Tower of Babylon Summary

Tower of Babylon is a 1991 speculative fiction novelette that draws on the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.

  • Hillalum, an Elamite miner, is part of a crew hired to tunnel upward into the vault of heaven from the top of the Babylonians' recently completed tower.
  • After weeks of climbing, Hillalum and the other miners reach the top and begin their excavation, cautious in case Yahweh unleashes a second flood upon them.
  • When the mining shafts do flood, Hillalum swims upward only to find himself returned to the desert near Babylon, finally understanding the world’s true shape.

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Last Updated on December 18, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903

Tower of Babylon (1990) was Ted Chiang’s debut work and was later republished in 2002 as part of Chiang’s short-story anthology Stories of Your Life and Others. An accomplished American science fiction writer, Chiang has been awarded four Nebula awards (one of which was the Nebula Award for Best Novelette, won by Tower of Babylon in 1991), four Hugo awards, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He is perhaps best known for his novelette Story of Your Life (1998), which was subsequently adapted into the 2016 film Arrival.

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Tower of Babylon is loosely inspired by the biblical story of the Tower of Babel laid out in Genesis 11:1–9. The Tower of Babel is an aetiological myth (i.e., a myth that exists to explain the origins of certain social, natural, or cultural phenomena) that justifies why different cultures and races speak different languages. It states that in the beginning, all of mankind spoke one tongue and thus decided together to build a tower which would be so tall as to reach heaven. God—fearing that if humanity achieved this, they would believe themselves capable of anything—confounds their speech so that the builders become unable to communicate with each other, and work on the tower is ultimately abandoned.

With this biblical context in mind, Chiang opens Tower of Babylon with a description of the completed structure. This immediately signals to the reader that although many themes of the novelette may echo the original parable, within Chiang’s universe, people of different races have been able to work in harmony to finish the tower. All that remains for the Babylonians is to hire miners who will be able to excavate upward through the granite vault of heaven. These miners are hired from two distinct regions, Egypt and Elam (an ancient empire elsewhere referred to as Susiana, located near modern-day Iran).

One of the miners from Elam is Hillalum, who becomes the protagonist of the novelette and the focal point through which the audience experiences the narrative. When Hillalum and the rest of the Elamite miners arrive in Babylon, a great city on the plain of Shinar, the Babylonians are eight days into a ten-day festival celebrating the near completion of the tower. The audience is thus introduced to Hillalum’s close friend Nanni and to Lugatum, who is a Babylonian wagon-puller normally employed in transporting the clay bricks from the town to four days’ journey up the tower.

Eventually, Hillalum and the other Elamites are ready to begin their ascent of the tower, pulling their mining tools and food supplies in wagons behind them. They are aided by Lugatum and the other wagon-pullers in his squadron. Despite the initial unease Hillalum felt when viewing the height of the tower from the earth, and soreness from pulling such heavy loads on steep ramps, the Elamites make good progress and arrive at their first checkpoint—a four-day climb from the tower’s base. At this point, Lugatum and the other wagon-pullers from Babylon descend, and the Elamites are guided by a second group of wagon-pullers who live between four- and eight-days’ travel from the base of the tower.

After eight days of climbing, the Elamites meet the wives and children of the second group of wagon-pullers, many of whom have never walked on the earth. They grow their food on wooden platforms and rely on the constant caravan of goods provided by the chain of wagon-pullers to survive. This pattern repeats itself for the entire length of the tower, with the Elamites discovering a new village every four days they journey upward and are handed over to the next group of wagon-pullers. At last, Hillalum and his friends reach the very top of the tower, from which one can raise their hand and feel the solid granite vault of heaven against their fingertips.

The Egyptians arrive soon after the Elamites, and there is some early trepidation about how they will be able to mine upward into the vault of heaven and, more importantly, whether they should. Hillalum voices his fear that in mining, they may hit a reservoir of water in the heavens and bring about a second Deluge (the concept of the Deluge in Tower of Babylon is akin to the biblical flood). Fearing the wrath of Yahweh (the Hebrew transliteration of God in early biblical texts) but too close to their goal to abandon their efforts, the miners begin with caution. Every so often they build sliding doors, similar to those found in Egyptian pyramids, that are designed to trap the water in case they are mining directly below a reservoir.

The work continues for some years until one day Hillalum and the other miners reveal an opening in the reservoir and the mining shafts are flooded with water. Hillalum tries to escape, only to realize that the sliding door has already been slid shut, trapping him and the other miners inside. Hillalum decides to swim upward into the fissure and the reservoir beyond, determined to die as close to heaven as possible. However, after a long journey moving ever upward through pure darkness, Hillalum finds himself once again on the plain of Shinar, not far from a caravan of people crossing the desert. In awe, Hillalum finally understands that the universe is formed like a cylinder seal and resolves to travel to Babylon and tell people about the true shape of the world.

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