aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Interlude י: The Broadcast

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was spreading a catchy quote denying all tricks greater than the one about faking nonexistence.
Steven Kaas

[Content warning: Part II of this chapter contains graphic scenes including references to Hell, gore, rape, psychological torture, and death. Some commenters are saying it was excessive even beyond the level suggested by this content warning, so take that into account. If you don’t want to read it, you can skip to Part III without missing too much plot-wise. Thanks to Pyth for helping out as Hell Consultant.]


After three months living with Ana, she learned that I hadn’t seen the Broadcast.

We’d been talking about theodicy, as usual. Ana was explaining how the Cainites had made the terrible mistake of trying to munchkin Biblical morality.

Munchkin-ing is this idea from role-playing games where instead of trying to tell a good story, you search for weird little loopholes that violate the spirit of the rules and make things much too easy. The Bible says – check your Luke 15:6 – that “in heaven there will be more rejoicing over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine souls that are righteous and have no need of repentance.” Solve for maximum rejoicing in heaven, and the obvious munchkin solution is to deliberately sin in order to repent later. Add some common-sense assumptions about the relationship between magnitude of crime and magnitude of repentance-related heavenly rejoicing, and…well, you can see where this is going.

Ana was against the Cainites. I was provisionally for them.

“You can’t just follow the letter of the law and not its spirit!” Ana was protesting.

“Holy frick you’re a kabbalist and now you’re against the letter of the law? Forget the letter! We’re supposed to believe that even the tiny extra dots and brushstrokes on some of the letters in the Bible have special meaning! When God said you couldn’t start a fire on the Sabbath, and the rabbis interpreted that to mean you couldn’t use electricity either, the Israelis just went ahead and programmed all their elevators to constantly go up and down stopping on every floor, because then you could enter and not push buttons and you wouldn’t technically be the one initiating the electricity. The whole point of the kabbalah is that God wouldn’t include something in the Bible that you could interpret a certain way unless He meant you to have that interpretation. And you’re saying a really really obvious thing not just suggesting that repentance is better than righteousness but actually giving a numerical conversion factor was a mistake?”

“You’re talking about the Jewish Bible,” said Ana. “The Christians don’t do things that way. And God knew the Christians wouldn’t do things that way, so He wouldn’t insert that kind of complicated subtext in the Christian Bible.”

“God couldn’t stop adding complicated subtext to save His life,” I said. “How does that Galileo quote go? I cannot believe that the same God who hath endowed us with the tendency to overinterpret things in clever self-serving ways intended us to forego its use.”

Ana swatted my face playfully.

“What was that for?”

“I cannot believe that the same God who hath endowed me with a hand to slap you with intended me to forego its use.”

“Careful,” I said, picking up a big pillow from the couch. “God hath endowed me with a pillow.”

“You wouldn’t,” said Ana.

I swung it at her really hard, barely missing a table full of books and a potted plant. “See,” I said, as it hit her in the face. “I hereby repent of doing that. And now Heaven rejoices over me more than you.”

“But seriously,” said Ana, and she was serious now. “Why would God put a verse in the Bible calculated to make us want to be as sinful as possible? What if someone goes on a murder spree or something?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But we know that ‘serpent’ has the same gematria value as ‘messiah’, and that kabbalists since time immemorial have been saying that there’s some deep sense in which evil is the key to redemption. Also, God created a universe filled with evil. That was definitely a thing that happened.”

“Tell me about it,” said Ana.

I decided to take her literally. “Look. We know God has to desire evil on some level. Otherwise He wouldn’t have created Thamiel and set him loose in the universe to promote it. So why not actually put something in the Bible that sufficiently defective people will use as an excuse to be evil?”

“You’re heading towards repentance theodicy,” said Ana. “The theory that the reason God put evil in the Universe was that repentance is so great, and without evil you can’t repent. But I…don’t see it. Repentance is great because it makes there stop being evil. We celebrate repentance more than we maybe do with constant saintliness because we want to send a big signal to other evildoers that we will welcome and celebrate them if they stop being evil. Somebody beating me up and then saying sorry and he won’t do it again is preferable to somebody beating me up and intending to continue to do so. But not to never getting beaten up in the first place.”

“Eh,” I said. “Maybe God just happens to like repentance for its own sake. It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing He ever did. I mean, He created the platypus.”

“See, this is what I hate about theodicy!” said Ana. “Everyone just wants to dismiss it and say maybe God is weird. Like, of course God is weird! But it needs to be a kind of weird that makes sense. It has to have deeper patterns and be ultimately scrutable. I really don’t think that the same God who hath endowed us with reason intended us to forego its use.”

“The Universe sucks,” I said. “Deal with it.”

“The whole problem is that we can’t deal with it! If the universe just sucked a little, we could deal with it. But nobody can deal with the full extent of the universe’s suckiness. Not when it happens to them personally. Not even when they witness it first hand. The only reason anyone can deal with it at all is because they never really think about it, they keep it off in their peripheral vision where it never really shows up clearly. It’s like how everybody knew Hell existed, but nobody freaked out until they saw the Broadcast.”

“I can’t speak to that,” I said. “Never saw the Broadcast myself.”

Ana was startled. “Really? Why not?”

So the first reason was that it was a TV broadcast and there was no television anymore. TV broadcasting had stopped working sometime around the mid-1980s, before I was born. A victim of the general if weirdly non-uniform decay in technology and the physical laws that supported it. The Internet still worked, but for reasons no one had been able to figure out it couldn’t handle video or audio, even though the programmers swore back and forth that it ought to be easy. The only visual technology that still ran consistently – besides old-fashioned film reels – was VHS tapes. Some people said Thamiel had specifically intervened to keep VHS running, for the sake of the Broadcast – obviously no one was going to play it in a movie theater. But without any reason to have a TV, that didn’t matter much. If you wanted to watch the Broadcast, you had to hunt down someone with a TV, hunt down a VCR, and hunt down a taped copy of the Broadcast, which was either illegal or just not done.

The second reason was that I was scared. The Broadcast had destroyed the original United States, driven a lot of people insane, even made a couple commit suicide despite that maybe being literally the worst possible response to its contents. I like to think of myself as a dabbler in forbidden mysteries, but the Broadcast just had the wrong ratio of enticing-to-horrifying.

“Uh,” I said. “Never got around to it, I guess.”

“I have a TV and a VCR down in the basement! Let’s watch it now!”

“…why do you have a TV and VCR in the basement?”

“I wanted to see the Broadcast! You don’t think I’ve been studying theodicy for years and never saw it, do you? I went to yard sale after yard sale until I found the right equipment and I ordered the tape from the Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire. You can get anything from the Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire if you pay enough money. And the Broadcast is special. It’s a part of history. It’s epic.”

“Uh huh,” I said.

“No, really. I once had an English teacher who had this whole convoluted definition for ‘epic’. To be an epic, a work has to begin in media res, take place in multiple lands, contain a long catalog of objects, include a talking ship, feature divine intervention, et cetera. But most of all, it had to have a journey into Hell.”

“A talking ship?”

“Something about the Argonauts,” said Ana. “My English teacher said it was a big deal, but I’m pretty sure it’s optional. But then I started thinking. American history starts in media res – there were already cultures on this continent for centuries before 1776. It takes place in multiple countries – America, Canada, Mexico, then later on Cuba, the Philippines, France, Germany, Japan. There’s a catalog – the Census. There’s divine intervention a-plenty. And now there’s the Broadcast. A journey into Hell. That clinched it. We’re all in an epic.”

“Still no talking ship.”

“THE TALKING SHIP IS OPTIONAL. Are you going to watch the Broadcast or not?”


Daniel Santoni had been a beloved National Geographic presenter until his untimely death on an expedition to the Himalayas. He’d also been a serial womanizer with a reputation for harassing his subordinates at work. His death had been mourned by his millions of fans, and met with quiet relief by those closest to him.

Now he stood in front of a pair of gates, twice the height of a man, made of some metal that had long since tarnished into a uniform black. They were set in a great rectangular doorframe, and the doorframe was set in a flat stone surface that stretched past the borders of the scene. It was unclear if it was a floor, ceiling, or wall, and Santoni did not appear to be standing on any particular surface. The doors and their frame were filled with sinuous sculptures of writhing men and women whose faces seemed to be melting into nightmarishly distorted expressions. The intricacy of the work was astounding, like a thousand sculptors had worked on it for a thousand years to get every detail right. Written on them in Gothic blackletter were the words ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE. Above them was also a banner reading WELCOME, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.

“Welcome,” Santoni told his audience. His voice sounded thin and reedy, and nobody who watched the Broadcast came away thinking Santoni was doing this of his own free will. There were no visible bruises, but he still looked traumatized. “Me and some of my…old crew…have come here to show you a…very special National Geographic special on…Hell.”

There was a soundtrack, but it was the same kind of anti-music I had heard once before on a recording of Thamiel’s audience with the president. I wished there were subtitles so I could have turned it off.

“Most people think the words on these gates were written by demons to sound foreboding, but that’s not quite right. This is the outside of the gates, where the demons’ sway is lesser. This warning was written as helpful advice by some friendly power.”

The gates of Hell opened, and Santoni and his crew stepped inside. The camera view wheeled around. The inside of the gates said “KEEP HOPING, SUCKERS”.

“Despair has a certain numbing quality,” said Santoni. He sounded like he was speaking from personal experience. “For the demons of Hell, keeping hope alive is a psychological torture, almost as important as the physical tortures they inflict. For more, we join Ga’ashekelah, Lord of the Fourth Circle.”

The scene shifted to a sort of crypt-like office. The furniture was made of people, their bodies broken in unimaginable ways and reformed into chairs and tables. Ga’ashekelah looked like a giant with the head of a panther, except made entirely of snarling mouths. A lower third gave his position as “Torture Expert”. He sat down on a chair made of two people intertwined together in an anatomically impossible way; both screamed silently as he lowered himself down onto them.

“Every couple of years a sinner is in Hell, we arrange some kind of apparent escape opportunity,” the demon told Santoni. “After you’ve been tortured for a century, all your skin flayed off piece by piece then carefully replaced for the next flaying a hundred times in succession, raped in every orifice of your body including the ones you don’t have yet, all your fingernails and toenails pulled off one by one then reattached then pulled off again nonstop for a decade by a demon with a weird fetish for that kind of thing – after that we have a demon come to you and say there’s been a mistake in the cosmic recording, you’re actually supposed to be in Heaven after all. We shower you with apologies, clean you up, and send a party of dignitaries to escort you to the gates. Then when you’re thanking God through a flood of tears for your deliverance, we laugh and bring you right back to fingernail-guy, who wants another hundred years with you.”

He shook his head. “And the fun thing about humans is that you never learn. After another century we can do the exact same thing, every word the same except an ‘and this time we mean it’ at the end, and you’ll still believe us, because the alternative is to admit you’re stuck forever, and you never learn to abandon hope. Once you stop falling for this one, we get more creative. We have a fellow captive tell you he’s learned a secret Name that will finally kill you, grant you the oblivion you crave. He’ll demonstrate by having a few other people say it, and they’ll drop dead on the spot. Overjoyed by the opportunity, you’ll speak the Name and…we’ll all show up and laugh at you. The fellow captives were all confederates. The Name is a nonsense word, or a phrase cursing God in a forgotten language. We can get more creative than that, but I shouldn’t reveal all my secrets. You’re probably surprised I’m even telling you this at all, but the thing is, it doesn’t matter. Put someone through enough pain, and they’ll be willing to believe anything that promises a moment’s relief. Dial the pain up far enough, and you have no idea what idiot hopes people are willing to believe. So yes. Our side of the door says KEEP HOPING, SUCKERS. And you will.”

Santoni’s narration was crisp Mid-Atlantic English with an undertone of horror. “That was Ga’ashekelah, one of the many demons created by Thamiel out of the energy released by the death of Satan, talking about the psychological tortures of Hell. But the physical tortures…” He stopped speaking suddenly, then started to shake and mumble to himself. The scene cut out, and the documentary resumed as if nothing had happened on a plain of iron spotted with towers of iron cages. There was something plant-like and organic to the way they grew in little clusters. Every cage was packed so densely with people that there was no room for movement, only the ones on the outside being able to stretch limbs through the bars and wiggle them around feebly.

“Most of Hell looks like this,” said Santoni. Now there were visible bruises on his face. “The people in these cages…you can’t see it from this vantage point, but the temperature is above a thousand degrees. Those iron bars are molten hot. The sort of bodies these people have, they can’t burn, but they can still feel heat just as intensely as the living. More intensely. They don’t need food to live, but hunger pangs are just as intense. They don’t need water, but the thirst is…” He cut himself off. “There’s another difference between their bodies and ours, which is that their minds don’t break and they don’t acclimate…the thousandth day here is just as bad as the first…” He looked toward someone off camera. “Please don’t make me continue…don’t…” Some kind of signal I couldn’t see. “We’re going to interview some of these people, see what…”

He held the microphone up to somebody whose mouth was pressed up against the edge of the cage.

