonders – including apparently the technology that keeps the whole thing going. And as for Thessany (I identify with her completely – Deborah is a snotty cow, always was, always will be) Thessany surely knows what is going on, so if it is time travel then she must be one of the time travellers. What does everybody else think?

  2. Hi Brenda. Sorry to take so long to get back to you on this, but I still think it must be time travel and Babylon the real Babylon of history. The Jews are real traditional Jews, Judeans, the ones who wept by the waters of Babylon, not their modern New York or Israeli counterparts; the beggars are real beggars, not participants in some trendy American university experiment, the slaves real slaves (“Slaves. People owned by other people as you own a horse or a dog.”), and although Alex believes the river is artificial that is only because he has been told it is, it could just as easily be the Euphrates itself – more easily in fact from the descriptions of it and the boats and people on it. And the countryside around, from which people come, and to which they go on trips (like the hunting trip), and the world around from which exotic foreigners like Gupta have travelled to Babylon, all seem inescapably real. The Alexander figure is, of course, from down-time, as are the technologies used in the Tower and any anachronistic items like the “little scroll” which Alex finds.
    But I’ll come back to Babylon in another post soon. This book – and this discussion – wet my appetite!

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