Set in the biblical building of the Tower of Babylon, we follow a miner called Hillalum ascending the tower to work at the top. What does a miner there? In the course over several weeks of his climb, we slowly find out that the tower is really huge, not set in our physical universe but in a universe dictated by celestial spheres, passing moon, sun, and stars, before reaching the physical structure of heaven at the very top of the tower. We learn about the culture of workers and their families living in the tower, mysterious wonders and sights from the tower. His task when he reaches the top is to crack the vault of heaven in order to find out what is there.
This is the first story that Ted Chiang published. It is a different take on the biblical story, revisits it as if it were true but with a different cosmology. It is a kind of „imagine if“ story, an alternative universe which is consistent in itself but very fantastic for me. The hugeness of the tower’s structure reminded me a bit of Larry Niven’s „Ringworld“ or Arthur C. Clarke’s „Fountains of Paradise“, but those are SF novels whereas Chiang’s story isn’t SF.
The journey up the tower is fun to read – Chiang surprises with a couple of unexpected ideas in his cosmological assumption and fills it creatively with life and consequence; which means a superb world-building. Of course, the setting is not exactly realistic, but that doesn’t degrade the fun. The story weaves Jewish faith and Babylonian cosmology together in a kind of philosophical musing about architecture. But deities don’t appear in the story, it is based purely on his cosmological mechanics, the shape of the world.
Hillalum’s characterization, his wonder and awe of the ingenious creation of the tower and the world, his religious doubts is really great.
Don’t expect too much of the ending, don’t rush to it but enjoy the way there. It was consequential but certainly not mind-blowing.
I loved the story but found that there were a couple of deficits concerning handling of emotions between characters.
Meta: isfdb. This Alternate universe novelette was published November 1990 in Omni. I read it as part of Chiang’s collection Stories of Your Life and Others. It won the 1991 Hugo and Nebula awards for novelette.