Tower of Babylon by Ted Chiang: Summary Explained and Review

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“It is true that we work with the purest of aims, but that doesn’t mean we have worked wisely.”

With his award-winning short story, Tower of Babylon, Ted Chiang takes us on an exhilarating exploration of the age-old myth of the Tower of Babel.

In this science fiction short story, Ted Chiang challenges the principles of cosmology which were widely accepted by the masses at the time, by a discovery as fantastic as the construction mega-project itself.

This might come as a surprise to some, considering the top-notch content and the awards that it has to its name, including the 1991 Nebula award, but this is Chiang’s first published work!

Tower of Babylon: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story is set in Ancient Babylon, where the construction of a majestic tower has been going on in full swing for many years; the tower is almost about to touch the heavens.

Our protagonist Hillalum is a miner that has been brought in from Elam with several others to work on digging up to Yahweh’s vaults to be able to see Yahweh and his creations.

After a feast in the town and having absorbed all the town’s excitement for an eventual rendezvous with Yahweh’s world, Hillalum and his friend set off on their journey to climb the tower. 

Although a little bit apprehensive about their ultimate work and scared about the heights they have been traversing, they get used to the routine and the job requirements. They pass workers coming down and dwellers as they continue to ascend.

On their rather strange journey to the top to dig up the vaults, Hillalum and his friend see extraordinary sights – night traveling up the tower, rain drying up from one level of the tower to another, plants growing downwards and sideways for sunlight. 

Through the miracle of astute engineering, dwellers living at unimaginable heights can also farm limited varieties of vegetables. Although he perceives their life as difficult, he can only sense an upbeat mood from fellow workers or dwellers.

They eventually reach the vault, a featureless plain that stretched endlessly in all directions. Their ascent now became slower than before as most of the crew were disoriented with the sight of something that was so-otherworldly to them.

They are also worried that they might hit the reservoir lying above them and this would bring a second deluge into the world. They eventually come to an agreement to exercise caution and use safe digging techniques prescribed by Egyptians. 

After priests seek forgiveness and offer prayers – the work to dig up the vault begins. The Elamites and the Egyptians continued working on the tunnel and this went on for years until one day, the reservoir breaks.

Hillalum and a few others get trapped, and with their descent locked out, they have no option but to count on the water current, helping them float to reach closer to the surface.

Struggling against the water currents and unable to hold his breath any longer, Hillalum starts drowning when suddenly he felt air above the water. The sight that awaits him when he gains full consciousness blows his mind. He realized that he was now on earth again.

Tower of Babylon: Review, Quotes & My Thoughts

I find the story surreal on many different levels- The fantastic nature of the project, tremendous engineering, transportation, curious natural phenomena – you name it. Vivid imagery by Chiang is breathtaking. 

Consider these for example:

“The earth was growing a limb into the sky.”

One cannot help but imagine what something like that would mean; thanks to Chiang and his very tangible description of the tower, imagining and appreciating the magnificence of it all becomes much easier.

“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 back in the era where geocentric models were the truth. Chiang creates a perfectly human description of what fears would plague people that lived in those times. 

Yet now that he stood at the base of the tower, his senses rebelled, insisting that nothing should stand so high.”

This is innate human nature. Isn’t it? Working relentlessly towards a goal and upon getting very close to realizing it, finding it all futile? Curiosity and homeostasis are not friends. 

“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.”

In Psychology, there is a term called Self Serving bias that means that all good in your life is your doing and everything unwanted is specifically not that. The acceptance of the simple truth of every manifestation in your life as your own doing is crippling and empowering at the same time.

“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.”

Somewhere in the beginning of the story, a trowel is said to be much more valuable than a human life. Loss of a trowel means debt for the bricklayer for months, while loss of a man leaving his trowel behind is a mere inconvenience. Work goes on. Life goes on. Hillalum tries to understand the reason behind this incongruent behavior but is laughed at. 

He would die closer to heaven than any man had ever before.”

Man and his unending quest to stand out, regardless of the kind of circumstances he finds them in. It’s embedded in human nature so profoundly that even the gravest of circumstances cannot deter him from reaching out quickly to sip from the overflowing river of ego. Even at that moment of impending death, Hillalum felt proud.

In his story notes Ted Chiang mentioned that the story was inspired by a conversation with his friend. The world certainly needs more of such conversations.

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