“HEEEEEEEEEEEEEELLLLLLLPPPPPP!” screamed the damned into the microphone, so loud that I jumped and Ana had to put her hand on my knee to stop me from shaking. Then they all started talking and screaming at once. I could only make out one or two snatches:

“I’m Mabel Riggs of 242 Oval Street in Minneapolis, if anyone remembers me, please, do something, I pray, please, I’ll do anything, oh God, you have to…”

“SHUT UP!” yelled the man who was pressed so close to her that I worried her bones might break against the bars of the cage. “SHUT UP YOU BITCH. GIVE ME THE MICROPHONE. I’M…”

A brief scuffle, then the camera was upright again and we were looking at a burning skull, who was identified as “Gamchicoth, Torture Expert”. “We put a lot of effort into matching people with the right cage-mates,” Gamchicoth was saying. “We look through a database of everyone who’s ever lived to find the people you’ll like least, maximize the clash of personalities…”

I turned to Ana. “I don’t want to watch any more of this.”

“You have to watch it,” she said, which was so out of character for her that it was almost as scary as the scene on the TV.

“What? No I don’t!”

“You tried to dismiss the problem of evil!” she said. “You tried to just say ‘God does lots of weird stuff’, as if this – ” she gestured at the screen, “was of the same magnitude as the platypus! You want to see why theodicy is a hard problem? Watch!”

When I finally managed to turn my eyes back to the television set, Santoni talking to a pitch-black featureless demon whose name was given as “Thagirion, Torture Expert”. Apparently Hell had a lot of torture experts. They were on another dreary grey plain, broken by blocky black buildings. Trees grew here, although the trunks were made of iron and the leaves were dull gray and wept blood. Carriages drawn by pitiful lacerated slaves were coming back and forth down a stony road, full of food and wine and other luxuries. The sides of the road were lined with severed heads impaled on tall pikes, and some of the heads were moving slightly in a way that didn’t look like wind.

“Some of the demons have nicknamed this place Brimstone Acres,” Thagirion was saying. “It’s the nice part of Hell – relatively speaking, of course. We reserve it for the worst sinners. Hitler has a villa here. So do Beria and LaLaurie. It’s basic incentive theory. If the worst sinners got the worst parts of Hell, then people who were pretty sure they were hellbound might still hold back a little bit in order to make their punishment a little more tolerable. We try to encourage the opposite. If you know you’re going to Hell, you should try to sin more, much more, as much as possible, in the hopes of winning one of these coveted spots. And that’s just the beginning. There were some bad people who died in Stalinist Russia, and I like making sure every one of them knows that Beria is having a great time right now. Food, drink, and of course all the slaves he could possibly need for whatever purposes he likes. Whatever purposes. All the people selected to be his slaves being the people who hate him the most, naturally, which is the icing on the cake. These places pay for themselves, evil-wise. I just give everyone who died in the Holocaust a little magic stone that lets them know what Hitler’s doing at any given moment, and you wouldn’t believe how they howl.”

At this point I was mostly covering my face with a pillow and whimpering. I honestly think I missed most of the Broadcast, or that it was repressed from my memory, or something. I think at some point Ana brought me a glass of water, or started stroking my head, but I know she wouldn’t let me go and it never occurred to me to leave without her say-so. I just sat there, the sights and sounds passing through me like I was a zombie. I couldn’t have told you how long or short it was.

But I remember the last scene. It was another plain full of cages, placed a little more sparsely than the last bunch. Between them, smaller iron growths – shrubs, if the cages were trees – held individual sinners receiving individual attention from individual demons. The noise was nearly solid, indecipherable, more like hitting a brick wall ears-first than hearing a lot of people screaming at once. The collected visuals had a similar effect. I couldn’t decide where to look. As I started to make out individual forms, I could see some of these cages were full of children. There was a big demon with ram-like horns – the documentary named him as “Golachab, Bioethicist”, and he was going cage by cage, blinding each child by ripping the eyes out of their sockets, which grew back in moments. The ground underfoot was obscured by a thick layer of crushed eyeballs.

“We have your mother here,” said Golachab.

“I’ll torture her for a thousand years,” said the boy. “Two thousand! I’ll do whatever kind of torture you want on her! The thing with the spiders you showed me that one time! I’ll make up new tortures, worse than you’ve ever seen! I promise!”

“One of the great things about suckers who never give up hope,” Golachab told Santoni and the camera, “is that they try to bargain their way out. For the tiniest shred of a possibility of a ticket out, or even a less crowded cage, or maybe a couple weeks’ reprieve from the ministrations of some of the worse demons, you have no idea what people will offer. No stoic suffering here. The best way to take someone’s virtue is to let them do the work figuring out how to degrade themselves in exchange for a carrot dangled at the edge of their vision. I bet that young man there, before he came to Hell, genuinely believed that no amount of suffering could turn him against those he loved. And now we don’t even have to ask, and he’s offering to torture his mother for two thousand years. We’ll say no, and he’ll scream, and we’ll come back in a couple decades to see what else he has in mind, and he’ll offer to do things so perverse and disgusting it will kind of even frighten us, and then we’ll say no again, and we’ll let him keep all the torture he already has, plus the knowledge that he has tried as hard as he can to sell out every principle he ever believed in and it has profited him nothing. Or maybe we’ll take him up on it, let him torture his mother for two millennia, and then not give him anything in return, just to see his face when he realizes it was all for nothing. Or maybe we’ll take him up on it and give him a couple hours reprieve from his tortures – because why not – and then back here for another millennium.”

As he spoke, my eyes were caught by a different part of the scene: a young woman sitting in a rusted iron chair, off to one side but near the camera, close enough that I could clearly see her expression. She stared straight ahead, eyes wide, mouth shut, completely still and silent, radiating the most abject terror imaginable. A tiny green demon flitted around her with a tiny paintbrush, painting her skin a surprisingly lovely shade of light blue. It was by far the least gruesome torture on display, in fact she didn’t even seem to be injured at all, but something had to have put that look on her face. Maybe it was just that she could see what was happening to everyone else around her, and she was terrified that at any moment it could start happening to her too. Maybe something I couldn’t see was causing her unimaginable pain the whole time. Maybe both. For some reason, when Santoni saw this, he dropped the camera. Everything went dark for a second until somebody else picked it up and pointed it back at the ram-horned demon.

Thamiel popped into existence, walked up to the ram-horned demon. “Let me help,” he said, and with a single thrust he impaled both eyes of a child on the two prongs of his bident. Then he wrenched the bident free, taking the eyes with them, and held them right in front the camera. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse look of terror than in those suddenly-disembodied eyes. Eventually he pulled them away and focused the camera straight at him, so I could see every hair and wrinkle on both of his horrible faces.

“It seems like we’re running out of time,” said Thamiel. “But don’t worry. Later on, many of you will have all the time in the world to learn more about us. I’m not going to say if it’s ten percent or ninety percent of you; I love to watch you squirm because you don’t know. I’m not going to tell you whether you come here for believing the wrong thing, or doing the wrong thing, or what the wrong thing is, or any of that, because I want you to be totally incapacitated with fear that everything you do might be tossing yourself into my hands. I want your dreams to be haunted by the knowledge that when you die, you might very well be herded into a realm where your hunger and thirst increase as always but you will never eat or drink again. Where your body feels pain like normal but can never die; where your mind is as easily spurred to suffering as on earth but where it can never crack into the release of insanity. I want you to know you’ll be crammed into boiling hot cages, flayed, gutted, raped, lacerated, that we will rip out your eyes and pour boiling oil into the sockets and do it again and again and again.

“I want you to know that all of those people who say that Hell is the absence of God, or Hell is a name people give to their suffering on earth, or Hell is other people, or Hell is oblivion, or Hell is some nice place where atheists get to live free from divine tyranny – all of that is wishful thinking. Hell is a place full of fire and demons under the earth where you will be tortured forever. It’s exactly what it says on the tin.

“Finally, I want you to know that you will sin anyway. This is the best part. For a couple of days, or a couple of weeks, you’ll be horrified, you’ll try to change your ways, you’ll be like the alcoholic promising he’ll never have another drop. Then the memory will fade, your normal habits will take over, and everyone will be back to the way they were before. You can’t save yourself. You’re not strong enough. Your basic nature will out – not to be all Calvinist about it, but it’s true – and you’ll make up some comforting excuse and get on with your life.

But you won’t live forever. And when you die, I’ll be waiting.”

Thamiel thrust his bident at the camera, and as the tip pierced the lens there was some final vision of ultimate horror – something I will never be able to describe and which really was no worse than any of the rest but which seemed more ontologically fundamental – and then the screen went black.

“So,” said Ana. “That’s the Broadcast. What did you think?”

I vomited all over the couch.


They said the Broadcast had showed up in an unmarked brown package to the White House mailbox late in ’72. It was a tense moment on the national stage. Nixon was running for re-election. His alliance with Thamiel had been a diplomatic coup, but he was facing renewed questioning by politicians in the halls of Congress and by protesters in city streets across the nation. Some were concerned about the theological risks of allying with the Devil. Others raised more practical concerns. Soviet Russia had been written off dozens of times before in this conflict, but now it really seemed to be on its last legs. When Thamiel took Moscow, where would his attentions turn next? Might we be lending aid and comfort to an inevitable future enemy? The American people wanted to know, and Nixon’s kabbalistically-named opponent George McGovern was taking the issue to town halls and rallies across the country.

Speaking of kabbalistic names, in the 1972 presidential election Nixon’s cause was championed by the Committee To Re-Elect The President, aka CREEP. And so he was. He was a genius at politics, maybe even at statecraft, but there were certain areas where intellect is no substitute for being human rather than reptilian. That was what did him in. When Nixon learned about the Broadcast, he figured it was blackmail. Thamiel was telling him that if he didn’t stick to the script, Hell could release the Broadcast, make him look like a monster for allying with them, and he would end up with egg on his face on the campaign trail.

So the President ordered all the big TV networks – ABC, NBC, CNN, etc – not to publish the Broadcast if they received it. There were obvious First Amendment issues, but Nixon’s relationship with the Constitution was a lot like the Cainites’ with the Bible – better to seek forgiveness than permission. The networks complied, the President dug deep into his bag of dirty tricks, and the CREEP won the election handily.

But in fact the networks didn’t have the Broadcast. Nobody had sent it to them. So things kept ticking along quietly until Thamiel finally razed Moscow in late 1973. Babylon the Great had fallen.

Western Europe started getting twitchy. In the absence of a mutual foe, the US-Hell alliance began to crack. The Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire was playing both sides against the other. Everyone held their breath, wondering what would come next.

Nixon decided to play some hardball of his own. He reminded Thamiel that he still had the Broadcast. Thamiel didn’t budge. So Nixon gave it to the networks. Using perfectly Nixonian logic, he figured that he had already been re-elected, and you can’t get more than two terms anyway, so what was the harm?

On November 1, 1973, the Broadcast went out to an unsuspecting nation.

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353 Responses to Interlude י: The Broadcast

  1. Pickle says:

    I would really recommend that the content warning include a reference to the psychological torture involved. I found that way more disturbing than the other stuff.

    • Pickle says:

      I see it’s been updated; thank you. As someone with a religious upbringing, a lot of the things Thamiel said are what kept me up at night as a child.

  2. Aran says:

    “Still no talking ship.”

    Be patient, that part’s probably coming.

    If any ship could talk, I’d expect All Your Heart / Not A Metaphor to be able to.

  3. Lorxus says:

    1) The Talking Ship is ALMOST CERTAINLY not optional.

    2) Spelling error – you make a reference to a Sunton somewhere.

    3) HolyfuckholyfuckHolyfuckholyfuckHolyfuckholyfuckHolyfuckholyfuckHolyfuckholyfuckHolyfuckholyfuckHolyfuckholyfuck

  4. Sniffnoy says:

    Typo thread: Table of contents has this listed as interlude tet rather than yud.

  5. Said Achmiz says:


    No, no, no! “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate” translates as “Abandon all hope, you who enter here”! The “all” modifies “hope”, not “you”

  6. Hlynkacg says:


  7. Buck says:

    Who is Pyth?

  8. Soumynona says:

    I’m sort of afraid of asking and might very well regret it, but what’s with the blue woman? Is it a reference to something?

    • stavro375 says:

      I swear to the god I now fervently hope doesn’t exist, if that’s a roundabout reference to Overwatch* I’m going to be furious.

      *A science fiction video game where among the cast of Chinese climatologists, geriatric soldiers, Australian terrorists and literal cowboys is Widomaker, a female assassin with blue skin because of something something science.

    • Pyth (Kappa), Hell Consultant says:

      I did not include any intentional hidden references in my contributions to the chapter, and my contributions included the blue woman. Of course, Nothing Is Ever A Coincidence, so there may be references I didn’t intend.

    • Toph says:

      Probably not. She’s just there to get your imagination going. How do you think being painted blue would constitute torture on par with the other things described in that section? Aaron doesn’t have to tell you, because you’ll come up with a more terrifying answer on your own initiative.

