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The Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel has always engaged our imagination. The Biblical story has been seen as a condemnation of human pride, as a parable of divine punishment, or as an early attempt to explain diversity of languages. But there has always been part of us fascinated by the tower itself: the idea of an inconceivably tall building, defying the law of gravity. Until the early twentieth century, high-rises could only exist in fantasy: there was simply no technology to erect a livable building taller than ten floors (pyramids were tombs, not palaces). But with the growth of skyscrapers, first in the US and then the rest of the world, the Tower of Babel became reality.

But what does living in a building as large as a city do to society and the individual? Does height reshape the human psyche? And if the Tower of Babel is a symbol, what is it a symbol of? I have chosen five sci-fi and fantasy books to illustrate some answers to these questions.

Jan Weiss' The House of a Thousand Floors (originally written in Czech) was published in 1929. I read it as a child and it frightened and fascinated me in equal measure. A fever dream of a novel, it describes the wanderings of an invisible protagonist through the windowless ever-growing tower, presided over by the evil genius named Muller. The tower is both a metaphor for the protagonist's shell-shocked mind and for the society in turmoil: a revolution is brewing in the slave-pens of the upper floors, while decadent debauchery prevails in the rich lower levels. The topography of the tower is strangely inverted: ordinarily, the higher you go in imaginary skyscrapers, the closer you are to the center of power, but in this novel, the upper floors are dedicated to "lunatic asylums, jails, torture rooms". Maybe it is because we associate height with reason and intellect, and both had betrayed Europe in World War 1.

In Robert Silverberg's The World Inside (1971), the impossibly tall building is a sort of utopia - if your ideal society involves lots of sex, lots of children, and total lack of privacy. Strangely, this more recent novel feels much more dated that Weiss' phantasmagoria. Dreams and nightmares are timeless. Social engineering has a limited shelf-life.

Jeter's novel is sheer fun. There is nothing serious to be said about it except that it creates the most dizzying (in every sense of the word) setting in SFF I know of: the outside of an incredibly tall tower. I am afraid of heights, so the idea of crawling like an ant on a vertical abyss is horrifying. It also involves some monkeying around with laws of physics. Still, after the nightmarish intensity of Weiss' novel, Jeter's is a pleasant diversion. It is not overloaded with philosophical or psychological symbolism: better this way, as any additional weight will send you plummeting down.

Ted Chiang's story envisions a world shaped in the image of ancient Babylonian cosmogony. It is a lovely thought experiment but there is something disquieting about it. Maybe because the Tower of Babel still grows in our collective imagination, being built up story by story, and no knowledge by its impossibility can stop its rise.

This book is the first in a fantasy series , and it is quite good, though overloaded with multiple characters and seemingly chaotic action. But again, what it demonstrates most of all is the tenacious grip of the Tower on the human mind. Set in an ordinary fantasy kingdom, it would have been an unremarkable adventure. But the protagonist's relentless ascent in search of his lost wife is spellbinding. We want to know what is on the upper floors. Crematoria? Government offices? God? Or something else, something strange and alluring, for which we have no name. But we are still climbing higher and higher, trying to catch a glimpse of this "something" in the clouds...

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