aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 5: Never Seek To Tell Thy Love

My beloved is like a bit of information that flows in the system.


I remember the first time I met Ana Thurmond.

I’d just been kicked out of Stanford. My mother was a wreck. I had to get away from her. I took the first minimum wage job I could find, a clerk position at Cash For Gold. It wasn’t so bad. There was a sort of kabbalah to it, freely interchanging symbols with material reality. I could respect that. I sat behind a register and studied Talmud and Zohar most of the day, and sometimes an elderly woman would come in to trade her jewelery for rather less than it was worth, and I would facilitate the transaction.

Every so often I would get to a particularly interesting Talmudic tractate and stay past closing time. Sometimes I’d be there late into the night. It was a more congenial environment than my mother’s apartment. Nobody noticed and nobody cared. That was why I was still there at eleven or so one night when I heard a sort of commotion outside.

I opened the door and caused a stunningly beautiful girl to fall off a stepladder. “Euphemism!” she said. I swear to God she said “Euphemism.”

“Are you okay?” I asked. She was. She was holding two big yellow letters. I looked up at our sign. It was missing two big yellow letters.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked. I am bad at sounding threatening, but she was like 5’4, maybe 5’5, and also lying on the ground looking very ashamed, and so putting menace into my voice was easier than usual.

“Kabbalah,” she said.

I looked up at the sign again. It read CASH OR GOD

“It’s a kabbalistic protest,” she said faintly. “Against a society that thinks…”

“You’re not a kabbalist. If you were a kabbalist, you’d have more respect! You can’t just go removing letters from signs like that! Matthew 5:18: ‘Verily I say unto you, not a single letter, nor even a stroke of a letter, shall be removed until all is fulfilled.'”

“Oh, you want to go there?” She caught her breath and stood back up. “Matthew 16:4: ‘This evil and adulterous generation wants a sign, but no sign shall be given to it.’”

I blinked. Maybe she was a kabbalist.

“But,” I said, “By removing the letter L, you make “God” out of “gold”. But the warning against idolatry in Exodus 20:23 says ‘You shall not make a god out of gold.'”

“But,” said the girl, “Exodus 25 says that you shall take gold and turn it unto the Lord.”

Now I was annoyed.

“You have taken an L and an F,” I said. “But if you map the Latin alphabet to Hebrew gematria, L and F sum to twenty-six. The Tetragrammaton also has a gematria value of twenty six. So taking an L and an F is mystically equivalent to taking the Name of God. But the Third Commandment is ‘You shall not take the Name of God in vain.'”

“But the sound of L and F together,” she said, “is ‘aleph’, and aleph is silent and represents nothingness. So I have taken nothing.”

I heard the whine of a siren.

“Tell it to the cops,” I said.

She ran. She didn’t even take the ladder. She just turned and ran away.

It wasn’t like I had even called the police. Just a coincidence, if you believe in such things. For some reason a cop with a siren was out there at eleven PM, doing cop things, and she heard it and ran away.

And I got to spend pretty much every waking moment over the next six months wondering who she was.

I checked all of the universities with programs in kabbalah and I got nothing. No leads. As embarassing as it was to ask “Hey, does a pretty girl with blonde hair in a sort of bun who is really good at certain kinds of weird wordplay go here?,” I sucked it up and asked at Stanford, Berkeley, even Santa Clara, and I got nothing. I moved on to the yeshivas, even though most of them didn’t even admit women. Nothing.

It was a cold autumn night and I’d just finished asking at what was absolutely positively the last yeshiva I was going to bother checking out – just as I thought I had the past several weekends. One thing had led to another, and we had gotten into an argument about the creation of the universe, and finally we agreed to take it to the bar, where I proceeded to repay their friendliness by sitting in a corner and not talking to anybody. I was only half paying attention when a girl walked up to one of the rabbinical students, told him he was pretty, and asked him to kiss her.

It wasn’t my girl. My girl was short and had blond hair in a sort of bun and spoke way too fast. This was a tall girl with dark hair that looked like it had rejected a mohawk as too conformist and set forth with only an ox and a Conestoga wagon into new and exciting realms of weird hairstyles.

The rabbinical student – a cherubic-faced young man with absolutely perfect curly hair whose name I think was David – apologized and said that he was a rabbinical student and not big on kissing weird girls at bars whose hairstyles seemed to be inspired by the crests on species of extinct reptiles. Or words to that effect.

“Wow,” said the girl. “A real rabbinical student. Tell you what. If I know something about the Bible that you don’t know, will you kiss me?”

My ears perked up.

You don’t understand how heavily these people train. It’s Torah eight hours a day since they’re old enough to sit up straight. They’ve got the thing memorized by now and then some. “If you know something about the Bible I don’t know, you can do whatever you want with me,” David said laughing.

“Hmmmm,” said weird-hair-girl, and she made a show of thinking about it. “I’ve got one. How long did Joseph spend in the belly of the whale?”

“Three days and three nights,” he said practically instantly, before I could warn him.

“Oh, so sorry,” said weird-hair-girl.

David looked at her. “I can quote you chapter and verse. Jonah 1:17.”

“…would be a lovely answer, if I’d asked that. I asked you how long Joseph was in the belly of the whale.”

The rabbi trap had been sprung. His face turned red.

“Uh,” he said, “there’s nothing in the Bible saying for sure that Joseph didn’t spend time in a whale too.”

“Nope,” said weird-hair-girl. “I’m no rabbi, but I am pretty sure that zero, zilch, nobody in the Bible spent time in a whale except Jonah.”

“And the wives of the men slain in Sennacherib’s invasion of Jerusalem,” I interjected before I could stop myself.

Two sets of eyes suddenly pivoted my direction.

“The wives of the men slain in Sennacherib’s invasion of Jerusalem,” said David, “did not spend time in a whale.”

“Oh, they absolutely did,” I said, because at this point I was in too deep to back out. “They were very vocal about it.”

Weird-hair-girl raised one eyebrow.

“It’s all in Byron,” I said, then quoted: “And the widows of Ashur were loud in their whale.”

Blink, blink went the girl’s eyes, then suddenly: “I hate you and I hope you die.” Then: “Wait, no, death would be too good for you. You need to meet my cousin.” Then: “Drink”. And she dragged me over to her table and shoved a beer at me.

So, when the thread of my memory resumes, late the next morning, I found myself lying in a strange bed, mostly naked. I silently resolved not to go binge drinking with rabbinical students again.


Standing over me, as if scrutinizing a horse for purchase, was Weird Hair Girl. And next to her, with precisely the same expression, was my short blonde girl with the pale blue eyes, the girl with the ladder.

“He told a terrible whale joke!” protested weird-hair-girl, “and first I wanted him to die, but then I realized that would be too good for him, and I told him he had to meet you instead.”

“What was the joke?” asked my blonde girl.

“It was…” Weird Hair Girl thought for a second. “Do you know how many beers I had last night? And you want me to remember things? Specific things?”

“Hm,” said my blonde. She looked straight at me, with the pale blue eyes. I don’t think she recognized me. “What was the joke?”

I protested. “I don’t even know where I am! I don’t even know your names! In my head I’ve been calling her ‘Weird Hair Girl’ and you -” I cut myself off before I said something like ‘the girl I am going to marry.’ “How am I supposed to remember a whale joke?”

The girl I was going to marry ran her fingers through her pale blonde hair in frustration and deep thought. “Since you came up with it last night,” she said, “you must be able to come up with it again. You were with rabbinical students, therefore you were talking about the Bible. Biblical whale jokes. What comes to mind?”

“Um,” I said. “Obviously the Biblical king Ahab is an suspect, given his namesake. So…aha!…Ahab was visiting Jerusalem, and he kept trying to shoot Moby Dick from there, and but it’s so far inland he couldn’t reach the sea with his harpoon, so he ordered the construction of a great rampart to give him a height advantage…”

She stared at me, a calculating stare.

“…and to this very day, it is known as the Whaling Wall,” I finished, and both of us started giggling.

“Wait,” said Weird Hair Girl. “Why did I think introducing the two of you would be a good idea? This is the worst thing that ever happened.”

“And then Ahab died and went to Hell,” she added, “where there was much whaling and gnashing of teeth.”

“But,” I said, “it was all in accordance with the whale of God.”

“Wait,” said the blonde. “I’ve got one. Why was the sea so noisy after the destruction of Sennacherib’s army?”

I thought for a second. Then I thought for another second. “I got nothing,” I said.

“Because,” said the blonde girl, “the widows of Ashur were loud in their whale.”


“This was the biggest mistake of my life and I hope I die,” said Weird Hair Girl.


I remember my first morning there, the morning it all came together. The girls finally dragged me out of bed and insisted on making me breakfast. Weird Hair Girl was named Erica. Girl Whom I Will Someday Marry was named Ana. Together they led me downstairs into an expansive dining room.

“Welcome to Ithaca!” Ana told me as I said down and plunked my head on the table, still a little hung over.

“You need food,” Erica stated, and disappeared into the kitchen to fetch me some. Ana went with her. They were whispering to one another. Giggles may have been involved.

It was a big house, a little old but well-maintained. From one wall hung a sort of banner with a big Hebrew letter yud on it. Tenth letter of the alphabet, representing the tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet”, with the obvious implications for capitalism and wealth accumulation. The big yud was a Stevensite symbol. These were Stevensites. It fit.

But I could do better than that. I turned my attention to the bookshelf on the far wall, tried to see what I could glean. They had the usual sci-fi/fantasy classics: Tolkien, Asimov, Salby. Then some meatier fare: Zayinty the economist, Chetlock the prognosticator, Tetkowsky the futurist, Yudka the novelist, good old Kaf ben Clifford. I recognized a few I’d seen before by their covers alone. Nachman Bernstein’s Divinity. Nachman Eretz’s Alphanomics. Menelaus Moleman’s Letter to the Open-Minded Atheist. Gebron and Eleazar’s Kabbalah: A Modern Approach. Ben Aharon’s Gematria Since Adam. Rachel Sephardi’s Arriving At Aleph. Rav Kurtzweil’s The Age Of Mechanized Spirituality. And…really? The collected works of Eliezer ben Moshe?!

I stared at the shelf greedily. I didn’t have half of these. I hoped they weren’t too serious about the not coveting.

It was only after finishing my scan of the books that I turned to the other possible source of information in the room.

“Hi,” I said to the guy sitting at the end of the table. He was tall and looked like he worked out. “I’m Aaron Smith-Teller. Nice to meet you.”

“Brian Young,” he said, barely looking up from his paper. “Welcome to Ithaca.”

“So I’ve heard. This is some kind of group house?”

“You could say that,” said Brian.

“Brian’s the strong, silent type,” said Ana, returning from the kitchen with coffee. She poured me a mug. “It’s why he and Erica get along so well. He never says anything, she never shuts up. Yes, we’re a group house. Erica prefers the phrase ‘commune’, but Erica prefers lots of things.”

“I’m standing right here, making your food!” Erica shouted from the kitchen.

“So are you guys some kind of Stevensite group, or…” I started to ask. Ana put a finger to her mouth, and whispered “Shhhhhhhhh. She’ll hear you.”

Erica came in bearing four plates of toast. “I’m glad you asked!” she said in an inappropriately chirpy voice, and picked Stevens’ The Temple And The Marketplace off the shelf. “Have you read this?”

The early years after the discovery of the first Names had been a heady time, as would-be-wizards had learned the few known incantations and built exciting new technologies on top of them. The Luminous Name had been worked into various prayers and magic squares and configurations to produce lights of dizzying shapes and colors. Clever inventors in self-funded workshops had incorporated the Kinetic Name into all sorts of little gadgets and doodads. The best kabbalists had developed vast superstructures of prayers and made them available for free on the earliest computer networks to anyone who wanted to experiment.

That ended with the founding of the great theonomic corporations. They gradually took over the applied kabbalah scene in the 80s; their grip tightened in the early 90s after the President and the Comet King worked together to create UNSONG. Suddenly every new Name had a copyright attached to it, and the hundreds of lines of prayers and invocations people used to control the Names and bend them to your will were proprietary material. The old workshops became less and less relevant; the old self-employed kabbalist geniuses were either picked up to serve as drones at the theonomics or turned into increasingly irrelevant bitter old men.

It was in this atmosphere that Reverend Raymond E. Stevens of the Unitarian Church had written The Temple And The Marketplace. The book was two hundred fifty pages of sometimes excessively dense screeds, but it essentially argued that a whole host of Biblical commandments – most notably “thou shalt not covet” and “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” – were best interpreted as describing the divine Names discovered after the sky cracked, prophetic injunctions intended to make sense only millennia after they were written. Taken together, these commandments formed a schematic for an ideal economy (the titular “Temple”) in which the wealth-creating powers of the kabbalah were shared by everyone. The modern world was ignoring God’s plan in favor of unrestricted capitalism (the titular “Marketplace”) and inviting terrible retribution upon themselves. Stevens saw himself as a modern-day Jeremiah, warning the Israelites to repent before they suffered the full force of God’s vengeance.

Despite being by all accounts something of a crackpot (his explanation of the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple as occult references to economic parameters reminds me of Newton’s, only less lucid) he was in the right place at the right time. Stevenism spread among bitter old kabbalists, teenage Marxist punks, spiritual-but-not-religious hippies, and anyone who found themselves unexpectedly locked out of the new economy. It went from oddly specific theory to Generic Badge Of The Counterculture, and the same sort of people who spent the Sixties talking about “vibrations” without really knowing what they meant spent the Nineties talking about the secret meanings of weird Levitical commandments.

“You guys are Unitarians?” I asked.

Stevens had been a Unitarian minister, and his work had spread like wildfire across the Unitarian community. After President Cheney cracked down on the church itself in the early part of the new millennium, what was left of Unitarianism was almost entirely Stevensite, little religious communities built along the lines ordained by the Reverend’s books, singing the forbidden Names of God during services. It was part prayer, part act of civil disobedience, and part military training: people who really knew the Names tended to be bad people to mess with.

“We’re the Unitarian hub,” said Erica. “For all of North San Jose. And I run the Bay Area Unitarian magazine. The Stevensite Standard. Listen!”

She stood on a chair, and started giving what from then on I would always recognize as The Spiel. The Spiel was one of the few constants of life at Ithaca. Roommates would come and go, intellectual fads would burst onto the scene in glorious bloom before vanishing in a puff of general embarassment, but The Spiel remained. Erica could do it convincingly while sober but spectacularly when drunk. She had converted entire bars full of people to her particular brand of radical theological anarchism on several occasions. Over years of practice she had perfected it down to a two minute, seven second elevator pitch which she had so far recited in manners including: blind drunk, on one foot, driving a motorcycle, and while having sex with two men at the same time. The month I met her, she had been working on learning juggling, so she picked up three balls and began to orate:

“God is born free, but everywhere is in chains! The Names, our birthright as children of Adam, the patrimony which should have ensured us an age of plenty like none other in human history, have been stolen from us by corporations and whored out to buy yachts for billionaires.

“The Fertile Name brings forth grain from the earth, speeding the growth of crops by nearly half. Children in Ethiopia starve to death, and Ethiopian farmers cannot use the Fertile Name to grow the corn that would save them. Why not? Because Amalek holds the patent and demands $800 up front from any farmer who wants to take advantage of it.

“The Purifying Name instantly kills eighteen species of harmful bacteria, including two that are resistant to all but the most toxic antibiotics. But two-thirds of American hospitals have no one licensed to use the Purifying Name. Why not? Because they can’t afford the licensing fees demanded by Gogmagog.

“In the old days, we told ourselves that poverty was a fact of life. That there wasn’t enough food or medicine or clothing or housing to go around. Then it was true. Now it is false. To feed the hungry or heal the sick no longer requires scarce resources. It requires only a word. A word that the entire international system of governance – corporations, politicians, UNSONG – has united to prevent the needy from ever obtaining.

“86% of known Names are held by seven big cor – damn!”

Erica had dropped her balls. She picked them back up, then continued.

“86% of known Names are held by seven big theonomic corporations. Microprosopus. Gogmagog. Amalek. Countenance. Tetragrammaton. ELeshon. And Serpens, the biggest, with $174 billion in assets. Its CEO has a net worth of $9 billion, five beach houses scattered across the Untied States, and her own private 12-seater jet.

“When Marx heard of such injustices, he demanded we seize the means of production. But today the means of production aren’t factories to be seized by mobs with pitchforks. They’re Names, to be taken in spiritual struggle and spread around the world until the system is seen for the sham it really is and crumbles of its own accord. Thus William Blake:

I will not cease from mental fight
Nor let my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land

And the theonomic corporations will stop at nothing to thwart us,” Erica warned. “The klipot are…”

“I know what they are,” I interrupted. “I was expelled from Stanford for publishing a method for breaking klipot.”

Erica dropped her balls, then fell off her chair. “Name!” she shouted. “I knew you seemed familiar! I organized a protest for you!”

Two years ago I’d been exactly where I wanted to be, a Stanford undergrad studying the applied kabbalah on a nice scholarship. I’d just finished a class on klipot and was playing around a bit – in the theoretical kabbalah, klipot are these sort of demonic scleroses that encrust the divine light and make it inaccessible, but in the applied kabbalah the word is used to describe cryptographic transformations of the Names of God that allow them to be used without revealing them to listeners. Imagine you’ve discovered a Name that lets you cure cancer, and you want to cure a customer’s cancer but don’t want them to learn the Name themselves so they can steal your business. Instead of speaking the Name aloud, you apply a cipher to it – if you want, change all the As to Es and all the Bs to Zs, so that ABBA becomes EZZE – and speak the cipher while holding the original fixed in your mind. The Name has the desired effect, and your ungrateful customer is left with nothing but the meaningless word “EZZE”, which absent the plaintext version is of no use to anybody.

