aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 43: Lest They Be Annihilated In Thy Annihilation

And Abraham said unto the LORD, “Will you not destroy the world if there are even a million righteous people in it?” And the LORD replied unto Abraham, “The world shall not be destroyed if there are even a thousand competent people in it. I don’t have anything to do with the process, mind, just making a prediction.”
— Eliezer Yudkowsky

Summer 1983
Washington, DC

The overt meaning of salt is “sodium chloride”.

The kabbalistic meaning of salt is “to try to escape destruction by heavenly fire”.

This meaning we derive from Genesis 18-19. God tells Abraham that He has decided to destroy Sodom for its wickedness. Abraham asks God to spare the city if there are even fifty righteous men, and God agrees. Step by step, Abraham bargains God down to a mere ten righteous men, but he doesn’t try to bargain any further. And there turns out to be only one righteous man – Abraham’s nephew Lot. So God destroys Sodom, but warns Lot and his family to run away and not look back. Lot and his family rush out of the city, but his wife can’t help looking back to see what’s going on, and for her disobedience God turns her into a pillar of salt.

Today President Reagan is meeting with the Devil in the White House to try to escape destruction by heavenly fire, and the name of the summit is Strategic Arms Limitations Talk (SALT).

When the sky cracked, the world briefly escaped nuclear apocalpyse; atomic weapons were among the many technologies that stopped working. The respite lasted until the early 1980s, when a European rabbi studying Vayeira managed to extract fifty letters to make the Wrathful Name, an incantation that leveled cities. Originally a Neu Hansa state secret, within months it leaked to the Untied States. President Reagan ordered scrolls containing the Name placed atop the remaining Minuteman rockets, and thus was born the ICKM – the inter-continental kabbalistic missile.

Hell was not above using its citizens as human shields. When Thamiel learned of the Name’s existence, he gathered hundreds of thousands of children from all across his empire into the strategically valuable cities. America hesitated. Before they could come to a decision, it was too late. Hell had stolen the Name. Demons couldn’t use Names directly, but they had various human prisoners and collaborators. Soon Thamiel had ICKMs of his own.

Hell made the first offer. US recognition of all Thamiel’s outstanding territorial conquests, including Russia, Alaska, Canada, and the US north of Colorado and west of the Missisippi – even Salish, which Hell had never actually managed to conquer. In exchange he would disarm all but a token remnant of his ICKMs. If not, he would nuke the Untied States, and let Reagan decide whether to launch a useless retaliation that would kill hundreds of thousands of innocents but allow the demons to recoalesce after a few months.

Reagan made a counteroffer: not doing any of that. And if Hell used any nuclear weapons, he would nuke the whole world, destroying all human life. Thamiel’s goal, he said, was to corrupt humanity and make them suffer. Piss off the Untied States, and they would knock humanity beyond all corruptability and pain forever. Some would go to Hell, others to Heaven, and that would be the end of that for all time. Mutually assured destruction was the only way that anyone had ever prevented nuclear war, and sometimes that meant threatening something terrible in the hopes that your enemy didn’t want it either. Reagan gambled everything on the idea that the Devil didn’t want a final end to all sin.

Thamiel said that Reagan didn’t have it in him. That when they came to the brink, and Reagan had to decide whether to wipe out all of humanity just in order to look like he wasn’t bluffing, he wouldn’t have it in him.

Reagan said that this was probably true, but it didn’t matter, because the Comet King had signed on to the plan, and Colorado had ICKMs, and the Comet King didn’t bluff.

That was when Thamiel got angry. “Bring the Comet King here,” he ordered the President. Then “No, he’s watching. He has to be. Get over here. Now.”

A bolt of lightning struck the room, and Jalaketu was seated at the big oak table.

“You would do this?” the Devil asked him. His first head was seething with rage, and even the mouth of his second head had curled up into what looked like a snarl. “You would end the whole world just to save a few miles of your borders?”

“If I thought it would come to that,” said the Comet King, “I would not have proposed the plan. The world is useful to me; I need it intact if I am to prepare for the next battle. But if you are asking, would I swear an oath that entails risking the world, and follow that oath if the time to do so ever came – then if it meant arresting the spread of Hell across the world, I would.”

And Thamiel knew it was true. Worse, he knew the whole thing had been the Comet King’s idea, the Comet King was advising Reagan; half a dozen little mishaps and annoyances from the past few months snapped into place. “Out,” said Thamiel to Reagan. The President looked like he was going to protest, but the edge in the Devil’s voice was unmistakable. He excused himself.

Thamiel and Jalaketu stared at each other across the long oak table.

“I don’t like you,” said Thamiel.

The Comet King was silent.

“No,” said Thamiel. “You don’t understand. I don’t like you. I bring ruin on everybody because it’s my job. But with you, it’s personal. Your case is going to be a special interest of mine. Maybe you don’t understand how unbelievably, unutterably, colossally bad that is for you.”

The Comet King stayed silent.

“I can even tell what you’re thinking. You’re smiling inside, thinking that means I’m going to get all emotional and make a mistake. Trust me, that doesn’t happen. I’m going to be perfectly methodical. It’s just that when my plan comes to fruition, I’m going to enjoy it more.”

The Comet King still didn’t say anything.

“All right,” said Thamiel. “Are you hoping I’ll talk? Fine. I’ll give you this one for free. What do you know about the Messiah ben Joseph?”

The Comet King nodded. “Enough.”

“Maybe not. Saadia Gaon says that if Israel is good, they’ll get one Messiah, the Messiah, the Messiah son of David. If Israel is bad, they’ll need two Messiahs. Messiah ben David will be the second. The first will be Messiah ben Joseph. He’ll do all of the classic Messiah things – rule gloriously, judge wisely, defeat evil. Then he’ll meet an evil he can’t defeat and die. Horribly. Really, really horribly. Everything he worked for will be destroyed. The world will be racked with horrors until it becomes as a rotting corpse. Then Messiah ben David will come and make everything better and save everyone. Except Messiah ben Joseph. He’s still very, very dead.

