Eric Herboso's Reviews > Unsong

Unsong by Scott   Alexander
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it was amazing
bookshelves: effective-altruism, hard-fantasy, rationality
Read 2 times. Last read February 27, 2020.

Imagine that Judaism is actually true, and this becomes glaringly obvious when the Apollo mission bumps into the firmament and miracles start happening across the world.

Author Scott Alexander takes us on a wild ride in this alternate-history-esque story, filled with puns galore and references to all the kinds of things that people in the effective altruism and/or rationality space care about. While the story is not an example of rationalist fiction, people who like rational fiction will probably really like this novel.

Some of the revelations in the book are especially excellent, and the philosophical positions portrayed as truth in this world make for excellent world-building. Without spoiling anything, the position taken on the problem of evil is exceedingly close to my actual favorite response IRL (minus p-zombies for fairness reasons); and the various descriptions of what the cognates of our real-world people are in this fictional universe is beyond compelling.

The book doesn't take itself too seriously, preferring to set up puns constantly, but while that would be annoying in other books because other authors would be sacrificing the story to make those puns, Alexander actually weaves these puns as actual story points. Kabbalah is real here, so knowing how to make links between things by using their names and connections to other things is a real part of this book's world. Chapters that at first may seem to only be written for the sake of a pun are thus revealed to be information that legitimately propels the story forward. I've never read another book that did such a good job with this.

I recommend this book to anyone who pattern matches to any two of the following:
you like puns;
you're fascinated by sephirot/kabbalah/jewish mysticism;
you like rational fantasy, but are okay with reading something rational-adjacent;
you are interested in fiction that has effective altruism as a plot device; or
you already read Scott Alexander's excellent fiction and/or non-fiction.

A word of warning: Alexander has written some great nonfiction short stories, and while none of them are a part of this book, it would be better to read Unsong first, and only then read his short fiction. Usually when I'm recommending a new author to someone, I tell them to read a short story first to see if they like the author's style, but Alexander has a tendency to re-use great ideas. So things that should come as big surprises at various points in Unsong will be spoiled if you read his other fiction (and sometimes even his nonfiction!), some of which have the same surprise as their climax. So if you are new to this author, read Unsong first. Then you can look at his other works, almost all of which I'd consider excellent as well.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
Started Reading
February 27, 2020 – Shelved
February 27, 2020 – Shelved as: effective-altruism
February 27, 2020 – Shelved as: hard-fantasy
February 27, 2020 – Shelved as: rationality
February 27, 2020 – Finished Reading

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