Problem is, all the Names follow certain numerological rules. The Maharaj Rankings are the most famous, but there are over a dozen. So by working backwards from a klipah it’s usually possible to narrow down the plaintext Name to a very small collection of possibilities, which you can then check by hand – or by mouth, as the case may be. You end up with a race between rightsholders of Names trying to develop better and better klipot, and everyone else trying to discover better and better ways of breaking them. Well, I joined Team Everyone Else in college and came up with a pretty nifty new algorithm for breaking NEHEMOTH, one of the big klipot used by the Gogmagog corporation, with about one percent as much hassle as anyone else had come up with. My advisor told me not to publish and I ignored him. Turned out giant evil corporations don’t like having their multi-billion dollar properties rendered useless. Nothing I’d done was illegal per se, but they put pressure on Stanford to expel me, expel me they did, and a few months later their Applied Kabbalah department had a new professorship endowed with Gogmagog money and I was broke and living with my mother. Not that I’m bitter.

“Yeah,” I said half-heartedly. “Thanks.”

“You!” said Erica. “You need to join us! You’re like, a real-life freedom fighter! A martyr! Like the Israelites at Masada! You fought the law!”

“And the law won,” I said. “Did Ana tell you where she found me? An old Cash for Gold shop on Briar Street.”

Erica was barely listening. “You’re a hero in the battle against tyranny. And a kabbalist. We need kabbalists. Right now Ana is leading the choir, but she’s an amateur. You’re a professional. You need to join us. Brian is moving out in a few weeks. There will be a room opening up.”

I rolled my eyes at the “hero” part, then the “battle against tyranny part”, and a third time at me being a professional anything, until it looked like I had some kind of weird eye movement disorder. I stopped when I heard “room opening up.”

“How much is rent?” I asked.

“Oho,” said Erica, “suddenly, interest.”

A brief flurry of awkward glances between Ana and Erica and occasionally Brian, who refused to return any of them and continued reading the paper. Finally Erica spoke.

“Five hundred dollars a month,” she said.

I stared her in the eyes. “What’s the catch?” This was the Bay Area. A rat-infested hovel went into the four digits.

“Um,” said Ana. Erica finished her sentence. “Ana’s family is very wealthy and has kindly albeit unknowingly offered to subsidize the rest of us.”

“Unknowingly?” I asked.

“I’m a grad student at Stanford,” said Ana, “and I tell them I need the money for room and board.”

“How much?” I asked.

“Um. A few thousand.”

“And they believe you?”

“Well, it is the Bay Area.”

She had a point. My mind added: beautiful and witty and rich.


I remember the day I first saw Ana in her element.

She was studying at Stanford. I’d checked Stanford when I was looking for her, but I’d checked the wrong place. She wasn’t studying the kabbalah per se. She was a grad student in philosophy. Her area was theodicy. The question of how a perfectly good God can allow a universe filled with so much that is evil. Who even studies theodicy anymore? After two thousand years of hand-wringing, what’s left to say?

There must have been something, because journals kept publishing Ana’s work, and a few months before I met her she was named the Augustine Distinguished Scholar in Theodicy, apparently a big national honor that came with a heap of money. It was her passion, her great love, her reason for being. “Don’t you get it, Aaron?” she would say, animated almost to the point of mania. “We’re looking at all of this the wrong way. The Divine Names. The laws of physics. We’re asking ‘what’ when we should be asking ‘why’. Why did God create the universe the way He did? Why the Names? If we really understand God’s goodness, then we can predict everything. What will the stock market do next year? Whatever it’s best for it to do. Who will win the next Presidential election? Whichever candidate is better. If we really understood divine goodness, we would understand everything, past, present, and future.”

I gingerly pointed out that the world was terrible.

“That’s exactly the thing!” Ana said. “How do we square our knowledge that God wants as good a universe as possible with the terrible universe we ended up with? Square that circle, and literally everything else falls into place.”

Every Sunday night, Erica hosted a dinner party. Every Sunday night, one guest was tasked with giving a presentation. Something they were interested in, something to keep us entertained while we waited for the food to be ready. A few weeks ago, Erica herself had talked about running the Standard and how she was going to get distribution networks going across the California Republic and maybe even into the Salish Free State. The week before, I’d talked about a new paper out of MIT expanding upon Rubenstein’s Sieve, one of the most important methods for narrowing down namespace. Now it was Ana’s turn, and of course she was going to talk about the Book of Job.

The chairs were all full as usual. I recognized Bill Dodd. He’d been a physics grad student at Berkeley before ending as one of the washed-up scientists who seemed to be everywhere in the Bay these days, the type instantly recognizable by their tendency to respond to things which were none of their business with “As a physicist, I think…”

I recognized Eliot “Eli” Foss. Calm, quiet Eliot – Erica had picked him up at a Unitarian meeting in Oakland, picked him up in both senses of the word – well, two of the three, she hadn’t literally lifted him. Rumor had it that he was actually religious instead of meta-ironically religious, but no one could tell for certain and the whole idea made us sort of uncomfortable.

I recognized Ally Hu, who was smiling awkwardly and talking to Eliot in her crisp, overly-enunciated English. Her family had been bigwigs in the Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire before the latest round of purges. They’d fled to California and now they owned half of southern Santa Clara Valley. Ally had only been on this side of the world six or seven years but had already fallen in with a bad crowd – namely, us.

The doorbell rang, and I answered it. I recognized Zoe Farr. She was in a tight pink t-shirt with a big yud on it. Karen Happick from the North Bay had been selling them at cost a couple of months ago; I think I had a white one at the bottom of a drawer, unworn.

“You’re late,” Erica told her. There was no malice in her voice, only confusion that someone might risk missing her cooking. She’d poured blood and sweat and tears into building our little community, but the secret ingredient had turned out to be soup. She was a really good cook, and what her magazine and occasional impassioned speeches couldn’t do, an invitation to one of her dinner parties might. It was weird, the way little things like that turned the wheels of destiny. I’ve always wondered if history is missing some story like how the Founding Fathers only declared independence because Martha Washington served amazing stew every time there was a Continental Congress.

I sat back down. The conversation had shifted. Bill was asking Ally why the house was called Ithaca; Ally was giggling and saying she was sworn to secrecy.

The chair next to me was empty. The doorbell rang again. I opened the door again.

“Hello,” said Pirindiel, ducking and fidgeting awkwardly to fit his tall winged form through the door. “I am here. I brought you an offering.” He held out a bouquet of extremely dead flowers.

I shot Erica a look, which I hoped encoded You invited a fallen angel to the dinner party? Really? She shot a look back, which I interpreted as Well, he’s part of The Cause, and he probably doesn’t get out much, and also, shut up.

“When did you get those flowers?” asked Erica, patiently.

“A month ago,” said Pirindiel. “The day you invited me. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t forget.”

“You do remember,” asked Erica, “that flowers wilt after being dead for too long?”

Pirindiel’s face fell. It was obvious that he’d forgotten. Erica shot me a don’t shoot me any looks look, so I didn’t. Fallen angels were always forgetting little things like the tendency of earthly life to decay and die. Or wondering why the news today was different than the news six months ago. Or being surprised again and again when people turned out to be not very nice. It was why they were usually complete wrecks.

Ana was actually the last to arrive, even though she lived here. She looked ethereally beautiful as she descended the staircase, a bag of books in her hand. She reached the table, sat down beside me, started passing out books, one per person. “Fellow Singers, the Book of Job.”

There weren’t enough copies of the Book of Job for all of us, which was either a metaphor or bad planning on Ana’s part. Pirindiel knew it by memory, which made things a little easier, and Erica was still at the stove preparing the main course, but I still ended up sharing a copy with Ally.

“The Book of Job,” said Ana. She had the voice of a singer, lowercase-s, though as far as I knew she’d never had any vocal training. When she spoke, people listened. “Totally unique among Biblical manuscripts. It’s not set in Israel, but in Uz – maybe somewhere in Arabia. It probably predates Israel as a settled state. It’s written in a much older form of Hebrew than any other Biblical book. It gets quoted in Isaiah, which means it’s older than the prophets. It gets quoted in Psalms, which means it’s older than King David. The lexicon is totally different, so many foreign words that scholars suspect it was written in something else and translated later on, so maybe older than the Hebrew language itself. This thing is old. And there’s one other difference between Job and the rest of the Bible. Job is…it’s self-aware. It takes these questions that we all want to ask, reading the rest of the Bible – if God is good and all-powerful, how come there’s so much evil in the world? – and instead of ignoring them it runs into them head on. Like, haven’t you ever read the Bible, and had questions, and wish you could just ask them to God directly? Job is the book where someone actually does that.”

Ana’s enthusiasm wasn’t exactly infectious, but it was honest. You didn’t always become interested in what Ana was talking about, but it was hard not to become interested in Ana.

“But it’s also the greatest disappointment in the history of literature. You have this frame story where the very righteous man Job falls on hard times, and he asks his friends why this is happening to him, and his friends say that surely bad things never happen to good people, so Job must have done something wrong. Job insists that he hasn’t, and he’s right – in fact, later, God’s going to command that the friends sacrifice various animals to atone for besmirching Job’s name in this way. Job is just a really, really righteous guy who suffers an immense amount. And finally, we get to the climax, where Job demands an answer, and God appears in the whirlwind, and we think we’re finally going to get to hear the official, Biblically-approved answer to this problem at the heart of religion and human existence, and God just says…He says…well, open your books.”

Ana took a deep breath in, and although she was short and adorable she did her best to speak in the booming voice of God:

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: ‘Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me: Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding: who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?'”

She went on in this vein. We listened. One thing Ana hadn’t mentioned about Job is that it was spectacular poetry. We tend to think of the Bible as a bunch of boring begats, but Job dazzles beyond our wildest expectations.

“Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons? Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth? Canst thou lift up thy voice to the clouds, that abundance of waters may cover thee? Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go and say unto thee, Here we are?”

“As a physicist,” said Bill Dodd, “I feel obligated to say that we can send lightnings! All you need is something that produces a high enough voltage, like a big van der Graaff generator.”

Ana turned to Bill, with fire in her eyes. Her God impression was getting scarily on point. “Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn? Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee? Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever? WILT THOU PLAY WITH HIM AS WITH A BIRD?”

“Sheesh,” said Ally Hu, who was reading ahead in our shared copy. “God is so obsessed with this whole Leviathan thing. First He is talking about the earth and the stars and the clouds, and then He decides no, I will just drop everything and focus on Leviathan for three chapters.”

“God is canonically really obsessed with Leviathan,” I said. “In the Talmud, Rav Yehuda says that there are twelve hours in a day. God spends three of them studying Torah, three judging the world, three answering prayers, and three playing with Leviathan. That’s a quarter of God’s time, which you have to imagine is pretty valuable.”

Everyone looked at me. I shrugged. “The Talmud is kind of crazy.”

“You know,” said Bill Dodd, “what is Leviathan, anyway? Like a giant whale or something, right? So God is saying we need to be able to make whales submit to us and serve us and dance for us and stuff? Cause, I’ve been to Sea World. We have totally done that.”

“Leviathan is a giant sea dinosaur thing,” said Zoe Farr. “Like a plesiosaur. Look, it’s in the next chapter. It says he has scales and a strong neck.”

“And you don’t think if he really existed, we’d Jurassic Park the sucker?” asked Bill Dodd.

“It also says he breathes fire,” said Eli Foss.

“So,” proposed Erica, “if we can find a fire-breathing whale with scales and a neck, and we bring it to Sea World, then we win the Bible?”

“What I think my esteemed cousin meant to say,” Ana said cheerfully, dropping the God act, “is that God argues here that we’re too weak and ignorant to be worthy to know these things. But then the question becomes – exactly how smart do we have to be to deserve an answer? Now that we can, as Bill puts it, send lightning through the sky, now that we can capture whales and make them do tricks for us, does that mean we have a right to ask God for an explanation? Discuss!”

“Maybe,” said Ally Hu, “God does not say that we are not worthy. Maybe God says that we can’t understand. That we are maybe not smart enough.”

“But,” said Eli Foss, “when kids aren’t smart enough to understand something, we give them the simple explanation. Like when kids ask about lightning, we say that the clouds rub up against each other and make sparks. It’s not totally right. But it’s better than nothing.”

Erica stood up tall, doing her best impression of an overbearing mother. “Who darkeneth counsel with words without knowledge? Canst thou graduate college? Canst thou go unto the office, and bring back $40,000 a year? When the dishwasher breaketh, is it thou who repairest it?”

Everybody laughed, except Pirindiel, who muttered something like “Do parents really talk that way?”

“My doctor talks that way,” said Zoe Farr. “Whenever I question him about something, he just looks and me and says in this voice, ‘Which one of us went to medical school?'”

“The book of Job actually makes a hell of a lot of sense if you suppose God is a doctor,” Erica agreed.

“And!” Zoe Farr added, “it would explain why doctors think they’re God!”

“Seriously!” said Ana. “Who does that? Other than doctors, I mean. Job is asking this very reasonable question – how come I, a righteous man, have been made to suffer immensely? God actually knows the answer – it’s because He wanted to win a bet with Satan – but instead of telling Job that, He spends like three entire chapters rubbing in the fact that He’s omnipotent and Job isn’t. Why would you do that?”

“The part with the Satan is weird,” said Ally Hu. “If really this is God’s reason, then the reason for Job’s suffering is different from the reason for everyone else’s suffering. Right? Bad things happen to most people, but maybe it is not because of bet between God and Satan at all times?”

“Girl’s got a point,” said Bill Dodd.

“I remembered,” Ally Hu continued “when we left of the Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire. I keep asking my parents, ‘What is happening? Where do we go?’ because I was young. They say ‘We are going to a vacation’ and I say ‘But why are we going to a vacation during school time?’ Then they got very angry with me and told me I should mind my own beehive.”

“Beeswax,” Bill Dodd corrected.

“But they were trying to protect me. They knew if I hear the real answer, I would start crying, become upset, maybe run away. Maybe the real reason God allows evil is something terrible. Maybe He is trying to protect us from knowing something.”

Everyone was quiet for a second.

“In the Talmud,” said Eli Foss, “Rabbi Akiva says that apparent evil is always for a greater good. For example, he tells the story of the time when he was traveling to a town, and no one would let him stay in the inn, so he tried to camp in the woods, but his fire went out and he was alone in the cold and the darkness. But that night, a bunch of bandits raided the town and killed and enslaved everybody. If Akiva had been staying in the inn, or if he’d had a fire burning, they would have found him and killed him.”

“That’s stupid,” said Erica. “God could just make there not be bandits. Yes, sometimes some suffering is necessary to prevent even greater suffering, but then you ask why there has to be the greater suffering, and if you keep pushing it back further then eventually you get to the greatest suffering of all and the buck stops there.”

“In a different part of the Talmud,” I said, “Rabbi Akiva gives a different explanation. He says that even the Heaven-bound righteous have a few sins, and since those sins won’t be punished in Heaven, they have to be punished here on Earth. Therefore, the righteous suffer on Earth. But even the Hell-bound wicked have a few virtues. And since those virtues won’t be rewarded in Hell, they have to be rewarded here on Earth. Therefore, the wicked prosper on Earth. Then people ask why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper, and it looks like a mystery, but it actually makes total sense.”

“As a physicist,” said Bill Dodd, “I would think you could model that as a bimodal distribution of suffering. But instead intuitively there’s more of a normal distribution of suffering. And although people complain that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, there’s not a perfect correlation. I don’t even know if there’s a correlation at all. It seems more like suffering happens at random regardless of how good a person you are.”

“I was raised Catholic,” said Zoe Farr. “In church school, we always learned that evil is just the absence of good. So God didn’t create evil, He just created a finite and limited amount of good, not always as much as we’d like. So people aren’t as nice as they could be, and sometimes the weather forms storms and tornadoes, but it’s not because there’s this active force called Evil out there, it’s just because the weather is doing its own thing unrestrained by God pouring infinite amounts of Good into it.”

“No!” said Ana forcefully, abandoning her role as referee and joining in the discussion. “That’s not right. There are certainly bad people who just fulfill their natural selfishness without having any good to get in the way. The bankers, CEOs of theonomics, UNSONG agents, cops, politicians. They just do what the system tells them, follow their incentives with no concern for the consequences. But then there are other people. Your sadists. Your serial killers. People who delight in causing other people pain. Elie Wiesel said the opposite of love wasn’t hate, it was indifference. I beg to differ. Any of you ever read about what the Japanese did to the Chinese in Nanking? The Nazis, you know, mostly they just wanted some people dead and went about it in a horrifically efficient way. The Japanese, they enjoyed it. They worked hard on it. They deviated from efficiency, from self-interest, they sacrificed their own self-interest to be as perfectly cruel as possible. And Hell. Thamiel and his demons. They’re not indifferent. They’re evil. There’s a difference.”

“I mean, it looks like there’s a difference to us,” said Zoe Farr, “but maybe on a metaphysical level, that sort of depravity is just what a total, absolute absence of good looks like.”

“I remember seeing a video,” said Ana “of the President’s summit with the Devil. It was in this big hall. First the President came in, and they all played the Star-Spangled Banner. Then Thamiel came in, and the band played…played the anthem of Hell. It was horrible. I didn’t even know instruments could make noises like that. They were all out of tune and fighting with each other and going at weird intervals that tricked the ear and made me want to pull my hair out.”

“So?” asked Zoe. “Maybe the Hell music was just the total absolute absence of good in music.”