“The other name for the Messiah ben Joseph is the Messiah ben Ephraim. It makes sense. Two of the Twelve Tribes are descended from Joseph; Ephraim is one of them. So the Messiah will be a descendent of Joseph through the tribe of Ephraim. There’s only one problem: Ephraim is one of the Lost Tribes and as far as anyone knows the descendents of Ephraim have been wiped out.

“Except…that a group of Jews calling themselves the Bene Ephraim turned up in, of all places, southern India, claiming to be the last living descendants of that tribe. And now a man of Indian descent comes bearing Messianic aspirations. Interesting. I’ve looked into your mother’s family, Jalaketu West. Looked into them probably more than you have. It’s pretty easy when so many of their souls are your property for all eternity.”

He paused to see if the Comet King had winced. It was hard to tell.

“Random proles. Not a great king or warrior in the lot. But trace it far enough, and I do believe you have some Bene Ephraim blood in you. You’re practically a unique specimen. A living descendant of Joseph. Oh, yes. All your boasts about being the Messiah. And sure, how couldn’t you be? But you must have thought you were the Messiah ben David. I regret to inform you, Your Majesty, that you’re just the Messiah ben Joseph. The one who dies horribly. The one whose people will suffer tribulations and be broken by them. The one who fails. Don’t trust me? Look it up. I’m sure you have all the right books in that library of yours. Talk to your family. Send for the records. It isn’t hard to figure out.”

Jalaketu just nodded.

“Nothing?” asked Thamiel. “No response at all?”

“I told you. I knew…some of that. It’s a risk. But it’s only a risk. Scripture says that if humankind is good, then it doesn’t have to happen that way, the Messiah ben Joseph and the Messiah ben David can be the same person.”

If humanity is good?!” asked the Devil.

“If humanity is good,” repeated the Comet King.

“Surely you understand how unbelievably, unutterably, colossally unlikely that is, and has always…”

“There’s always a chance.”

“If humanity was good, if even the tiniest, most miniscule fraction of humanity was good, God would have saved Sodom. Abraham asked Him that, and He agreed, because He knew it was the easiest bargain He’d ever make. A bet without risk.”

“Lot was good,” said the Comet King.

“One man!”

“One man whose name means ‘a multitude’. That is the kabbalistic lesson: a single good man is equivalent to a multitude of good men. Because he can convince others, set up incentives, build institutions, drag the rest of the world kicking and screaming. If I had been with Abraham, I would not have stopped at ten people. I would have told God to save the city for the sake of one righteous man, and God would have done it, because one man can be a great multitude when kabbalistically necessary.”

“And then what? Fine. You convince God to save Sodom. And what do you get? A city full of Sodomites. The scum of the earth. Worms and maggots infesting the world. And now they’ll never stop, because you showed them they’ll never face punishment for their crimes. They’re all yours. What does it gain you?”

“I keep them from you,” said Jalaketu.

“I’m telling the truth when I say I don’t like you,” said Thamiel. “Please don’t believe this is one of those times where the Devil always lies and you can’t trust him. I really don’t like you and I am really looking forward to the part a few years from now where God gives me the advantage over you and you end up wholly in my power. Remember that.”

“I remember,” said the Comet King.

He turned to lightning and flew out of the room.

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163 Responses to Chapter 43: Lest They Be Annihilated In Thy Annihilation

  1. LHC says:

    Fucking screaming at the ICKM.

    • Lunar Placebomancer says:

      And how mutually assured destruction is still relevant with regard to a foe who resides in a different dimension. Absolutely stellar.

    • Haugmaug says:

      I wonder how they work. You need a human to cast a Name, so is there a kamikaze pilot capsule in the warhead that the chapter neglects to mention? Or is the Wrathful Name peculiarly able to be cast at a distance, with the devastation happening wherever the scroll is?

      Given our current knowledge it seems it would make far more sense to deliver the Wrathful Name by spy rather than by missile, but the ICKM pun was too good to pass up. Here’s hoping Scott manages to give an in-universe explanation at some point.

      • Ninmesara says:

        I think it has never been explained in the story proper, but the author said on the subreddit that you can activate a name by writing it on a piece of paper and destroying the paper. You can just put the piece of paper on a normal missile and and you have the most unstable and dangerous intercontinental ballistic missile.

        • yomikoma says:

          So you have to have a soul to writethe name?

          • Aegeus says:

            Yes. Creating a scroll is done by writing the name down while speaking the words aloud. So presumably if you can’t speak the name, you can’t write it either.

          • Aegeus says:

            Well, I mean, write a working scroll. Presumably you could still write scrolls that looked perfectly effective but did nothing when torn.

        • Aegeus says:

          Put the paper in a metal container, thick enough that the only way to “tear” it is with high explosives. Similar to how a regular ICBM is designed to only go off if the conventional explosives go off in a precise order, to stop it from exploding if mishandled.

        • Good Burning Plastic says:

          I think it has never been explained in the story proper

          Well, Chapter 1 does mention how scroll wheels are made, though in very little detail.

        • Gurkenglas says:

          Then why doesn’t the Drug Lord release one out of six people and have the other five force them to write enough scrolls to arm his army?

          • nipi says:

            Good point about the Drug Lord. Only way I can see any of this making sense is if there is a technique for remote scroll activation that requires a soul. And even then we could have the Drug Lord forcing people to do so.

        • Warren Peace says:

          Well that’s shitty. As if this story wasn’t hard enough to understand as-is, now I need to find out what a subreddit is, and “follow” or subscribe or whatever to author there to learn key facets? Why couldn’t that just be included in the story to begin with?

          I don’t even understand at what point in anyone’s life can they afford to sit back and learn Everything There Is To Know About Obscure Judiasism, which is a prerequisite to understanding 1/5 of the story or jokes. But apparently a lot of readers see this esoteric knowledge as commonplace. I would have to have given up several things I love, like all the time I spent learning to make music and all the time I’ve ever spent skiing…and people would make that choice?

      • Lambert says:

        Even with scroll wheels, it seems that ICKMs are a bad delivery mechanism, given that a piece of paper weighs a lot less than a nuke. A ‘suitcase nuke’ type system seems much easier.

