Pic of the day: (The Angel of) the LORD on a killing spree in Egypt, as seen in the movie "Prince of Egypt". (The vaguely phallic shape was a brief part of a transition sequence, and almost certainly unintentional in this family friendly movie...) If you wonder whether angelic killings is the way to make people love God, there is a free book waiting for you. Unlike Exodus, of course, this is a work of fiction. Thank God for that!
A hell of a fiction
I usually get my e-books from Fictionwise.com. Every week they have a special rebate on some books, and now and then you can get one for free, usually a short story but sometimes entire books. This week it was a long short story, and the brief description of it caught my attention, as indeed did its name: “Hell is the Absence of God” by Ted Chiang. It is set in an alternate world where religious phenomena intrude regularly on the physical world: Angels come down in glory, you can look into Hell, and upon death all present will see the soul ascend or descend as appropriate.
We are plunged into the story with the death of the main character’s wife, as a side effect of an angel manifesting to do some miracles. As usual in these cases, there are several casualties and injuries as well as massive property damage due to the energy discharged as the angels manifest on the mortal plane. (Kind of explains why Biblical angels usually started out by trying to calm down people they talked to, huh?)
You may have guessed by now that Mr. Chiang is not exactly proselytizing for the Jewish religion (which seems to be the one closest to his description, though I guess Christianity would also fit the bill). You would be right: He seems to have a chip on his shoulder. Or rather a massive, heavy cross. The main character and many others are seen as trying to make sense of the divine intervention, with no explicit guidance from Beyond. To say the least.
I will try not to give away the entire book, but let me state that I am disappointed by the ending. Not just on religious grounds; I am pretty tolerant that way when it comes to fictional universes. But Chiang uses a literary technique I have never seen before: A reverse deus ex machina. While this is original, it is my opinion that it works as badly as the original, if not worse.
Let me explain, for those unfamiliar with the “deus ex machina” concept. It describes a story where the protagonist is facing severe problems which seems impossible to overcome, and then the problems are solved not by perseverance or clever use of existing resources, but by an event from outside the plot. In ancient Greek plays, it was typically a god who entered the scene and reversed the fortune, thus the name “god from the machine”. It is still found in badly plotted stories, in which the author has been unable to arrange the solution to the obstacles within the plot itself. (I don't think this applies here: It would be easy to edit the story so as to iron it out. It is almost certainly intentional.)
Chiang takes this one step further: The protagonist meets the overwhelming challenge, as is the staple of any good drama plot; and his perseverance is finally rewarded. Then a deus ex machina enters, an event that is a blank contradiction of the information stated outright earlier in the story, and negates the protagonist’s victory. This event is incompatible with the in-story context but is fully compatible with the message of the story, if that makes sense at all. Let me put it this way: The chip on the author’s shoulder has grown so big that it eventually breaks into the story universe and snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. At least that's what it looks like. It is not a pretty sight.
The story is still interesting because of the unusual premise of its setting, and the realism with which it portrays humans in their search for a meaning that may not actually be there. But the flat out reversal of stated fact in order to comply with the author’s message detracts greatly from the final impression. Oh well, at least it is innovative. I can't say I have seen a reverse deus ex machina before. (Diabolos ex machina?)
I've obviously never been in Hell. But several times in my life I have experienced panic attacks which have gone a long way to make me understand the words: "My God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?" It goes beyond fear of death. It is a sense of utter abandonment, of a loneliness that not even a touch can break through. It is a small child's fear upon waking alone in the dark night, when no one answers your cries. It is the loss of something that was always there, like the air you breathe, like the ground beneath your feet, like the marrow in your bones. A part of you ripped out, leaving a cold emptiness inside. Your life, your hope leaking out into the void.
I can certainly understand the expression "Hell is the absence of God". Of course, an atheist would have other words for it; but the experience, I believe, would be the same. Perhaps the closest you would come in poignancy would be "Hell is the absence of hope". That starts to capture the feeling. Or rather the death of hope, the absence even of hope for hope, ever. A total eclipse of the heart. It deserves better treatment than this story offers, in my opinion. But if you're just looking to have your nihilism validated, step right in.
Warm, cloudy, thunder in the night.
Visit the Diary Farm for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.