“No,” said Ana. “There’s good music. And then there’s total silence. And then there’s that. It’s not silence. It’s the opposite of music.”

“Unsong,” I suggested.

Everyone except Ana laughed.

“Yes,” she said. “Unsong.”

“Garlic angel hair!” Erica said at that moment, and brought a big pot of pasta to the table. Everyone made approving noises except Pirindiel, who asked something about where one could find these garlic angels, and who had to be taken aside and given a quick explanation. The angel took some pasta and half-heartedly put it in his cup of soup.

“The reason I bring all of this up,” said Ana in between mouthfuls, “is that here we are. We’re Unitarians and singers. We’ve got a Movement. We think we’re on the side of Good. We know what’s evil. Evil is when UNSONG and the theonomics try to control the Names of God and keep them from the people. We think we know what we have to do. We have to take up Reverend Stevens’ crusade and spread the Names to as many people as possible. On a political level this all makes sense. But on a theological level, even Reverend Stevens barely touched this. Why does God have these Names that work miracles, but not tell us what they are? Why does He suffer them to be distributed throughout a namespace that can only be searched through a combination of cryptological acumen and brute force? Why does He permit them to be hidden by klipot, by which they can be bought and sold without letting the customer grasp their true structure? Why would He create enough magic to make the world a paradise for all living things, then place it somewhere it can be kept in a locked vault to enrich the few? Why, as the Bible put it, does He hide His light under a bushel?”

“Seems clear enough to me,” said Bill Dodd. “God’s not a big guy in the sky. He’s just a force, like physical forces, but on a higher level. He doesn’t plan these things, any more than anyone plans gravity. It just happens.”

“So you’re denying the Bible?” Eli Foss said, somewhat less intimidating than intended due to a mouth full of pasta. “We’re sitting here at a table with an angel and a kabbalist, and you’re denying the Bible?”

“Look, we all know that the Bible was given by Uriel, not God. Most of it just records Uriel’s interventions in the world, which are usually well-intentioned but certainly not omniscient. Why not the Book of Job too? Job asks a hard question and gets yelled at. Sounds exactly like Uriel on a bad day. I can even imagine him going on about the Leviathan for like an hour, describing how interesting he finds each of its fins and teeth and things while Job gets more and more confused.”

A couple of people snorted.

“But Uriel,” said Eli Foss, “has always said he’s just trying to follow God’s plan, as he understands it.”

“The Pope says the same thing,” said Bill Dodd. “That doesn’t mean he’s met the guy.”

“Someone must have created the world!” protested Ally Hu. “And all the angels, and the Names, and the kabbalah!”

“I’m not saying there’s not a Creator force,” said Bill Dodd. “I’m just saying it shouldn’t be thought of as a person.”

“Thomas Aquinas,” said Zoe Farr, “tells us that God is not a person, not at all, not even close, but can sometimes be compared to one, since a person is the most intelligent entity we have to compare it to. It’s like how they used to say the brain was a telephone switchboard. It’s much more than that, but if all you have as a metaphor is a telephone switchboard, it’s better than nothing.”

“But if God can’t even figure out,” said Bill Dodd, “that if you want perfect good you should avoid having evil, well, whatever it is He is, it’s got to be kind of dumb.”

“Oh, oh,” said Pirindiel, and there was worry in his eyes. “You shouldn’t say that. That’s blasphemy.”

“Be nice, Bill,” said Ana, “there are angels here.”

“I feel like we’re forgetting something pretty important,” said Erica. “I hate to go all dualist here, but we know there’s a Hell. We know there’s a Devil. I’m not saying that God and the Devil are exactly equally powerful, but maybe it’s not quite so one-sided that God can just steamroll over Thamiel without a second thought? Maybe there’s some kind of strategic balance thing going on?”

Ana looked shocked. Pirindiel looked horrified. But it was Eli Foss who spoke first. “Erica,” he said. “God is one. That’s the whole point. You can’t just go around saying there are two separate beings with similar levels of godlike power. That’s like saying there are two gods. It’s serious, serious blasphemy.”

“Well,” said Erica, “maybe if God didn’t want people saying the Devil’s just as powerful as He is, He should stop making the world full of evil just as much as good. Maybe if He didn’t want us saying He’s too weak to save everyone who’s sick, or suffering, or in Hell, He should get off His cosmic ass and save them.”

When Ana spoke now, it was very serious. “Moreover the LORD answered Job, and said, Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? he that reproveth God, let him answer it. Wilt thou also disannul my judgment? wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be righteous?”

“Huh!” I exclaimed. Everyone looked at me.

“That verse from the Rubaiyat. The one Nixon used in the 70s. It goes, um…

O thou, who burns with tears for those who burn
In Hell, whose fires will find thee in thy turn
Hope not the Lord thy God to mercy teach
For who art thou to teach, or He to learn?

…that’s from Job. It’s got to be. Khayyam must have read Job.”

“Well,” said Zoe, “it’s certainly got the right amount of condescension.”

“What are we talking about?” asked Pirindiel.

“Hast thou an arm like God?” Ana recited. “Or canst thou thunder with a voice like Him?”

“Okay,” said Bill Dodd. “We get the idea.”

“Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency; and array thyself with glory and beauty!”

“Is somebody saying there are two gods?” asked Pirindiel. “Because God is one.”

“Cast abroad the rage of thy wrath: and behold every one that is proud, and abase him!”

“Okay,” said Ally Hu. “That’s enough.” She grabbed the Book of Job from Ana’s hands. Ana grabbed it back. A tug of war.

“Dessert’s ready!” said Erica.

“God is One and His Name is One,” insisted Pirindiel. “This is very important.”

“It’s devil’s food cake!” Erica said, bringing the plate to the table.

“No!” Pirindiel shouted at Erica and her cake, and in a flash he was on his feet, sword of fire materializing in his hands, rushing towards her.

Ally pulled the book away from Ana.

“This is not how we do theodicy in this house!” I shouted at Ally and Ana.


“WAIT!” said Bill Dodd. “I just got it! The house is called Ithaca because it’s where theodicy happens. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.”

“It’s just dessert!” Erica screamed at the oncoming Pirindiel.

“No!” Ana shouted. “That’s the whole point of Job! There are no just deserts!”

I reached into my pocket, pulled out my scroll wheel, and activated the Thunderclap Name. A deafening boom filled the room. Everybody went silent.

“Thanks, Aaron,” Erica said, defeated.

“Everyone sit down!” I said. “Pirindiel, sword away! No more theodicy! Time for dessert!”


I remember the day I asked Ana on a date.

It was my third week in Ithaca. I’d just finished moving my bed into my room with the help of one of the other group home residents, a tall Asian guy who didn’t like to talk very much. I was sweaty and thirsty, I’d gone into the common room to drink some Gatorade, and found Ana already there reading a book. We’d started talking, and somehow gotten onto the subject of the Shem haMephorash, the Explicit Name of God, the True Name, the Most Holy Name, which gave its wielder power over all Creation.

“The Explicit Name is ‘Harold’,” I told her.

“No,” she answered. “The Explicit Name is ‘Juan’.”

“But,” I said, “in the Lord’s Prayer, we say ‘Our Father in Heaven, Harold be thy name.'”

“But,” Ana objected, “in the Shema, we say ‘Hear O Israel – the Lord is Juan.'”

“But,” I said, “all angels are angels of the Lord, and the song says ‘Hark, the Harold angels sing.”

“But,” Ana objected, “the Aleinu ends ‘God is Juan, and His name is Juan.'”

“But,” I said, “Christians say Jesus is God. And they give his name as Jesus H. Christ. What might the H stand for? Harold! ”

“But,” Ana objected, “think about it. Who names their kids Jesus? Mexican people, that’s who! And what kind of names do Mexican people have? Names like Juan! Q period E period D period!”

She actually said Q period E period D period. I felt a wave of affection crash over me and through me, stronger than any other I had ever known. Before my frontal lobes could push through a veto, I blurted out: “Ana, would you go on a date with me?”

Ana’s face fell. “Aaron,” she said. “I’m asexual.”

“So?” I said. “I asked you for a date, not for sex.”


“If we went on a date, we would be talking and enjoying each other’s company. That’s what we’re doing now. So what’s the problem?”

“If not being on a date is exactly the same as being on a date, why do you want to go on a date? Why don’t we stay here, in the living room?”

“Hey! That’s not fair!”

“Human attraction never is.”

“Well, it should be!”

Ana rolled her eyes. “You realize you’re talking to the Augustine Distinguished Scholar in Theodicy? The girl who picketed in front of the World’s Fair back in 2012, waving a sign saying “NO IT ISN’T?” You’re preaching to the euphemism-ing choir.”

I was briefly discombobulated, then regained my combobulation. “Look,” I said, “I really like you. I want you to like me back. Dates are like a universally recognized signal of this.”

“What if I just told you outright that I liked you?”

“I want it to be official!”

“I could give you a certificate. I have an uncle who’s a notary public. We could make him sign.”

I choked back a tear. “Ana, this is serious.”

Her expression changed. “I’m serious too,” she said. “I like you. You’re funny and interesting and you know the mystical secrets of Juan. But everything around romance – the flowers, the silly looks, the candlelight dinners. I am not into these things. I’m happy to talk with you, to live with you, even to grab dinner with you if you’re hungry. But I don’t want to date.”

“If you’re going to grab dinner, why not call it a date? It’s just a word.”

She shut her book with great force. “Did you really say ‘just a word’? You call yourself a kabbalist! Words have power! Words are the only tools we have to connect the highest levels of our intellect to the mysteries of reality! Once we describe something with a word, things happen! It’s been given a life of its own! The angels are on notice, working their secret little works around it, starting reverberations that echo across the entire structure! Words are the vestment of divinity, the innermost garments of Juan!”

I just sat there and took it. I didn’t say anything, because I was on the verge of tears, and if I spoke she would have noticed, and then I would have looked dumb, and she would have lost respect for me, or something, look, it sounds stupid when I write it down, but give me a break. I sat there silently, did not disturb Juan’s innermost garments with my speech.

Ana realized something was wrong. “Uh,” she said “if it helps, I am totally okay with you writing me flowery love poetry.”

“It helps a little,” I said.

“And…hmm…tell you what. Erica’s in the kitchen making curry. If you can eat one of the habanero peppers whole, without drinking water for a whole minute, I’ll give you a kiss.”

“Really?” I asked, and leapt to my feet, because I was a moron.


And I remember the day Ana and I got married.

It was towards the end of my first month at Ithaca. I’d just been let go from my job at Cash For Gold, and I was working on my application for Countenance. Erica was making curry, and because she was a terrible person who enjoyed making me miserable, she asked if I wanted another whole habanero. I winced and clutched my throat just thinking about it, then very politely told her no, in a way that might possibly have referenced Dante and the many terrors of the damned. She laughed.

“I’ll be honest,” she said. “Nobody else has ever had the guts to eat one of those. What were you THINKING?”

“I wanted to impress Ana,” I said.

I looked towards Ana, who was sitting at the table, scanning for offense. None was found. “I have a crush on her, and it was getting awkward, so she tricked me into eating a chili pepper to disengage myself from the situation.” Then, feeling guilty about my elision, I told her the whole story.

Erica looked delighted. “You’re in love with my cousin!” she announced to no one in particular.

“She’s not interested,” I said glumly.

Erica took this information in, chewed it over for a moment. Then: “Wait! I’ve got it! You should get married.”

I rolled my eyes. “She won’t even – ”

“Wait,” said Ana. “Yes! Erica, you’re brilliant!”

Confusion ensued.

“You won’t go on a date with me, but you will marry me? How does that even…”

Ana was gone, a dash up the stairs. A few seconds later, she returned with a notebook.

“Okay,” she said. “So a while ago I was thinking – Aaron, you’ll like this – you know how there have been later additions to the Bible, like the end of Mark 16 or the part in John 7-8? And kabbalists have mostly ignored those, first of all out of totally unjustified prejudice against the New Testament, and second of all because, well, if they were added in by later readers they can’t metaphorically represent the secret structure of the universe? But I thought – what if the later additions to the Bible metaphorically represent later additions to the secret structure of the universe? So I ran a couple of them through Rubenstein’s Sieve and normalized the results, divided the whole thing by “aleph-tet-nun” as the most appropriate Boston Triplet, and sure enough I got five subfactors, one of which gets the right Maharaj Rank for a potential Name. After like a week of trying I was able to free it from a relatively weak klipah…”

“You discovered a Name?” I asked. Not more than a dozen kabbalists alive had discovered Names the old fashioned way, the proper way, by genius alone.

“It was total luck!” she insisted. “And nobody else was crazy enough to look in the additions.”

“Well?” I asked, buzzing with excitement. “What does it do?”

“Unclear,” said Ana.

“It marries people,” said Erica.

“Sort of,” said Ana.

“Sacred kabbalistic marriage of minds,” said Erica.

“SCABMOM for short,” said Ana. “But I haven’t gotten it to work quite right yet.”

She described the moment of discovery. Tasting the new Name, pregnant with possibilities. The feel of the Name itself entering her brain, unlocking secret wisdom. A ritual. Certain words.

She’d grabbed Erica from the kitchen over her protests and dragged her into her bedroom, where she had arranged four candles in an approximate square. Around the perimeter of the square, she’d sprinkled colored sand in the shape of Hebrew letters; ten colors, twenty two letters per side.

“Love of God, we just had those carpets cleaned!” Erica objected. “I hope for your sake you’re able to get all of that out with the vacuum.”

“Shhhh,” said Ana. “Repeat after me, but change the names. I, Ana Thurmond,”

“…I, Erica Lowry,”

“In full knowledge of the consequences, call upon the symbols and angels of the world…”

“Wait, what are the consequences?”

“Shhh! This is just a test! Now we’ve got to start over! I, Ana Thurmond,”

“I, Erica Lowry,”

“In full knowledge of the consequences, call upon the symbols and angels of the world…”

“In…bah…full knowledge of the consequences, call upon the symbols and angels of the world…”

“The higher and the lower spheres”

“The higher and the lower spheres”

“And the Master of them all”

“And the Master of them all”

“To join us at the root, as mountains to the Earth”

“To join us at the root, as mountains to the Earth”

“And rivers to the ocean”

“And rivers to the ocean”

“And stars to the firmament”

“And stars to the firmament”


“And so we invoke the Holy Name, IYAR-NA-AVANTE…uh…SHOK-TEHAN…MI? Uh…LEVAN? SHA…no, wait…ZA…NAONE-KHETH-ULAT”

(here the candles start to darken)

“For God is One”

“For God is One”

“And His Name is One”

“And His Name is One”

“And we are One.”

“And we are One.”

“And it is done.”

“And it is done.”

Then all the letters of colored sand glowed red, then green, then white. And the candles laid round made a high-pitched sound and flared up in a burst of light. And Erica screams, and Ana seems to be gazing far away. And she briefly fits, but she gathers her wits just in time to hear her say “ANA LOOK THE LETTERS HAVE BURNED THEMSELVES INTO THE CARPET YOU ARE IN SO MUCH TROUBLE.”

“How do you feel?” Ana asked.

“ANGRY,” said Erica.

“Other than that?” Ana asked.


“Huh. I don’t feel any different either.”

“But,” Ana told me, “over the next couple of weeks, we would get these…intimations from each other. Like I would be on one side of the house, and I would feel like something was wrong, and I’d go find Erica, and she would have just burned herself by accident. Or I’d be feeling really sad about something, and Erica would say ‘you look sad’, even though I wasn’t showing it at all.”

“Great,” I said. “You’re like those people who say they have psychic powers on TV. Maybe one day the phone will ring and you’ll know who’s calling before you pick it up. Spooky.”

“I don’t think we did it right,” said Ana. “We weren’t the right people. I could feel the inadequacies in the ritual. And I’ve been thinking – this is Biblical stuff, so maybe the marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman.”

“Or at least two people who aren’t cousins,” Erica suggested.

“No!” said Ana. “The Bible is totally in favor of marrying cousins! Esau married his cousin! Jacob married both of his cousins!”

“But,” I said, “your Name came from some sort of later addition, and was in the New Testament to boot. Maybe it’s a product of a more sophisticated age.”

“Hmmmm,” said Ana. Then: “I’ll get the colored sand!”

“YOU DO IT OUTSIDE THIS TIME,” Erica insisted.

And so it was only about a half hour later, after numerous fits and starts due to the sand blowing away in the wind, that the two of us stood amidst the candles and spoke the holy Name IYAR-NA-AVANTE-SHOK-TEHAN-MI-LEVAN-ZA-NAONE-KHETH-ULAT.

And Ana said: “And God is One.”

And I answered: “And God is One”

“And His Name is One.”

“And His Name is One.”

“And we are One.”

“And we are One.”

“And it is done.”

“And it is done.”

We stared into each other’s eyes for a moment after that. What we were looking for, I don’t know. Looking back, I think I secretly hoped that it would fill her with love for me. What she hoped, if anything, I don’t know. But we stared at each other for a while, and finally Ana said:

“Wait. Think something at me.”

And I thought: [Ruth and Bowhead]

“Holy euphemism the first thing ever in history communicated telepathically and it’s one of your stupid Biblical whale puns, that wasn’t even a good one, I am so done with this.”

And I thought: [Shamu Yisrael, HaShem elokeinu…]

“Aaaagh, stop, why did I give you the ability to communicate with me telepathically? Why? WHY? What’s that thing Erica always says? Oh, right. This was the biggest mistake of my life and I hope I die.”

