Friday, May 23, 2008

Ted Chiang's "Tower of Babylon" (novelette, science fiction): Knocking at the doors of God's abode!

Quote from short story titled Tower of Babylon by Ted ChiangAmong the best of Chiang. First half is hard sf; second half is a curious mix of hard sf & a view of the universe several thousands of years old - so I guess you could call it fantasy too.

Story is set in Babylon, several thousand years ago; hence uses technology of that era.

View of the universe in the story is: Heaven is a physical structure in the sky. Heavenly bodies like moon, Sun, & stars move about the sky - each at its own level. As you go up towards heaven, you first pass the level of moon, then of Sun (at this level, Sun's "heat was enough to roast barley"), then of stars ("They were not all set at the same height, but instead occupied the next few leagues above"). Above the level of Sun, you see the Sun shining on you from below rather than above! And lower parts of the structure that is heaven has massive water reservoirs from which the rains come.

It's useful to know the ancient Tower of Babel story before reading this one. For those from non-Biblical faiths, here is how my ancient dead-tree Collier's Encyclopedia explains it: Once upon a time, men decided to erect a massive tower to physically reach out to heavens. This made God unhappy. He punished them by making them speak many tongues - thus confusing them & bringing the project to a halt. Since then, humans have been speaking many languages.

First half of the story has a feel somewhat like parts of Arthur Clarke's "The Fountains of Paradise". In Clarke's version, the tower ("space elevator") will make space travel cheaper; here you will enter the abode of Gods. In both versions, tower is huge - but definition of huge depends on times: Clarke's tower is more than perimeter of earth; in this story, "Were the tower to be laid down across the plain of Shinar, it would be two days' journey to walk from one end to the other."

Story summary.

Story is set in Shinar, Babylon, where the project of building the Tower has been going on for centuries, & is now pretty much done. What remains is cutting into the lower surface of heavens - which appears to be some kind of a stone - to physically enter heavens ("Yahweh's dwelling place").

Two teams of experts have been called for this cutting job: miners from Elam, & granite workers from Egypt. Story traces the experiences of Hillalum, one of the Elamite miners, as the teams go about riding up the tower & set about cutting into the floor of heavens. Hillalum will be the only person to actually enter heavens, to a surprising view.

We see the general upbeat mood in the town. Tower itself is described in meticulous detail - ground terminal, up & down ramps, method of construction, method of transporting supplies & food, brick making & providing for all the wood needed to cook bricks, camping places, villages that have grown up mid-way through the tower, agriculture at those mid-levels, crossing the levels of moon & more interestingly of Sun. While the tower itself is two days horizontal walk, vertical climb with load via ramps is a 4 month affair.

Later half concerns with cutting through the featureless stone floor of heaven, & precautions in case you end up cutting into the water reservoirs. There is elaborate engineering care taken to ensure world will not have to face a Deluge if they end up cutting the reservoir floor.

Eventually, many years of cutting later with elaborate multi-level tunnel-work in heaven's floor, they will really hit a reservoir. Planned systems work, saving earth from Deluge, but a lot of workers are trapped & die.

Hillalum is the only survivor among the trapped who will actually end up entering the heaven - in a badly battered state. And what does he find? Something very surprising - something that illuminates him on the nature of space.

Collected in.

  1. Ted Chiang's "Stories of Your Life and Others".

Fact sheet.

First published: Omni, November 1990.
Rating: A
Winner of Nebula Award 1990 in novelette category.
Nominated for Hugo Award 1991 in novelette category.
Related: All stories of Ted Chiang.
Note: Arthur Clarke's "I Remember Babylon" is completely unrelated.


D Lewis said...

I enjoyed your review! Another way to think of the story might be as Babylonian science fiction, written from the point of view of an ancient Babylonian who lacked even the Ptolemaic view of the universe.

Looking forward to reading more.

Tinkoo said...

Thank you.

Actually, I'm not personally familiar with either Babylonian history, or Ptolemaic viewpoint.