      • Pyth (Kappa), Hell Consultant says:

        You’ve got the idea on the Doylist level. Anything else I say about the blue woman is just headcanons at this point, since it’s Scott’s story and I only stepped in to make Hell more terrifying, but if you’re interested in hearing my thoughts on the matter, here’s some rot13.

        V vzntvar gung gur vapyhfvba bs gur oyhr jbzna va gur Oebnqpnfg jnf qryvorengryl pnyphyngrq ol Gunzvry naq uvf ovbrguvpvfgf sbe rknpgyl guvf rssrpg. Ubjrire, va-fgbel, gurer vf fgvyy n snpg bs gur znggre ertneqvat ure rkcrevraprf, naq va zl urnq vg’f guvf:

        Gur gval qrzba jub yvxrf cnvagvat crbcyr oyhr whfg ernyyl yvxrf cnvagvat crbcyr oyhr. Vg vf abg gbegher ba vgf bja zrevgf. Gur gbegher pbzrf sebz univat gb fvg gurer jvgu lbhe rlrf bcra, abg zbivat n zhfpyr, sbe na vaqrsvavgr crevbq bs gvzr, jngpuvat nyy gur zhpu jbefr guvatf unccravat gb rirelbar nebhaq lbh, xabjvat gung vs lbh oyvax be gjvgpu gurl pbhyq or unccravat gb lbh vafgrnq. Crbcyr pbzcrgr sbe gur punapr gb fvg fgvyy naq or cnvagrq oyhr, naq gura gurl fcraq gur jubyr gvzr va na ntbal bs greebe hagvy gurl varivgnoyl zbir naq ehva vg.

        • Hedr says:

          Are you speaking in tongues?

          • PhoenixRite says:

            Those paragraphs are in “rot13”, as noted in the first paragraph, the text encoding where every letter is replaced by the one 13 places later in the alphabet. Many websites or plugins will allow you to decode it if you choose, and otherwise it hides a spoiler admirably in plain sight.

    • Sean says:

      I have a theory I suppose

      Blue, in the Jewish gematria equals both “shackles” and “good girl”.

      The paint itself is a shackle. Binding her in place.

      As to blue corresponding to good girl?

      Perhaps this woman was a virtuous person, but with some fatal flaw, something that sent her to hell. Perhaps those people being tortured, the children especially, are people she knew. People she tried her utmost to help. Perhaps she is the mother ton the child that is offering to torture her mother.

      We already know those in hell have altered mental states. To keep the mind from fleeing to the refuge of insanity.

      Perhaps she has been given the curse of enhanced empathy. Most of us are filled with horror from even reading this. Imagine being there in person. Being forced to watch it. To smell it. To hear it. All with an inhumanly high level of empathy.

  9. Daniel Blank says:

    Why is Golachab a Bioethicist, rather than a Torture Expert? I see little difference between his domain and, say, Ga’shekelah’s.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      A joke?

      • Daniel Blank says:

        Doesn’t seem like Thamiel’s (or National Geographic’s) style, but possible. Maybe the title has to do with the blue woman?

        • tanadrin says:

          Probably a reference to the antipathy a lot of rationalists seem to hold for the field of bioethics.

          • Timothy Scriven says:

            A portion of that is well deserved, often they do seem like people who are more concerned with the appearance of propriety than whether the institution is doing the right thing.

    • Joseph says:

      Well, in Kabbalah, Golachab is specifically the Klipah connected to Gevurah. He represents destruction unchecked by mercy. I don’t really know where that fits in to the bioethics thing, though.

    • Yeah, it’s a joke. Originally the demons had different titles – one was “Psychological Torture Expert”, another was “Physical Torture Expert”, and the one whose job it was to make people betray their principles was “Ethics Expert”. I changed it to “Bioethicist” on a whim.

      • Kinetic_Hugh_Reeve says:

        See, I was giving you credit for portraying the “bioethicist” as the scientist and ethicist of their number. He does careful study to help them refine their methods of delivering the greatest torment to the greatest number.

      • Anders Sandberg says:

        As a part-time bioethicist I smiled at it.

        Golachab seems to be doing something more sophisticated than merely causing physical or mental agony: it tries to pervert values in a meaningful way. Presumably there is much rejoicing in hell when a minor sinner of their own free will decides to do something truly bad. Evil bioethics is all about setting up the right “biological” conditions for this to happen in a morally acceptable or efficient way.

  10. Sniffnoy says:

    Well, now we know where the demons came from. Definitely distinct from fallen angels.

    A little odd including both Ga’ashekelah and Gamchicoth, the two are usually considered the same AFAICT. Although I guess normally both refer to the same order of demons, rather than a specific demon, so whatever I guess.

  11. inexorable_end says:

    Now go reread the previous Interlude.

  12. According to Gary Larson, Hell includes a sign saying “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

  13. If Thamiel is the Prince of Lies, how do we know the broadcast is truthful?

    • LHC says:

      I was about to say. If Hell weren’t real, but Thamiel had the capacity to fake this broadcast, it would still be a perfect manifestation of his utility function to do so. I bet there are some Hell Denialists, or Broadcast Hoaxers, depending on whether you find it more kabbalistically appropriate to equivocate between them and holocaust deniers or moon landing hoaxers.

      • ton says:

        This is not weird enough to be the literal best thing for his utility function.

        Incidentally, he says he wants everyone to despair and implies not everyone goes to hell (only Nixon?) Does that mean that only those who die in despair go to hell, and thus his job is to get people to despair?

        • Evan Þ says:

          Well, it is said that despair (at the moment of death) is the unforgivable sin that will indeed damn you to hell…

        • roystgnr says:

          He’s pitting his utility function against people with very opposing utility functions, so if there’s a single “literal best thing” in his utility function, the Nash equilibrium for his decision is probably still a mixed strategy, because zeroing in on the one highest-utility option could be too predictable or could reveal too much.

      • hnau says:

        +1 for the moon landing / Broadcast comparison. That was my first reaction too.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      See also this thread.

  14. LHC says:

    I would like to imagine that the content warning on this chapter is an in-universe addition by Aaron.

  15. Until today, the most horrifying thing I had ever read was F. Paul Wilson’s novel _Reprisal_.

  16. Anon says:

    I observe that Scott’s description of the Gates of Hell sound an awful lot likes the Gates of Hell which are on the Stanford campus.

    What an interesting coincidence.

    • Carson says:

      Nothing is ever a coincidence. The Gates of Hell on Stanford campus (and the copy at the Rodin museum in France) were made with the intent of depicting the passage “Inferno” in Dante’s Inferno. They’ve been used over and over in hellish fantasy stuff, even things like Full Metal Alchemist. Pretty much canon for what the entrance to hell looks like at this point :p

  17. S. Franc says:

    I’m currently reading Surface Detail for the first time, and between this and the Hell scenes in there I’ve had quite enough depictions of everlasting torment for the moment, thank you very much. I have a strong stomach for this stuff but this was really horrifying. Well done.

    • Sammy says:

      I also noticed the strong similarity to surface detail

      • roystgnr says:

        Thirded. I’d guess convergent design rather than a deliberate homage, though.

        • Anders Sandberg says:

          In many ways these descriptions are basically the classic Dante/Bruegel hellscapes – lots of primal pain and suffering.

          While Unsong mentions the need for mental restructuring to make it truly horrific, it seems that the road to a true consequentialist Hell would be to aim at properly suffering-maximizing mental restructuring, even if that breaks mental continuity. Meanwhile retributionist/deontological Hell would sacrifice potential anguish for ensuring proper identity or moral continuity of the victims.

          Many religious people would of course assume that “absence of God” type of suffering actually optimizes anguish while preserving identity, but that looks like an unfounded assumption.

          It is less clear what different alien species would optimize their hells for. Or even if there are hells for all mental architectures (Can a bad AIXI-type paperclipper AI go to hell? It does not believe in its own existence, and might not be conscious.)

    • MugaSofer says:

      To be honest, I found this a lot more convincing than Surface Detail, which was merely tacky. “And every step you take on this road, know that it’s actually made of the powdered bones of children, and they feel every step as terrible pain! Because they’re still connected to the bones! And it’s held together with, uh, blood, which also feels pain, because we enhanced it! Woo!”

  18. “You tried to dismiss the problem of evil!” she said. “You tried to just say ‘God does lots of weird stuff’, as if this – ” she gestured at the screen, “was of the same magnitude as the platypus. You want to see why theodicy is a hard problem? Watch!”

    I suddenly have a lot more respect for Ana.

    • Marvy says:

      > You want to see why theodicy is a hard problem? Watch!

      I used to think theodicy was a hard problem, but now I don’t. The Broadcast has convinced me that it is an impossible problem.

      • hnau says:

        > The Broadcast has convinced me that it is an impossible problem.

        I’d be interested to hear why.

        I assume you aren’t taking the Broadcast to be an accurate picture of what Hell (if it exists) would have to be like. Looking through references to Hell in the Christian Bible, I don’t see anything to indicate demons or torture or even conscious pain; the images tend more toward complete annihilation. That still leaves big problems for theodicy, but they aren’t made impossible by confusing a religious Hell with Scott’s pop-culture vision of it.

        On the other hand, theodicy also has plenty of issues with what happens here on earth. And as far as I can tell the tortures in Scott’s Hell differ from the Holocaust only in degree, not in kind. (Of course I don’t mean to minimize any of the suffering involved– real or fictional.) So maybe that’s the impossible objection. If we think such a Hell is unacceptable, even after postulating arbitrarily large amounts of goodness and happiness to “compensate” for it, then logic probably requires us to consider the real world unacceptable as well. In other words, suffering (or evil) as revealed by this Hell is so qualitatively horrible that we would consider *any* amount of it as incompatible with the concept of a good, all-powerful God.

        This would certainly be a logical and tenable position to take. In fact, it reminds me of Ivan’s position in The Brothers Karamazov. Marvy, is that what you had in mind? In what sense does the Broadcast convince you that theodicy is impossible?

        • FeepingCreature says:

          Well, there’s – “This is the second death”, but stated eternal torment, so the “death” is probably a metaphor.

        • Decius says:

          Chapter three of the first book: God kills everyone.

          That’s why theodicy is easy: God is not good. There’s literally zero evidence in favor of that proposition.

          • LPSP says:

            Or God is not Omnipotent, or God is not Omniscient.

            Or God suffers from serious coordination issues between his various faculties. Ie there are many Gods.

            (disclaimer, I don’t know the book you guys are talking about, I’m just chipping in on the greater point. God can only be at most two of Benevolent, Omniscient or Omnipotent at once. There could be several gods embodying different combinations of these principles, trying to work together to make a functioning universe but failing in places.)

          • Sammy says:

            I really hope that the answer is something clear-cut, like God does is not good by human standards, God is not omnipotent or god’s nature is divided. There is no way for Hell to be morally justified and I really hope Scott doesn’t try to do it because it’ll just seem crass

          • Carson says:

            Yea, pretty much. I mean, the Bible does explicitly state that God is good a lot of times. But if you were Cthulhu, and you got to write a book about yourself that you wanted everyone to believe, you’d probably say you were good too! >.< The belief that God is good is often a harder Christian belief for me to understand than that he exists at all.

          • LHC says:

            It only takes intelligence to believe God exists. It takes faith to believe God is good.

          • Walter says:

            Nod. God/Admin running the sim/whatever, isn’t maximizing our welfare. There is presumably a purpose to the universe, but it can’t be derived from within it.

            Look at the fictional universes we’ve created and imagine their inhabitants trying to contextualize our reasons for their creation? Explain to a tetris block why he must fall, and you can only communicate with notions that exist in his context. You get something like “[Tetris] [Pause] [No-Match][Unpause] [Matches] [Score][Tetris][Increase]”. Something of “it amuses our young to kill endless legions of you in order to demonstrate how high they can rise the score” is lost in translation.

          • @Walter Not necessarily. A tetris block cannot even ask why he must fall. He is simply code that executes in a way the produces a certain animation on a screen. Fictional characters *can* ask ‘why existence’ and conceptualize answers. (See: e.g. the deadfic Rationalizing Death for an exploration of this).

            You could posit a higher level of ‘consciousness’ that is a consciousness what consciousness is non-consciousness, but that is a non-trivial proposition.

          • Walter says:

            @Village Idoit

            That’s what I’m trying to say. The Tetris notion of why do I fall would be posited in a series of Tetris notions. Left/Right/Up/Down/Pause,etc. We might understand what it was getting at, and have the answer in human terms, but those don’t fit in its world.

            Similarly, our question of theodicy is something we express in this universe’s concepts. But there is no guarantee that the reason that our world was built fits in it, just as you can’t explain up to a flatlander, or “entertainment” to a tetris block. When we ask “why evil?”, we shouldn’t be shocked if the answer is beyond our capability to understand. We aren’t phrasing the question right, and aren’t equipped to understand the answer, any more than our Tetris block can understand why we’ve built his world as a hell.