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321 Responses to Chapter 5: Never Seek To Tell Thy Love

  1. David says:

    Oh my God, Stevens is Eric S. Raymond

    • Sniffnoy says:

      There are a quite a few altered real-people references in this chapter…

      • Sniffnoy says:

        FWIW, to list some of them:

        But I could do better than that. I turned my attention to the bookshelf on the far wall, tried to see what I could glean. They had the usual sci-fi/fantasy classics: Tolkien, Asimov, Salby. Then some meatier fare: Zayinty the economist, Chetlock the prognosticator, Tetkowsky the futurist, Yudka the novelist, good old Kaf ben Clifford.

        Tokien, Asimov, and then the fictious Salby. Then the next few have Hebrew letters at the beginning shifted by one. So we get Chetty, Tetlock, Yudkowsky, Kafka, and Lamed ben Clifford.

        I recognized a few I’d seen before by their covers alone. Nachman Bernstein’s Divinity. Nachman Eretz’s Alphanomics. Menelaus Moleman’s Letter to the Open-Minded Atheist. Gebron and Eleazar’s Kabbalah: A Modern Approach. Ben Aharon’s Gematria Since Adam. Rachel Sephardi’s Arriving At Aleph. Rav Kurtzweil’s The Age Of Mechanized Spirituality. And…really? The collected works of Eliezer ben Moshe?!

        These ones are harder; I have no idea about the first three. Gebron and Eleazar’s book might be Russell and Norvig’s “Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach”? If so I don’t get what’s going on with the author names. Ben Aharon’s Gematria Since Adam is Aaronson’s Quantum Computing Since Democritus. Rachel Sephardi is Leah Libresco. Rav Kurtzweil is obvious. Eliezer ben Moshe might be Yudkowsky again? Perhaps he appears in two guises?

        “86% of known Names are held by eight big theonomic corporations. Microprosopus. Gogmagog. Amalek. Countenance. Tetragrammaton. ELeshon. And Serpens, the biggest, with $174 billion in assets. Its CEO has a net worth of $9 billion, five beach houses scattered across the Untied States, and her own private 12-seater jet.

        OK, so tech companies. Probably going for publically visible ones rather than the actual largest ones. Microprosopus = Microsoft, I would assume; and based on name similarity, I’d go with Gogmagog = Google, Amalek = Amazon? (On that note — why would anybody ever name their company “Amalek” or “Gogmagog”? Are they literally in league with the devil, or something?) Countenance is obviously Facebook. Serpens is presumably Apple based on the apple/serpent association and the note about them being the biggest.

        That leaves Tetragrammaton and ELeshon. No idea about the latter. Best guess for the former is maybe Twitter, due to the whole “4-letters-long” thing? Of course, even HaMephorash itself is only 72 letters long…

        (Also, I assume Erica’s cooking is a reference to Alicorn’s, and Aaron himself is sounding quite a bit in this chapter like how Scott has described himself. Possibly other Ithaca characters are real-people references too, but I doubt I’d be able to get those.)

        • You have partly restored my faith in my readership.

          (you’re wrong about Twitter, though)

          • Ninmesara says:

            What made you lose faith in the first place? People have been pretty prescient around here 😉

          • You really haven’t been. You’re only noticing the things you catch, not the things you miss.

          • Soumynona says:

            Is Tetragrammaton Yahoo?

          • DanielLC says:

            Some of us aren’t Kabbalists you know. I don’t even know the significance of Amalek and Gogmagog and why you wouldn’t want to name a company that. Is there going to be an annotated version of this that explains everything?

          • I feel like it would be Bad Practice for me to make that, but someone else should.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            To re-reduce your faith in your readers, these ones are kind of blatant; it’s not a surprise we should pick up on them.

            Also, I’m guessing that having “Stevensites” is a reference to the Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy’s Stephenites, in addition to ESR?

          • Sniffnoy says:

            (Edit function’s not working at the moment, so second comment.)

            DanielLC: Amalek, Gog and Magog.

          • typicalAcademic says:

            Tetragrammaton = Foursquare? I don’t even know what relgious concept ELeshon refers to, unless it’s an alternative spelling of eleison as in “kyrie eleison .”

          • Tetragrammaton explained here but I’m pretty impressed at how well FourSquare would work too.

          • Daniel H says:

            ELeshon probably refers to more than just this, but el is a word for deity, and capitalized can refer to one of a specific few (including the Hebrew God)

          • David says:

            I got the other ones too, this one was just the funniest.

          • Vincent Vans says:

            In an attempt to get an annotated version going, I’ve started a wiki on wikia:
            Unfortunately, I’ve never done anything wiki related before, and I’m a little overwhelmed by all the options. And I feel guilty just copying the text like that. It feels wrong, but how else are we going to get it in a nice and readable format? Similarly, I’m hesitant to put theories and speculation voiced in the comments on there without specifying who thought of it. And yet I’m even more hesitant to put someone’s username on there without them knowing.
            Maybe this was a bad idea. If you want me to take it down, let me know. It’s getting late now, and I should go to sleep, but I’ll find out how to give people admin rights tomorrow, and get you some.

          • Addicted to Assonance and quite Honestly Honored says:

            O ICU ∧ am MOVE’d ≅ omod 1109 ∈ ℙ
            Thank you:
            א₁ ⋖ שִׂמְחָה

          • AllYourSmurf says:

            Tetragrammaton is IBM.

        • LHC says:

          Menelaus Moleman is Mencius Moldbug.

        • The Smoke says:

          Moleman is Moldbug?

        • Deiseach says:

          The “Letter to the Open-Minded Atheist” made me think of Sam Harris’ “Letter to a Christian Nation” but I don’t know if that’s the intended reference. There are plenty of “letters to skeptics/atheists” by religious apologists out there.

          • The reference is presumably to “An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives” by Mencius Moldbug.

          • Deiseach says:

            Taymon, I should have put the double M names together sooner than I did; it’s only much later that I got the forehead-slapping “d’oh!” moment of realisation.

        • pku says:

          I get that Aaronson is Ben Aharon since Ben is hebrew for son, but why Rachel Sephardi and Rav Kurtzweil?

          • Sniffnoy says:

            Yes, good question. “Leah” is replaced with her sister “Rachel”, that makes sense, but I don’t know why “Libresco” becomes “Sephardi”.

            “Rav” isn’t a name, it means “Rabbi”. There isn’t really a change there.

          • sweeneyrod says:

            I doubt there’s any complicated reason for the transformation Ray -> Rav, other than that that Rav sounds more Jewish.

          • Ninmesara says:

            I knew the other scott would get involved, somehow. Aaronson, son of aaron

          • Nonternary says:

            Sephardi –> sepher –> libro –> Libresco?

          • Sniffnoy says:

            I actually thought of that, but thought it was too tenuous. You might be right, though. I certainly can’t think of a better explanation.

          • -i- says:

            How ’bout Sephardi, because Leah Libresco is/was Sephardi[1][2]?

            [1] I’m guessing, because she is ethnically Jewish (although not religiously/culturally(-ish)), and Libresco seems to be a much more Spanish-area-sounding than not?

            [2] *deep breath* Is/Was Sephardi because it’s complicated because on the one hand Sephardi refers to the rough ethnic group of Spanish-and-West-North-African-and-some-other-places-Jews which (assuming [1]) is “Is” and on the other hand Sephardi refers to the cultures and traditions of those Jews which is at most “Was” and……. *breathes*

          • zensunnicouchpotato says:

            I believe Libresco once mentioned being technically Jewish per Halacha, due to a maternal great grandmother or something, but I think she’s mostly something else.

            But the Italian last name lends itself well to “Sephardi,” since Jews from that general area are Sephardic.

        • Anon. says:

          Tetragrammaton = YHWH = YAHOO?

          Or are we literally looking for 4 letters: DELL, EBAY?

        • Banananon says:

          Based on name similarity, it seems possible that Alphanomics=Freakonomics. “Arriving at Aleph” seems close to “Seeking alpha”.

          Some thoughts/comments on author names: Ben Aharon can be read literally as “Son of Aaron”. If you squint as you read the names backwards, Gebron=Norvig (keeping in mind that B and V have the same Hebrew letter as transliteration) and Eleazer=Russell. My guess here is that these names were transliterated into Hebrew, reversed, and then retransliterated back to English.

          Also, consider Tetragrammaton=Foursquare? No reason why other than the 4 in both names.

        • g says:

          Russell and Norvig: read ’em backwards. (That was one of my favourites.)

        • not_a_linguist says:

          Nachman Bernstein’s Divinity = Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence?

        • g says:

          I’m still trying to figure out the second half of Microprosopus. A prosopon in Greek is a mask or a theatrical character so denoted, and is where we get “person” from, but I don’t see either any parallel between that and “-soft” or any reason in-story why a company would call themselves that. (And it’s -on not -us, and if there were a corresponding Latin word it would be -um, and so far as I can tell there isn’t one.)

          So maybe it’s Micro/pros/opus but that doesn’t seem to work any better.

        • Leshon is “tongue” or “language” but I’m still not sure about the significance.

        • Deiseach says:

          As for no-one would want to name their company Gogmagog, perhaps not. But you’d be surprised at the associations of Gog and Magog – traditional giant guardians of the City of London, for example.

          • PDV says:

            Given what we’ve heard from one if their founders since, maybe they are named so that kabbalistically, even if the theonomics win against Hell, biblical evil wins.

        • Nyx says:

          From this comment thread, plus the simple transformation of Eliezer ben Moshe -> Elazer ben Moshe Azikri (, a kabbalist), we have the full list. It’s available on a spreadsheet here:

          There doesn’t seem to be a pattern to the transformations, or any sort of deeper puzzle (at least on first glance).

          • g says:

            I think it’s fairly clear that Eliezer ben Moshe “is” Eliezer Yudkowsky at least as much as he “is” Elazar ben Moshe Azikri. I’m sure Scott intended both references.

        • Virbie says:

          > That leaves Tetragrammaton and ELeshon. No idea about the latter.

          This is a pretty naive guess, but the odd capitalization makes me think it’s EBay.

        • kai says:

          Maybe Gogmagog came from London

        • D.O. says:

          Tetragrammaton is DELL and ELeshon is Oracle

    • Alsadius says:

      I caught the analogy to his book, but not to his name until you said that.

      Raymond E Stevens vs Eric Steven Raymond…yup, checks out.

    • Resuna says:

      No, Stevens is RMS.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          The references are to ESR — the (reversed) “Cathedal and the Bazaar” being a giveaway — but the character’s ideology has more resemblance to RMS.

          • Resuna says:

            Indeed. ESR is a right wing libertarian.

          • Iconochasm says:

            An anarcho-capitalist, to be precise. A better analogue to his actual work and beliefs would be an argument that the major corporations were shooting themselves in the foot with the copyright nonsense, and that open sourcing the names would be a superior outcome for them, as well as everyone else.

            In a way, it reminds me of the new X-files (spoilers for the first episode, haven’t seen more yet). Why on earth would you spend 70 years hiding alien technology when you could instead spend 70 years exploiting the hell out of it? Is having power over other people really worth passing on having that much power over nature?

    • Lambert says:

      Whatever the analogue of the Eric Conspiracy is in that world, I feel like it ought to be feared.

    • The Reverend is more like my antimatter inverse. I mean, anticapitalist? Deeply religious? And unable to win his propaganda war. Hmmph. I might be miffed if it wren’t so damned funny.

      • J says:

        I was more annoyed at the description of UNSONG (and by implication DRM and copyright) as “unrestricted capitalism”, when it’s an artificial monopoly created by the government.

        RES seems to be ESR + RMS, but despite Richard’s liberal leanings, I don’t think even he would blame copyright on capitalism.

        • Masked_Discombobulator says:

          Coming at this much later, there is a fundamental split in views of what “unrestricted capitalism” means.

          To some, capitalism is a conceptually pure system that has a coherent, well-defined mode of operation in the absence of external constraints. The system is sufficient unto itself, and would by its own nature take care of all details required for its own continued function, without reliance on institutions or rules that are not a part of itself. Regulatory systems are external constraints and not part of capitalism, these people would say.

          To others, capitalism relies on socially constructed and externally enforced rules to function. In the absence of those rules (these others say) capitalism could not take shape in the first place. Therefore, talking about capitalism in the absence of regulation and legal regimes is like talking about fixed-wing aviation in the absence of atmosphere; it’s not just a hypothetical construct, it’s a nonsensical one.

          To the former group of people, “unrestrained” capitalism is capitalism that has no external rules governing its function- anarcho-capitalism, more or less.

          To the latter group of people, it will seem obvious that “unrestrained” capitalism normally would coexist with government. And that the defining trait of “unrestrained” capitalism is precisely its greater ability to shape the external rules under which it operates, much as some plants acidify the soil around themselves to make it impossible for other plant species to grow.

          The theonomics’ entire business model hinges on the concept of being able to copyright Names, something the government didn’t have to let them do. The government’s choice to create the rule system that now exists just so happens to have been incredibly profitable for the theonomics corporations, relatively unprofitable for theonomics startups, and extremely unprofitable for the sweatshop workers chanting potential Names.

          To people in the second group listed above, this is exactly what they would think “unrestricted capitalism” looks like: capitalists who live within a broader society, but were given the power to shape the rules of that society in ways they would find profitable.

          Their reply to the first group saying “but this capitalism is heavily restricted” is “if the government weren’t artificially restricting this market sector, there wouldn’t be a capitalist market in Names at all because there’d be no way to make money of of them. “Unrestrained capitalism” only makes sense as a construct when discussing capitalism with unrestricted power to alter its surroundings, not when discussing the chimerical idea of capitalism that has no surroundings.”

      • Iconochasm says:

        As another point of comparison, I believe you’ve mentioned that there are extant groups using your version of the Wiccan book (Book of Shadows, maybe?). Have you ever explained what was different about your version?

        • A Book of Shadows isn’t like a scripture, it’s a record of ritual and poetry that changes over time. So it would be more correct to say there are covens that started from key elements of mine. Probably been a lot of genetic drift by now.

    • Atzilut says:

      I also just realized this during this chapter! Lol glad this is the first comment, as I was about to do the same. This is gonna be one of those books where it crescendos at the end and im not the same as I used to be, isnt it.

  2. David says:

    Hey, I just noticed this site has a robots.txt that disallows everything. Is this intentional? Could this be changed? (

    The bad thing that ends up happening, if you do this, is that a reader who wants to search backwards in the text is met with no search results. For example, Googlebot respects this and does not index this site, so you can’t, for example, visit

    to see all references to the word ‘klipah’ in the text.

  3. Pickle says:

    Wow this was a long chapter (not that I’m complaining).

    Two notes:

    1) Spelling: “pleiosaur” should be “plesiosaur.” I noticed this because I do it all the time.

    2) Continuity: In part II, his first day visiting Ithaca, Aaron already works for Countenance. In part V, a month after he moved into Ithaca, he’d just been let go from C4G and was applying to Countenance.

    • That was inexcusable and I thank you for the corrections.

    • I recall a previous commenter proposing keeping copyediting stuff in a single comment thread so I’m replying to this one with my contribution:

      Typo: “as I said down and plunked”

      Protocol idea: Maybe the first person with a copyediting contribution could start the comment with “COPYEDITING THREAD — reply to this comment with typo fixes and other noncontroversial edits. Other forms of pedantry or kabbalistic nitpickery can be top-level comments.”

      (And while I’m here: Thank you for the delightful story! It keeps making me laugh out loud.)

      • nightpool says:

        race conditions would be an issue. is there a way to enable comment editing on Scott’s end? that would be ideal imo, then we could edit comments to add that after confirming we were the first to make a copy edit suggestion

        another option is for scott to make the thread before publishing, which trades off reliability for fuzzy community feelings.

      • Pickle says:

        This is a good protocol suggestion.

        Further catch: “ellision” should be “elision”.

      • “I looked towards Ana, who was sitting at the table, scanning for offense.”

        it sounds here like Ana is scanning for offense. if it’s Aaron who was doing the scanning, probably best to rephrase the last clause to something like “and scanned for offense.”

    • Vivificient says:

      “She had a point. My mind added: beautiful and witty and and rich.”

      The word “and” is repeated.

    • More possible copyedits:

      1. “these questions that all we want to ask” (that we all want to ask?)
      2. “And you don’t think he really existed, we’d Jurassic Park the sucker” (missing “if”?)

    • Émeric says:

      The dessert somehow became a desert in a further incantation.

      • Pickle says:

        That’s a pun. The phrase “just deserts”[1] means “an outcome rightly deserved,” and just before, Erica had used the words “just dessert” in conjunction.

        [1] Some people spell it as “just desserts,” but this obscures the meaning (“deserts” derived from “deserve”).

    • Nino says:

      Also, spelling: “Her famiy had been bigwigs”, should be “family”

      • Nomghost says:

        The existence of a typo like ‘famiy’ suggests Scott’s not using a spellchecker, which is pretty cool if you think about it.

        • Yushatak says:

          I haven’t used a spellchecker in years, myself – they’re more annoying than helpful when you are a fast enough typist.

  4. g says:

    I like your book names — there are some very clever things in there.

    I think I found a continuity error. When AST is meeting with the commune for the first time he says he’s working at Countenance. But then, when he starts telling the story of how he got married, he says he’d been at Ithaca for a month, had been let go by CfG, and was applying for a job at Countenance.

  5. Pickle says:

    Also: now that I am no longer in Oh Euphemism A Mistake I Must Point It Out mode (my day job is quality control), I would like to enthusiastically agree that the “theodicy” chapters of Job are beautiful poetry.

  6. Sniffnoy says:

    OK, I don’t get it — why is “Ithaca” where theodicy happens?

