aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 7: The Perishing Vegetable Memory

Sleep like nothing is watching. Gaze at the stars like it will never hurt.
Steven Kaas

Early morning, May 11, 2017
San Jose

My watch read 5 AM. Bill Dodd lived an hour’s walk away, close to the weird morass of swamps and mud flats that passed for the San Francisco Bay in this area. He woke up around six and left at seven for some tutoring job up in the North Bay. I figured by the time I got to his home, it would be just about morning and I could catch him while he was getting ready.

The streets were deserted, the houses dark. The cracks in the sky were barely visible through the hazy glow of the Silicon Valley megalopolis’ united streetlamps. I could see a few stars.

There was a time when the stars had meant something. Blake thought they were angels. Byron called them the “poetry of Heaven”. The march of science transformed but did not lessen them. They became burning suns trillions of miles away, around which humankind might one day find new worlds to colonize.

Of all the scientists, only Enrico Fermi had come close to the truth, and in the end even he had recoiled from it.

One day back in the 50s, Fermi was having lunch out with my great-uncle out in Los Alamos, and the topic of conversation turned to where all the aliens were.

If there were truly billions of stars with billions of planets, and the Universe was billions of years old, then there had been ample opportunities for life to evolve on other worlds. Earth’s sun was a cosmic infant – other stars were incalculably older. Why in those billions of years had their civilizations not overtaken us, reached and colonized Earth just as Earthly civilizations had reached and colonized their more isolated neighbors?

Maybe life was incalculably rare, a spectacular fluke? Nonsense; even in those days scientists knew that if they stuck hydrocarbons in a jar and shook really hard, they’d get some very biological-looking compounds. Maybe it was multicellular life that was the bottleneck? Unlikely – it evolved three separate times on Earth alone. Sapience? Dolphins are practically sapient, so it must also be as common as dirt. Civilization? Developed separately in the Near East, China, Mexico, Peru, et cetera et cetera. Space travel? You’re trying to tell me that of a billion civilizations on a billion worlds over a billion years, not one would think of taking a really big rocket and pointing it up?

Fermi crunched various numbers and found that even under the most conservative assumptions the Earth should have been visited by just about a zillion extraterrestrial civilizations, instead of the zero that humans actually observed. He figured there must be some unseen flaw in his calculations, and it bothered him a little for the rest of his life.

He could have avoided a lot of anguish if he had just followed the data to their obvious conclusion and admitted the stars probably didn’t exist.

Then maybe things would have turned out differently. People respected Fermi – always a good idea to respect the guy who invents the atomic bomb, just in case he invents something else. They might have listened to him. The Space Age might have become more subdued. They might have wondered whether whatever was up there, whatever wanted people to think there were stars and was powerful enough to enforce the illusion – might be best left alone.

But humans can’t leave well enough alone, so we got in the Space Race, tried to send Apollo 8 to the moon, crashed into the crystal sphere surrounding the world, and broke a huge celestial machine belonging to the archangel Uriel that bound reality by mathematical laws. It turned out keeping reality bound by mathematical laws was a useful hack preventing the Devil from existing. Break the machinery, and along with the Names of God and placebomancy and other nice things we got the Devil back. We’d flailed around like headless chickens for a while until the Comet King had come along and tried to organize a coordinated response. Now we were back to the headless chicken thing.

A car sped down the street, the way people speed at five AM when they know no one is around to stand in their way, the way assholes speed when they don’t care how much noise they make on a residential street when people are trying to sleep. I stepped out of the way just in time.

In a way we were lucky. Reality was still mostly law-bound, because Uriel was burning through his reserves of mystical energy to keep the celestial machinery working. You can still run a car on internal combustion, if for some reason you don’t trust the Motive Name. You can still usually use electronics to run a computer, as long you don’t overdo it and Uriel isn’t having one of his periodic fits.

But once there had been a time when we had looked up at the stars and thought “Yeah, we’ll go there someday.” That dream was dead. Not just because there were no stars. But because the idea that Science could do anything, that it was this genie humankind could command and turn to our most fantastic whims, was gone. If we were lucky we could keep the power grid and the Internet running, but the thought of building our way into a chrome-and-plasma future of limitless possibility had passed away sometime during the seventies. Now we just looked for useful Names of God and hoped Uriel kept Science from failing too spectacularly until we got ourselves killed by something else.