          • Decius says:

            The “first book” I referenced was Genesis/Bereshit

            God curses humanity with death, agriculture, and childbirth pain because otherwise we might become as powerful as He who made us.

            In that theology, God kills everyone. As a prerequisite for any negotiation with evil, I would demand an immediate, unconditional, non metaphorical hiatus on people dying.

          • Two McMillion says:

            What do you mean by “good” here?

          • Quill says:

            One might argue that ‘good’ is defined by God’s values, and thus that the proposition true by definition.

        • Marvy says:

          > I assume you aren’t taking the Broadcast to be an accurate picture

          I wasn’t talking theodicy in our world; I meant in Unsong’s world. Though you make some good points about our world too.

  19. Timothy Scriven says:

    One thing I am confused about is hell seeming to maximise evilness rather than maximise punishment and provide just deserts (e.g., Hitler having a Villa). Previously it’s been strongly suggested that the goal of Thamiel is to punish the wicked (both by his own testimony claiming his justice system is perfectly just- obviously this doesn’t mean much but it’s confusing why he would contradict himself in such a manner so rapidly, and by the narrator’s testimony that his function is to punish the wicked re: his duel with Uriel.)

    • Thamiel was originally created to punish evildoers but has since diverged from his correct goal just like everything else. As for his claim that his system is just, well…he’s the Devil. He lies.

      • Timothy Scriven says:

        Yeah I figured it was probably that.

        *Sigh* I’m a veteran of political activism, I’ve got as cynical and bleak a view of government’s as it’s possible to have- but even in me there is a small part screaming ‘NO! EVEN THEY WOULD HAVE TO UNITE THE WORLD AGAINST THIS! SURELY THERE ARE ENOUGH OF THEM WITH BASIC DECENCY, AND ENOUGH OF THE SOCIOPATHS WHO WOULD SEE ENLIGHTENED SELF INTEREST! LET EVERY BANNER AND SPIRIT BE RAISED FOR THE RAZING OF HELL!’

        The other nine-tenths of me are saying no actually, this is probably what the governments of the world would really do…

        A question for you good sir- do you think this is how people would react, or do you think you’ve turned up the cynicism for story writing purposes?

      • LHC says:

        This helps clarify that the “Left Hand Of God” title doesn’t carry moral weight with it.

        Wait… shit… sin is paperclipping, isn’t it?

        • YumAntimatter says:

          A bit of context: I very rarely curse. I have nothing against it, it’s just not a thing I do.

          Having said that, if you’re right… Fuck.

          • Timothy Scriven says:

            No, sin in the way hell has it is far worse than paperclipping. Paperclipping destroys things and creates oblivion basically as a side effect. This is both a genuinely evil-in-itself goal, unlike paper clipping and worse- something with an outcome far more terrifying for those involved.

            Paper clipping is what you get when you create a goal orthogonal to ordinary morality, and the presence of a super efficient mechanism for implementing it leads it into conflict with ordinary morality. This isn’t orthogonal, it is the perfect reverse.

          • LHC says:

            Thamiel specifically has values inverted from the right ones (well, maybe). But the phenomena of sin in general is, according to my reading of Scott’s comment earlier in this chain, the process of people’s values diverging from the ones they were intended to have.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            I was just rereading these comments and had a thought.

            Thamiel’s behavior looks a lot like you’d expect from a paperclip-maximizing mechanism for *punishing sin.*

            Suppose Thamiel’s utility function is maximized when the maximum amount of punishment for sin is happening. But that is a function of (amount of sin)*(amount of punishment per unit sin).

            Now, naively we might expect Thamiel to punish sinners [i]harder[/i], as hard as possible, making Hell as terrible a place to be as can be imagined. And this he does, unsurprisingly.

            But that’s not all. Because being really, really good at punishing sinners doesn’t help much if there are few sinners to punish. To *really* crank up his utility function, Thamiel has to actively create more sin, so that he can punish it! This explains the entire celestial war against the angels.

            It also explains certain aspects of Thamiel’s actions in Hell. In a twisted version of enlightened self-interest, Thamiel can even *refrain* from punishing a particular sinner, with the long-term goal of ensuring that more sin takes place, so that there will be more sins to punish.

            Which is why he has ‘bioethicist’ demons whose job is specifically to think up ways to get people to do horrible things.

            And of course the whole thing rampages horribly out of control. Which is exactly what you’d expect, in a situation where someone decides to uphold right and good by unleashing a paperclip-maximizer whose sole job is to punish sins, WITHOUT unleashing a correspondingly powerful being whose job is something more like “uphold the universal order.”

      • Marvy says:

        When did he diverge? It must have been before the War in Heaven, surely?

    • Evan Þ says:

      It is also written that the Devil is the Prince of Lies.

      (I am sure this represents an in-universe debate as well.)

  20. jeorgun says:

    I have no idea why, but I’ve always had a thing for really vivid descriptions of Hell. This is one of the best I’ve ever read, so kudos— but I’m not 100% sure it’s good enough to forgive you when All Your Heart inevitably starts talking.

  21. Ialdabaoth says:

    Not only does this seem almost exactly like Hell as I always envisioned it, it neatly folds in my own childhood theodicy reasoning about why people stay in Hell forever, without hope of redemption.

    Basically, Hell is so awful but you can’t *help* but keep sinning, therefore earning more time in Hell.

  22. 271 says:

    If you don’t want to read this, you can skip Part II without missing too much plot-wise.

    Might just be me but can I suggest changing this to “you can skip to Part III”? I wrongly inferred there would only be two parts to this chapter, and would have just stopped reading after Part I if I had heeded the content warning

  23. LHC says:

    I feel like this is leading up to the Outer Gate Scandal.

    • hnau says:

      Probably. The Watergate break-in was in June 1972, the official investigation started in early 1973 and Nixon resigned in August 1974, so if Scott wants the timelines to line up then he has some catching up to do. According to Wikipedia, November 1, 1973 was the day a new Special Prosecutor was appointed to replace the one that Nixon had fired.

  24. Thecommexokid says:

    There was just a thread on the rational subreddit yesterday asking about stories that aren’t super dark and sad, and somebody mentioned that there hadn’t been much of that so far in Unsong. I am blaming those people for this. Nothing is ever a coincidence.

  25. neptunepink says:

    How can we destroy Hell? Well, we’re going to need an awful lot of LSD…

  26. ton says:

    When I finally managed to turn my eyes back to the television set, Santoni talking to a pitch-black featureless demon whose name was given as “Thagirion, Torture Expert”.

    Missing a was before talking.

    So the President ordered all the big TV networks – ABC, NBC, CNN, etc – not to publish the Broadcast if they received it.

    CNN was founded in 1980.

    • LHC says:


      • Dirdle says:

        Anything in system admin happening before schedule just adds more implausibility.

        • fubarobfusco says:

          Version 2.0 is supposed to come out next week. It’s on late beta / release-candidate now. You’ve got a rollout planned to replace the version 1.0.1f stuff you’ve got in place. Next week.

          Then, someone leaks the existence of a giant security hole in 1.0.1f, something architectural in the 1.0 line that is fixed in 2.0 but can’t be readily backported.

          You might consider launching the 2.0 stuff “before schedule”.

  27. hnau says:

    Flagging for edit:

    Now he stood in front of a pair of iron gates, twice the height of a man, made of some metal that had long since tarnished into a uniform black.

    Unless I’m reading this wrong, the gates can either be “iron” or “some [unknown] metal” but not both.

    • Timothy Scriven says:

      There’s a sort of image ‘iron gates’ summons which is somewhat irrespective of the underlying material. Indeed if I mentioned ‘wooden iron gates’ you’d probably be able to visualise what I was thinking of.

      But yeah, technically incorrect.

    • Lambert says:

      It could be some unknown but definitely ferrous metal, probably with a layer of FeO or FeS on the outside.

  28. hnau says:

    I wonder if the asymmetry between Hell and Heaven (if any?) is intentional. The Postcard-Heaven clouds with gullible angels on them and the New Jerusalem-San Francisco with LSD-induced Divine Light don’t seem to correspond to any kind of an afterlife, and Scott has made a point of implying that the joy/love/worship they exhibit is irrational and undesirable in both instances. On the other hand we have the very real, literal, afterlife-y Postcard Hell, with nothing at all shallow or secretly desirable about its evil/hatred/torment.

    Is this an intentional part of the world-building structure, do you think? Making a philosophical point maybe? Or can we expect to see an actual Heaven as popularly understood, i.e. positive afterlife that’s the opposite of Hell? Based on the set-up of RHOG / LHOG / Metatron with no unambiguously good aspect of God, I have to assume it’s intentional. But I’d very much like to see Scott try to describe a truly, deeply “good” Heaven with the same vividness as this interlude’s Hell.

    • Kinetic_Hugh_Reeve says:

      I suspect we haven’t seen an effort at showing Heaven yet. We have Armstrong’s accidental overdose on divine light. We have no real indication that he received special instructions from God besides his clever reading of “arm: strong is his hand, and high is his right hand.” And in San Francisco, we have Armstrong leading a broader wireheading effort that spreads his experience. And the angels are also part of the sublunar world-order. The ones we’ve seen have no special knowledge of God.

      If there is an active God and an actually glorious Heaven in UNSONG-verse, we haven’t seen it. I also suspect that an actually glorious, worthwhile heaven would be even more alien than this rather compelling image of hell. But it would also not be easy to be suited for it, for the same reason it’s plausible for someone to see and believe the Broadcast and still sin. (That might just be my actual Calvinism talking, though.)

    • I’m not sure that it’s possible to have a truly, deeply good Heaven so long as this kind of Hell exists, and that might be relevant: San Francisco is full of druggies because you *have* to be high on the rapture if you’re going to be able to experience divine bliss when Hell still exists. Otherwise, the dolors being produced in Hell should add to the dolors experienced in Heaven, because any truly deeply good Heaven would be full of people who, you know, have a sense of empathy for the people in Hell.

      So instead you get the wireheading Heaven.

      • LHC says:

        Perhaps an inversion of the “Hell is just separation from God” line? Heaven is “just” convergence with God?

      • Kinetic_Hugh_Reeve says:

        Or it would have to be so transcendentally great that a weighty hell like this can’t displace it. But that’s not easy to picture.

        This relates to some UNSONG-inspired thoughts I’ve been having lately. What’s the difference between wireheading and the beatific vision? At least with Thomas Aquinas’ description of it, it’s a matter of disposition. At the risk of trying to summarize a grad school paper I wrote ten years ago, from memory and in a blog comment, Thomas used an Aristotalian model of sense perception in which the rational faculty has the form of the object perceived conveyed into it by the sense of visions. Both sight and memory involved having the form of that object present in your rational soul. In the beatific vision, the human soul (made in God’s image) is the form that mediated the direct vision of God. The ability to see it is therefore linked to how well you manifest the supernatural virtue of Charity. The better modeled after Divine Love, the more perfectly your soul is the image of God, and the clearer and deeper your vision is. But, and this is key, the vision doesn’t take away your other faculties. The smarter you are, the more you can access an arbitrary amount of knowledge of Life, the Universe, and Everything your intellect can derive from the beatific vision. By that model, Armstrong and the trippers can gain basic kabbalistic knowledge, but they aren’t perfected saints manifesting Faith, Hope, and Charity. Their faculties are overcome, not elevated. All trip and no pilgrimage.

        I will freely admit that that I’m likely reading all this into UNSONG, and it’s not what Scott has in mind. But it’s been interesting food for thought.

        • LPSP says:

          It’s pretty interesting, whether it aligns with Scott’s intent or not.

          Talking about these relevant points in philosophy is ideally the centre of any comment thread such as these. I didn’t know (or couldn’t quite remember) Aquinas’ Beatific Vision for instance, so reading this proved stimulating.

      • Two McMillion says:

        Not necessarily. If Hell is about getting everyone their just desserts, then a perspective exists from which Hell is good.

        • Aegeus says:

          It’s very difficult to consider anything that goes on in Hell as “just desserts.” Perhaps you could believe that the most terrible people deserve eternal torture, but what did the children do to deserve their punishment?

          (And as it turns out, the most horrible people don’t get eternal torture, they get a mansion on Brimstone Acres. Hell in this world is not about justice.)

          • Two McMillion says:

            I’m not clear on why you think children can’t commit horrible sins.

          • Two McMillion says:

            Also, I was thinking more about RL ideas of Hell than the story’s version. Probably should have mentioned that too.

          • Aegeus says:

            I can believe that children can commit sins, even horrible ones, but not sins deserving of eternal torture. You would have to be quite the child prodigy to pull that off.

            Indeed, you can make a pretty strong argument that nobody deserves eternal torture, because we can cause only a finite amount of suffering while alive, so an infinite amount of suffering will always be excessive.

          • Walter says:

            “I can believe that children can commit sins, even horrible ones, but not sins deserving of eternal torture.”

            ‘Deserving’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence. According to who?