        • LHC says:

          Might be placebomancy.

        • Evan Þ says:

          It also takes a lot longer to get a suitcase over to Moscow than a missile.

          • Decius says:

            It takes exactly the same amount of time with the right delivery system.

          • Haugmaug says:

            It can take much less, you just need a spy in or near Moscow.

            In real life, both superpowers had plenty of spies in each other’s capitals so it would have been a no-brainer to go the suitcase bomb way. In the Unsongverse, there could exist powerful magical counter-espionage tools that make missile delivery a necessity. Then again, that would square poorly with Jinxiang West easily entering Las Vegas undetected.

          • nipi says:

            Pretty sure getting a spy into Thamiels camp wouldnt be easy.

            Besides what we are talking about is a suicide mission.

          • Decius says:

            In implementing a MAD policy, every mission is a suicide mission.

  2. Lunar Placebomancer says:

    From the placebomancy perspective, Thamiel has no legs to stand on whenever he deals with the Comet King at this point in the story. But the Comet King is also too superhuman and not nearly relatable to real people, so he must have a hard time retaining the favor of the universe as he gets more powerful.

  3. LHC says:

    I take this all as further confirmation that TCK’s death was a suicide and part of a plan to save humanity.

  4. Indubitably says:

    Missing a full stop after “The Comet King was silent”

    As always, I enjoyed this chapter greatly.

  5. avunvain says:

    “Surely you understand how unbelievably, unutterably, colossally likely that is” — was this meant to say “unlikely”?

  6. neo says:

    “I remember,” said the Comet King.

    This implies that he already remembers this happening, does it not? Either God has already given Thamiel the advantage, or the Comet King’s memory runs both ways.

    • Marvy says:

      I think he just means “I’ll remember”

    • Decius says:

      I think that TCK already knew all of that from the same sources that Thamiel knew them from.

      Also, in what possible world does Thamiel get an advantage over someone who has already accepted being Messiah ben Joseph by explaining what’s going to happen, unless they are mistaken about who they are?

  7. Joline says:

    Quick quibble:
    ” And there turns out to be only one righteous man – Abraham’s nephew Lot.”

    Ah absolutely not. Not from the Jewish understanding of the passage. The Talmudists believed that whenever Lot met Abraham in Torah, Abraham’s connection to YHVH was weakened.

    Moreover, he’s living in Sodom, a city so immoral that the first reaction of every last adult male in the city upon meeting a pair of good looking but typical random visitors (the angels) is to gather in a mob to rape them. Why would a righteous man keep such horrible company? Nothing in the text implies that Lot is surprised this is how his neighbours act.

    Moreover, the text itself never says the Angels count Lot as righteous. They tell him to get his household out of there if they want to live. They don’t state their reasons.

    It’s worth noting when Lot proposes throwing his daughters to the crowd to spare the angels being raped, the commentators do not see this as a morally laudable action.

    And it’s also worth noting afterward that his daughters don’t seem to wait long (if at all) to get him drunk and get impregnated by him after the doom comes to the cities of the plains (Sodom and the other six occupying the most fertile land). They don’t wander around, seeing if anyone else in the world is alive. They quickly conclude “no other humans anywhere we can see, time to save the species!”

    (And commentators note the daughters are not named as a sign that while their decision isn’t 100% bad, it’s far from 100% good, either…to the point it would be shaming them to let history know which of them took the lead in this scene. And their descendants, the Moabites, have a fraught relationship with the Israelites which continues this theme of “not entirely bad but not quite as good as they could have been”.)

    (Which as an aside, is a point of data in the theme “The Kabbalists are convinced evil is intimately part of the coming of Moshiakh”. Because it tooks Ruth, a Moabite, to be the progenitor of King David.)

    It’s clear that Lot’s not an evil person by the standards of his day. His heart’s in the right _general_ place. But he has serious shortcomings. (Which he passed on to his daughters.) On neither a mystical nor a pragmatic level is he righteous.

    • LHC says:

      I’m not generally interested in this sort of thing, but I found a feminist’s take on Lot’s story pretty compelling. Her argument was essentially that we are intended to see a causal relationship between Lot’s offering his daughters to be raped and his daughters’ incest plot – through his sexual violation, Lot has damaged his relationship with his daughters so badly that they no longer see him in the nonsexual light in which a father figure is supposed to be seen.

      Muslims believe that the Torah must be mistaken about Lot’s actions because they would make him a wicked man. I would say to that, what evidence is there that Lot was not a wicked man?

      • Joline says:

        The evidence he wasn’t a wicked man through and through is that he decided he owed YHVH enough duty to try and stop YHVH’s messengers from being assaulted, even though he had never been a good servant of YHVH and even though he could say (with total justification) that was YHVH’s job, not his.

        He just decided to do it in a seedy, nasty way, and traditional Jewish exegesis notes prominently “do better than this if you’re in Lot’s shoes, people”.

        • JJR says:

          Also, God sent angels to save him instead of killing him with the rest of the wicked people. So, he wasn’t the worst ever, I guess?

          • Evan Þ says:

            Also, for the Christians in the audience, 2 Peter 2:7-8 calls Lot a righteous man who “was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard” in Sodom.

            (And the New T

      • Deiseach says:

        Interesting take and pretty good exegesis. (I am surprised at that). I tend to think of Lot’s response as kind of last-gasp desperation – “if you don’t see the violation of guest-right that you’re asking of me, okay, I’ll propose a bargain so shameful even you guys will understand it”, so he offers his virgin daughters to shame the crowd into dispersing.

        (Because if they’re interested in sex with what appears to them to be males, why would they want women?)

        (This is why the progressive Christianity types loudly insist Sodom was destroyed because their sin was lack of hospitality, not for wanting to commit gay rape. Because that would say that men who have sex with men sometimes could be rapists or at least non-consensual, and that is homophobia to say such a thing!)

        • Evan Þ says:

          “(Because if they’re interested in sex with what appears to them to be males, why would they want women?)”

          Uh, isn’t it a lot easier to postulate that every man in Sodom was bisexual, rather than to say they were all homosexual?

