Today we continue to look at Ted Chiang’s amazing story “Hell is the Absence of God” and compare it with a well-known tale not unlike it—and one you may find surprising. (Read part 1 of this series.)
First, some remarks by Ted Chiang found online, to give insight into the writer:
I wasn’t raised in any religion, so I don’t have the love/hate relationship with it that many people do. When I was younger I had a vague belief in God that I’d acquired through cultural osmosis, but I’m currently an atheist. I think religion is interesting, but primarily in an abstract way. I haven’t encountered a solution to the question of innocent suffering that I find satisfactory, and perhaps that prevents me from finding religion really compelling. I wonder if I’m fortunate, in a way; there are people who are also frustrated by the problem of innocent suffering, while still feeling a strong belief in God. That seems to me to be a difficult position to be in. Which is what “Hell is the Absence of God” is all about.1
From Infinity Plus:
Whereas the universe in “Hell is the Absence of God” is not based on a discarded scientific worldview. It was never scientific, and it hasn’t been discarded. It’s a view of the world that many people have now, except that things are explicit rather than hidden. A lot of people, right now, believe that good and bad fortune are the result of supernatural intervention, and it’s often based on what you deserve.
In “Hell is the Absence of God,” one’s moral worth is definitely a factor. Specifically, there’s a relationship between the individual consciousness and some other consciousness — that being God. And that again is characteristic of fantasy, that there are forces which you treat as conscious entities, which you have to appease or make sacrifices to. You have to interact with them as though they were a person, and they respond to you as a person. Which is not how science in our world works at all. Which is why I classify that story as a fantasy rather than as science fiction.
Whereas in “Hell is the Absence of God,” there really isn’t a scientific question being investigated. The issues are more purely the domain of religion — specifically, what is our purpose in life, what kind of life are we supposed to lead, how do we get to heaven?2
I think you see where I’m headed. The inevitable question now is “Who wrote Job?” And that answer may lead to a clearer understanding of who I think is the true narrator of this story , whether the author intended it so or not. “Hell is the Absence of God” is, as far as I can see, an updated version of The Book of Job, replete with things taken away and things given, with counsel and seeking of knowledge, with a heavenly revelation, with no ultimate answer given to the hero, and with the underlying theme of the problem of suffering. In the end, love of God increases.
So, who wrote Job? And who is narrating Neil’s story? And how is he like or unlike Job? Discuss!
Next week: Part 3, where we compare and contrast and come to some sort of conclusions.
- A Conversation With Ted Chiang, an interview with Lou Anders, July 2002. ↩
- The Absence of God, an interview with Ted Chiang by Jeremy Smith, undated article.)
This story—as the author states categorically—is fantasy, and it is a quest fantasy. Every character is asking questions, is a seeker, and goes out at personal peril to find and grasp the object for which they quest. And they all find what they seek, if not in the exact version they sought it.
What if this quest story had been written by someone not an atheist, but an Evangelical believer, let’s say, acclimated to the CBA type of fictional tone. Then what?
Well, the main part of the story (most of it, that is) could easily remain intact. All those questions, all the proposed answers, are part of a long history of legitimate inquiry into the problem of suffering and of loving God in the midst of trials. The variety of characterizations (Neil, Janice, Ethan), allows for a balanced structure. All views are exposed by some passing voice (the group meeting attendants, the family members, etc). This story asks a lot of questions, and depending on your perspective, your worldview, you may latch onto one of the proposed replies or suggestions.
I’d say a CBA story might give more time to Janice, make her an equal to Neil. Compare and contrast. Might even make Janice the star. Ethan could maintain his role as the historian, the apostle of Janice, as it were. The ending would have to change. But to that later.
First, the vexing issue of who is telling this story.
I have given this a lot of thought. I’ve come to my own novel interpretation (which seems like a good word for what is to follow, interpretation). I don’t think Mr. Chiang would agree, but as a reader may find things in a text not consciously intended by an author, I will feel free to be as wild in my own theorizings.
Imagine a story about a man who feels blessed, but then has his blessing removed, and becomes perplexed in his anguish, receiving much counsel that vexes him, seeking answers in his distress, and ultimately receiving a radically attitude-changing vision of God. Whose story is that?
It’s Neil Fisk’s story.
And it’s Job’s.
Compare the opening of “Hell is the Absence of God” (“This is the story of a man named Neil Fisk and how he came to love God”) with the following first line from Job:
There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.[3. Job 1:1. ↩