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Analysis Of ‘Hell Is The Absence Of God’ By Ted Chiang, Part 1

“Hell is the Absence of God” offers an exhilaratingly plotted story with a horrifying, perplexing, brilliant, and vexing conclusion.
| Sep 15, 2006 | 1 comment |

This novelette won the Hugo and the Nebula awards. And what an exhilaratingly plotted story with a horrifying and perplexing and brilliant and vexing conclusion. It’s a complicated story told in a clean, simple prose. I’ll need at least two, maybe more sessions to go through it.

But first, the beginning:

“This is the story of a man named Neil Fisk, and how he came to love God.”

The first line is true. This is precisely that story in a nutshell. But the simplicity and traditional opening—think of how many stories you read, perhaps mythologies, perhaps children’s tales that opened in like manner, “This is the story of…”—belie the complexity within.

Yes, it is Neil’s story, but it is also to a lesser extent Janice Reilly’s story, and to the least extent of the three characters who play their part in the tale, Ethan Mead’s. The lives of all three intersect. And all three end up at the same place and doing the same thing for different reasons by the end of the story, all with different results.
I did say an exhilarating plot, no?

“Hell is the Absence of God”—henceforth HitAoG—is a fantasy. The “what if” behind it is simple: What if Hell, Heaven, Angels, and God were a reality, something factual, something you saw and experienced and that got reported on the news? What if faith was removed from the equation, because there was no longer room for doubt? What would the world be like? What would individual human reaction to the world be like?

Chiang’s answer to those interrelated “what ifs” present us with an environment where angels appear with alarming frequency, the way thunderstorms or lightning or earthquakes or tornadoes do. And when they appear, terrible and wonderful things happen. Fetuses can be deformed; the blind can see or the seeing blinded; the lame can walk or the sound made lame. Deaths or healing can result. Buildings collapse and landscapes twist. All apparitions become a mixed bag, blessings and curses.

From time to time, the ground beneath you goes transparent and you see straight down into Hell, see perhaps people you’ve known or loved or hated. Sometimes, the saved appear to the living, and they are aglow with unbounded love of God, beatific. Devotion of the salvific sort is now measured not by one’s faith, but by one’s love of God.

Now, place into this situation a man who is not devout (Neil), a woman who is very devout (Janice), and man who is neither extreme (Ethan), and add these complications:

  1. Neil’s beloved wife has been killed (horrifically lacerated by shattered glass) during an angelic visitation. This makes him really not want to love God, this God who took from Neil what he loved most. But if he wants to be reunited with his beloved, he must love God. Why? Because his wife’s soul ascended to heaven at death. Loving God is the ticket to reunion. Conundrum! He begins attending a meeting with others who were at the angelic visitation that took his wife. He conscientiously works through all the ways he might reach Heaven.
  2. Janice’s legs were taken from her in her mother’s womb and replaced by flippers during an angelic visitation. Later on, four deceased saved relatives appear to her family, and this visit convinces all that Janice’s deformity is a blessing and not a punishment. She becomes a sort of Joni Erickson Tada—a minister and encourager to those who have handicaps from birth or from visitations. During a second event, her legs are restored, fully functional. She now loses the power granted by her previous situation, but tries to keep encouraging people all the same, seeing her ministry altered, but not eliminated. However, the unhealed tend to resent the healed. She is confronted by Neil, who has a leg deformity and who thinks she is ungrateful for miracle. Neil is not the only one criticizing her. Janice has lost her sense of identity and assured purpose. She wants to give back her healing.
  3. Ethan has witnessed an apparition, but he did not receive either healing or damage. Everyone else present—save one— has understood a clear purpose in their lives for the visitation. He doesn’t. He goes in a persistent search to find out why he was where he was when he was, and this leads him to Janice, the only other person at his particular visitation who has not learned why she received the visit and its healing. He finds his purpose in helping her achieve her ultimate goal.

They all are driven by a need to fix some terrible pain or answer a question or receive illumination—and their problems all stem from the way the Heavenly intrudes on the Mundane in this fantasy story.

But who is telling this story?

The simplicity, the straightforwardness of the opening paragraph could easily fits some journalistic enterprise, such as a story for a magazine. Or perhaps it might seem like some thesis paper: Here you have the initial paragraph stating concisely the who and what, the elements to be expanded upon later. You could be reading some biographical profile in a Christian periodical, perhaps even Vanity Fair, maybe even Rolling Stones.