          • Joline says:

            They rather had to be bisexual given that there was a community of families there and nothing is mentioned of them being so outlandish as to not be organized in families.

            I haven’t studied the Jewish commentary enough to know if the oldest authorities say that liking male on male anal sex is what made them rapists, or if being rapists was more important, or it was a little of column A and a little of column B.

            However, the Jewish attitude about same sex intimacy is at least part of a reasonably consistent network of rules. Rules aimed at regulating all manner of physical-spiritual interactions.

            (I am not going to discuss the challenge to harm avoidance and equity moral criteria which the existence of this rule imposes. Except to say it’s not the first rule in Torah which seems to have been put in there designed to teach the Jews through the necessity of expunging it. see: the ritual for dealing with an accused adulteress who refuses to admit she committed adultery in .

            And yes, this is in severe tension with “remove not a single character from this teaching”. But there’s a reason Israel can be fairly translated as “God wrestler”. And why Torah Is Not In Heaven.)

            So the Christian imitation of same sex prohibitions is bizarre because they ignore all the other rules that regulate other spiritual-physical interactions, such as kashrut (dietary laws), the laws of family purity (restricting sex with women during part of their menstrual cycles), obligatory fasting, down to customs like “put your right shoe on first, but tie the left the one first” or “sleep on your right side first 1/3 of the night, turn on your back in the middle, turn on your left side the last 1/3 of the night”.

            Christianity until things like the Quakers and later the Christian Scientists is not a path about trying to minimax physical spiritual interactions. In fact, the reason the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons are such unwelcome characters in Christian history is because they copy the Jewish template for this minimaxing, and it doesn’t fit with the regular Christian spiritual worldview!

          • dsotm says:

            There are reasons to believe that the dominant sexual role division in ancient times in the mediterranean and mid-eastern cultures was not that of hetherosexual vs. homosexual but rather it revolved around power disparity – penetrator vs. penetrated, this was the case in the Roman empire and vestiges of this exist to this day in various balkan and turkish cultures.

            In fact revisiting this story made something click for me – it is possible to articulate a charitable and even then-progressive interpretation of the original biblical anti-homosexuality stance, considering that what it goes out against is the actual the act of sodomy and the meta-assumption that most instances of sodomy in biblical times (and probably even helenic/roman times which is when the bible was being canonised if not right out authored) took place without/against the consent of the penetrated party it’s primary purpose could have been to ban male-on-male rape.

          • LHC says:

            But then what of the proclamation that both partners should be executed? There is no similar prescription for female rape victims. Indeed, male rape victims are not, IIRC, mentioned in OT law at all.

          • dsotm says:

            That’s a good point and somewhat undermines the already strained charitability, apparently it’s one of those things where a man is supposed to give his life resisting rather than to submit and the original verse is explicitly clear that both should be put to death, it also defines the condemned sex acts as those of ‘men having intercourse in the way of a woman’ – so it supports the notion that being on the penetrated side is morally deplorable for men and should be reserved for women but also goes against the notion that it is ok for men to be on the penetrating side as well and that is in contrast to dominating cultures of the time that quite openly sanctioned sexual the exploitation of adolescent boys and male slaves.

            And iirc women are also expected to actively resist rape (by screaming) though not to give their lives doing so in most cases and if shown to not have resisted rape while married can be subject to punishment though I don’t think it’s death.

        • teucer says:

          This is why the progressive Christianity types loudly insist Sodom was destroyed because their sin was lack of hospitality,

          That might also be related to the fact that it says so, in, you know, Scripture. (Specifically, Ezekiel)

          • Jon Marcus says:

            Behold this was the iniquity of Sodom your sister: pride, abundance of bread, and careless ease were hers and her daughters’, and she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.

            (Ezekiel 15:49)

        • alex says:

          I don’t know what you’re talking about, most people consider homosexuality to be key and rape secondary.

  8. dsotm says:

    “Scripture says that if humankind is good, then it doesn’t have to happen that way, the Messiah ben Joseph and the Messiah ben David can be the same person.”

    What is this based on ?

    David iirc is believed to descend from Joseph’s brother Judah – so maybe the first messiah can also be the last and true messiah but given Thamiel identifying Jalaketu as a descendant of Joseph that would be problematic.

    • Cake&spoon says:

      Every generation you go back, the potential number of ancestors doubles. Someone can be a descendent of both of them easily.

    • dsotm says:

      Genetic ancestors sure but I assume ‘ben of’ implies a strictly patrilinear lineage (even though judaism itself is matrilinear) as this is how the bible describes lineages (such as David’s for example) – x begat y, y begat z etc. , so one would trace it through his father and his father’s father eventually reaching *either* Joseph or (if at some point passing through David) Judah – think a tree of males, not a DAG of humans.

      • Decius says:

        Is it genetic or nominal father that matters? How likely is it that at least one (un?)acknowledged bastard could be counted as a descendant of both?

        • dsotm says:

          Well judaism is notoriously hard on bastards so I’d say not likely and even if it did then expecting it to be consistent you still end up with a unique patrilinear ancestor lineage, and surely you’re not suggesting that the comet king’s origin involves a more earthly phenomena than a comet shining on a virgin in a forest.
          It does works well with Aharon’s father’s Identity being obscure though.

          • Andrew M says:

            There is an old theory about the descent of Jesus (and I mean old: it is in Eusebius, who says he got it off Jesus’ relations) which explains how a person can have different biological and legal fathers without bastardy; if a man marries his brother’s widow ‘to raise up seed’ the children will be biologically his, but legally his brother’s. Moreover, these can be half-brothers through the same mother, which allows the paternal descent to diverge as one goes further back. (See also the Mahabharata.)

      • Wertsir says:

        This is incorrect.

        If it were only the paternal line that mattered, then the Comet king wouldn’t be Ben Raziel exclusively, as the angel did not have a father.

        And other line would have to be descended from his mothers side, removing the possibility of it being paternal-only.

  9. pdan says:

    Typo thread.

    “The Comet King still din’t say anything.” -> “The Comet King still *didn’t* say anything.”

  10. null says:

    So this is why Bastion counters Reinhardt.

