Gwern's Reviews > Unsong
(~233k words) Unsong is a Kabbalah-punk adventure serial in ~72 chapters by Scott Alexander, generally better known for his nonfiction essays/blog-posts on politics, psychiatry, medicine, & statistics on SlateStarCodex.com/Tumblr.
Movie trailer summary:
[Shot of choirs of angels, suddenly ripped apart by explosions] The War in Heaven was lost. Satan won. [A blond man with ringlet curls in a sharp suit who looks suspiciously like Leonardo DiCaprio gazes impassively down.] But in the last redoubt, Uriel, the forgotten angel, [the heart of a storm cloud; large luminous Hebrew characters float in mid-air in front of an anxious, sad looking blond angel who looks suspiciously like Neil Patrick Harris; suddenly, he begins glowing and reaches forward to slowly touch one character] did the unthinkable: seized the power of God and replaced the universe with… math.
And all was well, [a green earth] until… [a capsule suddenly cuts across the earth] one man dared to make… [an astronaut] one small step for mankind… [astronaut using radio] one great leap for metaphysics. [explosions] This summer, discover a world of magic… [a Hispanic man dodges gun fire in a room while shouting ‘avada kedavraballah!’] a world which is ending… [A man with two heads and dark ringlet curls in a sharp suit smiles as a little girl screams] a world in which science still works, mostly… [a young nerd who looks suspiciously like Tobey Maguire is bathed in light from a computer in a bedroom] a world in which there is no hope… [a suspiciously long-faced Englishman in a cape stares in shock out over what can only be Hell itself] but in the end, a world in which – [an astronaut who looks suspiciously like Tom Hanks opens his helmet in the middle of infinite luminosity, a tear down his cheek] “Nothing is wrong, Houston. Nothing has ever been wrong. Nothing could be wrong.”
[rapid flashes: an African-American-looking woman in a plum power suit in an interrogation room; an endless row of beige cubicles lit by flickering fluorescent lights; a blond woman walking in wonder on clouds; a cloud-fortress reminiscent of the front of Notre Dame; special forces breaking into a house; finally, with a last bang, a large logo of Hebraic text flashes up on screen and shimmers]
This summer, discover the world of Unsong.
One could describe it as a mix of Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters”, Foucault’s Pendulum, Illuminatus!, “American Pie” and Leonard Cohen, how William Blake was right about everything and Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat, all the weirdest bits of the Bible and Talmud and Jewish folklore, the Book of Job, the most shameless aquatic mammal puns & Tom Swifties, the fruit of a dissipated youth pursuing the furtive vice of micro-nations, inventing an unusual theodicy, the implications of theism for Effective Altruism, and an extended demonstration/disproof* of pareidolia by proving how America is an epic in which The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe predicted Trump’s election - or why Barack Obama is obviously a Lovecraftian demon, or how Moses=Confucius=George Washington, or how deep the identity of apples & knowledge goes, or the hidden identity of snakes & messiahs, or how both “Tyger Tyger” & “Had Gadya” are not about little goats or big cats but the creation of the universe, or how “American Pie” is about both Jesus Christ & the entire plot of Unsong, or the eerie correspondences of the Bay Area with Jerusalem - among many many other coincidences.
It can be seen as something of an extension of some of his earlier short fictions, particularly “Universal Love, Said The Cactus Person” & “The Study of Anglophysics” and the setting of his Dungeons & Discourses campaigns “King Under The Mountain”/“Fermat’s Last Stand”, but much more so in that it includes all the oddball world-building he’d built up over the years and his most terrible jokes and bizarre analogies and coincidences and oddities like Wall Drug and some satire of Silicon Valley & the Bay Area, all in the service of a serious meditation on ethics and the nature of evil in a world in which the Bible is literally true & there actually is both a just loving God & Hell. As Scott says:
This is going to be a book about good and evil. How do people react to evil? How do they understand it? Do they tolerate it? Compromise with it? Try to fight it? Curse God for creating it? What if twenty years ago the Messiah called for the greatest crusade in all of history in order to conquer Hell itself, failed, died, and now the world is just sort of limping through the aftermath of that without really ever having processed it? Nobody’s noticed it yet, but underneath the facade of puns and stuff this book is really dark, and it’s going to get way darker.
One’s liking for Unsong will depend critically on whether one found the esoteric occult connections & debates in Foucault’s Pendulum to be hilarious or horrifyingly tedious; Unsong is, for better or worse, very heavy on the world-building and essays and infodumps in order to fit everything possible in, as most of the relevant events happen in flashbacks or infodumps and the main plot itself is very brief, only occasionally squeezed in, and further subdivided into three independent threads. As a serial it was a bit painful to read because the progress of the plot was so often interrupted, but I think it will read better now that one doesn’t have to wait for updates (in this respect, I would have to say that another very popular web serial writer, Wildbow, manages to do much better in Worm/Twig since while he is constantly escalating & creating cliff-hangers, he both updates fast and typically keeps a tight focus on plot). The ending is regarded as rather abrupt and seemingly a little arbitrary, although on my reread I found that there was a great deal more foreshadowing of all the twists than I had noticed the first time and everything held together better. The ending is still a bit weak in that many events and entire sub-plots seem largely unnecessary and there just to fulfill tenuous kabbalistic/Blakean symbolic requirements, but I’m hardly upset by that.
In any case, if the idea of combining whale puns and Kabbalah with Foucault’s Pendulum sounds like three great tastes that go great together, you hardly need me to sell you on reading Unsong. I enjoyed it a great deal.
And there is, of course, a TvTropes entry.
* Scott again:
I want Unsong to have a theme of texts that are way too easy to understand - in other words, pattern-matching, pareidolia, seeing a million connections but not being sure any of them are really there. The book’s central metaphor for this is kabbalists studying the Bible, but I want the book itself to channel that same feeling in a non-metaphorical way.
So for example, in Chapter 5 Ana uses this metaphor of goodness as music and evil as a discordant opposite of music. It’s easy enough to tie this into the book’s use of “singers” who sing the Names of God vs. UNSONG the United Nations Subcommittee On Names of God who try to stop them. But then the connections multiply. The title page quotes Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which does have a verse on Names of God - but which also refers to God as “Lord of Song”. The interlude references Peter Singer as the in-world archetype of good. Its morally ambiguous main character has the last name “Teller”, which seems clearly juxtaposed to Singer as if it’s someone who is working at something similar but missing the beauty and finesse - but then the book says that it derives from Edward Teller, who invented the H-bomb and almost caused the apocalypse. But then maybe that’s also a smokescreen and he’s just called “Teller” because he’s the narrator of the story. But then the book also talks about how he works as a literal (bank) teller at Cash For Gold and how this is a metaphor for kabbalah because he’s “freely interchanging symbols with material reality”. And also, a smith is someone who forges things and “tellus” as in “tellurium” is Latin for “Earth”, so Smith-Teller is someone who remakes the world. (There are other things in this space too, but I won’t spoil them.)
And at some point you realize I can’t possibly have intended all of these meanings, because most of this stuff is in reality and not in the book at all and I don’t have enough degrees of freedom to make it work. I can control the name of the in-book organization UNSONG (although even there, “United Nations Subcommittee On Names of God” is by far the most logical thing to call the thing that it is, so can that really be counted as authorial meddling?), but I can’t control Peter Singer’s name, or Edward Teller’s name, or what a bank teller is, and some of these things have to be coincidences, and then you either go full skeptic and start questioning whether your pattern-matching ability even works at all, or full kabbalist and assume all patterns are significant, even the ones in the real world which don’t make sense in a rational framework.