I'm not even sure which decade I read this in. 1980s or 1990s? It was in a magazine I hadn't bought, but picked up somewhere. English language. Here's what I recall about the plot.

  1. The viewpoint character has been hired to work on the construction of the Tower of Babel. (A story mentioned in Genesis, in case you didn't remember.) I think he and his buddy are bricklayers -- using trowels and mortar to put each new line of bricks on top of the previous bit.

  2. The Tower is not yet finished, but it is huge. I don't recall if anyone gave precise figures for how many miles high it was, how many miles wide at the base, how many men were laboring on it as a full-time job, etc., but its scale went far beyond any engineering feat ever achieved by ancient civilizations in real-life history (as far as we know). I seem to recall that after the main character and the rest of his little group of new recruits arrived at the base of the tower, it took about two months for them to make the ascent (usually riding in the back of a cart or wagon, I think) to what was currently the top level. (Presumably it had taken years to get the Tower that high, but I don't recall if anyone ever said exactly how long this construction project had been underway, either.)

  3. Eventually the top of the tower is finally within arm's reach of the dome of the heavens (or however it's described). The general idea is that the blue sky we see above is actually the inner surface of a huge dome (or sphere, or whatever) that's been placed over, or completely surrounds, the entire Earth. (I can't remember if the Earth was presumed to be flat in this story.) So of course the person in charge of this project (a king or emperor, I suppose) gives orders to tunnel into that solid obstacle and see what happens when they reach the far side!

  4. Near as I can recall, what happens is a flood. (But my memory is quite hazy.) I think it turns out that a vast quantity of water was on the far side of the barrier. I think the Tower of Babel is wiped out by the results. I remember that the protagonist somehow survives -- I think he suddenly ends up back in the neighborhood of his home town, wherever that was. (Nowhere near the base of the Tower, I'm sure.) If any sweeping statements were made about what all this proved about the cosmology of this universe (or the Will of God, or whatever), I can't recall them now.

Note: In the Biblical account, God was sufficiently annoyed by the futile attempt to build a Tower all the way up to Heaven that he punished humanity by causing many people to start speaking different languages from what they had been speaking before. I can't recall if anything along those lines was mentioned at the end of this story. (I suspect not, but I can't swear to it after all these years.)

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    Did this story also mention that the stars and planets were actually passing lower than the top of the tower, and that construction was actually halted once when a star impacted the tower? Commented May 26, 2017 at 14:21

1 Answer 1


I believe this is "Tower of Babylon" by Ted Chiang (of late known for the story that was adapted into Arrival), first published in OMNI Magazine in 1990. It was also Chiang's first published story.

The story opens with a discussion of the tower's hugeness:

Were the tower to be laid down across the plain of Shinar, it would be two days' journey to walk from one end to the other. While the tower stands, it takes a full month and a half to climb from its base to its summit, if a man walks unburdened. But few men climb the tower with empty hands; the pace of most men is slowed by the cart of bricks that they pull behind them. Four months pass between the day a brick is loaded onto a cart, and the day it is taken off to form a part of the tower.

The 'vault of heaven' is revealed to be a solid shell:

As they climbed higher up the tower, the sky grew lighter in color, until one morning Hillalum awoke and stood at the edge and yelled from shock: what had before seemed a pale sky now appeared to be a white ceiling stretched far above their heads. They were close enough now to perceive the vault of heaven, to see it as a solid carapace enclosing all the sky.

The project then moves on to digging through it (incidentally, they are worried all along that water might be on the other side and trigger another Deluge, and take steps to avoid it):

Thus the miners worked, extending the tunnel on and on. The tunnel always ascended, though it reversed direction regularly like a thread in a giant stitch, so that its general path was straight up. They built other sliding door rooms, so that only the uppermost segment of the tunnel would be flooded if they penetrated a reservoir. They cut channels in the vault's surface from which they hung walkways and platforms; starting from these platforms, well away from the tower, they dug side tunnels, which joined the main tunnel deep inside. The wind was guided through these to provide ventilation, clearing the smoke from deep inside the tunnel.

And that's exactly what happens:

Then there was a distant sound of shattering, the sound of a mountain of stone being split through, and then a steadily growing roar. And then a torrent of water came rushing down the tunnel.

For a moment, Hillalum was frozen in horror. The water, shockingly cold, slammed into his legs, knocking him down. He rose to his feet, gasping for breath, leaning against the current, clutching at the steps.

They had hit a reservoir.

He persists through the hole and keeps climbing, hoping to find God or spirits, but the first people he encounters reveal that he's close to home, more or less, as they're all headed to Erech:

Hillalum stared. "You would deceive me!" he shouted. The man drew back, and watched him as if he were mad from the sun. Hillalum saw another man in the caravan walking over to investigate. "Erech is in Shinar!"

"Yes it is. Were you not traveling to Shinar?" The other man stood ready with his staff.

"I came from— I was in—" Hillalum stopped. "Do you know Babylon?"

"Oh, is that your destination? That is north of Erech. It is an easy journey between them."

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    Ahem - gws.soonlabel.com/misc/…
    – Valorum
    Commented Dec 27, 2016 at 0:13
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    Thanks to both of you -- user65768 for identifying the story, with quotes to back it up, and Valorum for finding the full text so I could refresh my memory. Amazing how much detail a person can forget in a mere quarter-century or so . . . incidentally, I didn't even recognize the title "Arrival" when it was mentioned, which shows you how much attention I've been paying recently to reviews of newly-released movies! :-)
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Dec 27, 2016 at 23:29

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