  7. S. E. A. says:

    agg, I hate my inability to catch those whale jokes. I suppose that’s a result of being a foreign english learner, or not catching references. Anyway, brilliant chapter. Plus, it was pretty large, the largest so far. Well done!

    • chaosbunt says:

      i feel you. i think i got maybe 40% this chapter an in earlier chapters there was even less context/explanation :/

    • konshtok says:

      I mean the thing about not catching whale jokes
      I’m just saying so you know at least one person caught that

    • John Harper says:

      I’m an english native speaker and I’ve missed a lot of them, I tihnk you need a fair familiarity with biblical errata and hebrew

  8. Jack V says:

    That was amazing! I need more stories about binge drinking with rabbinical students and political summits with the devil!

    • I guarantee at least three high-quality political summits with the Devil before we’re done here.

      • Now I’m trying to figure out how President Trump would negotiate a deal with the Devil.

        • Jack V says:

          “Make me president and I’ll start preaching a bunch of hateful stuff and kill a lot of people?”

          • “I was talking to Satan the other day… Great guy but a complete loser. He had the cushiest job in Heaven but talked back to God and BAM! got evicted. We made a deal. Make me President and I’ll help you get back into Heaven and make God pay for it. He even promised to invent three more deadly sins in my honor!”

          • Chrysophylax says:

            That makes it sound like a fair proportion of all elections worldwide are won through deals with Thamiel.

      • Deiseach says:

        I feel those will be the least startling parts of the story (honestly, sometimes it feels as though governments have the ol’ cabbalistic chalk circle for summoning on permanent standby for whenever they need a little informal chat).

        Particularly since Elizabeth I patronised Dr Dee as an adviser 🙂

      • Jack V says:

        OK, I genuinely thought you meant “in real life” for a minute there. In my defence, I assumed you were wrong 🙂

    • Kiya says:

      Speaking of the devil, what is the deal with “Thamiel”?

      Wikipedia redirects to Thaumiel, which, fine, maybe we don’t care about vowels. The article on Thaumiel describes it as some kind of abstract concept (specifically the abstract concept of duality, appropriate given the trend of conversation when it’s brought up). And it says that Satan is its ruler. So… it seems like not really anthropomorphic enough to go around negotiating with the president? Maybe Satan should do that as its plenipotentiary?

      • It’s the abstract concept of duality, but it also has two heads and bat wings. “Abstract concept” gets a bit complicated around these parts of mysticism.

        Different sources give different relationships between Thamiel and Satan.

  9. Deiseach says:

    (1) It would have been a better kabbalistic protest to change the sign to CASH FOR GOD

    (2) I really don’t like Ana

    (3) I really, really don’t like Erica

    (4) Dear Lord Above, how stupid are these people??? Maybe that’s a side-effect of being so extremely smart: it squeezes out all the common sense. “Let’s do a ritual we have no idea what are the consequences, it might even join us together into some kind of Siamese Twins or Cronenberg body horror! What could possibly go wrong?” At this stage, if these are La Résistance, I’m starting to cheer for UNSONG. People like this should not be allowed out unaccompanied to cross the road, never mind mess about with Cosmic Power.

    (5) I love the Blake reference

    (6) Despite points (2) and (3), I am still enjoying the heck out of this story. I realise that Ana and Erica are not meant for me (the Manic Pixie Dream Girl or Boy very much not my type) so I’ll grit my teeth about soppy romance and steamroller through the cutesy-wootsy for the good bits 🙂

    • Deiseach says:

      Okay, in an attempt to be constructive with the criticism and not merely mean-minded carping, let me try to explain why I dislike Ana and Erica.

      It’s a back-handed compliment to your writing, Scott, that they come across so vividly. I have a very strong mental image of them while reading, a sense of their presence, and it’s like they’re standing on either side of me screaming into my ears.

      Not the most restful experience.

      They’re both very…exuberant…, Erica more so than Ana (the constant compulsive punning seems more and more like the kind of tic associated with a mental disorder/illness/neurodivergence, which I suppose goes along with being super-duper-extra smart). Were I in their company, within five minutes I’d be fleeing because I’m not a sociable and gregarious type and that kind of “dialled up to eleven” personality grates on my nerves.

      I’d be sitting them down at the kitchen table going “Shhh. Shhhh, now. Can you sit quietly and not talk and not do anything except breathe for five minutes? I’ll even forgive the experimental hair, but you don’t have to be ‘on’ all the time, you know.”

      They are very vivid characters, a bit too vivid for this introvert 🙂

      I still think this motley group is very dangerous, though. They strike me as the kind that would go “Oh dear, I intended this ritual to help with geo-thermal energy but instead I triggered all the volcanoes in South-East Asia to erupt and, er, no more Indonesia! Whoops-a-daisy! Never mind, who’s for a bowl of my absolutely wonderful soup?”

      • pku says:

        I also kinda dislike Erica, partly because she reminds me of Faye’s new hairstyle, which I really, really, hate.

      • Mammon says:

        I also find both of them singularly unlikeable. Dodd too, but not in a bad way, it’s clear that it’s built into the character.

        Pirindiel could be excellent comic relief in a /r/me_irl kind of way, but I haven’t experienced it that way.

        • summerstay says:

          Don’t listen to these folks. They both seem like delightful people. I would love to go to a party if they were there.

        • Swimmingly says:

          Pirindiel… He just seemed sad to me. His disconnect with mortal life reminds me of autism. Going through learned motions but forgetting entire categories of important things.

      • Randy M says:

        Oh dear, you won’t like hearing that Ana reminded me of you in particular, well, minus the puns obviously.

    • ex says:

      I guess you didn’t catch it in the text, but when you learn a Name you have a moment of revelation that shows you the rituals necessary to use it and which gives you a fairly good approximation of what it does, more or less. This happened to AST in the beginning.

      Maybe think a little more before assuming the worst, next time you feel the desire to post a comment.

      • Deiseach says:

        Erica asks Ana what are the consequences, Ana can’t bother explaining EVEN THOUGH THERE IS EXPLICITLY A WARNING ABOUT CONSEQUENCES IN THE RITUAL, Erica and Ana go ahead anyway and have no idea what the end result will be.

        That’s fairly much “not really thinking about what might happen” as far as I’m concerned. Ana may have had a mystic revelation about what the ritual does, but she doesn’t explain to Erica what or why. And it sounds as if the result was not what she expected.

        I stand by my opinion that they are not taking adequate precautions with powers that have been demonstrated to be real, to work, and to have very extreme effects. A ritual for joining two people could be exactly, and literally, that: a ritual that joins two people in a grotesque reversal of the myth of Aristophanes.

        Please note I am not calling Scott the author stupid, I am saying some of his characters act in a stupid manner.

        I have, as requested by Arthur Conan Doyle, managed to discern the difference between the writer and his creations:

        So please grip this fact with your cerebral tentacle:
        The doll and its maker are never identical.

        • Susebron says:

          Presumably she got the “intro video” when she discovered it. It’s not necessarily something she’s doing without knowing the consequences.

          That said, given that Aaron says he caused the End of Days, it’s not surprising that the people he hangs around with are lax about supernatural consequences.

      • J says:

        Wow, your last sentence seems really condescending.

        • Deiseach says:

          I accept ex’s point that there is a more charitable interpretation of the behaviour of the group. They are like the early days of any science, where in the wild and freewheeling times of discovery and investigation, where people have little to no idea of what the hell they are messing around with, they take what (to us now, who know that the pretty glow-in-the-dark material glows like that because it is radioactive and having a constant source of radioactive material strapped to your wrist is not a good idea) are huge risks with jury-rigged equipment and a breath-takingly cavalier attitude to personal safety and good laboratory practice.

          Until one of them melts their face off or something, they will continue to play around with the Names and summoning and binding rituals in the idea that they know what they’re doing (more or less) and what is the worst that could go wrong, the Universe is fundamentally benign and benevolent, right?

          I am also, I think, handicapped by an automatic and subconscious notion that they are practicing religion. They’re not. This is magic – witness Bill Dodd and his (very Lovecraftian view) of forces. They are basically operating on the notion that the Names as attributes are phenomena of an underlying unitary force, and by working out the laws and principles they can manipulate this force. The idea of “God” being an actual Person is not very uppermost in their minds – or so it seems to me. This is magia (and I’d say teetering on the verge of goetia), not religion, though the lines do get blurry at the extremes such as kabbalah.

          Particularly since Pirindiel, their angel co-member, is very much a Terry Pratchett angel rather than, say, a C.S. Lewis in the Space Trilogy angel (then again, it’s arguable that examples such as Raphael in the Book of Tobit count on this side of the “what would an angel interacting with humans look and behave like” question). I can’t quite work out if he’s incarnate, assuming a form that enables interaction with humans (and so taking the expected, traditional form of winged humanoid) or otherwise brought down to the material plane (which brings us off on a merry tangent of Gnosticism and the entrapping of the divine spark in the mud of materiality).

          Anyway, if you’re basing your views of cosmic forces on the likes of Pirindiel, then it’s very easy to understand the Dodds/Lovecraft view of Vast Impersonal Powers ultimately explainable by some kind of laws that appear to us as magic but are really higher mathematics, and angels are merely Sufficiently Advanced Aliens.

          (There. I’ve been as kind about them as I can be. I still think they are behaving in a very careless manner with rituals and Names, but they may have better discipline than what appears on the surface).

          J, I did not mean to be condescending. I meant to be angry. Perhaps I should use a more direct style in future (e.g. “I’m gonna tear your effin’ head off!!!”) but I take your fraternal rebuke in the spirit of hoping to improve, as I don’t want to fight with people over a story I am enjoying greatly, nor do I want to offend them unnecessarily.

          • Deiseach says:

            In case anyone doesn’t know what I mean by Lewis’ angels in the Space Trilogy, pardon a huge chunk of quote from “Perelandra”, where the planetary intelligences (the angels) of Mars and Venus are trying to find forms in which to manifest to the humans on Venus so that they can be seen as more than faint gleams of light, and so they try out various shapes:

            A tornado of sheer monstrosities seemed to be pouring over Ransom. Darting pillars filled with eyes, lightning pulsations of flame, talons and beaks and billowy masses of what suggested snow, volleyed through cubes and heptagons into an infinite black void. “Stop it… stop it,” he yelled, and the scene cleared. He gazed round blinking on the fields of lilies, and presently gave the eldila to understand that this kind of appearance was not suited to human sensations. “Look then on this,” said the voices again. And he looked with some reluctance, and far on between the peaks on the other side of the little valley there came rolling wheels. There was nothing but that – concentric wheels moving with a rather sickening slowness one inside the other. There was nothing terrible about them if you could get used to their appalling size, but there was also nothing significant. He bade them to try yet a third time. And suddenly two human figures stood before him on the opposite side of the lake.

            …The faces surprised him very much. Nothing less like the ‘angel’ of popular art could well be imagined. The rich variety, the hint of undeveloped possibilities, which make the interest of human faces, were entirely absent. One single, changeless expression – so clear that it hurt and dazzled him – was stamped on each and there was nothing else there at all. In that sense their faces were as ‘primitive’, as unnatural, if you like, as those of archaic statues from Aegina. What this one thing was he could not be certain. He concluded in the end that it was charity. But it was terrifyingly different from the expression of human charity, which we always see either blossoming out of, or hastening to descend into, natural affection. Here there was no affection at all: no least lingering memory of it even at ten million years’ distance, no germ from which it could spring in any future, however remote. Pure, spiritual, intellectual love shot from their faces like barbed lightning. It was so unlike the love we experience that its expression could easily be mistaken for ferocity.

          • J says:

            Deiseach, you are classy and insightful as always. I was commenting on ex’s comment, but your reply to them posted first, so it looked like I was replying to you.

          • Brian says:

            Deiseach, your commentary on Unsong has been absolutely fabulous, and I loooove the quote you just posted. Breathtakingly beautiful.

    • Eliezer made HJPEV a relatively balanced character who had very high IQ but was also young and inexperienced and made a lot of subtle mistakes.

      Nobody got the subtle mistakes, and everyone accused Eliezer of making a perfect character who could do no wrong, which was stupid and (they concluded) made him a bad writer.

      After watching this process go on long enough, I decided my characters’ mistakes would not be subtle.

      • Jack V says:


        Oh god, I’m glad I’m not writing fic and receiving feedback in real time. Yes, that makes sense — but I’m not surprised that people still find stuff to disagree with!

        FWIW, I’ve mused on this a bit, and I think there’s an art to writing mistakes which both seem plausible at the time, and are clearly mistakes by the character not plot holes. But I’m not sure how to *do* it. Some authors make it seem really natural.

        I think one is, the consequences need to be the right size and in the right amount through the story. I think that was fine here. But maybe it’s clear within the world, but not *to the reader* that (a) this was a risk, but a risk of inconvenience not instant death and (b) the characters *recognised* it was dumb, since even though they SAID that, they did it again.

        But also, as I said above, it’s not necessary to avoid every possible mistake while writing! People can and will always say things that didn’t work for them, and suggest improvements, and that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong.

        • Chrysophylax says:

          “FWIW, I’ve mused on this a bit, and I think there’s an art to writing mistakes which both seem plausible at the time, and are clearly mistakes by the character not plot holes. But I’m not sure how to *do* it. Some authors make it seem really natural.”

          The first step is to list the authors!

      • pku says:

        I don’t think the issue was that his mistakes were subtle. Partly it was that he actually managed to make some truly ridiculous ideas work perfectly with relatively little effort (partial transfiguration and the human patronus spring to mind), in cases where it wasn’t really plausible.

      • null says:

        At some point HJPEV stopped feeling like an actual character and more like Yudkowsky’s self insert. However, assuming that your self-insert is in this universe but will not be a major character (which seems likely given the selection of authors), you shouldn’t have this problem.

      • Ninmesara says:

        About mistakes. My advice is to have your characters make mistakes that are subtle but with serious and lasting consequences. As much as we like to think we are rational enough to appreciate the flaws in the reasoning behind the flawed arguments on the meta, we are object level monkeys who will judge the character’s actions based on their consequences. A subtle mistake (that is explicitly pointed out as something anyone might miss) that brings serious consequences is probably the best way to highlight the flaws in the character in such a way that the character itself doesn’t seem stupid.

        • pku says:

          I think the trick is to make it consistent with the character’s personality and flaws – for example, Tywin Lannister’s dying due to years of abusing his son and refusing to take him seriously (even as a threat) was consistent with his character and a good scene. Jon Snow’s death (?) due to suddenly becoming a total idiot in book 5 after three books setting him up as a natural, intelligent leader with great people skills make no sense whatsoever.

          • Ninmesara says:

            Not knowing anything about Game of thrones (except that it has a dwarf [Lannister?], a guy who says “Winter is coming” [John Snow, I guess], much chopping of heads and maybe dragons):

            > I think the trick is to make it consistent with the character’s personality and flaws

            Agreed, this is really important to me. I was actually thinking about such things as logical fallacies and common biases, not deep seated beliefs or personality flaws, in which case I agree completely with what you’re saying.

            In the case of simple logical errors and slips of attention, I think they can happen in any personality and as long as they don’t contradict what we already know, I don’t think the author has to fret about their adequacy or lack thereof according to the character’s personality.

  10. grort says:

    This was really great.

  11. Tyrathalis says:

    I am so, so happy with the big yud and the library. I’m not even sufficiently involved in the community to know all of the names referenced but it is wonderful that this happened. Although unfortunately, the higher context this becomes the more effort I will need to put out for all my friends to actually appreciate it.

  12. LHC says:

    On the one hand, this chapter is amazing and I really do love these characters.


  13. Anon. says:

    >The house is called Ithaca because it’s where theodicy happens.


    • Andrew Hunter says:

      I’ve been staring at this one for a while–anyone want to give me a hint to the (I’m assuming) pun?

      • Ninmesara says:

        Sometimes only staring for a little whale won’t answer all your questions. There are things in the odd sea beyond the limits of your fill Sofie…

      • sweeneyrod says:

        The odicy.

      • gbear605 says:

        theodicy = the Odyssey

        Ithaca is the island home of Odysseus

        • Andrew Hunter says:

          ….Huh. Am I mispronouncing theodicy? It’s one of the many words I learned from books, and always thought it was “thee oh diss ee”.

          • Soumynona says:

            Well, according to my dictionary, theodicy is θē’ädəsē, which kind of looks like what you’re thinking.
            But the is ðē, and Odyssey is ädəsē, which kind of looks almost the same.

            So maybe you were mispronouncing The Odyssey instead?

          • PDV says:

            It’s more ‘thee ah diss ee’

          • Chrysophylax says:

            “Theodicy” is pronounced with the “th” that ends words like path and wrath, so you seem to be saying right (although it should be di-see, not diss-ee). “The Odysey” is pronounced The Oh-di-see, because his name was Oh-di-seus (as in Zeus or Dr Seuss), not Oh-diss-ee-us.

      • Turlough says:

        Theodicy = The Odyssey.
        Ithaca = Odysseus’ Home.

  14. Terdragon says:

    Big Yud. This is not a coincidence, because nothing is ever a coincidence?…

  15. Pesto says:

    The following two passages seem inconsistent about whether Aaron Smith-Teller started working at Countenance before or after his first day at Ithaca:

    “It was towards the end of my first month at Ithaca. I’d just been let go from my job at Cash For Gold, and I was working on my application for Countenance.”

    “I remember my first morning [at Ithaca]… Now I work for Countenance, of all places, on the sweatshop floor.”

    But nothing is ever a coincidence. Maybe more chronological tomfoolery?