          • Two McMillion says:

            Well, it seems to me that we usually judge how awful a sin is by how it harms people. And that’s probably true to a certain extent. But one major reason I’m not completely sold on consequentialism is that my moral intuitions tell me that consequences aren’t the only thing that matters- that it’s better for me to do good and love doing good than for me to take the same action grudgingly. In other words, my moral intuitions tell me that goodness must take place both inside me and outside me.

            I also note that in the world there are systems in place that are designed to make performing evil undesirable: police, prisons, social disfavor, etc. But none of these systems work at a level internal to me. When I was about ten years old, I became extremely angry with another kid I knew, and I decided that I was going to poison his pets. We had a book in our house about edible and poisonous wild plants, and I found several of the poisonous ones growing in our back yard. My plan was to use those to make a poisonous concoction and then feed it to the animals. However, as I reading and gathering materials for my plan, I became concerned for my own safety. I was afraid of accidentally exposing myself to the poison and becoming sick, so I called off the plan and ended up becoming friends with that boy later.

            Now, in this case, I was prevented from doing something wrong. But I was not prevented from doing wrong out of any sense of ethics. In the moment I made the decision, not making the poison was a purely selfish decision made out of concern for my own welfare. Everything inside me that was necessary for me to do the bad thing had already happened. From a consequentialist perspective, and from the perspective of society, this is a very good thing. But for my own moral development, it was a negative one. All the bad things that can happen to you if you do wrong- tearing down Schelling fences, becoming more inclined to do similar things in the future, etc- all those things had already happened to me. The fact that I did not actually carry out my plan was incidental. The fact that I was willing to do it was enough.

            And it seems to me that when people say, “children cannot do anything that deserves eternal torment”, they are thinking primarily from the consequentialist perspective. Of course children can’t usually commit big, flashy sins. They are physically weak, they legally and financially dependent on their caregivers, they lack power in almost the circles that make the world run. But all those things are just incidentals. Nothing at all stops a child from being the kind of person who would do bad things if they could. They are only prevented from being as bad as they possibly could be by external factors. This does not make them bastions of morality; it just means they live in a society which has succeeded in designing a system that can prevent some bad impulses from being acted upon. If your morals have a price, then the fact that no one has yet offered you enough to betray them does not make you a good person.

            Most of us are not seriously tempted to do wrong. We think that we are better than the likes of Jeffery Dahmer or Ted Bundy, but how many of us have been seriously tempted to kill someone? You can’t claim victory in a battle you’ve never fought. If you have never battled temptation at the level someone else has and won, you cannot claim moral superiority to them. And if the thing that prevented you from doing wrong was anything other than your own beliefs about right and wrong- if you did not steal because a police officer was nearby, or did not kill because you were afraid of prison- then you have not succeeded in becoming a good person.

          • Aris Katsaris says:

            If I remember correctly my junior high theology teacher, he said that up to the age of 10 kids’ sins are forgiven, but any kid over the age of 10 who dies (by some accident or natural catastrophe) without having gone to confession to get their sins forgiven, is bound to go to hell.

            The parenthesis is because I think he once said that if a death is caused by someone other’s sin (e.g. if they’re murdered) then their own sins are treated more leniently.

          • Two McMillion says:

            I’m not aware of any church that teaches that as an official doctrine except for the Mormon church, which is… fringe, at best.

          • Two McMillion,

            I’ve encountered it elsewhere (among other things, it’s the reason why all the little kids disappeared during the Rapture in the Left Behind series). At the end of my post I have some links that I found on the “age of accountability.” Apparently some Christians think that it’s as late as age twenty.



          • Aegeus says:

            ‘Deserving’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence. According to who?

            According to humans. If Hell’s concept of “just desserts” doesn’t jibe with the average human’s concept of “just desserts,” then in what sense are they just? If it’s only “just” in some strange blue-and-orange morality that no human subscribes to, then why do we care?

          • Decius says:

            If Hell is literal, and people there are punished according to rules, it is better to know those rules and use them in our expected value calculations.

          • Two McMillion says:

            If Hell is literal, and people there are punished according to rules, it is better to know those rules and use them in our expected value calculations.

            Unfortunately, trying to munchkin morals is one of the things that you are punished for in Hell.

        • Walter says:

          “a perspective exists from which Hell is good.”

          Everything is good, because it is as God made it. The plates shattering was of necessity part of the plan. Hell is God’s work via Thamiel, who is just a glove God sometimes wear.

      • multiheaded says:

        ok, that’s an insightful + appealing explaination imo!

  29. wubbles says:

    It’s nice to know that Thamiel appreciates Rodin. If anyone hasn’t seen the Gates of Hell, I highly recommend it. They are in Paris, and there is another copy in Stanford, and this description is exactly what it looks like.

  30. Kinetic_Hugh_Reeve says:

    1) Uriel said of Sataniel’s confusing speech: “Take your utility function and multiply by negative one.” I think we have a decent take here on (utilitarianism * -1). Maximize the opposite of utility for the greatest number. This is a horrifyingly great take on that. It also shows why it’s a monstrous crime against charity to assume an opponent has your ethical system inverted. That means things far worse than being in the opposing party/cultural faction.

    2) What happened to the angels and archangels killed by Thamiel’s bident? In hindsight, that’s the big question of the War in Heaven chapter. Were Michael, et al, destroyed? Trapped in hell for torment? Absorbed by Thamiel to increase his power? Transformed into demons? Some terrible combination of the above?

    3) How does Thamiel keep control of hell? Do those demons share his ethics and see him as an inspiring paragon? Does he hold them in line by fear of something worse, possibly bident-related? Are they extensions of his will or otherwise have their wills in thrall to him?

    • According to “The Devil and Democracy” by Brian Cleeve, the numerous Communists in Hell organized a revolution.

    • Anders Sandberg says:

      In an upcoming paper on moral enhancement we explored a model where agents playing games with each other had subjective utility (which is what they try to maximize) that was a weighted sum of their own and the other’s (essentially, a model of social value orientation theory). A selfish (“individualist” in SVO parlance) agent would have a +1 weight for her own reward and 0 for the other, an altruist 0 for themselves and +1 for the other, a sadomasochist agent -1 weight for themselves and -1 for the other.

      We ran the simulation and looked at what happened if agents could update their weights by looking at other agents that were subjectively high-utility. It turns out that in general there are two attractor states: one prosocial where agents care about their own and the other’s payoffs (not necessarily equally), and one antisocial where everybody is trying to minimize the payoffs. Everybody is trying to make everything as terrible as possible. This sounds very much like Hell.

      (Of course, one might argue that the positive subjective utility of the sado-masochist is still something pleasurable and good. But it is not clear that utility has to feel good.)

      In the realistic case where too low objective payoffs are bad for agent survival, the hell attractor becomes unstable and only the prosocial attractor remains. As the badness of low objective scores gets worse, the prosocial attractor becomes more individualistic (i.e. +1 weight to self, 0 to other). So Hell (and maybe prosocial heaven) is only possible if there are unlimited resources.

      • Anders Sandberg says:

        Oh, missed the reason I posted this: if Hell is a sadomasochistic attractor state, then Thamiel does not need to keep demons in line. Everybody is converging to make things as bad as possible.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      2) What happened to the angels and archangels killed by Thamiel’s bident? In hindsight, that’s the big question of the War in Heaven chapter. Were Michael, et al, destroyed? Trapped in hell for torment? Absorbed by Thamiel to increase his power? Transformed into demons? Some terrible combination of the above?

      In chapter 20 it was said that it was “exactly like humans”. Not clear what that means for this. See this earlier post discussing it with less information.

  31. Wait a moment… According to Chapter 19, the Mormon mission to the angels was ten years before 1974 (“By 1984, ten years after the first Mormon mission to the angels, about ninety percent of the celestial population had fallen.”) and not long after, “The Soviet Union had an entire choir of angels march through Red Square declaring that Communism was the only way forward.”

    Does this mean the Soviets retook Moscow from the forces of Hell?

    • hnau says:

      We know that Nixon’s decision to release the Broadcast had major geopolitical consequences. If it resulted in most of the world uniting against Hell, it might not be impossible that they took Moscow back. Also, the Comet King first showed up in 1976, which I imagine would be a setback for Hell’s forces.

  32. Desertopa says:

    I’m confused by Aaron’s “I wished there were subtitles, so I could have turned it off” commentary, because it was established just in this chapter that the internet can’t carry video or audio files, and the only working medium now is VHS, since I’m pretty sure VHS has never been able to contain subtitles that can be toggled on and off. Unless other media forms stopped working in his lifetime, I don’t see how Aaron would ever have developed an expectation of being able to toggle options on and off in a video.

  33. The “Brimstone Acres” would explain why the price on Singer’s head got results.

    • Holy shit you’re right. Oh my god, oh my god.

    • David Weber says:

      Good insight. The kicker is it’s most likely the demons were lying through their teeth about anyone actually living in the area besides demons, so those suckers are going to burn just like the rest.

      • rossry says:

        Not sure; I think that Thagirion’s explanation is utterly convincing, and, in retrospect, is clearly more evil than just torturing everyone maximally.

        • Evan Þ says:

          But wouldn’t lying about that, and then secretly torturing everyone, be even more evil? I’m sure their staff bioethicists could convince damned souls to play happy for the cameras.

          • There may have been demons playing the role of damned tyrants.

          • Timothy Scriven says:

            It depends on whether they’re trying to maximise pain, or something more subtle like badness. At least on some people’s moral compass there’s just something more… evil… about treating the worst sinners the best to make the others suffer- even if you don’t believe in punishment for punishment’s sake.

    • dsotm says:

      And maybe the Other King’s crucifiction habbits

    • It actually has an even more horrifying implication: At first, the price on Singer’s head seemed to imply that Thamiel was actually worried that Singer could do something to him.
      But this chapter also raises the possibility that Thamiel couldn’t care less what Singer was saying, and just enjoyed the possibility of making humans betray their morals by killing a guy for preaching against Hell.

    • dsotm says:

      It’s probably more basic than that, the classic Jewish (and Christian, and prety much every religion’s) solution to the theodic question of “why evil people [sometimes] thrive ?” is that they may thrive during their lifetime but will be punished in the afterlife/ hell /next incarnation, this gives hope and incentive for people not to try and out-evil each other so naturally Thamiel would want to destroy this notion.

  34. The problem with maximizing rejoicing in heaven by maximizing your sin with the plan to repent, is that repentance means wishing you hadn’t done something. But as long as you think it was a great plan, you won’t wish you hadn’t done it. So you won’t repent, so no joy in heaven. It’s a bit like Kafka’s toxin problem. You can’t simply make the plan of “decide to drink the poison and then don’t do it,” since if that is a pre-existing plan, then you are not deciding to drink it at all. And in the same way, you can’t simply make the plan of “sin and repent,” because then you are not planning to repent at all.

    • Is this right? It sounds like, knowing what you just said, I could still sin. Then I would think “Darn, I guess I can’t repent now, that was really stupid.” But this is believing my sin to be wrong, so I would have repented.

      And since I predict that this will happen, I can feel confident sinning now, knowing it will play out in this way.

      • Julian R. says:

        But now that you realize this, aren’t you back at the beginning? You anticipate things working out, so you won’t repent (regret) anything.

      • rossry says:

        It seems to me that the ability to sin-repent in a premeditated fashion is almost exactly the same as the ability to one-two box and fool Omega into giving you both boxes full. Though maybe I’m staying a false analogy; my theology here is not great.

      • boris says:

        The Catholic perspective on this question:

        O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my
        sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend
        Thee, my God, Who art all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly
        resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near
        occasions of sin.

        In order to be absolved, you MUST resolve to sin no more; if you’re in the confessional thinking of some reason you’ll be able to sin again but still repent, your repentance is invalid. Additionally, note the “most of all because they have offended Thee”–it’s not sincere repentance if you’re repenting because you’re afraid of God’s just punishments (no idea about Thamiel’s unjust punishments, obviously). It’s not enough just to believe your sin was a tactical error with regard to avoiding Hell. The Catholic church has had a long time to close loopholes (though who knows how much the Catholic church has correct; it doesn’t seem like anyone in UNSONG but kabbalists has a good grasp of the divine).

        I do like your explanation above regarding why Hell is so atrocious, i.e. Thamiel is not confined to just punishment. But it does raise the question of what apparatus there is for judgment; who decides, when God is absent, who ends up in Thamiel’s domain? If it’s any power other than Thamiel, how can it think it’s a good idea to send anyone to him? Perhaps he won’t tell us the proportion of the population sent to Hell because he doesn’t want us to know that it’s everyone.

        • Desertopa says:

          There may not be an actual being involved in deciding. One version of this I liked featured in the long-running webcomic “College Roomies from Hell,” which also featured a more horrifying than usual depiction of the Devil. He attested that there is no “judgment” when you die; if your soul is sufficiently burdened with sin, it simply sinks. There is no review, no appeals, just consequences a absolute as gravity.

