Hell is the Absence of God by Chiang, Ted, 2001

Hell is the Absence of God by Chiang, Ted - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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This one is as strong as Stories of Your Life. Itís about the arbitrary nature of God, and it packs one hell of a wallop. This is an alternate universe story where angels regularly visit the Earth, often coming to us with the force of natural disasters. When the angels appear some people are healed and others are killed. Nobody knows when the angels will appear or what they will do when they come, but one thing humans consider certain: The angels come and go through apertures in reality, and when they do so the Light of Heaven shines through. If that light strikes a person, no matter who it is or how evil they are, they will go to Heaven for certain. That fact is well documented, as well as the fact that those who chase angels to find the light will for certain go to Hell if they fail and die in the attempt. In this world, though, Hell is tolerable, and an easy place to live. The only difference is that God is not there.

In this story Neil's wife was killed when the angel Nathaniael visited and caused a plate glass window to explode onto her. Neil was grief-stricken and looked for meaning in her death. Neil was never very religious, and blamed God or taking his wife too early.

Neil became actively resentful of God. Sarah had been the greatest blessing of his life, and God had taken her away. Now he was expected to love Him for it? For Neil, it was like having a kidnapper demand love as ransom for his wife's return. obedience he might have managed, but sincere, heart-felt love? That was a ransom he couldn't pay.

I am not going to discuss the hook in this story, because quite frankly you have to read it to believe it. Ultimately this is the story of a man who tries to work a system that is completely out of his control. Chiang has posited a world where the fundamental question of all skeptics has been answered: God and Satan exist, and men are given proof of that everyday. But seeing God is no replacement for knowing God. The problem here is that even with that fundamental question answered, God is no less arbitrary or vindictive than he is to us, and Neil just cannot get his head around that on his own. Instead it takes direct action from God to show him real love. Unfortunately for Neil, that is exactly what happened.

This story is a reworking of the Book of Job. But instead of torturing Job to prove to Satan that Job would not lose his faith, then rewarding him with a new family in the end for a job well done, God in this case tortures Neil by giving him exactly what he wants, then changing the rules on him. Chiang has said that in thinking about this story it always seemed a bit silly to him that Job was rewarded in the end. If God really wanted to test Job, he would have continued to ruin his life until the day he died. Chiang has that and so much more in mind when he finished this one. Teh ending is staggering, and I believe that no matter what your feelings on God are, this story will reinforce them.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

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

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