Tower of Babylon by Chiang, Ted, 1990

Tower of Babylon by Chiang, Ted - Book cover from

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In an effort to know the face of God, the Babylonians have constructed a tower of brick and mortar that rises from the desert floor all the way to heaven. It is an amazing construct with up-and-down staircases wrapped around it like a double helix, each with one wall exposed to the elements and with tunnels connecting the two. Entire villages of climbers live in the tunnels, with women and children remaining stationary while the men carry burdens up to the top in several month-long journeys. The Babylonians have come close to reaching the bottom of heaven, and have hired copper miners from Elam and quarrymen from Egypt to ascend to the top and break the gates of heaven. Hillalum is one of the Elaminte miners who has embarked on the long journey to the top. The trip is so far and the tower goes so high that they first pass the Moon, then the Sun (which thereafter shines upward towards their feet), then the stars, one of which accidentally strikes the tower. After months and months of climbing they come to the gates of Heaven, which are nothing more than an uninterrupted plain of polished white marble above their heads. Fearing that the marble holds back the remnants of the Great Deluge the miners set upon an ingenious system of switchbacks as they tunneled through the marble, while the Egyptians created a system of marble locks and plugs to stop water from passing certain points. Ultimately the Elamites did strike through, and the tunnels were flooded. Hillalum was trapped above the flood after a plug below him set into its seat, so he resigned to swim up towards Heaven. Upon the point of drowning he came to a dry cave and hauled himself out, and learned that he was back at the foot of the tower in Babylon.

Somehow, the vault of heaven lay beneath the earth. It was as if they lay against each other, though they were separated by many leagues. How could that be? How could such distant places touch? Hillalum's head hurt trying to think about it.

And then it came to him: a seal cylinder. When rolled upon a tablet of soft clay, the carved cylinder left an imprint that formed a picture. Two figures might appear at opposite ends of the tablet, though they stood side by side on the surface of the cylinder. All the world was such a cylinder. Men imagined heaven and earth as being the ends of a tablet, with sky and stars stretched between; yet the world was wrapped around in some fantastic way so that heaven and earth touched.

It was clear now why Yahweh had not struck down the tower, had not punished men for wishing to reach beyond the bounds set for them: for the longest journey would merely return them to the place whence they'd come. Centuries of their labor would not reveal to them any more of Creation than they already knew. Yet through their endeavor, 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.

This story does test one's faith, for certain. But in it Chiang expertly depicts the central tenant of many religions, which is that all we have to go on, and all we ever will have to go on is faith. Tower of Babylon also has more fantasy tropes in it then SF, but the engineering is enough to get it past the threshold. Still, even if fantasy is not your cup of tea it is amazingly well conceived and written.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)


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