It was getting light by the time I reached the apartment and a half-dressed Bill let me in. The “what are you doing up so early and in my house” was so obvious it could be left unspoken, so it was.

“Hey Bill,” I said, plopping myself down on the couch. It was probably some kind of faux pas, but in my defense I’d been walking an hour. “Ana and I were wondering if we could borrow your gaming computer.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“We’ve got this really interesting search function going on,” I said, “trying to match the fractal patterns in the Song of Songs to paleoclimate data. I know it’s a little weird, but we’ve actually got some good preliminary results, and I think we’d be able to finish in a couple of days if we had some more processing power, and you keep talking about how impressive your new Mac is, so I was hoping…”

“Why would the Song of Songs have fractal patterns?” Bill asked me.

I had forgotten the most important thing about Bill, which was that he liked to think he was smarter than everybody else, and would pretend to know more than you about everything. Problem is, I was making this all up myself, so on the off chance he did know something, it was going to very quickly become clear that I didn’t.

“It’s the Song of Songs,” I said. “Of course it has fractal patterns. In fact – ” I decided to go for broke, “I think there may be multiple levels of patterns in there. Songs of songs of songs.”

“That’s not what Song of Songs means!” Dodd objected. “Hebrew uses ‘of’ as an intensifier. Like ‘King of Kings’ or ‘Holy of Holies’!”

“But consider,” I said, “the words of Rabbi Ezra Tzion, who said…

Then I started speaking Aramaic.

Around 200 BC the Aramaic language started catching on in Israel and most people switched from Biblical Hebrew to the new tongue. Some people started praying in Aramaic, or trying to translate the Torah. The rabbis, who wanted to protect the sacred language at all costs, waged a passionate campaign against Aramaic penetrating into the liturgy, and in the midst of their zeal, they might have kind of told the populace that they had to pray in Hebrew because the angels don’t understand Aramaic. Some people wrote this down, one thing led to another, and it became part of the Talmud. Have I mentioned that the Talmud is kind of crazy?

Couple of centuries later, the Romans destroy Jerusalem, the Jews are scattered to the seventy nations of the world, and now they’re speaking all of these foreign languages like Yiddish and Arabic and Ladino. They don’t know a word of Hebrew, but they still want to pray. The rabbis want to let them, but there’s this old ruling standing in the way, saying that you should pray in Hebrew because the angels don’t understand Aramaic.

So the rabbis declare that actually, the angels understand every language except Aramaic. This actually happened.

And everyone thought it was a joke, but then the sky shattered and we met the angels, and by golly they spoke every language from Albanian to Zulu, but Aramaic was nonsense to them. They couldn’t learn it no matter how hard they tried. It was some kind of fixed mental blind spot. Why did the rabbis’ weird ad hoc decision so perfectly correspond to reality? I don’t know. Nothing is ever a coincidence.

But perhaps there are things humans were not meant to know. And when people started asking the angels – was Jesus Son of God? Was he the Messiah? – the angels answered – darned if we know. We couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

One night, Ana and I were thinking thoughts at each other – gossiping about Bill, actually, since he’d just made a hilariously ill-fated attempt to seduce Erica – and Ana started feeling guilty, because gossiping was a sin.

I asked how anyone would find out we were gossiping, when we were doing it telepathically, and there were no other telepaths in the world – some said the Comet King had been able to read minds, but he was dead – and she said that we didn’t know anything about kabbalistic marriage, maybe the angels could listen in on us or something.

This was a pretty reasonable concern. Somebody had added that section to the Bible, the one in John that Ana had taken SCABMOM out of, and angels sounded like the sort of entities who had the power to edit the Bible. For all we knew, Heaven was wiretapping our private channel. So we decided to learn Aramaic, so that we could gossip as much as we wanted and the angels couldn’t listen in.

Neither of us was very good at it yet, but that didn’t matter, because I was saying the practice sentences from “Aramaic Made Easy: A Beginner’s Guide.”

