Tower of Babylon is a brilliant, soulful short story by Ted Chiang. It can be read as fantasy, speculative fiction or simply sci-fi; as a parable or a legend restored with an allegoric tone. The narration is concrete and tangible, the plot compact, the characters diverse and mythical yet earthly. There is an inherent feeling that the story resides in an ancient time had science and sci-fi existed then.
“Hillalum imagined that he stood in the black gullet of Yahweh, as the mighty one drank deep of the waters of heaven, ready to swallow the sinners.”
The story takes place in the past when cosmological principles such as celestial bodies and geocentric models were held to be true. Hillalum, a miner from Elam, is enroute to Babylon along with others, to work on an immense tower which has been under construction for centuries and now almost touches the Heavens. What now remains to be done is to dig through the Vaults of Heaven in order to reach Yahweh (the god of Iron Age kingdoms) and his creations.
“It became visible when they were still 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”
We follow Hillalum’s journey on the tower. There is perpetual sense of height and fear depicted by strong imagery which oozes out of the written words and into the readers mind. The author goes into painstaking albeit plausible details of the tower and its residents, the cutting of stone and granite, laying bricks and the importance of a trowel, the atmosphere and architecture, the winds (“It was the most earthy odor the miners had smelled in four months, and their nostrils were desperate to catch a whiff before it was whipped away by the wind”) and sunrays, the clouds, the mist and the view of an endless stratum stretching before their eyes. All this information makes Tower of Babylon feel authentic and visceral.
“As protection against the day temperatures, the pillars had been widened until they formed a nearly continuous wall, enclosing the ramp into a tunnel with only narrow slots admitting the whistling wind and blades of golden light.”
The tower-dwellers live in tunnels dug into the tower. They are families of miners, pullers and brick-layers who have never seen the earth below on which the tower stands. Their lives are adjusted to the mechanics of their whereabouts, growing plants and vegetables for sustenance above the sun-line so that the plants bend downwards to receive sunlight. One of the most beautiful descriptions in the story is that of approaching nightfall on such a towering structure. When the entire Earth is drenched in darkness, the towers are still illuminated by rays of the dying sun.
“At the base of the immense pillar, tiny Babylon was in shadow. Then the darkness climbed the tower, like a canopy unfurling upward. It moved slowly enough that Hillalum felt he could count the moments passing, but then it grew faster as it approached, until it raced past them faster than he could blink, and they were in twilight.”
From the very beginning, Hillalum questions the nature of the tower. His intuition warns him against undertaking the journey to the top.
“Yet now that he stood at the base of the tower, his senses rebelled, insisting that nothing should stand so high”
So there is a perpetual sense of fallacy and inquiry into what Man has engaged himself with and why. Having reached the Heavens, the workers argue whether to continue digging or not. The magnanimity of what lays before is not lost on them as the vault “inspired unease rather than eagerness.” Curiosity is at odds with reverting to their natural state (that is, to be back on Earth where they belong).
“It is true that we work with the purest of aims, but that doesn’t mean we have worked wisely.”
This reflects the innate nature of Man, how he takes pride for the mere effort he makes. Whether the struggle is judicious or not is never taken into account. Many men toil, but only some toil wisely. In the contemporary world, rat-race is highlighted in terms of material struggle and not in terms of sagacity acquired even during the most menial of jobs. What did the Babylonians hope to achieve from revealing the creations of their god? Why is there an incessant desire to procure information on whatever the subject be when time and time again this has only led to gloating and arrogance of Man?
“Yahweh had not asked men to build the tower or to pierce the vault; the decision to build it belonged to men alone, and they would die in this endeavor just as they did in any of their earthbound tasks”
But perhaps undertaking such a tedious journey to do what now seemed to be an unnecessary act is a matter of reconciling Hillalum with what fate had in store for him, for he is the only one who gets to travel through the vault and end up on the other side. Death and life greet him in tandem as he comes out alive at the other end – back on Earth. There is a realization that man’s work, to a certain limit, would reveal only as much as the Creator desired to bring to light; all else, no matter how much the Man struggled would be forever screened from him.
“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.”
The story reiterates the limits to material progression and what it can accomplish for humanity’s sake. In the beginning of the story, a trowel is said to be more indispensable than a human life. Loss of a trowel incurs debt for the bricklayer who cannot earn for food that he eats. But if a man falls from the tower, he leaves his trowel behind to be picked up by the next bricklayer who loses his tool. Hillalum tries to find reasoning behind this absurdity, after all getting a new bricklayer means waiting for him to arrive at the top, but his inquiry is met with laughter. Hence, at a certain height above the earth’s surface, value of life drops sharply yet men race to reach the top where they can contribute to this illusory corridor to their Maker.
Did the author intend to have a moral of the story? In my opinion meanings or morals extracted from any story depend wholly upon the reader. With strong religious undertones, Tower of Babylon for me is a damning indictment at man’s limitless pursuit of glory and mastery over all creations and creatures. That Hillalum finds himself back on Earth (just when he inadvertently manifests a hint of pride “He would die closer to heaven than any man ever had before”) shows how man must return to their true nature and that advancements of all kinds must not transgress the boundaries confined upon them by their Creator. Humility in thought and actions leads to wisdom that can collectively benefit all of humanity.