Tower of Babylon

“Tower of Babylon” by Ted Chiang can be found in his collection Stories of Your Life and Others (Picador £8.99). This is the lead story in the book and was originally published in Omni in 1990. Like almost all stories from Omni (the ones I’ve read, anyway), it is an outstanding and powerfully written tale. As one would expect, coming from such a publication.

“Tower of Babylon” asks what would happen if that iconic tower had been constructed and actually reached the Vault of Heaven. The story is told from the perspective of Hillalum, a miner, brought to Babylon in order to tunnel through that Vault. It takes four months for him to reach the top and as he ascends he passes communities that live at various levels, passes through the cloud layer, past the moon, the sun, higher than the stars in their firmament.

What would he see, what would occur, he and his co-workers wonder, after they bore through the Vault. Would they emerge at the bottom of a sea and thus release another deluge, another Biblical flood?

At its basic this is a story that warns against the hubris of us humans, but that makes it sound too much like a parable. Ted Chiang’s story is more than that. It’s a compelling read as the reader is taken along on the journey up to the top of the tower, by the quality of the writing, to engage in Hillalum’s doubts and fears. I did find the ending slightly disappointing but not enough to spoil the overall effect. I give it five, as they used to say.

— Peter Coleborn