“The dog is in the house,” I told Dodd in the cadences of first century Judea. “The dog is big and brown. Simeon is going to the synagogue. The dog is not going to the synagogue.”

Bill Dodd watched me intently as I spoke, wrinkles forming on his face. He had only two choices – accept what I had said as accurate, or admit he didn’t understand Aramaic and therefore did not know everything. I could see the wheels turning in his mind.

“Rabbi Tzion was a very wise man,” he finally told me. Then he went into his room and handed me his gaming laptop. “If anything happens to that,” he said as I stuffed it into my backpack, “I will hunt you down and kill you.”

I nodded and made my escape before he changed his mind.

When I made it back to Ithaca, I couldn’t resist stopping off in Ana’s room to check if Sarah had come up with any more Names in my absence. It hadn’t, which wasn’t really surprising – two in so short a time was a huge fluke – but my presence there at least had the effect of waking Ana up. She rubbed her eyes, griped at me for waking her – then, her tiredness melting away before the excitement of the occasion, told me to ensoul Bill’s computer already.

I took the sleek MacBook out of my backpack, plugged it into the outlet, fired it up. I installed Llull. I disabled the Internet connections, not wanting to risk anything automatically updating and letting Bill know what we were doing. Then I spoke the Vital Name. “ROS-AILE-KAPHILUTON-MIRAKOI-KALANIEMI-TSHANA-KAI-KAI-EPHSANDER-GALISDO-TAHUN…” I began. Then: “MEH-MEH-MEH-MEH-MEH-MEH.”

Nothing happened.

There’s no way to tell if a computer has a soul or not. But when you use a Name, especially a strong Name like this one, the warmth shoots through you, for a brief moment you feel Divine power, it’s not just nothing. It’s how people learn they’ve discovered a Name in the first place, it’s the thing whose computer-equivalent Llull is programmed to notice in order to detect hits. It was the thing I was definitely not feeling right now.

“Huh,” I told Ana. “That didn’t work. I’ll try it again.”


Once again, nothing.

“Maybe you made a mistake?” Ana suggested.

I had not made a mistake.

This will require a certain level of explanation. The Vital Name was fifty-eight letters long. How did I remember a fifty-eight letter Name, let alone remember it so clearly that there was no chance of getting it wrong?

The answer was that I was a mnemonist, and a really good one.

Consider: A Roman legionnaire is sitting around, shining a lantern into the darkness, watching for enemies. One suddenly appears; namely, Kim Jong-un, who is soaring overhead on a giant flying lantern. The legionnaire calls for help, and who should arrive but a tyrannosaurus rex, nibbling on a magazine which he keeps in his mouth, and he dispatches the dictator easily. The Roman is so grateful for T. Rex’s help that he knights him on the spot, declaring him Sir Tyrannosaurus, but he doesn’t have a sword for the ceremony, so he squirts ketchup all over him instead. Abraham Lincoln, who is also in the area, comes by to celebrate – he is a fast friend of the tyrannosaurus, as he shares the dinosaur’s quirk of nibbling on magazines.

And now you have fourteen letters.

I am a mnemonist. My hobby is memory. I study very complex systems for remembering long strings of meaningless information. The mnemonists talk about how you can remember entire decks of cards in sequence, or hundred digit numbers after a single reading, but those are smokescreens. The real reason smart people become mnemonists is to remember Names.

The average singer spends half an hour at choir practice every week learning a single Name through constant repetition. Slow but effective. But what if you overhear someone, just once, using a True Name without any klipot? How are you going to remember it unless you have extreme measures available?

My extreme measure was a variant of something called the Dominic System. Memorize three sets of correspondences between alphabet letters and concepts. The first set is between each letter and a person or animal beginning with that letter. The second set is between each letter and an action beginning with that letter. And the third set is between each letter and an object beginning with that letter.

Now break down the thing you want to remember into three-letter blocks. Each block represents a person performing an action on an object. Keep doing this, and you have a really weird story, which is exactly the sort of story you are most likely to remember.

My R person is a Roman. My S action is sitting. My L object is a lantern. ROS-AILE becomes a Roman sitting with a lantern. It’s Hebrew, so the vowels don’t count.

