September 14th, 2007


hell is the absence of God

Over the past few weeks, former JET teacher, legendary video game pundit, and minor celebrity blogger Andrew Vestal has been compiling a philosophically tremendous mix CD centered around sci-fi author Ted Chiang's Nebula- and Hugo-winning novellette "Hell is the Absence of God." I say the mix CD is philosophically tremendous because Vestal led up to the release of the CD with several accessible, thought-provoking essays on themes the music on the CD evokes or explores: agency, consciousness, estrangement. Surprisingly, theology isn't one of them--at least not directly.

Vestal has also posted the text of the mix CD's namesake, the titular "Hell is the Absence of God," which takes place in the kind of world that Christian fundamentalists think our world should be (as opposed to the world that actually is), where miracles are commonplace and angelic visitations are frequent. Popular Christian literature would lead you to believe that this kind of world would be wonderful, if not outright ideal (c.f. Left Behind), but Chiang--a science fiction author, not a youth pastor--spins it as something far more uncomfortable, a place of inexplicable moral ambiguity that is at once both utopian and dystopian, yet painfully reminiscent of reality. It's not hard to see how this story won both a Nebula and a Hugo; the dry, documentary style is this-page-intentionally-left-bland, but the ideas are solid. It's one of the most complex, well-grounded explorations of the problem of evil I've read since C.S. Lewis's "Mere Christianity," with rebuttals to virtually all the canned bible-camp answers (including "Just don't think about it! You'll never figure it out. Accept that God is just, and be happy."). Bizarrely, Chiang's fictional portrayal of an extreme moral universe, where the ground at holy sites is pockmarked with lightning scars, seems more in touch with the senseless tragedy of actual existence than the litany of based-on-a-true-story sapfests with which the naive quell their dread of the unknown will of God. Simultaneously a pro- and anti-religious work, "Hell is the Absence of God" is the kind of story that will either shatter your faith or forge it in steel. Even if you're an atheist.

Chiang also gets brownie points for being a computer scientist who is also a writer. By coincidence, the novel I'm writing is arguably the same genre as his story, though completely dissimilar in style and approach, and somewhat different in message.

As for the mix CD itself, well,


Sorry for bulking up your friendspages with that image, but that album cover is so striking (especially if you've read the story) that I just had to share. If this whole entry was tl;dr and you skimmed everything else, I at least want you to have that image burned into your brain.

"All empty sets are congruent."