That is, until you get deep into the second paragraph, and read this about Neil and his leg deformity: “Most people assumed God was responsible for this.” Okay, that’s a bit odd. But this is not too far off from how some folks perceive handicaps. (But most?) We feel a bit of the slippage of perception, here, but we can’t relax ,because the next phrase puts us totally in fantasy territory: “but Neil’s mother hadn’t witnessed any visitation while carrying him…”

Okay. We’ve slipped the surly bonds of reality and off we go into the wild blue. And wild it is.

But who is telling this story?

Danged if I know.

It’s an omniscient narrator, certainly. He,1 the narrator, knows things that people don’t say. Offers motivations and thoughts. Yes, omniscient. Is it meant to be God?

Like I said, danged if I know.

But considering that this is a story where God (who never actually steps on stage, as it were) plays a huge role, it is interesting to consider. More on that later, when we head into the discussion of the shattering conclusion.

The depth of the story comes from the involved problem-solving behavior (and problem assessing prose, I might add) of all three characters, but most clearly Neil and Janice. Chiang takes what Christians believe (there is a Heaven, there is a Hell, there are angels, there are damned, there are saved, God intervenes, God blesses, God judges, the first commandment and foremost is “love God with all your heart…”) and makes it as literal as possible. Then, he puts eternally heartbreaking and brain-aching theological puzzlers into play, most obviously the problem of human suffering in light of the Judeo-Christian propositions that God is just and good.

This is a very deep tale.

But the people are also very human and needy, and so we sympathize. All of us who have loved deeply can understand Neil’s problem—he wants to be with his wife, be it on Earth, in Heaven or in Hell. His misfortune is to be the man who is incapable of loving God (by disposition, nature, circumstance), yet who must nevertheless gain Heaven.

That’s one heckuva conflict set-up, eh? Neil is a God-hating person sympathetically portrayed.

As far as Janice’s character, anyone of faith who has undergone suffering and heard the sermons on the topic or read the books on it and then seen how persons such as Joni Erickson Tada overcome in the midst o f suffering can understand what Janice is going through; if not by experience, than by the sheer logical pathwork that Chiang brilliantly sets up for Janice to do what she does.

Yes, we can find strength in our diseases and deformities and calamities, and grace, but what happens when our identity is shaken? What happens when we think we are X, and God now makes us Y? When once we could encourage people, but now we become someone who can no longer do so as before? How do we find purpose again and seek God’s will? Janice is a God-loving person sympathetically portrayed.

Ethan, though less well-drawn than Janice or Neil, is someone we can understand as well. Everyone else who experienced the visitation he witnessed found a purpose for it in their lives,except him. Therefore, he must seek it. He must know the why. Anyone who feels “left behind” or as if their life has no real meaning can relate. Ethan is an ordinary guy seeking the extraordinary and sympathetically portrayed.

And the paths of all three cross, and recross, and I as a reader can’t help but wonder if Chiang intended to imply that God is at work even at that level. I doubt it, but I’m not sure.

So, I leave you with these three people, each of them seeking something pertaining to God in a world where God is undeniable and where Hell is that place where God is not.

What will happen?

If you haven’t read the story, where do you think an atheist author is going to take Neil, Janice, and Ethan. How could it play out as a “Christian” story? Does it sound like Christian speculative fiction to you?

If you’ve read the story, how do you view the narrator? Do you sympathize with all the characters? Do you find the tone offensive (other than the ending)? Have you asked yourself the same questions about God and suffering as the characters do? And is this story Christian speculative fiction in your opinion?

I think not, despite its having some of the same elements as “Bed & Breakfast.” Tell me what you think.

Next week: Onto the Middle, fearlessly, aka Part Two.

  1. I’m using the default gender pronoun and feminist P.C.-ness be hanged

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Jessica

Blegh, I sort of enjoyed this commentary on a great short story, up until the point you decideded to needlessly feminist-bash at the end. I’m a language teacher and I teach my students to avoid the “he“ standard as well, as (in addition to assuming a masculine, which in fairly gender-diverse writing like Chiang’s is not reliable) it’s lazy writing and in 90% of cases is easily remedied by pluralizing the subject. Do better.

I realize that this is from many years ago, but ugh, so annoying and unnecessary. Happy first comment to you.