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The Babylonian Trilogy
By Sebastien Doubinsky
PS Publishing / 978-1-90630-107-1
Of all the ways that I discover the various books that I end up reviewing here, perhaps my favorite is when an author I already admire will recommend to me an author they admire; and that's not only because these authors and I tend to share the same tastes, but also because these authors tend to not want to ruin whatever good graces they have with me, so tend to only recommend writers who are legitimately quite great ones. Take for example New Weird veteran Robert Freeman Wexler, who I've reviewed twice now here in the past; he recently contacted me regarding another author recently signed to the same small press where he belongs, a writer similar in nature to him named Sebastien Doubinsky but based out of Europe instead of the US, and to see if it'd be all right for their mutual publisher to send along Doubinsky's latest book for possible review.
And I'm glad he wrote, for Doubinsky's The Babylonian Trilogy turns out to be yet another great New Weird work, a trilogy of novellas that like Wexler's books are not quite science-fiction, not quite noir and not quite horror, but a strange and pleasing combination of them all, hence earning the all-inclusive "New Weird" moniker in the first place. The three long stories are all set in an alternate-Earth version of New York named "Babylon," although it's not until the third tale that we actually see any alternate-history-type stuff happen to justify the fictional setting; it's a large urban center that behaves almost exactly like we expect such places to, except with such fantastical elements as murder being legal there (as long as one has the correct licenses and expensive paperwork), the publishing industry being state-controlled, America still embroiled in Vietnam but with Vietnam now an official state within China, and other believable but not-quite-real touches. It is the New York of Raymond Chandler and other pulp writers, only filtered through the contemporary lens of tabloid television and rampant drug abuse, definitely an otherworldly environment but in about the least alienating way to non-genre readers as possible.
What Doubinsky does within this environment, then, is present us with the intertwined stories of over a dozen different characters, each of the novellas standalone tales with their own themes and self-contained plot arcs, but with a series of developments that bleed over from one to the next; the first, for example, "The Birth of Television According to Buddha," is a Carver-like ensemble piece about the intersecting lives of a number of different, supposedly unrelated Babylon citizens (who of course turn out to be more related than they at first seem), while the second and third novellas ("Yellow Bull" and "The Gardens of Babylon") are much more stereotypical noir tales, albeit with running characters and storylines that pop up here and there throughout all three. In effect it gives the entire project as a whole the type of dreamlike, synchronicity-style causal connection that Doubinsky is obviously shooting for, a seemingly contradictory situation where we both feel that we are in that city ourselves and suspect that we're perhaps hallucinating the entire thing.
Now, that said, there are some problems within The Babylonian Trilogy as well, and let me make it clear that this is not a book for everyone; with plotlines this fleeting, for example, it's easy to feel dissatisfied by the time one reaches the end, and with the tales themselves sure to be frustrating for those who don't naturally like at least a little unexplained weirdness to their genre fiction. Also, I have to confess that I'm not the biggest fan of the way this book was laid out, with the three novellas further chopped up into hundreds and hundreds of "mini-chapters" only a few paragraphs long apiece, each of them presented on a separate page and with their own chapter number or title; I know this is a big hot thing among a certain crowd of contemporary fiction lovers these days, but I tend to find such deliberate artificiality to do nothing but get in the way of actually getting lost in the story itself, and in general always prefer that the actual mechanics of the book-layout process cause as little undue attention to themselves as possible.
But still, all in all I found The Babylonian Trilogy a highly entertaining and thought-provoking read, not the best that the New Weird community has to offer but certainly more than worth your time, a book definitely to pick up if you're already a fan of such bigger names as Jeff Vandermeer, China Mieville or Wexler himself. It comes highly recommended to genre fans, and is also not a bad title at all for non-fans to take a chance on.
Out of 10: 8.6, or 9.1 for New Weird fans