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Tower of Babylon by Ted Chiang

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“Tower of Babylon” is a 1990 science fiction novelette by Ted Chiang. It is about the journey of a young miner who ascends the great tower of Babylon to help break through the vault of heaven.

Non-Spoiler Summary In A Nutshell:

Tower of BabelHillalum has worked his whole life as a copper miner in the town of Elam, so he is filled with wonder and awe as his caravan approaches and begins ascending the fabled tower of Babylon. The thin line leading up to heaven is quite a sight to behold from the ground, but even more amazing is what he witnesses as he spends the next four months climbing to the top: entire villages of people who have never been to the ground, thousands of workers who are more concerned about dropping a tool than falling, vegetables that grow above the sun and structural damage from an ancient shooting star! But when he reaches the top and feels the last barrier to heaven little does he know that what lies beyond is even more amazing that what he has already seen!

Hillalum and Nanni looked down. 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.

Hillalum rolled over and looked up, in time to see darkness rapidly ascend the rest of the tower. Gradually, the sky grew dimmer as the sun sank beneath the edge of the world, far away.

“Quite a sight, is it not?” said Kudda.

My Two Cents:

• The good:

  • The journey that Hillalum makes up the tower is totally amazing and fun to read about. I enjoyed each stage of travel, and the interesting people on the ramp. This is one of those stories that makes you wish something like this really existed – how cool would that be!
  • I got a kick out of the old world view of the heavens with the moon, sun and stars occupying different spheres in the sky. It kind of surprised me, but I once I got used to it I really liked it.
  • The fantastic engineering feats that brought about the tower are reminiscent of other great “world-building” science fiction stories – Larry Niven’s Ringworld comes to mind.

• The bad:

  • The ending, while good, was not as cool as the rest of the story. With such an amazing tale of the journey up the tower, I was really expecting a mind blowing ending – but, alas, it was not so. Make sure to stop and smell the roses along the way!
  • “Tower of Babylon” really isn’t a science fiction story, but I decided to include it here because it won the prestigious Nebula Award so I figured it was ok!

Fact Sheet:
• Page Count: 31
“Tower of Babylon” garnered the following awards:

  • It was awarded the 1991 Nebula Award for Best Novelette.
  • It was nominated for the 1991 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.
  • It placed 2nd in the 1991 Science Fiction Chronicle Reader Awards and 4th in the 1991 Locus Awards.

Where you can find “Tower of Babylon”:

  • This novelette first appeared in the November 1990 issue of Omni.
  • “Tower of Babylon” is included in Ted Chiang’s excellent collection Stories of Your Life and Others .
  • I was able to read the entire story online for free at the Google Book Preview for Stories of Your Life and Others.

Some Interesting Links:

  • Did you know that this was the first story Ted Chiang ever published? And it won the freakin’ Nebula award! How amazing is that? You can learn more about Ted Chiang at Wikipedia.

Craving More Stories?
If you enjoyed this story then you might also like The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, about a fabric merchant in ancient Baghdad who discovers a time portal, also by Ted Chiang.

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