The miner Hillalum leaves the town of Elam with a group of other miners, traveling alongside a merchant's caravan to Babylon. They see the city's tower from leagues away: "a line as thin as a strand of flax, wavering in the shimmering air, rising up from the crust of mud that was Babylon itself."
It takes a month and a half for them to climb the tower. Along its length, they pass vertical towns where families live and die without ever touching the earth. Rising above the stars -- "small fiery spheres spread on all sides" -- Hillalum finally touches the vault of heaven. The miners go to their task, heating the "fine-grained white granite" and then breaking it up with water, expecting to find God on the other side of the vault. After weeks of digging, disaster strikes. The miners tap a reservoir, flooding the tunnel. Hillalum is washed up and away, where he finds himself alone in a dark cave.
Shall I tell you the end of this tale? No, of course not. I will allow its author Ted Chiang to do that. "Tower of Babylon" won Chiang the Nebula Award when it appeared in 1990 -- his first published story. Since that auspicious debut, he has published eight stories in twelve years. Now collected in Stories of Your Life and Others, Chiang's stories may sound in summary like fantasy, but they are not.
"The characters may be religious, but they rely on engineering rather than prayer," he writes about "Tower of Babylon" in a postscript. "No deity makes an appearance in the story; everything that happens can be understood in purely mechanistic terms. It's in that sense that -- despite the obvious difference in cosmology -- the universe in the story resembles our own."
All science fiction is fundamentally post-religious literature (or, as some would have it, another substitute for religion). This means that the universes described in science fiction are fundamentally knowable. What appears mysterious at a distance can be weighed and measured by the explorer or scientist who finds it. Faith dissolves, replaced by a sense of wonder at the complexity of creation. When the explorer fails to reach her destination, science fiction often crosses the line into fantasy, as when "the shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men" rises up in front of the voyagers at the climax of Edgar Allen Poe's The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym. The rest is unspeakable, unknowable.
And yet, the moment of transcendence described by Poe persists in science fiction, usually concealed within what H.G. Wells called "an ingenious use of scientific patter." For most of human history, we surpassed the limits imposed by our bodies through magic or the intervention of a deity. Today this is achieved in science fiction through technology: eternal health and life; instantaneous travel through time and space; and consciousness projected into objects or another mind. In this sense, science fiction is not a break with the superstitious, magical past, but its continuation. This is why so much science fiction, despite its materialist protestations, ends with images of transcendence: the star child of 2001: A Space Odyssey; the merging of human consciousness in novels like Joe Haldeman's Forever Peace; J.G. Ballard's landscapes of the mind; or the Christ-like One who emerges to save the world in films like The Matrix.
Stories of Your Life and Others responds to the transcendent in science fiction by renouncing it. In Chiang's singular vision, characters that stand on the edge of transcendence invariably turn away, where they find the physical world still waiting to be discovered. At the end of "Tower of Babylon," Hillalum discovers not God, but the shape of his world. He is not disappointed. Through their efforts to find God, he realizes, "men would glimpse the unimaginable artistry of Yahweh's work, in seeing how ingeniously the world had been constructed. By this construction, Yahweh's work was indicated, and Yahweh's work was concealed. Thus would men know their place."
Chiang is not a writer who pays a great deal of attention to style. His choice of words can be uninspired, his dialogue artificial. At its best, his writing is transparent and precise. And yet, the stories contained in his first collection are often brilliantly conceived and emotionally moving. In the beautiful "Story of Your Life," learning an alien language allows a linguist to experience past, present and future simultaneously. Like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, Chiang's linguist becomes "unstuck in time," her consciousness orbiting one traumatic event, trying to understand its meaning. Both authors use this approach to teach us how to live with the inevitability of loss. Transcending linear time, their characters learn to live with mortality.
The Sidewise Award-winning "Seventy-Two Letters" is the collection's most strikingly imaginative story. As in "Tower of Babylon," Chiang creates an alternative universe that is fantastic to us, but utterly rational to the characters that must live there. Chiang actually alters the human reproductive process, so that each sperm contains within itself tiny homunculi that can be grown in laboratories (a process known as preformation), and animates golems through the application of Hebrew letters.
Again, this sounds magical, but in Chiang's hands, it is not. Golem-making in "Seventy-Two Letters" is a technology that can be learned by anyone, not simply a rabbi acting in defense of his people. The golems are mass-produced in workshops by many artisans working together, animated by combinations of Hebrew letters that are studied and subject to experimentation. It is not magic, but the result of the natural laws Chiang invents for the duration of the story, harnessed by technology.
Even the sole "fantasy" in Stories of Your Life, a novella called "Hell is the Absence of God," embodies the scientific materialist worldview that defines the collection. It tells the tale of one Neil Fisk, whose wife is killed in a visitation by the angel Nathanael to a downtown shopping district. Neil's problem is that he does not love God, but wishes to join his wife in Heaven.
In this thoroughly contemporary world, God exists beyond a doubt, and so does Hell, which mortals glimpse from time to time through cracks in the Earth. Angels behave like weather phenomena, the miracle of their appearance bringing disaster to some and good fortune to others, the events tracked, quantified, and reported on the nightly news. Souls visibly rise to Heaven or fall to Hell, a place "not physically worse than the mortal plane," where the damned exist exactly like the living but are exiled from the presence of God. There is a Gothic horror behind "Hell is the Absence of God," wherein fears of rejection, isolation and spiritual death are externalized and objectified.
While the novella was written as a fantasy and will be read as such by most, it retains nearly all of the most important characteristics of science fiction. The indifferent angels do not behave like supernatural beings, but rather like hurricanes or earthquakes, as an extraordinary part of an uncaring natural world. The universe of the story is known and knowable, and in that sense is post-religious. There are no mysteries here, and in fact, faith in this story presents an interesting paradox. Since God's existence is not in doubt, faith entails unquestionably accepting the power of God, no matter how arbitrary and cruel. "If they wish to love God," a preacher tells his flock at the end, "they must be prepared to do so no matter what His intentions. God is not just, God is not kind, God is not merciful, and understanding that is essential to true devotion." How can one love such a God? He must be loved for the "unbearable beauty" of His creation, words that echo the end of "Tower of Babylon." Neil's sin is that he does not see the beauty around him.
"Science fiction," writes Brian Aldiss in Trillion Year Spree, his history of the genre, "is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode." This stilted and much-disputed definition fits "Hell is the Absence of God" perfectly. Despite the explicit presence of God in the story, "Hell is the Absence of God" is really about the pain of living in a world that resembles the Hell Chiang describes, one without mystery, in which God exists only as a memory.
Chiang is not trying to depress his readers; precisely the opposite. He is writing stories that try to teach us to live with our "status in the universe" brought about through science, developing a definition of humankind that does not include the divine. If there is meaning to be discovered, say these stories, it will be found in this world and not the next.
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© Jeremy Smith 31 August 2002