Friday, December 15, 2017


I just read the first story from Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and had a religious experience.  To read this story ("Tower of Babylon") is a bit (hyperbolically) like scanning an Escher, in which the eye follows the contours or the figure/ground (depending on which Escher), around and around. 

Or maybe it's a bit more like Magritte.  Either way, reading this story was a surreal experience.  It was surreal, but also like solid-construction carpentry, so well built as to be awe-inspiring. 

We are in the realm of metaphysics, but without leaving materiality behind for even a nano-second.  Herein lies the brilliance of the story.

The craft and level of precision in language mirrors the constructions in the story and, though the story is physically small (only a few pages), it reflects something very awe-inspiring.

This thing is a tower that takes a month to climb, and it circled helically by an up-ramp and a down-ramp.  Materials and sustenance go up, empty carts come down.

The people building the tower are doing so to literally find heaven.  Whole families and towns reside within and at the top of the tower, which as taken hundreds of generations to build.

You feel like you are part of the crew hauling the bricks to the top, walking and talking, your muscles building to ropy strength, fitness improving, fear being overcome.

This is the tale of a superman who falls upwards back to earth when the reservoir in the sky breaks.  The reservoir is captured internally to the white granite sky, based upon an ingenious construction.

That construction is a moving block of stone that acts like a safety lever held up by dissolvable material, and activated by the water/flood itself. 

I don't know the bible, but this story is absolutely biblical.  But it is also Babylonian sci-fi, and so it is genre-bending in the best possible way.

They watch the sun go down from a miles-high perspective, and the shadow of the (flat) earth rises up the tower.  They watch this too, sitting on the ramp's edge, or just peering over, lying flat.

I felt like I was with them too when they ate their meals of lentils and onions, with the children of the tower-towns playing around them in the gloaming.

"Tower of Babylon" exhibits a poetry that is, by definition, SF because it proceeds with a logical metonymy embedded within science-fictional/speculative tropes that take it to the next level.

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