  11. Angstrom says:

    It’s getting harder and harder to believe how the hell the world hung together and resisted total subjugation by Thamiel after TCK’s death. I suppose we still don’t know what happened in the crusade, and maybe Thamiel, like TOK, has been permanently nerfed?

    Do we have any knowledge of the extent of Hell’s territory in 2017?

    • boris says:

      It seems like the States are intact, so I don’t think that Hell has made any huge inroads in NA–that chapter about Erica catching the train gives kind of a status report of the US and demonic occupation is not a listed hazard.

      It makes me think of what Simeon said to Ana about theonomics not just being in it for the money. Maybe UNSONG is using secret Names to keep the devil at bay. If so, that was probably the Comet King’s plan when he founded it. Or maybe Royal Colorado still has enough pull to keep the gun to Thamiel’s head.

      I do kind of wonder why no one has used ICKMs on the Drug Lord. If those under his control as as good as dead anyway…

      • Anon says:

        I do kind of wonder why no one has used ICKMs on the Drug Lord. If those under his control as as good as dead anyway…

        They’re not though. If you can capture them and keep them away from a peyote supply long enough, they’ll return to normal.

  12. Grort says:

    Um. Do we know any Davids that Sarah could be descended from?

  13. The Chosen One says:

    Ooh, a new chapter! I wonder what plot-relevant multilingual wordplay we’ll see tod-

    the ICKM – the inter-continental kabbalistic missile.

    God damn it.

    • Yossarian says:

      Could you elaborate a bit for not-so-linguistically-savvy readers? I – see – kay – em… I guess I don’t see the pun here.

  14. Grort says:

    Also: dang, it would be nice to resolve that cliffhanger with Aaron finally meeting Sarah. I wonder when that will happen?

  15. anon says:

    I don’t really understand the Yudkowsky quote.

    • Brendan says:

      It’s a joke. You’re supposed to see it in the original context (Abraham bargaining for Sodom’s survival), but God replies to the literal content of Abraham’s statement, completely ignoring the original context of Abraham’s plea. The sudden shift of context from “god as a bargaining deity” to “god as a neutral (and slightly smartass) observer” is what provides the humor.

    • It’s about AI risk, he’s saying that if there were a thousand really competent humans, they’d solve the Value Alignment Problem and humanity wouldn’t go extinct, but he doesn’t think there are.

    • Daniel Blank says:

      I believe the chapter is interpreting the Comet King as one of these competent people preventing the world’s destruction. Also both the quote and the chapter reference the destruction of Sodom.

  16. Joline says:

    And finishing the chapter (which is much shorter than I expected or I would have made just one post) I have to say, I think the Comet King’s exegesis is missing the point.

    It’s worth noting the YHVH does not say anything further to Abraham about the incident. Despite the fact that the total number of righteous men in the city was zero. Because the point is that Abraham was right. A judgement is rendered, an appeal is made, and the merit of the appeal is evaluated. Always and without fail. No shortcuts, no giving up on people.

    This is why while every year, when the world might be judged unworthy to continue existing, the end would not come at sunset on Yom Kippur. It would come at sunset of Hoshana Rabbah. Because there’s one more chance for atonement, in the interval between Yom Kippur and the end of Sukkot.

    That is superficially puzzling. The whole liturgy around the High Holy Days is that the judgement is sealed at the end of Yom Kippur. But the extension to Hoshana Rabbah is an example of the depths of YHVH’s manifestations of mercy.

    The prayer of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy is a critical exhortation to remind the Jews even amidst receiving a heavy sentence for their wrongdoing, to always remember the punishment can be shortened with true repentance and that YHVH is looking forward to that. Moreover, that all punishments end and YHVH’s love outlasts them.

    So the point isn’t that there was one righteous man in Sodom. There wasn’t. The point is that going onward, YHVH showed that extreme as the punishment was, it wasn’t some grudge. And the Moabites who arose from the ashes of the cities of the plains were not cursed for their patriarch’s lack of righteousness. Because YHVH”s mercy outweighs YHVH’s wrath.

    One of the things I love best about the Jewish outlook is that Adam and Eve’s fall does not create “Original Sin”. It changes the nature of the world going forward. But this is just a reflection that the divine spark within Adam and Eve makes it possible for them to do things that can’t be undone without unraveling the universe and starting over.

    Zion means a mark, as in a mark a pen makes on paper. I’ve always looked at Zion as being just like that: a mix of a physical indentation (the city itself) and the ink (the dyes coating the bottom of the indentation) .

    To me, that’s in the vein of the quote by Pericles “The whole earth is the tomb of heroic men and their story is not given only on stone over their clay but abides everywhere without visible symbol woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.” ie the dye is from how people have lived and died.

    While there is a Zion upon the Earth, in a sense, the Earth itself is a Zion in the larger universe. And the “Fall” is just the fact that the design made in this global sense of Zion is ineradicable, like doing your math homework in ink. Things are fraught because that’s how the mark is made. And as time goes on the mark gets very complex and indecipherable.

    But that’s why there is the pursuit of holiness…because in Hebrew, the word holy is kadosh. Which means first and foremost “what is set apart by YHVH”. We have our spiritual paths because we have to isolate a piece of the global Zion to be our community’s Zion. And that requires following a set of principles that we can plausibly feel has some stability…however imperfect…because without the stability, no such isolation (or comprehension) of a piece of the larger mark can be accomplished.)

    There’s a story about a great Rabbi who had a life of severe misfortune and hardship And he petitions YHVH to lift this from him. And he is answered “The universe can be restarted. Are you sure you want this?” and he thinks hard and Job like he answers “no, I guess I’d rather keep things as they are”.

    So within Judaism, while human evil is a consequence of the Fall, YHVH does not wash its hands of responsibility for the whole situation in the first place. There’s no damnation, either. Gehena is a transition place, not a final destination. The Jews only made some exceptions in that regard after exposure to Christianity…and Talmud itself says they shouldn’t have wasted the effort on judging those exceptions, since they are “after the end” and the focus of Torah Is Not In Heaven is how to decide things on _Earth_.