          • John Burida says:

            A metaphysics composed (almost) entirely of mechanistic immutable laws is very enticing. It removes the need to posit a God with whom we are supposed to have some kind of relationship. The added bonus is we get to define morality as that which allows us to overcome bad outcomes in the laws of metaphysics. It’s firmly consequentialist.

  35. Psycicle says:

    We have a fellow captive tell you he’s learned a secret Name that will finally kill you, grant you the oblivion you crave. He’ll demonstrate by having a few other people say it, and they’ll drop dead on the spot.

    And folks, this is why it is handy to memorize the mortal name.

  36. Bill says:

    I wish I’d paid attention to the trigger warning, I wish I’d paid attention to the trigger warning…

    Not Scott’s fault, but, uh

    I think I’m going to stop reading this book now.

    • I’m not sure if you’re serious, but I think if this worries you the rest of this book will be mostly therapeutic.

      • stavro375 says:

        You say that, and yet given the first sentence of Unsong (“The apocalypse began in a cubicle”) and the general depressing tone I somehow doubt this. For all we know the reveal at the end is that Uriel and Sohu figured out how to fix the divine light, all they needed was a Name that gave souls to inanimate objects, UNSONG was recruited to help find it, they built a hell-proof facility with security measures that create an ineffable sense of wrongness as an unfortunate byproduct, Jane and her seven dragons are a failsafe plan implemented by the Comet King, Aaron manages to single-handedly foil every plan intended to keep the ensouling Name from Thamiel, and he’s writing Unsong in a villa in Brimstone Acres reserved for him as reward for ensuring Thamiel’s ultimate victory.

        • LHC says:

          Man, it’s unsettling how plausible this sounds.

          • A. says:

            That would also explain how Aaron knows exactly what happened to other characters, and why chapters about things he is not likely to know about are also written in his style.

            Anyone got any idea if Scott would actually be telling that kind of story? Maybe I am wrong, but it feels like this would seem to be too simple, too modern, too fashionable for a story of that complexity.

            I guess I’ll keep hoping for the kind of ending Tolkien talks about in “On Fairy-Stories” – for a eucatastraphe, for an impossible happy ending after all hope is lost. Think what you like about Tolkien or Christianity, but this kind of ending does seem to make stories either last or at least get stuck in your head. I don’t know how easy it is to do this successfully, but we do know that quite a few storytellers managed.

          • Jack V says:

            I agree that’s plausible, but we’re reading a story by Scott with a chapter from Pyth, not the reverse, so I really hope after this it goes back to awkward whale puns and they fix the “hell” problem.

  37. isfalsewhenquined says:

    Does anyone have any good arguments against Pascal’s Wager? I think I need one.

    • Timothy Scriven says:

      I could say something against the impermissability of infinities in decision problems, but I doubt that would be viscerally persuasive. The best argument in terms of persuasiveness is: which god are you going to pick? Which doctrine associated with that God?

      • isfalsewhenquined says:

        (1) It doesn’t need to be infinitely bad, just unbearably bad. (2) The Catholic Church; it’s the most obvious and credible to me. I do have a God-shaped hole and it is almost exactly the shape of the Catholic God.

        • Timothy Scriven says:

          Dude, read the new testament then c.f. Roman Catholic doctrine- there’s no logical connection and even precious little consistency.

          • isfalsewhenquined says:

            I don’t really care about the new testament as much as I care about Church doctrine in general.

        • Anders Sandberg says:

          But aren’t there an infinite number of gods that could fit that God-shaped hole? In fact, I would imagine that there could be a counterpart to non-standard models of arithmetic that applies here: an endless number of crazy and heretical beliefs that fit perfectly with whatever theological evidence you accept.

          Using the belief with the lowest Kolmogorov complexity as the most likely requires you to solve what looks like an undecideable theological problem, and will likely make you heretic anyway. Luther after all likely thought he had a lower complexity and more correct model than the Catholic church.

        • boris says:

          The Catholic Church has a wonderful apparatus for dealing with sin and repentance and trying to be a good person. But T. Scriven is right; if you want a faith that you can reason yourself into, the Catholic Church relies on pretty elaborate traditional interpretations of the New Testament, ones that I never really found credible.

    • If you’re seriously in need of one, then I wrote a lengthy rebuttal to Pascal’s Wager just a few months ago and I would be willing to chat with you at length on the matter.

      (I’m pretty sure that you’re exaggerating for comic effect, but just in case this is really causing you distress, I don’t want to just assume and leave it at that. Please let me know that you’re actually okay, if you are.)

    • Lux Sola says:

      What is there is a god, and you’re praying to the wrong one? Every time you go to Church, you’re just making him madder and madder.

      That’s from the Simpsons, but it’s substantially more plausible than Pascal’s Wager, because Pascal’s wager assumes the existences of only one plausible god, and Homer’s Wager rightfully acknowledges the numerous equally plausible gods worshiped currently, and truly innumerable equally plausible gods you don’t already know about, any one of which could be real and jealous.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      I mean, the most fundamental problem with Pascal’s Wager is that it’s an argument from consequences.

    • Jack V says:

      Logical argument: It’s still vanishingly unlikely to be true, and anyway, different religions require different contradictory behaviour
      Emotional argument: it’s too horrible to think about, just ignore it.

      Scott: … I wasn’t expecting you to get converts to Christianity out of this story…

    • duckduckMOO says:

      You might get something out of this

      • duckduckMOO says:

        To try to summarise a few points:

        1. there is no reference to hell in the bible. Hell is an english word that two different words (sheol and gehennah) are translated as in some versions of the bible. Neither of these original concepts have anything to to do with torture or demons. (Sheogh is a quiet kind of underworld, gehennah is place near jerusalem where they used to burn trash.) It’s been a while since I looked into this so I may be partially wrong on some minor point, but not on anything relevant

        2. mass religious belief is zero evidence of a religion’s correctness. -The vikings, aztecs, romans, jews etc can’t all be right.

        3. there is no incentive to follow through on any threat of hell. God is not playing an iterated game with you, and has no competitors -god has absolute power. Presumably god is also a perfect liar or can simulate one. There is no incentive to follow through on any threat of hell.

        4. all credibility the idea of hell has, flows from the same source that says god is good, (the institution of christianity) which it is far more certain of. Either the source is useless (the ideas are incompatable), or mistaken about the former, if not the latter.

        5. if god is evil (or if a demon is in control) you’re fucked anyway. All possibilities where evil has absolute control are irrelevant. If that is the case, they will do what they want anyway. It’s fundamentally incorrect to account for the possibility of such a scenario. Such a scenario is the kind of thing that must never happen. If things are so, all is lost anyway.

        6. if there is a hell, the most likely way that could have happened, is god being morally retarded because he has no peers. -If there is a hell, (vanishingly, irrelevantly unlikely, but if we pretend there is), then you, yes you, might have to explain to him why it’s a ridiculous idea, so to the extent that you fear hell you ought to be clear on that.


        The linked post has a much better explanation of point 3

        • duckduckMOO says:

          the phrasing of 6. might be particularly bad or insensitive. Apologies if so. I am quite tired at the moment

  38. Timothy Scriven says:

    People saying that the heaven in LA seems false and fake: I’m not sure this is true.

    The people there seem to be rapturously happy. What’s more, they’re not just happy in the sense of being eternally blissed out on Heroin or something. They live lives, they cook food, they read books, they walk dogs. Is San Fran really a shiny-happy-secret-dystopia in the style of Brave New World or many Star Trek episodes? I’m not sure it is, maybe it’s just our own skewedness which makes us unable to see that it really is paradise.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Nitpick: You mean SF, not LA.

      But yeah, people were referring to what’s going on in SF as “wireheading” above, and… that doesn’t seem accurate? Things are happening there. There’s some sort of life going on there, even if we don’t understand it.

    • LHC says:

      Agreed, though I’m not sure if this was Scott’s intended reaction, given the LSD.

    • multiheaded says:

      Same. This has been bothering me. I’m not even that against wireheading, but this isn’t like lying on the couch doing heroin; it feels like a real and pretty appealing life.

  39. Doug S. says:

    Why go to all that trouble of actually creating a pain-inducing environment instead of something along the lines of direct stimulation of the brain’s pain centers? I guess brain surgery doesn’t work on dead souls, then.

    Peter Singer was right: Hell must be destroyed. Screw diplomacy – go round up those angels and have them start smiting!

    • Haugmaug says:

      Why go to all that trouble of actually creating a pain-inducing environment instead of something along the lines of direct stimulation of the brain’s pain centers?

      The bioethicist said it would not be permissible.

      • Timothy Scriven says:

        Yeah, building on this point consider:

        Many humans in the actual world (myself included) think that it would not be a good outcome if humans were simply eternally strapped to a bliss machine.

        Maybe these demons- inverting our values- feel exactly the same. The pain that the sufferers would feel if achieved through chemical or whatever means would not be ‘real’ or authentic to them in the same way this is not authentic to us but in reverse. Maybe they would regard stories about places where everyone is in pain all the time, but it’s just a result of stimulation, as dystopias in a similar but inverted way to the way we feel about brave new world dystopias. Better a not perfectly tortured Socrates than a perfectly tortured pig, they might say.

        • Timothy Scriven says:

          In other words, maybe they’re not inverse utilitarians, but a more sophisticated form of reverse consequentalist- heck maybe they’re some kind of reverse deontologist (perhaps they agonise in their ethics classes about whether or not it is permissable to let one go even if it will damn 20.)

          • Utility isn’t necessarily the same as pleasure. Even Mill said that

            It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognise the fact, that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone.

            But there are also things like preference utilitarianism which try to maximize what people subjectively desire rather than what they enjoy. That means that if people don’t want wiring heading a preference utilitarian wouldn’t give it to them even if it would be pleasurable for them.

    • From a Doyleist perspective — this chapter would not be anywhere near as effective if it was just “and then the demon turned on the machine and the child experienced ten to the fourteen dolors”.

  40. mavant says:

    Did I miss something about the death and/or destruction of Satan before this? That sounds like a major event, but I can’t remember hearing any reference to an Adversary figure other than Thamiel until now.

    • July says:

      Sataniel was slain in chapter 20.

      “It gets worse,” said Michael. “I myself slew Sataniel. Thamiel raised his two-pointed weapon over the spot, and Sataniel did not recoalesce as himself. Instead his spirit fragmented into many monsters. Camael and his choir were not able to stand against them.”

  41. Dirdle says:

    I am compelled to abandon all hope of the story containing a satisfying answer to its questions of theodicy, at least for this reader. It was a pretty slim hope anyway.

    • Two McMillion says:

      I’m not, really- I don’t think that the existence of Hell is an unsolvable problem of theodicy. In fact, this chapter makes me even more excited for Unsong, because whatever Scott’s solution is it now has to be really awesome.

      • Marvy says:

        Don’t be so sure he’ll solve it; there needs to be something left for the characters to do when the story ends.

    • Timo Timo says:

      Surely, this chapter isn’t about adding difficulty to answering theodicity, it is about adding urgency to the task of destroying hell.

  42. Vladimir Slepnev says:

    If you want something more scary, read this chapter of Worm, starting from the words “Let’s try a different distraction then”.

    If you want something less scary, watch this video.

  43. Megafire says:

    Yeah, I’d run to San Francisco in this world. Well, first I’d join whatever concerted effort is in place to destroy Hell, but if there isn’t one, I’m going to San Francisco.

  44. SP says:

    First: I’ve been lurking here and at SSC for about a year; this is my first time commenting. I’ve wanted to thank Scott for a long time for his writing so let me do that now. Thank you. You’ve made an enormous difference in my life and I really genuinely appreciate your existence and the choice you made to share your thoughts with the rest of us.

    The reason I felt compelled to comment on this post is because nobody else already said what I wanted to say, namely, does forgiveness of sins not exist in this world at all? I read this account of Hell and my first thought is that this is the reason Jesus came down to Earth, because He loved us so much that He was willing to die for our sins so that we might escape punishment.

    I understand that you aren’t a Christian and I hope you don’t feel like I am saying you are obligated to include Jesus as He is depicted in the Christian scriptures in your story (which I’m very much enjoying). It’s your story, you’re the god of it. I’m just a reader. 🙂

    • Eldritch says:

      If I understand this story correctly, basically everything in the Bible after Moses or so is post-Uriel, so everything attributed to the Divine afterwards is either Uriel or folktales, and by the time of Christ the connection to the divine light has been pinched off entirely. Given that manifesting as Jesus doesn’t really seem like something Uriel would or could do, and God doesn’t seem to have directly intervened ever as far as Uriel knows, it would seem that Jesus was either entirely mythical in this world or a real mortal human distorted by two thousand years of folklore.

      Or possibly it was a garbled and misunderstood attempt by Uriel to inform everyone that since Hell no longer literally existed, they didn’t have to worry about Hell and should just try to be basically decent. Unfortunately, Hell has since re-instantiated.

      • Blue says:

        Jesus seems to have been left purposefully undetermined. He spoke the one dialect angels didn’t know, so they couldn’t verify what he was saying (and the angels seem largely pretty ignorant of the working of God as is.)

        Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t sound that different from the “Right Hand of God” as we so far know that, in philosophy at least.

    • hnau says:

      Thanks for bringing this up! In hindsight I think it’s been subconsciously bothering me from Chapter 1 on that there’s no such theme in the story. The world described is pretty obviously messed up, but every character– even the Comet King– either tries to accumulate as much power as possible and use it to forcibly fix things, or (failing that) just lives with it. I don’t remember anything in the story that even raises the possibility of forgiveness or grace or mercy or self-sacrificial love or anything in that general category. But I do remember a couple of passages that kind of flirt with related ideas– the “Hole in My Bucket” analogy, and the end of the Sohu-Uriel-Thamiel chapter– and incomplete as those were, they’ve been among my favorite parts of the story so far.

      • I think Neil Armstrong/RHOG/San Francisco falls into that category. Problematically and imperfectly (Uriel did say the RHOG had issues), but it’s not that the concept of grace doesn’t exist – it’s just gone awry for some reason.

  45. Two McMillion says:

    Chapters like this are why I’m continuing to read Unsong.

    Yes, the pacing isn’t perfect, the characters are all right, but the possibility that Scott has a novel solution to theodicy is more than enough to keep me reading.

    This is my favorite chapter so far. I like that Hell is horrifying. It should be horrifying. You should never think of Hell and think lightly of it. Everything about the idea of Hell should shock and horrify and sicken you. It is a terrifying doctrine, and it is supposed to be. And the fascinating thing is that the reaction of many readers to this chapter will be exactly what Thamiel said. You’ll be sickened. Maybe frightened. Maybe pushed closer to existential worry. But after a while it’s going to fade, and you’re going to live exactly like you did before, and that is either the most comforting or the most horrifying thing in the world.

    So remember:

    “Finally, I want you to know that you will sin anyway. This is the best part. For a couple of days, or a couple of weeks, you’ll be horrified, you’ll try to change your ways, you’ll be like the alcoholic promising he’ll never have another drop. Then the memory will fade, your normal habits will take over, and everyone will be back to the way they were before. You can’t save yourself. You’re not strong enough. Your basic nature will out – not to be all Calvinist about it, but it’s true – and you’ll make up some comforting excuse and get on with your life.

    But you won’t live forever. And when you die, I’ll be waiting.”

  46. dsotm says:

    Content warning indeed.
    I guess I was expecting something less literal in spite of this being entirely in the spirit of the story so far, it feels like an eleven on a one-to-ten scale but would have been better as a 5+5i.

    I like the theory of the broadcast being a deception designed to maximize chaos and evil on earth because maybe Thamiel doesn’t actually have the capacity to do what he describes (yet?).

    Troubling point:
    If the skies cracked in 1969 and the broadcast was made in 1972 when did they accumulate those thousands hundreds and thousands years of torture cycles described ? How did Hitler and Beria got there having died back when the world was still running on math ?
    Does hell operate outside normal time ? Did the de-metaphorization take effect retroactively, if so why only in hell and not in heaven/earth ?

    • dsotm says:

      I think I know why this bugs me – In Thamiel’s encounter with Sohu he tells her that while her father takes the term ‘hurt’ rather literally, he himself doesn’t. This should support ‘hell by other means’ theory.

    • Timothy Scriven says:

      It did happen retroactively and also affected the earth (which was suddenly 6000 years old for example.) Given the peculiar way earth was changed in the first place, this is one of the few examples of retroactive transformation in fiction that makes sense IMHO.

      • dsotm says:

        hmm the earth reverting to being 6000 years old would be the equivalent of hell suddenly filling with the newly de-metaphorized souls of the deamed, but if those souls would have retroactively suffered for the duraiton of Uriel’s machine it would mean that all other divine-light driven events should also have taken course retroactively – the war in heaven fought to conclusion, humans having no recollection of ‘math world’ basically a different timeline altogether which doesn’t sit very well conceptually.

    • Nornagest says:

      I guess I was expecting something less literal in spite of this being entirely in the spirit of the story so far, it feels like an eleven on a one-to-ten scale but would have been better as a 5+5i.

      I’ll give it an eight, but maybe I’ve read more depictions of eternal torment than average.

      (It’s a weird little genre, but I don’t think it’s wrong to call it a genre.)

    • Kinetic_Hugh_Reeve says:

      Hell is at the center (ie bottom) of the Earth, like in Dante. (Earth also being at the bottom, where the lower-grade universe components settle.) So the depths of Hell are the farthest place in the material world from the source of everything. In Dante, from the light and motion that originate from God and enter the universe at the highest sphere. Here, the divine light from Ein Sof streaming down through whichever sephirot are still intact. Either way, all that stuff of existence has to travel farthest, and through the most intermediaries, to reach hell.

      So when Uriel let loose his crawler script to refactor the universe, it took a very long time to fully take effect. There were some remnants of the old order until the Middle Ages. It’s possible that the mundaning of the world hit hell, and maybe the deepest reaches never fully changed. Metaphorical souls metaphorically sank to the metaphorical depths, until they sank far enough to become literal. Thamiel and the demons would have kept retreating, evacuating operations into still functioning zones, their long retreat ironically ending after a poorly-located Bible reading. Then they went back on the attack.

  47. Anonymous says:


    Disclaimers like this always set me up for disappointment, and this one didn’t disapp— wait.

    Well, okay, it was a decent attempt. But the heavy-handed spoiler did enrage me to the point of blunting my enjoyment of this interlude. Your very own defence of trigger warnings you wrote: “put them on the bullshytte page [so that the uninterested can skip it]”. And what do you keep doing with your “Content notes” all the time? Putting these right at the beginning so that everyone gets spoiled. Well done.

    • LHC says:

      I benefited by reading it as in-character on Aaron’s part.

    • David Xu says:

      Consider that your reaction to the warning (“enrage”, really?) may be more an indication of your own preferences than it is of the trigger warning.

    • I think there’s a difference to having to warn someone every time you mention a white person, versus having written a chapter specifically designed to disgust and horrify as many people as possible.

      A good horror movie doesn’t advertise exactly which scene the ghost appears in, but it does advertise that it’s a horror movie, and I would be pretty upset if something I expected not to be a horror movie turned out to be one.

      • For what it’s worth, even though I personally didn’t need it (though I did brace for it since I couldn’t be sure, but that didn’t harm the enjoyment), I am very glad you put the content warning there for other people. I would think your readership is used to a lot of light-heartedness so far and suspect a lot of people might have otherwise been caught off guard. So, on the assumption that the number of people helped is non-zero: Thank you very much for putting it there, on behalf of everyone who was helped. 🙂

  48. Dromal says:

    I have an unaccountable suspicion that Thamiel faked all of this in order to troll humanity, and/or present a false and hard-to-solve problem to distract good people from other tasks.

    IIRC, there seems to be a curious absence of dead humans in this universe’s Heaven. Perhaps Hell is the same? And that thing about humans ‘dying the true death’ meant what it sounds like, and still holds? Hell was sieged, not invaded: all the information about what it’s like comes direct from the Prince of Lies.

    Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking . . .

    • Sniffnoy says:

      I will note that this was considered earlier by me and Jack V here. Notably, there don’t seem to be any human souls in Hell when Sataniel first goes down there. It’s hard to say, though judging by Scott’s comments it certainly sounds like the intention is that it’s real.

  49. Quixote says:

    Thanks! This was really good chapter. It worked on a lot of levels. It was horrifying; sufficiently horrifying to make me feel positively happy to be living in a cold uncaring mechanistic utterly non magical universe. And it was still funny. That’s a real trick given the material. Hats off.

  50. Anonymous says:

    When God said you couldn’t start a fire on the Sabbath, and the rabbis interpreted that to mean you couldn’t use electricity either, the Israelis just went ahead and programmed all their elevators to constantly go up and down stopping on every floor, because then you could enter and not push buttons and you wouldn’t technically be the one initiating the electricity.

    We know by now that it was Uriel who said it, that he did mean electricity after all, and that the only reason he said it is because it was a performance hack of sorts (just like many other small-c commandments in the Bible); I also assume it was long obsolete around the time the sky cracked. But then, given that Uriel is back from being a metaphor, why wouldn’t this become common knowledge at this point? (Maybe it’s because he was too busy to explain it again.)

    Also, there’s no date and location for this episode.

  51. Alsadius says:

    I think it says some pretty terrifying things about what I’ve read over the years that the Broadcast didn’t really faze me. (That said, I’m certainly happy that such a place doesn’t actually exist)

  52. Inty says:

    One thing that confuses me- Why does Thamiel not lie (or tell the truth?) and say that 100% of humans go to hell. I get the thing about hope, but it seems like the payoff would be worth the drop in Earthly hope. There would be chaos, and everyone’s incentive to sin would skyrocket, because there’s no hope to be had from righteousness.

    • MH says:

      There would probably be chaos and rampant sin, but there would also be an increased incentive for any self-interested human to go the Peter Singer/Comet King route. If Hell is only a possibility and not a certainty, people might worry that fighting against Thamiel increases your risks of ending up there if you fail, or just be too caught up in trying to follow whatever narrow path might let them avoid damnation to see the big picture. If there’s no chance of bargaining your way out of Hell, or following any set of rules well enough to avoid it, what do you have to lose in fighting to the end? This assumes that Thamiel is vulnerable enough to have something to fear from the combined efforts of all of humanity, though, which we can’t be certain of.

      • Aran says:

        You see, Mr. Potter, no one ever quite believes that they will go to Azkaban, so they see no harm in it for themselves.

        (Chapter 60)

        (There are a lot of other parallels, of course. Azkaban is the Wizarding World’s compromise with sin, after all.)

  53. cw says:

    As a serious Christian/someone who believes in eternal conscious torment, this chapter hit home really hard. The problems of theodicy are really hard, and Scott did an incredible job summarizing that. Hats off.

    (as opposed to someone like C.S. Lewis, who sorta bends his theology to avoid the actually tough problems)

    • XerxesPraelor says:

      From “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis:

      ‘Because she is in God’s hands.’ But if so, she was in God’s hands all the time, and I have seen what they did to her here. Do they suddenly become gentler to us the moment we are out of the body? And if so, why? If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God: for in the only life we know He hurts us beyond our worst fears and beyond all we can imagine. If it is consistent with hurting us, then He may hurt us after death as unendurably as before it.

      Sometimes it is hard not to say, ‘God forgive God.’ Sometimes it is hard to say so much. But if our faith is true, He didn’t. He crucified Him.

      Come, what do we gain by evasions? We are under the harrow and can’t escape. Reality, looked at steadily, is unbearable.

      • John Buridan says:

        Only to find that God killed his son as a sacrifice for all mankind, then damned a few more people to eternal torment anyway… It’s a joyous doctrine.

        Maybe He only damned Hitler, even so. The writhing wicked creature may suffer long and hard, but what consolation is that to those who suffered at his hands? Or what level of saintly sadism is required from the elect elevated from the peat of Birkenau for any of his suffering to make them glory in the justice of the world they passed tragically through?

        Eternal punishment as cosmic reparation seems more like eternal rupture – an eternal state of violence within the cosmos in some region called bloody Hell.

        Not even Alexander Pope provides help with his rosy view of ‘the whole.’

        Virtuous and vicious every man must be,
        Few in th’ extreme, but all in the degree,
        The rogue and fool by fits is fair and wise;
        And even the best, by fits, what they despise.
        ’Tis but by parts we follow good or ill;
        For, vice or virtue, self directs it still;
        Each individual seeks a several goal;
        But Heaven’s great view is one, and that the whole.
        That counter-works each folly and caprice;
        That disappoints th’ effect of every vice;
        That, happy frailties to all ranks applied,
        Shame to the virgin, to the matron pride,
        Fear to the statesman, rashness to the chief,
        To kings presumption, and to crowds belief:
        That, virtue’s ends from vanity can raise,
        Which seeks no interest, no reward but praise;
        And build on wants, and on defects of mind,
        The joy, the peace, the glory of mankind.

        Alas, the Joy of Life! I’m sad just thinking about it all… The nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating Joy of Life.

        • Two McMillion says:

          I feel obligated to plug the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement here. Christ’s sacrifice was not, in fact, for all mankind.

          • John Buridan says:

            I appreciate that the Calvinists don’t sugar-coat the doctrine. Apparently Calvin didn’t even think that Love was an a priori quality of God.

            To your point on limited atonement. So you’re saying from all eternity God created the world ontologically distinct from him and then imbued it with some magical quality called ‘free will’ that makes it no longer his responsibility what happens in some portions of the universe at certain intersections of space-time. Then, in his goodness, which isn’t quite infinite because he does not atone for all mankind (Fie upon you, James 3:17, John 3:16, Lk. 17:21, Acts 17:26) he atones (by torturing His Son) for some small portion of mankind to which he never really gave this magical quality called free will by which one is granted the supreme grace of damning yourself from a relationship with God forever.

            Yeah, Christianity will have to develop a vocabulary that does more heavy work than that.

