Readerz.Net / Ted Chiang / Hell Is the Absence of God
Hell Is the Absence of God
"Hell Is the Absence of God" is a 2001 fantasy novelette by American writer Ted Chiang, first published in Starlight #3, and subsequently reprinted in Year's Best Fantasy 2, and in Fantasy: The Best of 2001, as well as in Chiang's 2002 anthology, Stories of Your Life and Others.
"Hell Is" won the 2002 Hugo Award for Best Novelette, the Nebula Award for Best Novelette, and the Locus Award for Best Novelette. It was also a finalist for the 2002 Theodore Sturgeon Award. The novelette has also been translated into Italian, French and German.
The novelette is set in a world where the existence of God, souls, heaven, and hell are obvious and indisputable, and where miracles and angelic visitations are commonplace—albeit not necessarily benevolent. The wife of Neil, the main protagonist, is killed by the collateral damage of an angel's visitation. Knowing that his wife has ascended to heaven, the previously non-devout protagonist struggles achieve the required love of God to join her.
The story also follows Janice, a woman born without legs who is made able-bodied in an angelic visitation, and Ethan, a who cannot discern the meaning of an angelic encounter he experiences.
Commenting on "Hell Is the Absence of God" in the "Story Notes" section of Stories of Your Life and Others, Chiang said that after seeing the film The Prophecy, he wanted to write a story about angels, but could not think of a scenario that would work. It was only when he started imagining angels as being "phenomena of terrifying power, whose visitations resembled natural disasters" that he was able to proceed. Chiang wrote that the Book of Job also contributed to ideas for his story, as it raised the question: why did God restore Job to prosperity when the Book's lesson was that "virtue isn't always rewarded"?
In interviews Chiang has explicitly stated that "Hell Is the Absence of God" is "straight fantasy", because it takes place in a universe "in which the scientific method doesn't work". He said it is about "innocent suffering", and the way people devoted to God deal with it. He also said that the novelette examines the role of faith in religion, and suggests that if God undeniably existed, then faith would no longer be applicable.
Robert J. Sawyer and David G. Hartwell described "Hell Is the Absence of God" as the "best single SF story of 2002". Conversely, John C. Wright called it a "trite antichristian propaganda". Elf Sternberg has compared the novelette to C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, saying that although Lewis is a supporter of God, Chiang is "far more ambivalent".
In a review of Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others in The Guardian, English fantasy author China Miéville called "Hell Is the Absence of God" the showpiece of Chiang's collection. He wrote that despite the story's religious underpinnings, there is no "moralistic Sturm und Drang", and Chiang "does not descend to the finger-wagging one might expect from a liberal intellectual".
Ken Liu wrote "Single-Bit Error", a short story published in 2009, in response to "Hell Is the Absence of God".