My K person is Kim Jong-un. My F action is flying. My L object is still a lantern. So Kim Jong-un is flying on a giant lantern. Add the tyrannosaur nibbling, and you’ve got KAPHILUTON.

Remembering ROS-AILE-KAPHILUTON is hard. Remembering a Roman sitting watchfully in the dark with a lantern, only to have Kim Jong-un suddenly scream past him on a lantern-shaped fighter jet so terrifying that they have to call in the dinosaur cavalry – that’s easy. Keep going, and even a fifty-eight letter name becomes tractable.

Is it hard to make these kinds of stories up on the fly? Yes, it’s hard the first time, and the hundredth time, and even the thousandth time.

But I work eight hours a day in a sweatshop where all I do is recite a bunch of meaningless syllables. I’d have gone crazy long ago if I didn’t have some way to make it all useful. And my way of making it all useful was to train myself to become really good at mnemonics.

The fifty-eight-letter Vital Name shone flawless in my mind.

“ROS-AILE-KAPHILUTON-MIRAKOI-KALANIEMI-TSHANA-KAI-KAI-EPHSANDER-GALISDO-TAHUN…” I began, and kept going. I spoke the Vital Name. It didn’t work.

“Ana!” I said. “You have the Name! You try!”

“I only know what I took from your head,” Ana said, but she spoke the Name as she recalled it. “ROS-AILE-KAPHILUTON-MIRAKOI-KALANIEMI-TSHANA-KAI-KAI-EPHSANDER-GALISDO-TAHUN…”

I could see from Ana’s face that she felt nothing.

“Maybe it’s just…we’re not feeling it because we’re tired,” I said. I fiddled with the settings of Llull, told it to investigate just one Name, the Moon-Finding Name we had discovered last night. The speaker let out its strange hum. There was no output. Bill’s computer had failed to detect it as a Name.

“Maybe the Name stopped working,” Ana suggested.

“Names don’t stop working! You think God just packed up? And went on vacation or something?”

It probably says a lot about us that we decided it was important to test this hypothesis, and so started using all the other Names we knew – the simple ones, the ones we could use without exhausting ourselves or causing trouble. I tried the Moon-Locating Name from this morning. A big bright arrow appeared pointing toward the western horizon.

“Okay,” I admitted “God didn’t pack up and go on vacation. Then why the hell isn’t the Name working?”

I was seeing our goal of inevitable world conquest fade into a comparatively modest future of limitless wealth. The one ensouled computer we had could give us enough Names to buy a small state. But minus the ability to ensoul more of them, the feedback loop that resulted in total domination of everything and a second Comet King was fading out of reach.

Ana was quiet. After a few seconds, she just said “Euphemism.”

“You expected this all along,” I said. “You said God was going to intervene.”

“Not directly.” she said. “And not this soon. And not like this.”

My mind was racing. “Okay,” I said. “This isn’t a disaster. Maybe it’s not God. Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe we can just use the Name error-correction algorithms.”

Given the constraints all Names have to follow, you could find the most likely Name candidates matching a “flawed Name” with one or two letters out of place. Although in principle it was meant to address exactly the sort of situation we were in right now, in reality people almost never forgot Names that weren’t backed up somewhere already, and it was mostly a purely theoretical field people investigated as basic research. It’s all fun and games until a plot to take over the world hinges on it.

“You think that would help?”

“Look, maybe, possibly, there’s a tiny chance a mnemonist like me could forget a letter or two. But no more than that! We mostly have the Name intact. So if I can get some of the error correction algorithms, we can run them on what we remember of the Vital Name and figure out the real thing. I took a class that mentioned this at Stanford once. I’m sure there are some books in the library there. Give me your library card and I’ll go get them. You come with me.”

“Aaron,” said Ana. “You barely slept all night. The error correction books will still be there this afternoon.”

“Ana,” I said. “We had the most important Name in history, short of the Shem haMephorash, and we lost it. No, we didn’t lose it. I know what it is. Something isn’t right here.” I grabbed the library card from her desk. “Are you coming or not?”

“Pass,” she said, infuriatingly.

My mind burning, I set out for the CalTrain station and Stanford.

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