Sunday, June 8, 2008

Ted Chiang's "Hell is the Absence of God" (novelette, religion, free): What if Biblical Heaven/Hell/angels/souls were literally perceptible to humans?

Quote from short story titled Hell is the Absence of God by Ted ChiangAmong the better stories of Chiang. And quite accessible to even those with a very minimal exposure to Christianity, even though its motifs are from Bible (I think).

It was tempting to compare this story with Roger Zelazny's famous "Lord of Light", the other story I know of on a generally similar theme, but the two are really very different. Zelazny's, based on Hindu motifs, has conmen & powerful posing as gods to the gullible & weak. Also Zelazny's story is from the point of view of gods - their in-fighting. Chiang's is a human story - Biblical magic from the perspective of humans, & a somewhat rational exploration of the idea of "devotion". Or rather, "Biblical devotion"; "devotion" or its equivalents tend to be seen differently among different religions.

Story summary.

Imagine a world where angels routinely visit earth. Where/when an angelical visit commences/terminates is unpredictable. Which angel visits when is unpredictable. Humans can experience the entire visit, & also see & identify the angel. Each visitation results in a few "miracles" - some people getting cured of a deformity or disease or something. But more importantly, each visit brings with it a major catastrophe - lots of people die or lose limbs during a visit. Some damage is due to earthquakes & fires the visitation creates, other due to traffic accidents when an angels suddenly manifests near a driver.

For a short moment, during commencement & termination of an angelical visit, "Heaven's light" penetrates down to earth. Seeing it nearly always destroys your eyes & visual apparatus, brainwashes you to eternal unquestioning devotion to god, & is believed to ensure that you will go to Heaven after death. It's the last part that makes a lot of people chase visiting angels around for a glimpse of this light at termination of angelical visit - even though it's more likely to kill you than give salvation. At the end of the story, we will see a case of access denied to Heaven even after seeing this light; that's the context in which my quote above appears: "God is not just, God is not kind, God is not merciful, and understanding that is essential to true devotion."

At the time someone dies, if you happen to be nearby, you can actually see with your own eyes the "soul" ascending upward to Heaven, or descending down to Hell.

Hell also makes itself manifest sometimes. Ground in your neighborhood becomes transparent, & you can see the Hell-dwellers down below. As far as anyone can see, Hell-dwellers are no worse than those on the "mortal plane".

We don't meet God throughout the story; He's described only indirectly. And He's not "aware" of the Hell (or is it just Hell's inhabitants?); that seems to be the only drawback to hell compared to Heaven - reason many people don't really care about need to avoid Hell.

This is the story of Neil Fisk, a man with a physical deformity in a leg since birth. Neil doesn't much care about God. His beloved wife Sarah died as part of collateral damage during one of the angelical visitations. And her soul went to Heaven. That is the motivation for Neil to now care about Heaven - to be ultimately united with her.

Much of the story is about his meeting various people & trying to find a reason "to love God". He hasn't really found a rational reason till end. Eventually, he decides to chase the heavenly light in the wake of an angel's visitation. He will die in the venture, but see the light before dying. In spite of seeing it, he will be denied admission to Heaven & end up in Hell - so he's forever separated from his wife.

See also.

  1. Nicholas Whyte looks at this story from perspectives I'm not qualified to comment on.
  2. In this interview with Jeremy Smith, Chiang describes this story as "straight fantasy ... It's a view of the world that many people have now, except that things are explicit rather than hidden. A lot of people, right now, believe that good and bad fortune are the result of supernatural intervention, and it's often based on what you deserve. In the story this intervention is very obvious". He also gives some more perspective on this story.
  3. Ted Chiang in this interview with Lou Anders: 'as far as divine intervention goes, the world in "Tower of Babylon" operates the way I see our universe operating, while the world in "Hell is the Absence of God" operates the way certain other people see our universe operating. Good and bad things happen in both universes. In the former, it's unclear whether any of them are the result of divine intervention; in the latter, it's clear that many of them are.'
  4. Ted Chiang in this interview with Gavin J Grant: "In our world, religion relies on faith because definitive proof is lacking... but if a particular god were here right now, we'd have to deal with him whether we liked him or not; faith would have nothing to do with it. I thought that would be an interesting scenario to explore."

Collected in.

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

Fact sheet.

First published: Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Ed)'s "Starlight 3", July 2001.
Rating: A
Download full text.
Winner of Hugo Award 2002 in novelette category.
Winner of Nebula Award 2001 in novelette category.
Related: All stories of Ted Chiang.