    The Thirteen Attributes are inescapable and always present. So even in the midst of the most harsh judgment, at the threshold of the most devastating punishment, YHVH is always looking for the slightest glimmer of a reason to hold back just a bit. And always ready to meet humans repentance with divine atonement. (I don’t know enough Hebrew to comment alas but I know enough that these two words in Hebrew are very different from English in the connotations and mystical dimensions.)

    The proper answer to Thamiel isn’t this riff about “there’s always one and one’s enough”. Quite the contrary, there isn’t always one. In fact, on one level, the whole lack of righteous men was deeply horrifying. Between one and nine men would have meant those men were seen as part of the community of Sodom, rather than a separate community living within Sodom. But for there to be zero…it’s like there wasn’t even a beginning of anything better.

    It’s as if our intuition wants to deny things can ever be that bad…but in fact, they might well be.

    But that makes the minute mercy shown in sparing Lot the more significant. His household isn’t spared because their deeds merit being spared. He’s spared because this is the maximum extent of mercy YHVH can force through the system of the world in this situation.

    And with our limited perspective, we don’t try to foretell how that will to mercy is going to work out. That’s why the various types of magical soothsaying are reckoned to be a sin equal to that of rebellion against YHVH’s sovereignty. Because they will be imperfect, and might lead us to give up on someone before they should be given up on, to write off a situation as a loss before it is genuinely lost.

    (I wish I knew enough kabbalah to explain this better, because I know what i said begs mention of Epicurius’ Paradox and say “wait, YVHV can do whatever it wants”. But from what I’ve studied of kabbalah so far, there’s this sense of balance in the system of how shefa (divine flow) works and how reality basically works. That part of the restraint the universe is constructed from puts a practical limit on how we expect to encounter YHVH, even though in principle we’d think there couldn’t be a limit.)

    (The best I can say is it seems to me related to the heart of the main prayer said each non festival non Shabbat prayer service in Judaism “Praised be YHVH, Who hears prayer”. Because that phrase is the culmination of a passage about basically how the rabbit is praying to escape the fox and the fox is praying to catch the rabbit and both of them should have a reason to hope their prayers will win out, and however it does work out, YHVH heard and cared about it all and did or did not do whatever was necessary.)

    The reason I go on at such length is that the “there’s always one” puts a real burden on people I think. We’re imperfect and deeply broken. And it’s important to know even at our worst that we don’t have to deny what we are and lie to ourselves. We can accept sometimes we really mess up intolerably badly and there could be the worst things ahead for us.

    And the beginning of deciding to try to stop messing up isn’t because there’s a guarantee we’re at a point we can do anything meaningful to fix things. It begins with realizing we can’t tell when unexpected synergies and the complexity of all our history and the physical universe might work out in a good way.

    In the passage as written the Comet King is basically arguing that we should do our best because someone is going to get to be the hero, and the hero will do what has to be done.

    But I think sometimes no one gets to be the hero…but something good can be done even if it seems like random noise at the time…it might well be the foundation of unimaginably better things in the end. And why shouldn’t we keep that hope, as long as we don’t use it to relieve ourselves of the burden of doing our best?

    Just because you are wretched and broken preclude your best efforts mattering. Trying to prejudge efforts and deliver the verdict prematurely is the sort of thing Thamiel like people are inclined toward, not YHVH like people.

    And of course isn’t it the sad thing we oscillate between the two? but the fact of that oscillation is not cause for despair.

  17. stavro375 says:

    . Originally a Neu Hansa state secret, within months it leaked to the Untied States

    Note “leaked” and not “given.” So I suppose that the not-Germany not-USA relationship has cooled significantly?

    Also, remember how the apocalypse began in a cubicle? I think we now have a terrifyingly plausible proximate cause for the End of the World. And also the city in flames that was the cover page for book 3.

  18. B_Epstein says:

    …the part a few years from now where God gives me the advantage over you and you end up wholly in my power.

    A Job reference?

  19. Thecommexokid says:

    The abbot had sat upon the Continental Divide, entered a trance, and from that place amidst the Pillar of Mildness issued a prophecy. All the descendants of the Comet King, he said, would die screaming in horror and agony, cursing their father’s name.

    • Grort says:

      My theory is that the Comet King says something to Sarah that he shouldn’t, thus triggering the apocalypse.

      Also: the Pillar of… Mildness? I wonder what that story is about.

  20. Ninmesara says:

    The mutually assured destruction part is genius… Destroying all souls and the capacity to create more souls, thus limiting Thamiel’s empire to a finite size forever.

    Hmmm… Interesting, The Comet King discovers that Reagan is fake on their first meeting and Thamiel doesn’t even seem to know it. Otherwise he would address Gadiriel instead of Reagan. Also, the whole chapter is written as if Reagan were thinking by himself, instead of being a just a puppet. What does this mean exactly? That Thamiel is not as smart as he thinks he is? That the author has forgotten that Reagen’s is a puppet?

    • JJR says:

      Also, the whole chapter is written as if Reagan were thinking by himself, instead of being a just a puppet. What does this mean exactly?

      I’d argue that Reagan is in fact thinking for himself. He is not completely soulless, remember. He lacks the one granted by the vital name that only Aaron (kinda) knows, but there are other kinds of souls.

      From Chapter 1

      Four hundred years earlier, an old man in Prague had explained to his students that yes, you could make a golem, you could bestow upon it the nefesh, the animal soul. With sufficient enlightenment, you could even bestow upon it the ruach, the moral soul. But the neshamah, the divine spark, you could not bestow upon it, for that was a greater work, and would require a greater Name than any ever discovered.

      and then a voice from Heaven spoke a Name, and the clay came to life, lumbered into a standing position. It spoke a second Name, and the clay’s eyes opened, and within them were innocence and curiosity and the capacity to wonder and learn. And it spoke a third Name, and it was as if a light went on inside of it, and the dust became aware that it was dust and in so doing was dust no longer.

      I think the Reagan golem has the first two souls and so is capable of thinking for himself. Lacking the soul bestowed by the vital name means he is not self aware, or capable of using transcendent names of God, or going to hell. It also means he is not actually human, but plenty of not-a-human things can think for themselves just fine.