  16. Jargonaut says:

    Have you read Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters”? It also has a kaballah-powered industrial revolution- pretty good! “Hell is the Absence of God” from the same book of short stories also sort of reminds me your UNSONG, what with the matter-of-fact Judeo-Christianity of it all.
    Great chapter this week!

  17. Pickle says:

    Also: Oh hey, this chapter has the scene depicted in the title page for Book 1:

  18. Soumynona says:

    It happened to several people in this comment thread, that they said something only to realize that it had been said by someone else couple of minutes earlier. We could use a short phrase to describe this situation. This phrase, in Internet parlance, is “getting ninja’d”.

    But I’ve seen that, in specific subcultures, “ninja” can be replaced by something else that’s thematically appropriate. For example, in discussions of webnovel Worm, people talk about getting Imp’d, because there’s a character called Imp who has undetectable assassin powers. I’ve also seen this in discussions of animated series RWBY, where people talked about getting Blake’d because there’s a character called Blake who’s sort of ninja-ish.

    So, for the sake of propagating this meme, I have a question: are there ninjas in the Bible and what are they called?

    • LHC says:

      Not quite a ninja figure, but Abel comes to mind as someone primarily known for showing someone else up.

    • Biomechanimagical says:

      Closest I can think of was Ehud, the Judge who became the slickest assassin of his generation (Judges 3).

      • Deiseach says:

        Tsk, tsk: forgetting the ladies? Jael and Sisera (I’m sure Sisera was pretty darn surprised how things turned out)? Judith and Holofernes?

    • -l- says:

      The best ways to do it here would some reference. My suggestions would be either:

      The commonly used phrase, in e.g. Rashi’s commentaries, of “Ain Mukdam u’m’Uchar BaTorah” — “There is no ‘before’ or ‘after’ in the Torah”, which is used to explain things which seem to out of order. (Here is not the best example, but one I could find quickly: )

      That could be used possibly most easily by acronym — either the literal first letter of each word, so [aleph-mem-vav-bet], which could be pronounced Amvab, or any sequence “_m_v_b”, where the ‘_’s are replaced by some vowel sound (or in the case of the non-initial ‘_’s, no sound).

      You could reference Kohelet, one of the most popular bits of emo poetry ever, (the English/Latin name is “Ecclesiastes”, but like ??? Too sticky of a name. Bad.), one particularly famous repeated line of which is “There is nothing new under the sun”.

      For this, I’d PERSONALLY suggest “Havel’d” — the first word of the book is “Havel”, meaning “vanity”, in recognition of who the heck cares, the idea got out, and also in recognition of “my post was in vain”, with the added bonus of being spelled “הבל”, which can be anagrammed into “בלה”/”bleh”, because that is, at least for me, how I usually react to getting ninja’d.

      And actually, it has the added benefit of “Havel’d” would be spelled “הבלד”, which is an acronym for “הבדל”/”hivdil”/”difference”, because while the main point has been said already, the difference between different people’s phrasings can often be as or more contentful than the point itself.

      And we have that “Havel” sounds like — and is a single dot away from — “hobble”, because it rather brings someone down if someone else got their point in first.

      Plus, if someone manages to ninja/havel Scott somehow, and figures out a dramatic and retroactively obvious plot point (of which there had better be at least one) before he breaks it in story, we can call that a “הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים”/”Havel Havelim”/”Havel of Havels”/”topmost/utmost/best/biggest Havel” (compare “שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים”/”Song of Songs”).

      … Yeah. I’m proposing “Havel” for our “ninja”.

    • HonoreDB says:

      Let’s see, there’s the spies sent to Jericho, they’re pretty ninja-like. And ninjas are supposed to be morally grey at best, like the 10 spies who are condemned as an “evil congregation” for returning and saying Jericho couldn’t be conquered. In fact, that’s the origin of the rule that a congregation must be at least ten people, a minyan. Minyan is almost as close as you can get to “ninja” with Hebrew phonemes. And to get minyan’d is to be joined by other voices all saying the same thing.

      • Azriel says:

        Actually, ניניה (Ninya) would be the closest you could get. That ends in “יה”, a ending often used in names, meaning ” God” or “of God”. It is extremely comments for Hebrew names to use either “יה” or “אל” to refer to God. See for example: Daniel (“my judge is God”), Michael (“who is like God?”), Yedidya (“God’s friend “), Netanyahu (“God gave him”), Uziel (” my might is God”), Uriel (“God’s light”), Raphael (“God has healed”), and so on and so on and so forth.

        Anyway, “נין” is an obscure word meaning “great-grandson”. Ninya would literally mean “God’s great-grandson”.

        So, the natural thing to conclude is that “Ninya” is a name, meaning hemi-semi-demi-God.

    • Peffern says:

      Worm and RWBY comments on Scott. I have tried to avoid fanboying over Unsong but I can’t help it any more. This is actually amazing.

  19. g says:

    OK, here are a few more things no one has mentioned yet.

    The structure (repeated “I remember the day …”) is probably a deliberate reference either to Tom Lehrer’s “Lobachevsky” or to Danny Kaye’s “Stanislavsky” which inspired it.

    “It’s all in Byron” must be a reference to the repeated “It’s all in Plato” in “The Magician’s Nephew” (I think it’s that one;
    one of the Narnia books). Though I confess I’m not sure why Byron here.

    Obviously “God is born free, but everywhere is in chains” is from the beginning of Rousseau’s “The social contract”.

    Bill Dodd, Eli Foss, Ally Hu, Zoe Farr = Bildad, Eliphaz, Elihu, Zophar, Job’s “comforters”. (I haven’t noticed
    parallels between what they say and what their counterparts in Job say, but I haven’t looked hard.)

    Is it deliberate that Erica misquotes Blake (“let” in place of “shall”)?

    Is it possible that “Ana Thurmond” is supposed to sound like “Anathema”? Is it possible that Ana and Erica are meant to
    resemble Ana and Elsa? (And if so, what implications does that have for the rest of the story?)

    The debates in Job are ended by God speaking from a storm or whirlwind. The debate about Job here is ended by AST making a Thunderclap.

    I’m as confused by “ELeshon” as everyone else. It sounds a bit like the famous ECHELON surveillance thing, but that
    doesn’t fit with the “lightly obfuscated famous tech companies” theme.

    I’m certain “Maharaj Rankings” is a reference to something, but I don’t know what. Maharaj means “great king”, but that
    doesn’t help me. (Generally, the stuff about finding Names somewhat resembles mathematical talk about finding large
    prime numbers, but I don’t see any precise parallels or nice puns there.)

    Trivial copyediting fix: search for “battle against tyranny part” and move the closing quotes one word earlier.

    That “verse from the Rubaiyat” isn’t from FitzGerald’s version. Does it actually have any connection with Omar Khayyam, or did Scott make it up?

    (By the way, any fule kno that the H in “Jesus H Christ” stands for “Haploid”.)

    • Soumynona says:

      ELeshon is probably a reference to Leshon Hakodesh on the obscure Jewish mysticism side of things. I don’t know what company it could be.

      • hnau says:

        The typography made me think of eBay or eHarmony (with the added bonus that “EL” is a name for God; “leshon” apparently means “language” in Hebrew).

        • Leshon means both “tongue” and “bay” in Hebrew, so it puns on eBay and leshon hakodesh.

          • g says:

            Aha! I did google for [[leshon hebrew]] and … no, wait, actually I must have stupidly only looked for “eshon” and “eleshon”, because I don’t recognize that set of results. But, anyway, I don’t see anything there saying it means “bay” so I wouldn’t have got it even if I’d done the right search.

          • David says:

            Aw. That’s way better than my guess, which was the phonetic/rhythmic similarity to ‘Amazon’.

          • pku says:

            Dammit, I’m a native Hebrew speaker and I forgot it could mean “bay”. Now I’m wondering if it’s easier to remember obscure meanings of words if you’re a non-native speaker, or if you’re just ridiculously good at word references.

          • Ariel Ben-Yehuda says:

            But Leshon doesn’t really mean “bay” – the English translation would be tab – some roughly-rectangular piece attached to something (like a pull tab). “Leshon Yam” is however an archaic form for “bay”.

            Not that ELeshon is not a good name for a startup.

    • hnau says:

      Ooh, great catch on the comforters.

      And it’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”.

    • haishan says:

      Re Job’s comforters: Keren-happuch (=Karen Happick) is a daughter of Job.

    • Bob G. says:

      Unsong has just been sent to me by a fellow bible study student. We are reading Job. I did not catch the 4 comforters of Job referenced in Chapter 5 of Unsong. As I sat chortling to myself, my sister, visiting, asked why are you laughting. Leaving my digressions into Eudonia and groetia, I explained to Kathy the relations between theodicy, Plato’s Aristopnanes, and Ithaca (Ithaca where all theodicy happens). Kathy says, Oh my friend Marilyn lives in Ithaca; she studied speech pathology and then switched to clown school. That has been her career. I replied that “I did not know that.”
      Thank you g. from RG. Truly there are no coincidences.

  20. Aegeus says:

    Who on earth would be stupid enough to name their corporation “Amalek” or “Gogmagog”? Especially a theonomics corporation, they should be literally jam-packed with people who can point out how kabbalistically awful such an association is.

    • g says:

      I don’t know, but remark (1) that in this story there is an apparently cordial meeting between the President of the United states and the Devil, and (2) that, here in the real world, the big grain terminal at the port of Haifa in Israel is run by a company called Dagon (the name of a decidedly not-Israelite god of grain and fish, so appropriate but not exactly the sort of name you’d expect an Israeli company to use).

      • Not to mention all of the companies/products called things like Skynet, Cyberdyne, and about a dozen people who thought it would be funny to call their software product HAL. Even Palantir is on shaky ground if you’ve read LoTR.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          Is that how this is going to go? Pseudo-Page and Pseudo-Brin later going “Wait, we called this company ‘Gogmagog’ as a joke, I didn’t realize we were actually the biblical Gog and Magog!”

          • Jack V says:

            “Hey, do you think we might be the bad guys?”

          • infiniplex says:

            I don’t think that would work. Gog and Magog are the aggressors in the “second” apocalypse in Revelation.

            After the (better-document) “first” apocalypse, everything got wrapped up in Revelation 19, with all the villains thrown in Hell except Satan. For whatever reason, he got 1000 years jail time instead. Then, after he gets out, he makes another try at global conquest. It fails just as miserably, and this time God tosses him in Hell to.

            The problem is that Gog and Magog are the nations Satan recruits for his second try. This means that they were not involved the first time. If Gogmagog is the Biblical Gog and Magog, there is a strong hint of pride here. “An [company] that will last a thousand years.”

        • Aegeus says:

          Yes, but in this world, names have power and nothing is a coincidence. I’d think people would look a little more closely at what they name things.

        • Jack V says:

          Eg. you know, Soylent 🙂

          I’m not surprised a big corporation and/or a corporation originally founded by tech geeks, would choose a name that sounds badass, not a name that sounds appropriate.

          And, I suddenly realise this isn’t explicit in the fic, but I assumed, the main characters were much MORE into “everything is connected” than everyone else, even if it’s actually more true in that universe than it is in ours. So maybe big corporations don’t worry about it, like corporations sometimes act like they can avoid the consequences of economics in our world.

          And also, it’s sort of a feature of the universe that if names mean things like that, when they’re important, people only notice too late. Like in Philip Purser-Hallard’s modern-day Arthurian books, when the Knight carrying the spirit of Lancelot just inevitably fails to notice that “oh wait, this is just like that story, maybe I SHOULDN’T sleep with her” until it’s too late, however much they try to prepare themselves, it happens in a way they don’t expect.

  21. Sniffnoy says:

    Hm, so so far, we have two occurrences of “Untied States” in the text, and zero of “United States” (excluding interlude aleph, which was a flashback). I guess our protagonists really do live in the Untied States?

    • g says:

      “Let us break their bonds asunder”?

    • zensunnicouchpotato says:

      That there exists a Royal Colorado makes me think that the States have indeed become “untied,” so I agree that it’s likely intentional.

    • roystgnr says:

      If “the California Republic” is a thing then Untied sounds more appropriate than United. If “the Salish Free State” is a thing then it sounds like the states were never quite as tied as in our universe to begin with.

      • Deiseach says:

        It may well be that in this universe The Late Unpleasantness ended differently, or there never was a Civil War to begin with, as everyone agreed to disagree and go their separate ways. Once you’ve broken up into North and South, it’s then a lot easier to break up into North-East, Midwest, and other regional statelets.

        Given that you could fit European countries into the North American continent quite comfortably, there’s really no reason it shouldn’t be a collection of semi-independent nation-states (think pre-unification Italy and the city-states) rather than one large national body from coast to coast.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          But like I said, they were “United” in the flashback interlude aleph. So the untying would appear to have occurred more recently than that.

          • Deiseach says:

            So we’re thinking post-crashing into the crystalline sphere of the Moon, there was huge social upheaval and re-organisation as people realised all that silly old religious stuff was literally true? And the various states sundered and went their own ways in regional groupings, but remained in a kind of federation as the Untied States?

    • Ruben says:

      Does this literary device have a precedent and/or name? I mean, using this phenomenon to foreshadow a detail even more sneakily than regular foreshadowing?
      Because I totally would have not noticed this until you made it explicit. And I had to read your comment twice too.

    • Peffern says:

      Every time I read through the comment thread, someone has found another reference or joke that I missed.

  22. zensunnicouchpotato says:

    This may have been covered before, but I notice Aaron uses “HaShem” and “Elokeinu” in place of the actual pronunciation, as religious Jews do. I wonder if there’s an in-world reason for that.

    • -m- says:

      (Reposting this from below because I accidentally.)

      Have you considered the theory that he is* a religious Jew?

      * Is in the sense of culture and raising, if not theology which got weirded.

      Evidence: He uses “HaShem” and “Elokeinu”.

      (Also the fact that if you look at the chapter image, you can pretty clearly see what seems to be randomly flattened section of his hair, compared with all the short-curly hair around it — e.g., he is probably wearing a Kippah.)

      • Sniffnoy says:

        A note, if editing is available, you can delete a comment by editing it to have no text. This will actually delete it, not just leave it there with no text.

      • zensunnicouchpotato says:

        It’s an interesting thought, but when describing Eliot –

        Rumor had it that he was actually religious instead of meta-ironically religious, but no one could tell for certain and the whole idea made us sort of uncomfortable.”

        If Aaron is himself religious enough to wear a kippah, he probably wouldn’t be uncomfortable about Eliot’s religiosity.

        But that reminds me – what is the status of Judaism in this world, anyway? Kabbalah is everything, but is there any room left for the practice of the faith it comes from? Yeshivas are mentioned, but are these Jewish seminaries or specialized centers for the study of some kind of Kabbalah?

        • -a- says:

          I mean, that “religious” could just as easily mean “finds spiritual fulfillment in religion” as it could “follows the practices”. And the “finds spiritual fulfillment” is more likely to weird people who are approaching god and theology as something to know and find out.

          Like, I know that my way of phrasing the distinction is “spiritual vs. religious”, but Aaron/Scott could — if they think of the distinction — just as easily phrase it as “religious vs. practic”. (Which, if I remember, is how my dad phrased it to my sister when we were, like, in middle school or something, and the topic came up.)

          Judging from the fact that they say the Yeshivas don’t admit women, they’re Orthodox Jewish. (How many Yeshivas are there around the Bay Area, anyways? I wouldn’t think that many…)

          The status of Judaism in this world would — I hope — be basically the same, except with a much more strained relationship with the techkabalitech industry. And maybe another minor fast, for when the world started falling apart.

          And way more interesting drashas.

          Or at least that’s how I like to think Judaism would handle it.

          • Deiseach says:

            Judging from the fact that they say the Yeshivas don’t admit women, they’re Orthodox Jewish.

            But the rabbinical students in this chapter have no problem going out to a mixed (that is, not exclusively Jewish) bar, drinking drunk, and having strange women coming up and kissing them (as a prelude to other things). How Orthodox is that? I suppose it depends on the spectrum of Orthodoxy, where the haredi are all the way on one end and the ‘just about qualify as Orthodox and not Conservative or Reform’ are on the other?

          • MugaSofer says:

            Yes they do:

            The rabbinical student – a cherubic-faced young man with absolutely perfect curly hair whose name I think was David – apologized and said that he was a rabbinical student and not big on kissing weird girls at bars whose hairstyles seemed to be inspired by the crests on species of extinct reptiles. Or words to that effect.

    • Jack V says:

      Oh, interesting point. Now I assumed that last line was a pun, but I had to google and before I got it.

      It seems plausible the narrator has a Jewish background even if he isn’t really practising now. But OTOH, I assume everyone would either never have heard of the Shema, or have learned of it from Jewish sources which will stress the pronunciation with the euphemisms. Although I guess, my background was “didn’t know anything about it”, then “dated someone jewish”, so if there is another way, I wouldn’t know it.

      For that matter, I thought people weren’t sure HOW the tetragrammaton was pronounced, I thought the vowel sounds were guesswork. I guess someone could pronounce it “Yahweh” (or the “Jehova” way with the “Adonai” vowels).

      Alternative theories — do we know how “YHWH” fits with the other names of God? Is it one of them, but lesser because it’s short? Or greater, because it’s in the bible? Or not a “name of god” in the magical sense? Maybe there’s good reason not to say it and EVERYONE learned to say “Adonai” instead whether they were Jewish or not.

