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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

"Tower of Babylon" by Ted Chiang

First appeared in Ellen Datlow's Omni, reprinted by Gardner Dozois, James Morrow, Robert Silverberg, and Mike Ashley. It won the Nebula and was up for the Hugo, Locus, and Science Fiction Chronicle Readers Poll Awards.
Hillalum begins his own construction on the Tower of Babylon as it nears the vault of heaven.
Commentary with Spoiler:
Hillalum ascends and a storm sweeps him away, carrying him into the vault. The vault pours him through its waters to the other side: back on the surface of Earth, not far from the Tower Babylon.

Assuming we are on a facsimile of Earth and its humans, the width of Chiang's Tower is approximately sixty to seventy-five miles, the height between 120 to 180 miles (calculated via Naismith's rule). There are other things to consider, such as rarefied air--"Earth's atmosphere is about 300 miles (480 kilometers) thick, but most of it is within 10 miles (16 km) the surface. Air pressure decreases with altitude"--but clearly these are not at stake in this universe. Hillalum would not be able to breathe so high. In fact, it probably would not be if we buy Hillalum's interpretation of what his universe is: a cylinder.

I'm not sure I'm visualizing this universe correctly, but half-way to the vault, the walkers should have a hard time not bobbing off the tower's surface. In fact, at the half-way point--sixty to ninety miles, where the air is most rarefied and difficult to breathe--the builders should be able to leap to heaven. Granted, they probably wouldn't survive the fall.

In one of his interviews, Chiang discusses that he didn't deem this one dealing with religion. The first time I read it, I assumed it was: The universe isn't what they thought. Religion is all built on lies, etc. This may have been part of what drew Thomas Disch, atheist, to champion the tale to Ellen Datlow, or so the traditional story of the story sale goes.

My latest reading, after sizing up Chiang's literary MO, is that while that interpretation is possible, so is Hillalum's interpretation as equally likely:
"[T]hrough their endeavor, men would glimpse how ingeniously the world had been constructed. By this construction, Yahweh's work was indicated, and Yahweh's work was concealed."
Of course, the Bible's tower of Babel was destroyed. It states:
"If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them."
In other words, God wanted some things to be impossible for humanity. Incidentally, I didn't realize at my first reading that Babel and Babylon were interchangeable. I assumed Chiang was conflating stories to another end. Perhaps he was. It's hard to tell what that may be though: confusion + paganism? As far as I can tell, this only confuses the story's interpretation.

When I first read this, I was disappointed. Hype set me up for a literary SF story, lauded by many. My idea of literary must differ from others, which is why I quoted Damien Walter and Chiang on his own philosophical work here. In picking apart "Division by Zero", I uncovered a lucid perspective for reading his work.

This is why I carefully set up the best parameters for what Ted Chiang is up to. He writes old-school philosophical SF. It's good, but if you read for depth of character, dynamic plot, or linguistic pyrotechnics, you'll be miserable, reading for all the wrong reasons. I wish I could tell my younger self:
"You like Borges, yes? He's an Asimovian Borges. He writes how ideas impact humanity with a penchant for interesting narrative structures."
I'd have said, "Oh, okay. That sounds cool," and reread, clear-eyed. Rereading this story while understanding Chiang's MO--at least for this reader--makes the tale far more pleasurable.

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