      Overall I don’t think Reagan is a puppet, not completely. More like a pet, that can be controlled directly if needed. When we see Gadiriel do this it seems like she has been pulled into the pulled into the conversation instead of having always been there.

      from chapter 31

      “You must be Jalaketu. Don’t you realize it’s rude to disturb a woman this early in the morning?”

      Also, she refers to Reagan’s opinions as if they were actual things that existed and could be talked about.

      but the golem’s opinions are mine as well.

      And the rest of the chapter makes a distinction between things that Regan says and things that Gadiriel says though Reagan.

      • Ninmesara says:

        On rereading the chapter I have to admit you have a point. Sometimes “Reagan said” and sometimes “Gadiriel said”, but they seem to be used mostly interchangeably. At the time I didn’t notice, but it makes some sense now. Even so, I believe that Reagan doesn’t have much autonomy (or when he does he is really stupid and unprofessional), otherwise TCK wouldn’t have been able to see though his facade.

        So, maybe I got it wrong, but it is strange that Gadiriel would leave up to him the decision of whether or not to use weapons of mass destruction as well as leaving him “alone” with Jala to negotiate with Thamiel.

  21. R Flaum says:

    It’s interesting that TCK might not be the true Moschiach. Nachmanides said the true Moschiach would be immortal — the theory here is that mortality was the punishment for Adam’s sin, and since the Moschiach would be without sin, he wouldn’t be subject to that punishment. Nachmanides further noted that for all he knew the Moschiach might have been born hundreds of years ago and simply be waiting for the correct moment to make his move.

    • Evan Þ says:

      But is Nachmanides talking about Messiah ben-Ephraim, or Messiah ben-David?

    • Decius says:

      But it is clear as day that mortality wasn’t punishment at all, but just insurance or spite that man would not become immortal and knowledgeable. Genesis 3:22-23

    • Dindane says:

      If the speculation in the final clause is true, would that suggest the other one as Moschiach? That fits with the “being numbered among the great transgressors” thing, too.

      • R Flaum says:

        Specifically, Nachmanides thought the Moschiach might be hanging out in Eden, to which he is the only human being allowed access.

  22. Lambert says:

    If Thaumiel needs sould for hell, and Uriel can decide not to ensoul people, why not just make everyone, (or a large subset of people, e.g. the wicked) soulless for several generations?

    • Decius says:

      Thamiel waits several generations, or until the light runs out. Uriel presumably has some reason to prefer that souled people exist, at least to the amount possible.

    • Walter says:

      I don’t think that Uriel knows who will be wicked and who won’t when they are born, or are you saying he should steal the souls of the wicked?

  23. Tom Stroop says:

    Saadia Gaon says that if Israel is good, they’ll get one Messiah, the Messiah, the Messiah son of David. If Israel is bad, they’ll need two Messiahs.

    No! We need fifty Messiahs!

  24. Nick says:

    I really like this chapter a lot. I think it’s probably largely because of the sight of Thamiel actually mad. Like, I know that should be really scary, but it’s just really gratifying instead. Infinite kudos to the Comet King.

    (Oh, the ICKM pun helps too.)

  25. LHC says:

    Also note that “missile” is only one letter off from “missive”.

  26. R Flaum says:

    It seems like TCK should make it a very high priority to determine what percentage of humanity goes to Hell. Because if it’s more than half, then wiping out humanity with ICKMs would be a positive good.

    • dsotm says:

      Considering that those who do go to hell stay there for eternity it makes sense regardless of the percentage, as it would stop the creation of new people and will pay off at some point in the (near ~ generation) future, the only reason why under that logic it might make sense to not exterminate man kind asap is if he believes he can end hell at some point.
      Assuming of course that people going to heaven do not cancel out the suffering of those go to hell, but why would it ?

      • dsotm says:

        Actually that’s not strictly true, if humanity can be brought to a state where no one goes to hell that can work too, or if the amount of people who will go to hell till the end of times converges to a finite number less than the current world population.

      • R Flaum says:

        Well, if you feel that joy doesn’t cancel out suffering, then you don’t even need Hell to make the case for human extinction — since pretty everybody suffers at least a little bit in their lives, then by this reasoning every human life is a net negative.

        • dsotm says:

          I think that joy cancels out finite amounts of suffering in the same person, and under reasonable definitions of empathy finite amounts of joy in some people can cancel out finite amounts of misery in other people, but under no scenario can I see how an (in)finite amount of joy experienced by person A can cancel an infinite amount of misery experienced by person B

          • Decius says:

            Hell isn’t infinite suffering. It’s suffering for an infinite time.

            Suffering is not linear with time; boiling for a year and a day is not as much worse than boiling for a year as boiling for a day is worse than boiling for an instant.

            People get used to anything.

          • R Flaum says:

            The depiction of Hell in The Broadcast seemed to indicate that demons are really good at getting around that problem.

          • dsotm says:

            Yeah iirc that episode made it quite clear that hedonic adaptation does not occur in hell, and it would be really inefficient to keep people in hell for eternity if it did. But sure if the total amount of suffering improperly integrates to a finite amount over infinite time then different rules may apply.

          • Decius says:

            Of course hellish propaganda would indicate that.

          • dsotm says:

            Well yeah but for all we know all of the broadcast is hellish propaganda and hell does not exist or is something completely different

          • Stib says:

            I don’t see why cancellation that holds over finite scales couldn’t extend just as well by linearity to infinite scales.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            That would be by continuity, but not by linearity.

          • dsotm says:

            “Towards finitary theodics by methods of hedonic calculus” is to be published in late 2016 in the theodicy review letters, preprints available via use of the arxival name.

      • ayegill says:

        At this point in the story his plan is still to destroy hell, I think.

  27. Monday says:

    Since no one has brought it up yet: any ideas about the identity of the Messiah ben David?

    If Jalaketu could (conceivably) be both Messiah ben Joseph and Messiah ben David, that rules in all the Cometspawn. Sohu doesn’t seem like a natural fit, but I’m nominating her anyways.