      Or maybe he said “Ahwehway” and Scott just hasn’t edited the post to make that happen yet 🙂

    • Jack V says:

      Oh, interesting point. Now I assumed that last line was a pun, but I had to “Shamu” (the SeaWorld killer whale) and Shema_Yisrael (the daily prayer “Hear, O Israel; the LORD our God, the LORD is one”) before I got it.

      It seems plausible the narrator has a Jewish background even if he isn’t really practising now. But OTOH, I assume everyone would either never have heard of the Shema, or have learned of it from Jewish sources which will stress the pronunciation with the euphemisms. Although I guess, my background was “didn’t know anything about it”, then “dated someone jewish”, so if there is another way, I wouldn’t know it.

      For that matter, I thought people weren’t sure HOW the tetragrammaton was pronounced, I thought the vowel sounds were guesswork. I guess someone could pronounce it “Yahweh” (or the “Jehova” way with the “Adonai” vowels).

      Alternative theories — do we know how “YHWH” fits with the other names of God? Is it one of them, but lesser because it’s short? Or greater, because it’s in the bible? Or not a “name of god” in the magical sense? Maybe there’s good reason not to say it and EVERYONE learned to say “Adonai” instead whether they were Jewish or not.

      Or maybe he said “Ahwehyay” and Scott just hasn’t edited the post to make that happen yet 🙂

  23. J says:

    God intimidating Job and the question about theodicy sounds a lot like the famous scene in the Bhagavad Gita:

    As you touch the sky, many-hued,
    gape-mouthed, your huge eyes blazing,
    my innards tremble, my breath
    stops, my bones turn to jelly.

    Seeing your billion-fanged mouths
    blaze like the fires of doomsday,
    I faint, I stagger, I despair.
    Have mercy on me, Lord Vishnu!

    All Dhritarashtra’s men
    and all these multitudes of kings–
    Bhishma, Drona, Karna,
    with all our warriors behind them–

    are rushing headlong into
    your hideous, gaping, knife-fanged
    jaws; I see them with skulls crushed,
    their raw flesh stuck to your teeth.

    As the rivers in many torrents
    rush toward the ocean, all
    these warriors are pouring down
    into your blazing mouths.

    As moths rush into a flame
    and are burned in an instant, all
    beings plunge down your gullet
    and instantly are consumed.

    You gulp down all worlds, everywhere
    swallowing them in your flames,
    and your rays, Lord Vishnu, fill all
    the universe with dreadful brilliance.

    Who are you, in this terrifying form?
    Have mercy, Lord; grant me even
    a glimmer of understanding
    to prop up my staggering mind.


    I am death, shatterer of worlds,
    annihilating all things.
    With or without you, these warriors
    in their facing armies will die.

  24. -m- says:

    Have you considered the theory that he is* a religious Jew?

    * Is in the sense of culture and raising, if not theology which got weirded.

    Evidence: He uses “HaShem” and “Elokeinu”.

    (Also the fact that if you look at the chapter image, you can pretty clearly see what seems to be randomly flattened section of his hair, compared with all the short-curly hair around it — e.g., he is probably wearing a Kippah.)

  25. Agronomous says:

    Correction: Zoe says “In church school”; an actual Catholic would say “In CCD”. Also, 99% of Catholics couldn’t tell you what exactly CCD stands for, but it means “Sunday school except on another day of the week.”

  26. Renee says:

    So is it supposed to slip into present tense during Ana and Erica’s ritual? Because it did and it was pretty jarring for me. The present tense starts with “and Erica screams” and ends at the end of the paragraph.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Yes, that was a little confusing.

      • Deiseach says:

        It rhymes, if you notice; when the effect of the ritual starts to kick in, Scott goes into verse in the present tense:

        Then all the letters of colored sand
        Glowed red, then green, then white
        And the candles laid round
        Made a high-pitched sound
        And flared up in a burst of light.

        And Erica screams,
        And Ana seems
        To be gazing far away.
        And she briefly fits,
        But she gathers her wits
        Just in time to hear her say

        And then we get back to the past tense for the historical reporting of what happened in mundane matters.
        made a high-pitched sound
        and flared up in a burst of light. And Erica screams, and Ana seems to be gazing far away. And she briefly fits, but she gathers her wits just in time to hear her say “ANA LOOK THE LETTERS HAVE BURNED THEMSELVES INTO THE CARPET YOU ARE IN SO MUCH TROUBLE.”

  27. Jeremy Jaffe says:

    Eliezer ben Moshe could be this guy:
    But it could also be this guy:

    • Andrew M says:

      I think it’s unlikely to be Yudkowsky, given that he has figured once already (as Tetkowsky). On the other hand, the other guy is so close it would hardly be cryptic at all.

  28. Nomghost says:

    I love that you included Salby in the bookshelf. Please please PLEASE let The (fictional) Northern Caves feature in this story.

  29. HonoreDB says:

    Over years of practice she had perfected it down to a two minute, seven second elevator pitch which she had so far recited in manners including: blind drunk, on one foot, driving a motorcycle, and while having sex with two men at the same time.

    Hillel, eat your heart out.

  30. XerxesPraelor says:

    “Though men or angels rule them, the worlds are for themselves. The waters you have not floated on, the fruit you have not plucked, the caves into which you have not descended and the fire through which your bodies cannot pass, do not await your coming to put on perfection, though they will obey you when you come. Times without number I have circled Arbol while you were not alive, and those times were not desert. Their own voice was in them, not merely a dreaming of the day when you should awake. They also were at the centre. Be comforted, small immortals. You are not the voice that all things utter, nor is there eternal silence in the places where you cannot come. No feet have walked, nor shall, on the ice of Glund; no eye looked up from beneath on the Ring of Lurga, and Ironplain in Neruval is chaste and empty. Yet it is not for nothing that the gods walked ceaselessly around the fields of Arbol. Blessed be He!”

    So shall it be with puns.

  31. Allan53 says:

    Just to check my understanding of the terms:

    > I like you. You’re funny and interesting and you know the mystical secrets of Juan. But everything around romance – the flowers, the silly looks, the candlelight dinners. I am not into these things. I’m happy to talk with you, to live with you, even to grab dinner with you if you’re hungry. But I don’t want to date.

    Wouldn’t that description be aromantic, not asexual? She could well be both, or she could be wanting to put him off dating in order to prevent the later expectation of sex, but aren’t they different things?

    • Deiseach says:

      Ana definitely strikes me as aromantic. Depending on how you interpret Aaron waking up mostly naked in bed in their house after going on the batter with Erica, sex may or may not have happened. She seems open to having a relationship with Aaron and possibly having sex with him as part of that, but not conducting it like a romantic relationship.

      Which may or may not create problems down the line, if he insists on being in love with her and she does not experience erotic/romantic love, and they are telepathically bound so there’s no chance of mistaking “She likes me and it might blossom into more than deep friendship” as having a realistic chance when you can feel the mind of the other person not working that way at all.

      Then again, perfectly good marriages have been made without either party being in romantic love when they got hitched, so there may be no reason Aaron and Ana can’t work out, as long as he doesn’t expect what she does feel to suddenly change or begin to resent that he feels so much more ‘deeply’ or ‘truly’ about her than she does about him.

      • Deiseach says:

        Like the Meat Loaf song “I want you, I need you/But there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you/Now don’t be sad/Two out of three ain’t bad” 🙂

    • Lambert says:

      It could always be ‘It takes a several paragraphs to fully explain what romantic impulses I have under which cicumstances, so I’m rounding to the nearest one-word sexuality’.

      This choice of identity sounds intentional, therefore meaningful.

    • MugaSofer says:

      She does note that she’s OK with him writing her love poems.

      One possibility that springs to mind is that she’s previously gone on a date with someone who said similar things, but in practice was very upset when she didn’t “change” (I’ve heard of this happening with polyamory.)

      Or perhaps she really does attach that much importance to symbolism – note that she compulsively puns at an avenging angel wielding a flaming sword, references “Juan” throughout their conversation, and first met Aaron while kabbalistically stealing a sign. “Words trigger angels to treat things differently” sounds like a real practical concern.

  32. 217 says:

    Scott’s comments that the readership is missing a lot (that it would be possible for us to catch already) got me wondering which things we could be looking into more.

    First thought: chapter titles. The all seem to be William Blake quotes/references, but is there more significance to them, are they in any kind of order or is there anything to predict from them? (Or are they just “lines from Blake that relate in some way to the content of each chapter”?). I don’t know much about Blake to contribute here. The only possibly-relevant thing I remember is being told once he was an [Antinomian](, which seems thematically relevant but I don’t know what to infer from it.

    Second: Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire. Maybe it’s a small thing, but what’s that name about specifically? Is it something like Grass Mud Horse? I mean, speaking of obscure animal punning…

    Third: unless I missed it, I haven’t seen anyone in the comments try to figure out the Names. E.g. what is “IYAR-NA-AVANTE-SHOK-TEHAN-MI-LEVAN-ZA-NAONE-KHETH-ULAT”, what are each of those components? Or is it an acronym for something, or an anagram? I refuse to believe these names are just random sounds…

    • Lambert says:

      I bet when you work out their gematria, you get some kind of relation between the numbers.

    • Aegeus says:

      There are occasionally Hebrew words or letters in them, but taken as a whole I’ve seen nothing but gibberish.

      The fact that one of the Names ends “Meh, Meh, Meh, Meh, Meh” is probably proof that they aren’t meaningful. Hebrew doesn’t have an equivalent of the “Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo” sentence.

    • Jacob says:

      If nothing else, the Blake references suggest that we might be hearing more from Countenance in the coming chapters. The second stanza of Erica’s poem (whence also “Dark Satanic Mills”) begins

      And did the Countenance Divine,
      Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

    • infiniplex says:

      A possible connection for the first lines in the five parts of this chapter:

      I remember the first time I met Ana Thurmond.
      I remember my first morning there, the morning it all came together.
      I remember the day I first saw Ana in her element.
      I remember the day I asked Ana on a date.
      And I remember the day Ana and I got married.

      Could parallel the song “A Daisy a Day”

      “He remembers the first time he met her
      He remembered the first thing she said
      He remembered the first time he held her
      And the night that she came to his bed.

      He remembers her sweet way of sayin’
      Honey has something gone wrong
      He remembered the fun and the teasin’
      And the reason he wrote her this song.”

      adjusted to fit Ana. If so, its possible that this implies Ana’s eventual death (before the end of the book), although I am probably reaching here. On the other hand, nothing is ever a coincidence.

  33. J says:

    Then there was that time when Ahab was captaining the ship of state and had water trouble down by Kishon’s Brook, and needed 400 priests help Baal him out.

  34. Daniel says:

    “But if you map the Latin alphabet to Hebrew gematria, L and F sum to twenty-six”.

    Hmm. Lamed = 30, so depending on how you map F that would be either 36 or 110. BUT, it would be twenty-six in Agrippa’s Latin gematria, which after all is traditional-ish for Latin-alphabet languages.

  35. Dirdle says:

    Pirindiel a cute. CUTE.

    Ahem. Yeah, this is really good. As with many good things, it’s hard to find much else to say. Great work!

  36. Leopold says:

    Tolkien, Asimov, Salby…

    LEONARD SALBY? Author of the Chesscourt books? Euphemism A! You made my day with this.

  37. Sammy says:

    I suppose it’s far too early into the worldbuilding for me to start judging things like this, but… what the hell, I’m going to judge anyway. The whole theodicy discussion was really interesting, especially the part where they pointed out the basic problem with god’s answer to Job. The one most obvious possibility that all the characters ignore is that god’s idea of ‘good’ isn’t the same as our own idea of what’s good. I don’t know why, in the UNSONG world, everyone believes God is perfectly good (is it just from believing what the bible says and the standard logical arguments that god possesses every perfection including goodness?). Every piece of evidence given so far very strongly implies that the final goal of god’s plan has nothing at all to do with our idea of good. Real life theologians often argue that God is not a utilitarian and that his values aren’t the same as those of the post-enlightenment west. I would like to see at least one character mention this possibility – which then leads to the further thought that we shouldn’t worship god and follow his plan, merely because he is omnipotent. Also, the obsessive compulsive bad punning really grates on my mind and I’m hoping there’s some kind of reason behind it because so far it’s just annoying.

    • Walter says:

      I know this is months old, but still “merely because he is omnipotent” is a heck of a sentence. You should always do what omnipotent things want you to do. They are omnipotent.

  38. Quixote says:

    Another very good chapter. Particularly good. Even better than usual. I think more whale puns was the reason.

  39. Sammy says:

    One more thing… I’d like to thank you for mentioning the massacre of Nanking (don’t look it up), which led to my discovery of John Rabe, the committed Nazi who saved 200,000 Chinese from genocide.
    I feel like there’s some incredibly important moral lesson here, but can’t quite figure out what it is.

    • There can be good people in the midst of organizations that do great evil is a pretty important one. I mean, it’s part of the reason why we don’t throw out a whole bunch of history based on the terrible things done by many people of various groups.

  40. Azure says:

    As much interesting stuff as there was in this chapter, the biggest thing I came away with was wishing strongly that I could do something nice for poor Pirindiel.

  41. Sniffnoy says:

    You know, here in the real world, Google did officially rename their parent company to Alphabet. That would be really fitting to do something with, except of course they’re still better known as Google.

  42. The Phoenixian says:

    I think it may just be Kill Six Billion Demons’ idea of God rubbing off on me but I cannot help but wonder if the reason this chapter is a flashback — and one with verses rather than the usual dates — is because our protagonist has not given the machine A soul, he has given it HIS soul.

  43. Sillence says:

    The “Theory of Everything/Something/Anything” comes straight out of Pratchett: “The goal is the Theory of Everything, but Ponder would settle for the Theory of Something and, late at night, when Hex appeared to be sulking, he despaired of even a Theory of Anything.” (The Last Continent)

    • Frick! I had no idea! But I think I read Last Continent at some point so I must have remembered it subconsciously. I’ll edit that part out.

      If anyone ever notices me doing that again, please tell me ASAP to keep me honest.

      • Detritovore says:

        As a physicist string theorist, I found that quip to be one of my favourite things in this chapter. If there ever is a push for adopting citations as standard practice in fiction, I couldn’t support it enough.

  44. Georgia says:

    I got really excited when Ana said she was asexual! She’s great. I want to know what she’s working on.

    Anyways, not sure if this question has been answered in the story yet or not, but- it seems like this world was very similar to are world up until Apollo crashed into the sky and let the magic out. Do all of these our-world authors with Jewish names have them because thia world was otherwise more Jewish than ours before that happened, or did a bunch of people switch their names after that turned out to be the one true religion after all?

    (Or, I suppose, do you have to be of Jewish heritage to better understand the Kabbalah, thus pushing those people to the tops of the field? I don’t know very much about Judaism or the Kabbalah.)

    • -n- says:

      I mean first of all — yeah: Kabbalah is in our world/was in their world before before our plot started with Apollo mostly studied and written about by Jews — especially in Hebrew. (Especially in Tzfat, which I assume got blown up pretty quick or something or else it would be a complete powerhouse.) Besides them, there is iirc Christians looking for ~authenticity~ or stuff, and occultists — both of whom trace back, anyways, to Jewish Kaballah. And currently P(Jewish | Knows Hebrew) is… pretty darn high. Especially since

      And that’s adding on to that the field of Kaballah in universe clearly maps to our universe’s tech industry. Do you have any idea how many people in tech are Jewish? Lemme put it this way: for a time, Bell Labs had a daily minyan.

      Plus, around half the authors mentioned are, like, Jewish in our universe too. And then not counting the names than just aren’t Jewish names (“Zayinty”, e.g.) gives only 4 people who got their names Jewished-up in translation across universes. Compared with 8 people with Jewish names in both universes (“Kaf ben Clifford” is “Lamed ben Clifford”, who isn’t Jewish in our universe — but the name is specifically Jewish because… he wanted the ~aesthetic~ I think?), and 5 people whose names didn’t become any more Jewish.

  45. Murphy says:

    Am I the only one thinking that any athiests in this world must be utter nutcases?

    There are fallen angels you can go and ask about heaven, there’s a crack in the sky, you can go and make literal deals with the devil and there’s a giant angle in the middle of a whirlwind applying production patches to the universe who curses at you if you disturb him, you can speak magic words and feel divine light and understanding flow through you…. and somehow they’re still atheists.

    On a story note: I’m curious how much patent and copyright law differs from our world.
    Do patents still expire after 20 years?
    Does copyright apply to derivative works?

    Is Richard Stallman waging a copyleft campaign controlling a selection of Names providing free use under the condition that any names the individuals using them discover must be copylefted in a similar manner?

    Are some of the names, predating Unsong still in fact free for anyone to use like the kinetic and light producing ones? Cause both of those already sound like game changers in terms of global food production and distribution.

    • queenshulamit says:

      I mean, there are theists in the actual world we currently live in, and I was one for over 24 years, so…

      • g says:

        It seems to me that the evidence for atheism in the actual world is distinctly less direct and obvious than the evidence for theism in the world of UNSONG.

        (That isn’t a coded way of saying I think the evidence for atheism is poor. I am an atheist myself and agree that the evidence for atheism, or at least against the usual sorts of theism, is strong.)

        • gavriel ben yaakov says:

          Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

          I understand the sentiment, share the underlying belief, but I recognize it as a belief. I’m an atheist because i don’t know if a god exists, not in spite of my lack of knowledge.

    • The nearest thing to atheists would be people who believe in a God but not that He is a person.

  46. It looks like greed is far more effective and damaging in this universe than in ours. What about other sins? For example, what about laziness, impatience, and hubris?

  47. Nate says:

    I hope that Aaron and Ana have already tried invoking “One” as if it were a Name, just in case.

