Hugo Novelette: Omphalos, Ted Chiang

It’s Ted Chiang so saying this is a ‘thoughtful’ story is a bit redundant but it is a thoughtful story. It is a shining example of taking what if… for a premise and building a world and a plot around it. Very appropriately it is in a collection named after Chiang’s 2009 Hugo winning short story Exhalation and it feels like a companion piece to it. Exhalation featured a character (we can infer it is some kind of pneumatic robot) who is a scientist inquiring into the nature of his own brain and who, in the process, comes to a sobering understanding of the very limited universe they live in.

Omphalos also features a scientist Dr. Dorothea Morrell who is an archaeologist in alternate version of America some time in the 20th century. The premise Chiang has taken for this alternate universe is that it is one in which Young Earth creationism is scientifically true and well substantiated. Chiang takes that topic seriously and avoids both parody and credulity in dealing with the idea. Rather, he takes it as a legitimate premise for a piece of fiction, imaging what secular science would be like and what a devout but sceptical person in this world would be like.

Dorothea is overtly devout. The framing of the story is her daily prayers to God to whom she addresses her doubts and failings. Although events transpire to shake her faith, the story is not about her losing her faith. Both Omphalos and Exhalation feel like a kind of response to Asimov’s Nightfall in that they feature societies facing sudden revelations about their world but with more plausible social reactions. Crisis occurs but people find ways of coping with new ideas.

Where I feel Omphalos is less successful than Exhalation is in the weaving together of plot and self-reflection by the characters. The story initially does draw you into to both a mystery and a plot. Dorothea visits a touring exhibit of Atacama Mummies that are both of archaeological significance and holy relics because the mummies are part of Earth’s primordial population and hence have no belly-buttons. Dorothea herself is an expert on dendrochronology and is already well familiar with the fact that from thousands of years ago, primordial trees don’t have tree rings because they were created as complete adult trees on the first day of creation. These facts about the world, startling to us, are common place in Dorothea’s world were scientific evidence and biblical truth work hand-in-hand.

What has piqued Dorothea’s interest is the gift shop is selling primordial abalone shells. She knows that the only source of such shells is from a university dig that wouldn’t be selling them, which implies they are either fake or stolen. Her attempt to find out the truth of the shells leads her into learning about a recent astronomical discovery.

Astronomers (a very moribund discipline studying the limited number of almost identical fixed stars) have discovered one unique star other than the Sun. 58 Eridani is behaving as if it is circling a planet in a 24 hour period and that planet would appear to be the single point in the universe that is at perfect rest compared to everything else. It is a planet where the geocentric (or rather 58 Eridani-centric) model of the universe would be true.

It is a clever twist. Creationism is true and indeed confirmed by the discovery but whatever the creator of the universe was doing with their creation, the focal point was not Earth but rather 58 Eridani. Oops.

However, the story really has nowhere to go from here. It’s not a revelation that is sufficient to end the story as a big reveal at the end and that’s not really Chiang’s style anyway. Rather the reveal leads to Dorothea considering what it means for her faith and for the church. She’s a rational, well balanced person so he realises she will come to terms with the revelation just as, in our world, lots of people have deep and sincere faith in a god without needing literal confirmation of holy scripture. She also anticipates that the church will adapt just as it adapted (in her world) with the story of Adam and Eve not being literally true (in her world humans were all created on one day but as a multiplicity of people around the world – all without belly buttons).

It’s a masterful story but I left it feeling dissatisfied but with many thoughts provoked. I’m glad it didn’t end with some kind of social collapse because everybody freaked out with discovering that the meaning of their life had utterly changed. It had the right ending for the story that it is but…well the story that it is, is maybe not as interesting as the premise suggests.

In short, thought provoking, cleverly constructed, wonderfully written but unsatisfying.


14 responses to “Hugo Novelette: Omphalos, Ted Chiang”

  1. I swear, every time I glance at this page I think I accidentally wrote omelette in the title and have to double check. Now I also regret not trying to work omelette into the post as a joke.

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  2. I really didn’t think this story worked at all, which was a disappointment. I get the “what-if” that he was trying to explore, but I just don’t think the execution was successful.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah… I mean, I felt more like the answer to the ‘what if’ posed was actually not very interesting even though well executed. I liked the way he avoid being snide or judgemental. It’s not an atheist story or a parody of the beliefs it touches without ever being an endorsement.

      I listened to Exhalation directly after and that coloured my view of the story as well, given the many similarities but utterly different setting.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I seem to have like this a great deal more than you did – I suppose it’s possible that it resonates better with me, emotionally, because I have to think about questions of faith and science and how they fit together, whereas you can just ignore the whole question, you lucky old meat robot you.

    However… I can identify one way in which I clearly read the story differently from you. You talk about being glad it didn’t end with some sort of social collapse – but I didn’t think that was ever even an issue. The stakes in this story are entirely personal, they pretty much begin and end with Dorothea – it seems likely that the people in her world would respond to news of an exciting discovery about 58 Eridani much as the people in our world would, namely “What?” and “Where’s 58 Eridani?” and possibly “Why are there 58 of them, surely one’s enough?” and “What are the science types jabbering on about now?” It seems (to me) to be a story about one woman and one woman’s crisis of faith and how she resolved it – no wider canvas implied or needed. And, on that level, it worked for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • >>“Why are there 58 of them, surely one’s enough?”

      Think about the children! What a shameful thing if our generation used up all the Eridanis!

      Liked by 3 people

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