  28. The coment king says:

    So apparently Scott got Civ6 this week. I predict a massive drop in writing quality for the next three weeks as Scott writes chapters in five minutes between civ games.

  29. Quixote says:

    Another very good chapter. This third book is off to a strong start.

  30. nipi says:

    Concerning ICKMs. Why did the Comet King ever contemplate how to stop the Moon from colliding with the Earth? After all the Moon isnt real. I cant figure out if he had a very weird sense of humor or was just plain loony.

  31. headache says:

    Neu Hansa doesn’t make sense because it is a mix of English and German. It should be either Neue Hanse, Neo Hansa or New Hansa

    • Hans Neo says:

      My thoughts exactly (German, also having lived in a Hansestadt). Neue Hanse or Neuhanse (NeuHanse for the modern look) would strongly hint at a German predominance. The UK has not been alluded to, so I think New Hansa is unlikely. Neo Hansa (NeoHansa) would hint at the Hansa times in history when latin was the lingua franca.

  32. geist says:

    Since the Holocaust happened in the story as in reality, it’s very unlikely that there would a notable Rabbi in Germany.

    Also, for the purpose of being Messiah, descent though the maternal line is irrelevant. (If it wasn’t, well Joseph must be before that identical ancestors point for India (and for Jews))

  33. Sniffnoy says:

    Huh, I was honestly unfamiliar with the idea of Moshiach ben Joseph. I remember when Scott declared this comment to be Official Foreshadowing, but it sounds like the Messiah ben Joseph is pretty different from what I was talking about. I had in mind, like, Moshiach as happy bringer of peace vs. Moshiach as terrifying purger of evil. I don’t actually know what the actual tradition behind that idea is, though. Does anyone know more about this? How does it interact with the idea of Moshiach ben Joseph?

  34. Faster than ickm says:

    Can Sarah deliver the Wrathful Name over email?
    Is Sarah immortal?
    If molecules from David wound up in Sarah’s hardware, is she descended from David?

  35. John Sidles says:

    Unsong readers can gain additional perspective from the works of Jorge Luis Borges; see in particular Borges’ Kabbala-positive/Unsong-foreshadowing poem The Golem (1958).

    The path by which Borges came to write works like The Golem is set forth in the recently-published collection of lectures Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature (2013). It is particularly marvelous to reflect that Borges’ course-lectures were delivered extemporaneously, without benefit of notes, by a blind man.

    Rationalists who are skeptical of the values, methods, and objectives of modern literary criticism owe it to themselves to read Borges. 🙂

    • John Sidles says:

      Let’s see if this excerpt can escape the censor-filters:
      The Golem
      Jorge Luis Borges (1958)
      translated by Frank Thomas Smith

      If (as the Greek affirmed in the Cratylus)
      the name is archetype of the thing
      in the letters of “rose” is the rose
      and all the Nile in the word “Nile”.

      And, made of consonants and vowels,
      there’ll be a terrible Name, which
      guards in precise letters and syllables
      the ciphered essence of God and the Omnipotence.
      Adam and the stars knew it
      in the garden. The corrosion of sin
      (the qabalists say) has erased it,
      And the generations have lost it.

      The artifices and candor of man
      are endless. We know there was a day
      when God’s people were seeking the Name
      in the solemn vigils of Jewry.

      Not in the way of others where an obscure
      shadow insinuates in the obscure history,
      still young and alive is the memory
      of Judah Loew, who was a rabbi in Prague.

      Thirsting to know what God knows,
      Judah Loew arranged permutations
      of letters and complex variations
      and finally pronounced the Name: the Key,

      the Door, the Echo, the Guest and the Palace,
      over a doll which with clumsy hands
      he carved, to teach it the secrets
      of the Letters, of Time and of Space.


      Perhaps twas an error in penmanship
      or in pronouncing the Sacred Name,
      for despite such avid enchantment,
      the apprentice of man learned not to speak.

      Its eyes, less of man than of dog,
      and even less of dog than of thing,
      followed the rabbi around the pallid
      penumbra of the confining rooms.

      Something abnormal and gross was in the Golem.
      because the Rabbi’s cat at its passing
      would hide. (This cat is not in Scholem,
      But in the passing of time I divine it.)

      Lifting filial hands to its God
      it copied its own god’s devotions;
      or, stupid and smiling, it would bow
      in concave oriental salaams.

      The Rabbi observed it with tenderness
      and with some horror. “How” (he asked)
      “could I beget this sorry son
      and abandon inaction, wherein sanity lies?”

      “Why did I add to the infinite
      series another symbol? Why to the vain
      skein that winds in the eternal
      did I give another cause, an effect, and grief?”

      In the hour of anguish and lack of light,
      his eyes on his Golem would rest.
      Who will tell us the things God felt
      when looking at his rabbi in Prague?

      In this hour of anguish and vague light,
      on the Golem our eyes have stopped.
      Who will say the things to us that God felt,
      at the sight of his rabbi in Prague?

      • Anders Sandberg says:

        Nice. This unease at the transitivity of creation is, I think, the root of much Western worry about AI.

        But a name “made of consonants and vowels” – where did the vowels come from?

        • John Sidles says:

          In his story The Library of Babel (1941), Borges explains

          The original manuscript [of “The Library of Babel”] has neither numbers nor capital letters; punctuation is limited to the comma and the period. Those two marks, the space, and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet are the twenty-five sufficient symbols that our unknown author is referring to.

          Modern-day “Many Libraries Theory” postulates an infinite multitude of Babel-libraries, each having its own unique orthographic conventions, with each library spatially disjoint from all other libraries.

          We can be certain that this informatic ontology is correct, on the grounds that any other ontology would be unnatural! 🙂

  36. You seem to be reinventing Christianity again. Shall I expect a cross, or a stone table?

  37. Jack says:

    The overt meaning of salt is “the thing you add to passwords before hashing”

  38. Seph says:

    How did the rabbi who discovered the Wrathful Name do so without destroying himself and his entire city?

    • beleester says:

      If you speak a name without knowing what it does, you get a divine vision of what it does instead of triggering the effect. The same reason Aaron didn’t accidentally ensoul his work computer.

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