  48. Pingback: Underlinings (#40) | Time Spiral Press

  49. g says:

    Has anyone been checking UNSONG chapters for acrostics and the like? (First/last letter/word of words/sentences/paragraphs/chapters…)

  50. Sniffnoy says:

    Hm, I only just noticed now that some real-world tech companies exist in this story alongside their theonomic counterparts. Apple seems to exist, and it would seem that so does Microsoft (or at least, some competitor making an OS called Windows).

  51. Wait a moment… Gogmagog and Amalek aren’t using price discrimination to rent out the Purifying Name and the Fertile Name to the poor? That goes beyond greed and borders on sadism…

    Who sits on their boards of directors anyway?

    • Murphy says:

      I took it as a straightforward reference to our real-world existing drug and crop patents where people die in third world countries because it’s not profitable to bother making the drugs available to them.

    • infiniplex says:

      I suspect that it isn’t economically workable. It seems that if you are an evil theonomic corporation and want to limit access to names, there are two ways to do it:
      1. Write the name on a scroll and only allow it to be used off the scroll. This wouldn’t work because someone enterprising would just buy up all the Fertile Name scrolls in e.g. Nigeria and re-sell them in the rich world at a profit.
      2. Employ someone specially trained/licensed to say them with a kiplah. The problem here is that that person would know the name, be licensed to use it, and be too far away to watch carefully. So s/he could run a side business selling the name for less. Traditionally, you would deal with this by paying the person well enough that taking the bribes (this is equivalent) isn’t worth the risk of getting caught. However, with the sort of price discrimination you would need to sell your name in Nigeria, the profit margin is probably too small to pay the salary costs.

  52. rossry says:

    Re: missing things: Have we yet had a thread speculating on the parallels between Aaron Smith-Teller and Aaron SwarTz?

    > Erica dropped her balls, then fell off her chair. “Name!” she shouted. “I knew you seemed familiar! I organized a protest for you!”

    > Nothing I’d done was illegal per se, but they put pressure on Stanford to expel me, expel me they did, and a few months later their Applied Kabbalah department had a new professorship endowed with Gogmagog money and I was broke and living with my mother. Not that I’m bitter.

  53. Max says:

    The third temple is apparently rebuilt
    The Prophet Cometh
    The end of days is near
    All as foretold

  54. Max says:

    Ana should study a little bit more history before tackling theodicity. Seems she just repeats some tribe mantra instead of actually looking: ” Nazis, you know, mostly they just wanted some people dead” . Or maybe study psychology
    “But then there are other people.. Your serial killers.” – motivation of this rather
    diverse group of people is not to “cause pain”. Which she automatically equates with “evil” (try living without pain – its quite a disability)

    This part should be either humour or truth. Otherwise looks like crude propaganda straight from Salon

    • LPSP says:

      Looking back on this comment six months later, it’s looking feasible that Ana was meant to look naive with these remarks all along. I’d be happier that way for sure.

  55. Two McMillion says:

    Curious that none of the characters seem to know the very obvious theodicy suggested by Scott’s Consequentialist FAQ.

    Consider: CEV utilitarianism runs with the idea that our preferences change as our understanding expands. Well, according to most conceptions of the Christian God, this describes God perfectly. God has perfect wisdom and perfect reflective equilibrium. And as the FAQ itself points out, the quality of a being’s experiences can make a difference in how their preferences are weighted, from a utilitarian perspective (the FAQ gives the example of ant preferences not outweighing human preferences). But according to the standard formulations of the Christian God, this is precisely the case. Of course, God doesn’t need anything, so the Christians don’t talk about God gaining utility. But they do talk about Him gaining something else- “glory”.

    I think a lot of the way Christians talk about God make a lot more sense if you think “utility” whenever you read something about God’s “glory”. If God is a sufficiently greater being than humans, such that the CEV of a universe including him strongly tilts the proper course of action towards increasing his utility (“glory”), then I think you have at least the beginnings of a decent theodicy.

  56. infiniplex says:

    I think that Aaron and Ana’s “marriage” would count as an actual marriage under Jewish law. However, I am not an expert on Jewish law (or even Jewish), so I could be misinterpreting this. (All quotations marked “Judaism” from

    “Kiddushin 1:1 specifies that a woman is acquired (i.e., to be a wife) in three ways: through money, a contract, and sexual intercourse. Ordinarily, all three of these conditions are satisfied, although only one is necessary to effect a binding marriage.” ~ Judaism

    “it is very easy to make a marriage” ~ Judaism

    “In all cases, the Talmud specifies that a woman can be acquired only with her consent, and not without it. Kiddushin 2a-b.” ~Judaism

    “In full knowledge of the consequences, call upon the symbols and angels of the world… To join us at the root” ~ UNSONG

    I don’t think that the fact that Ana is asexual is relevant here. Jewish law would require Aaron simply to accept this and not try to change her.

    “Marital sexual relations are the woman’s right, not the man’s. A man cannot force his wife to engage in sexual relations with him…” ~ Judiasm

    “And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” ~ Genesis 2:18 (KJV)

    “Marriage is not solely, or even primarily, for the purpose of procreation. Traditional sources recognize that companionship, love and intimacy are the primary purposes of marriage, noting that woman was created in Gen. 2:18 because ‘it is not good for man to be alone,’ rather than because she was necessary for procreation.” ~ Judaism

    The physical act of mating is arguably portrayed as serving the broader goal of unity as a path towards (not-specifically-physical) intimacy:

    “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” ~ Genesis 2:24 (KJV)

    Cleave: “2. (v. i.) To unite or be united closely in interest or affection; to adhere with strong attachment.” ~

    “For God is One. And His Name is One. And we are One. And it is done.”

    I would judge that the ritual constitutes a contract as required. We have
    1. An permanent agreement (as far as we know so far at least)
    2. Freely entered into
    3. By a man and a woman (minimum ages 13 and 12 ~ Judaism)
    4. Through a means established by God (the Name)
    5. And witnessed (by various natural and supernatural forces)
    6. For the purpose of become one
    7. And with attendant obligations (“in full knowledge of the consequences”)

    • anon says:

      “Marital sexual relations are the woman’s right, not the man’s.”

      I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the religion that brought us circumcision also brings us this relatively mild gender inequity.

    • LPSP says:

      That’s funny, I was just reading the Bible the other day and I got to that line about God’s reasoning for creating Eve. “I will make him *an help meet* for him” is a phrase unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. It’s strange and peculiar to an exceeding standard, and honestly I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t literally a pun inherent somewhere in it. I mean, Eve is made from a rib after all, so she is “an help meat” in a sense.

      • Daniel says:

        I had to look this up and realized I was parsing it incorrectly: it’s “I will make him an help [who is] meet for him” i.e. “I will make him a suitable helper”.

        • LPSP says:

          How baffling. And funnily enough, I just paused an episode of Jeeves and Wooster to comment that the eponymous Bertie used this very phrase in reference to a desirable bachelorette – “she’s my idea of a help meet!”.

        • Alex C says:

          A helper, yes, but it is an unusual word; related to the word used for the way the Holy Spirit “helps” the Christian. Definitely not to be understood as “a lackey”.

  57. Sniffnoy says:

    Something I just noticed: In the real world, Kafka lived considerably before 1968! I guess maybe some divergences happened before then too. 🙂 (Or there’s just an unrelated novelist Yudka after 1968.)

  58. Seo Sanghyeon says:

    > In the Talmud, Rav Yehuda says that there are twelve hours in a day. God spends three of them studying Torah, three judging the world, three answering prayers, and three playing with Leviathan.

    FYI, this is Avodah Zarah 3b.

  59. Sniffnoy says:

    So, has anyone determined what the name “Pirindiel” means? Obviously “el” is “God” as usual, but what’s the rest?

  60. David says:

    Not sure why I didn’t notice this before but is the bit about the anthem of Hell a veiled reference to Professor Quirrell’s psycological warfare in HPMoR Chapter 84?

    “Then began the elaborations upon the theme. Phrases hummed too slow, with long pauses in between, so that the listener’s mind helplessly waits and waits for the next note, the next phrase. And then, when that next phrase comes, it is so out of key, so unbelievably awfully out of key, not just out of key for the previous phrases but sung at a pitch which does not correspond to any key, that you would have to believe this person had spent hours deliberately practicing their humming just to acquire such perfect anti-pitch.

    It bears the same semblance to music as the awful dead voice of a Dementor bears to human speech.

    And this horrible, horrible humming is impossible to ignore. It is similar to a known lullaby, but it departs from that pattern unpredictably. It sets up expectations and then violates them, never in any constant pattern that would permit the humming to fade into the background. The listener’s brain cannot prevent itself from expecting the anti-musical phrases to complete, nor prevent itself from noticing the surprises.”

  61. Elimelech says:

    Job 42:8 as interpreted by the Great Eagle indicates that the asking in combination with humility was pleasing to the Lord. His commentary broods over all major interpretations of the Book. Don’t fly, soar to History of Philosophy for more.

    Furthermore, what Catholic kid would ever call Catholic school “church school”?

    Zoe Farr, obviously ill-served by her diocese Catholic school, has failed to continue reading any theology or philosophy on the Problem of Evil since her hazy high school days. Give her at least a survey of the problem. Don’t let her read Peter Kreeft though, he’s a goon. If her reading comp is good, which I am not prone to suspect, give her, or at least her friend Ana, this fun piece by DBH.

    Also, I’m pretty sure Bill Dodd is Ron Unz.

  62. Sniffnoy says:

    Question: Why hasn’t Ana made known the Name she found? Like, I assume you can just, y’know, publish a new Name and UNSONG isn’t going to do anything about that (barring, of course, the exception we learn about in chapter 14). You discovered it, you can juts put it out there, you don’t have to copyright it if you don’t want to. Maybe you can even copyleft Names, although it’s not clear what would actually mean, seeing as Names don’t really have derivative works. So why has Ana kept SCABMOM hidden?

  63. Creutzer says:

    Okay, now I have to ask a question that really bugs me an reveals my utter incompetence at contemporary American culture: Is “Would you go on a date with me?” actually something that you can say to someone? Is “hanging out with romantic intentions” really explicitly declared like this?

    • John Buridan says:

      Yeah. That’s something one can say, and I have in fact said. Depending on circumstances and who you are talking a date’s level of romantic seriousness is variable.

      While most people would probably say, “You want to go out to dinner?”, “You want to go on a date with me?” is definitely not uncommon, albeit a little clunky.

      What in your background makes this quaint to you? Are you from a small American subculture or another country? If you date, what’s your group’s preferred asking mechanism?

      • Creutzer says:

        I’m from Europe. Quaint is actually not what it sounds to me. I would just perceive that level of up-front explicitness as bizarre and kind of crass. We simply do not declare verbally whether we want to meet someone as a potential friend or as a potential romantic interest. (Most of?) our languages don’t even have a current word for “date”.

        • Creutzer says:

          Oh, right, no edit function here. Just wanted to make sure to say that I am not denigrating the American custom when I say it sounds bizarre and crass. Perceptions just vary with cultural background, that’s all.

        • John Buridan says:

          I can see how one might find that crass. I think of it as signaling whether or not you are romantically interested.

          I find a lot of Italians crass when it comes to dating, since they catcall and say the equivalent of “let me show you a nice time.” That strikes me as aggressive, but it’s may not be weird to Italian women.

          On a similar theme, a Finnish friend told me that since she watches American TV shows there are a lot of American flirtations that would be downright creepy if someone said them in Finnish. Although, we were talking about How I Met Your Mother, which is obviously not a realistic depiction of America’s dating conversation habits.

          • Creutzer says:

            Yes, it goes without saying that standards within Europe differ as well, not to speak, of course, of different social strata within one region. Russian customs, for example, also from my home country’s in that Russians are more forthright – and yet they, too, wouldn’t ask someone out on a date using that very word. I wonder what the common factor is that makes this unthinkable and sets Europe apart from the US. Possibly something about plausible deniability: You can be very explicitly verbally flirtatious without entirely losing that because there is such a thing as flirting just for fun. You can pretend that it doesn’t mean anything because non-flirtatious interaction isn’t even on the table. But declaring a meeting explicitly to be a date destroys plausible deniability and so it’s excluded by our social grammar.

  64. Jack V says:

    OK, I’m rereading this and this is still my favourite chapter. It’s amazing, and kind of a little bit my life 🙂

  65. Anonymous says:

    I just got it! The house is called Ithaca because it’s where theodicy happens.

    I think there are also some non-pun reasons it is called that. Some of Alvin Plantinga’s works (including those on theodicy) and responses to them were published in Ithaca, New York. Which is also the birthplace of David Foster Wallace, the author of a certain well-known encyclopaedic novel. The latter is not a coincidence because (0) nothing is ever a coincidence and (1) Scott actually reviewed that novel once, taking particular note of “AMAZING CREEPY NIGHTMARE SYMBOLISM” and of its treatment of topics like wireheading. Both also seem to be present in Unsong, though maybe not as prominently.

  66. The coment king says:

    Re: The answer to Job – It reminds me of the “there it is” line the soldiers in Matterhorn (in Vietnam) always say when they have to deal with impossible situations. What if the real answer, the underlying reason that God took the bet in the first place, is something Job can do nothing about, so God just tells him, basically, to man up and deal with it?

    To reinforce this, consider the Comet King: It seems like once he learned the name, he realized he couldn’t actually solve Hell. And he never told anyone any of the details. It seems like there was nothing he could do – and he didn’t want to tell other people there was nothing they could do, either.

  67. Matt says:

    I can’t believe you spent a significant portion of a chapter discussing suffering and didn’t mention the expert of suffering and the end of suffering: the Buddha.

    • GreatWyrmGold says:

      I guess kabbalists are pretty focused on one religion, especially in a world where you discover magical words by studying that religion’s holy text. Who’d’ve thunk it?

  68. Carlos Gottberg says:

    Oh my, now I must really read a lot of sacred texts just for the sake of understanding the references (not even sure if them all are real). I had been avoiding this for a lot of time, but I can’t die without reading God obsessing over the Leviathan.

  69. Slicer says:

    I think this chapter is the right place to discuss what’s fundamentally wrong with this story.

    UNSONG is impossible. Socio-politically impossible. Shattering the sky, letting Names of God have power, we can suspend our disbelief on that stuff; that’s the story. But the idea that copyright holders would own and be able to control Names of God is so laughably far-fetched that it reflects a complete lack of understanding of the way people think, act, and behave.

    Doesn’t anyone remember 09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0? This is the Name of HD-DVD, a decryption key that the rightsholder tried desperately to protect. You can see how well THAT worked by the fact that I just posted it. Digg tried to censor it and now Digg is no more.

    And now this worldwide copyright is going to be enforced by the UN? The UN?! You must be smoking the really good stuff if you think that would work. Every church in America- not the Unitarians, but the real serious fundamentalists, the people who think the UN shouldn’t even exist- would distribute these names everywhere, and the entirety of 4chan would help them just for the lulz. The UN raid them? Hah! Forget the fact that they have access to lots and lots of guns themselves- the United States would never permit the UN to act within its borders. Even while Obama was president. The country would destroy itself first.

    That’s just the beginning of what’s wrong here.

    Bottom line: When it comes to how humans behave, this story is about as realistic as the Left Behind series. There would be a gigantic civil/religious war before anything in this work would ever be allowed to happen.

    • Yossarian says:

      Nah, not really. Our copyrighters (thanks Cthulhu for that!) don’t have the magical power to find and smite the copyright offenders. US in Unsongverse ain’t what it is in our universe either. And when your copyright has roots in RELIGIOOOON in the world where sky cracked and you can go see angels and demons for yourself – yeah, people are going to take that crap seriously. Like, you know, the religious Jews of our world, who suffer loads of really inconvenient stuff (even up to death sometimes) and obey a number of ridiculous rules for G-d that no one who is alive have ever seen. And fundies distributing the Names? Jeez no! They would run around yelling “Thou shalt not use the Names in vain!” and secretly hoard the Names for themselves *cough UNSONG cough*…

      …J3QQ4-H7H2V-2HCH4-M3HK8-6M8VW… 😛

  70. TheWakalix says:

    Unfortunately, it seems Emo Philips beat Scott to the Whaling Wall joke by over three decades. The Ahab subjoke, however, is novel.

    “So I’m at the wailing wall, standing there like a moron, with my harpoon.” September 1980,'s_mine!_(September_1980).

  71. Yak Ninja says:

    five beach houses scattered across the Untied States, and her own private 12-seater jet

    Why would she need a jet? They don’t really fly anymore (see Chapter 12)

    • GreatWyrmGold says:

      It’s probably just a status symbol. Isn’t that half the reason anyone has a personal jet or a yacht? Maybe more, for yachts.

  72. perlhaqr says:

    Raymond E. Stevens

    Hah! I just got this, on the third readthrough. 😀

  73. perlhaqr says:

    I could earn a kiss from Ana! But, well, I’m a New Mexican. My people eat things other cultures would consider to be chemical weapons. 😀

  74. stickapart says:

    Not sure if I missed previous hints, but it seems like the dollar is crazy strong. A fabulously wealthy Names CEO has only a 9B fortune. That could mean USD is 10x more valuable.

  75. GreatWyrmGold says:

    Ana: “I don’t want to go on a date because I’m asexual.”
    Ana: “I’m not into romantic stuff.”
    There’s a word for that, too. Might be good to learn it to avoid this kind of thing in the future.

    This chapter was great, every part of it. (I especially like the discussion of Job that almost devolves into a battle between a fallen angel and dessert.) If I recommend this series to anyone, I’ll send them this chapter to explain why.

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