            Fight the Power!

        • Two McMillion says:

          Hm… I think you have some misunderstandings of Calvinism in there.

          Calvinists believe in free will. However, Calvinists deny the existence of contra-causal free will. If you’ve read the LW sequence on free will, it’s actually very close to the Calvinist idea. According to Calvinists, people follow their own desires, and fallen people have no desire to follow God. They have desires for many other things, and they have free will in how they dispose of those desires. But they’re not going to choose to follow God because they don’t ultimately have any desire to do that. They may have desires for socialization or warm and fuzzy feelings or the like that draw them towards visible religion, but their desires will be for the benefits of religious activity, not for God and his law. God therefore shares no moral responsibility for the wrong that humans do; they are following their desires with their free will.

          The Calvinist view takes the Christian doctrine of salvation by grace and expands the view of where grace is applied in the process. According to the Calvinist, “saved by grace” doesn’t just mean the moment of conversion- it means that when you heard the gospel and were interested in hearing more, that was God’s grace to you, and when you felt bad for your sins, that was God’s grace to you, and when you found a church to go to and Christian friends who talked to you that those things, too, were God’s grace. Thus, any conversion to Christianity, in the Calvinist view, is a miracle of God in which he changes our desires so that we desire to follow him. Now we retain our free will to do what we desire, but our desires now include a new element which delights in obedience to God. So when the Calvinist says “limited atonement”, they mean that Christ’s sacrifice actually worked. Christ did not die to create the potential for people to be saved; his death was a miraculous event that echoed through the past, present, and future to provide all the grace to all his elect to save them for all time.

          This saving act was one of infinite goodness. In fact, saving only one person in all of history would have been an act of infinite goodness. Why? Because sin is infinitely bad! Even here on earth, we can see how positions of authority can affect how serious an act against someone it. There is a vast difference between me slapping my friend on the shoulder and me walking up to President Obama and slapping him on the shoulder. Of course, on earth this principle is often abused by the rich and powerful, but all the same there is a genuine point of justice at play here.

          Sin being infinitely bad also means that God’s goodness is shown not just in his saving grace, but also in his judgement. Hell, in the Calvinist view (unlike in the story), is simply perfect justice for all wrongs committed and nothing more, and all sins which a person commits on infinite in scale. That is not to say they are all the same, but they are all far worse than we usually think. Doing good things does not erase the bad things you have done. No judge in the world would let a person off a murder charge because they saved a life by donating a kidney; you can’t buy moral offsets like that.

          Love is an attribute of God, but not his only attribute. God is also holy and just and must punish sin (he has free will within his desires, just like people, but he has no desire to do anything to sin except punish it. Forgiving it through Christ’s sacrifice counts as punishing it; that’s the point.).

          Of the verses you reference, John 3:16 is the only one that relates to Calvinism in any obvious way, and it takes a distinctly Calvinistic form: it says that “all who believe” will have eternal life. Well, that’s exactly what Calvinists think. Believe and you’ll have eternal life.

          • Two McMillion says:

            The above was directed at John Buridan. I hit the wrong reply button.

          • cw says:

            To agree, and go further – because of original sin, no number of actions you do in this life can ever erase the stain that sin causes in your life. Only with the aid of God’s grace can you achieve salvation.

            (compare to Pelagianism:

          • John Buridan says:

            “Why not?” I say to myself. Let’s have the discussion.

            Okay, so I have read the LW sequence and William Placher’s theology (he was a religion professor at Wabash College who wrote a good portion of the Church of America Presbyterian Statement of Faith).

            But with Bill Placher and yourself I must up a fight. You say people follow their own desires (and incentives etc.) the good people follow good things, the bad people follow bad things. But I’d say it’s common knowledge that bad people can reform their wicked ways (by the miraculous grace of God which may work through circumstances etc., as I take it you’d say it) and good people can decline in righteousness and fall.

            If it takes a miracle of God (two, actually, in your view: 1) the metaphysically prior death and resurrection of Jesus followed by 2) the dispensation of God’s grace to some limited number of mankind who are capable of receiving it) for a man to be righteous and remain good, we have to ask a few questions. Why is man so depraved in the first place? But more to the point, we are talking about eternal punishment.

            Implicit in an explication of man’s sin (of course, all men sin, even those who believe cf. Alexander Pope above) inherently being unpardonable is this frankly childish equation of sin being a finite creature’s offense against an infinite God, thus – through some arcane logic – requiring the creature be rejected eternally from the Love of God as a simple matter of justice.

            No matter how far removed God is from the secondary causes of creation (like people killing each other), as long as you accept that He freely created the universe without restriction, He is wagering eternal damnation for many people, like some type of monstrous father who bets his children on the poker table, letting some fall into suicide, addiction, and hate so long as he comes out of the game with a few kids left, it’s supposedly worth it.

            This what drives people to listen to Radiohead.

          • cw says:

            @John Buridan – I agree, it doesn’t seem fair, but it’s Biblically defensible. And “fairness” ultimately is irrelevant: compare Romans 9:19-21, which reads “19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” 20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? 21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?” (NASB). It doesn’t really make sense to ask moral questions or questions of “fairness” of a God which is beyond morals.

            Ultimately people are still responsible for their own decisions, despite the fact that God created them – which highlights the paradox behind “creating something with free will.” I’ll admit that that doesn’t always make sense to me – but it doesn’t have to, and again I’m not sure questions of fairness really matter.

            And I like Radiohead a lot.

          • Two McMillion says:

            But with Bill Placher and yourself I must up a fight. You say people follow their own desires (and incentives etc.) the good people follow good things, the bad people follow bad things. But I’d say it’s common knowledge that bad people can reform their wicked ways (by the miraculous grace of God which may work through circumstances etc., as I take it you’d say it) and good people can decline in righteousness and fall.

            That is not quite what I said. “Good people” and “bad people” is not a binary state. “Saved” and “unsaved” is a binary state, but that is not exactly the same thing. Goodness and badness are a spectrum. At one end you have very bad, and at one you have very good, but there’s no objective line which you can point to and say, “everyone on this side is good” or “everyone on this side is bad”. Saved people are distinguished not by their position on the spectrum, but by the direction and nature of their progress on the spectrum. A murderer who becomes saved may start at a worse position on the spectrum than an average, unsaved middle-class american, but the murderer will be inclined to make progress while the middle-class american will be inclined to languish where they are or perhaps move backwards. Remember too that goodness is multi-faceted. It is not particularly difficult for anyone, saved or unsaved, to make progress in goodness in one area, but for the unsaved person they almost always trade off against becoming worse in other areas. An example might be a person who starts giving more money to charity (thereby making gains in generosity) while also becoming more arrogant as a result (thereby going backwards in humility). Another example might be a person who makes moral progress in several areas of life, but is harried and worried by the effort of it (thus trading off against stress and worry, both sins themselves, as well as possibly the risk of acting worse than before when they inevitably fail). When a person is regenerated by Christ, it becomes possible for them to make unhindered moral progress across all areas. True, they sometimes move forward and back on the spectrum, but they should be moving forward more than they are moving back. So the situation is significantly more complicated than you say here.

            Keep in mind also that much moral progress is invisible. It is possible for two people to do the same thing, and for one to sin in doing it and the other not to do it. Thus it is not always possible to look at someone and judge their goodness or badness with perfect accuracy (of course, looking isn’t completely inaccurate, either).

            If it takes a miracle of God (two, actually, in your view: 1) the metaphysically prior death and resurrection of Jesus followed by 2) the dispensation of God’s grace to some limited number of mankind who are capable of receiving it) for a man to be righteous and remain good, we have to ask a few questions.

            Saying “able” makes it sound as though there is something unusually bad or wrong with those who are not able to receive it. This is not the case. No one is “able” to receive it unless God’s grace comes first. This grace comes without respect to who the person receiving it is. People who fail to accept Jesus’ sacrifice do not do so because they are stupid, or because they are worse sinners, or anything like that. They do not receive it because they do not want to receive it.

            Why is man so depraved in the first place?

            Adam’s sin is imparted to all of his descendants (ie, all people everywhere). God could have made each person responsible for their own sin, as with the angels. However, allowing Adam’s sin to be imparted to other people also allows Christ’s sacrifice to be imparted to other people. It’s the exact same process in both cases, except that in one goodness is being imparted and in the other case evil is being imparted. (This is one reason why fallen angels cannot be saved.)

            Implicit in an explication of man’s sin (of course, all men sin, even those who believe cf. Alexander Pope above) inherently being unpardonable is this frankly childish equation of sin being a finite creature’s offense against an infinite God, thus – through some arcane logic – requiring the creature be rejected eternally from the Love of God as a simple matter of justice.

            First, sinful people do not cease to sin at death. People in Hell are still sinning. They are not sorry for their sins or wishing for an opportunity to repent (though they are probably sorry that they got caught). The things they thought were good reasons for sinning at the moment when they sinned they still believe to have been good reasons. Their sins will continue forever, and so will their judgment.

            But second, what grounds do you have for declaring that a finite creature’s sin simply cannot be infinite? Many thinkers throughout history have recognized that there is a kind fractal to nature to evil, and to good, too, for that matter. Think about the reaction of many people to the trolley problem. Most people, if asked, will agree that three people dying is worse than one person dying. And yet those same people will still hesitate to declare that you should pull the lever in the trolley problem. I do not believe that this is simple illogical on their part. I believe that it hints at a truth: that there is a sense in which you can zoom in on any small act of evil in a larger act of evil, and find that that small part contains just as much evil as the whole. American slavery was a great evil, but that evil would not have been improved by freeing only half the slaves. Zoom in the evils of American slavery and you will find that they are just as present in the lives of each individual slave as they are in slavery as whole. The part contains the whole; evil is an onion turned inside out.

            No matter how far removed God is from the secondary causes of creation (like people killing each other), as long as you accept that He freely created the universe without restriction, He is wagering eternal damnation for many people, like some type of monstrous father who bets his children on the poker table, letting some fall into suicide, addiction, and hate so long as he comes out of the game with a few kids left, it’s supposedly worth it.

            Oh, it’s not a wager at all. God knows exactly what he is doing. Let me put it this way. When a rapist is put into prison, would you that is good? When a polluting company is fined, isn’t that good as well? Justice done is a good thing. So is showing mercy. God does both, and both are good. He does good when he dispenses justice, and he does good when he dispenses mercy.

            This of Scott’s Job story. In that story, God is making universes with every possible permutation of goodness. What this story misses is that justice is also good. A multiverse which contains all possible instantiations of goodness is necessarily one that contains justice. But there for to be justice, there must be the guilty. (Yes, there is also the justice that comes from a good person’s honest efforts being rewarded. All the same, there is more to justice than that.)

            You ask why God would create people when he knows some of them are going to be damned. Well, why should he not? Should an author not write a book because he knows that some of the characters are villains, doomed to be defeated? The creator is not accountable to his creation. God is under no obligation to save anyone. A universe in which God’s mercy and justice are both displayed is better than a universe in which only one or neither are displayed. That’s a hard truth, yes, but if you repent of your sins and turn to him there’s joy in it, too.

            From Romans 9:

            19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”
            20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”
            21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?

            Ultimately, the proper question is not, “Why does God damn people?”- he does that because they do wrong- but “Why does God save people?”- which he does for no reason other than that he chooses to.

          • cw says:

            @Two McMillion: I agree almost completely with you, but I’m not sure about the idea that the damned are continually in rebellion in Hell – it’s a compelling interpretation, but Luke 16:19-31 (Lazarus and rich man [Dives]) seem, to me, to indicate that there might be some level of repentance in Hell. Which is admittedly more uncomfortable, but that shouldn’t be a factor in my beliefs, I guess.

          • Two McMillion says:


            I don’t believe the story of the Rich Man supports that view. Many early interpreters, who were closer to the cultural context of the parable, saw the Rich Man’s request that Lazarus be sent to give him water and tell his brothers about Hell as incredibly insulting and demeaning towards Lazarus, an invocation of what we might call “privilege” today. I agree there’s some wiggle room there, but I incline towards the view that the Rich Man in the story is sorry he got caught, not that he did wrong.

          • cw says:

            @Two McMillion: Fair enough. I’m not sure I’m convinced, but I understand your point.

        • XerxesPraelor says:

          As far as I can tell, your post is simply arguing that Lewis’s conception of Hell and Justice doesn’t make sense, which, though not irrelevant to my post, doesn’t directly argue against the reason I posted the quote.

          The purpose of my quote was to show that C.S. Lewis does not “sorta bend his theology to avoid the actually tough problems”. The quote isn’t even talking about hell, and it’s already “unbearable” for him. It’s clear to me that he recognizes how hard the problem of God’s goodness is, and is unwilling to look away.

          If you want to talk about his views on Hell, all I can say is that he does call it the one doctrine he would remove from Christianity if he could. It’s a terrifying idea, but it would be foolish to disbelieve something simply because you are scared of its consequences.

          What is true is already so.
          Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
          Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.

          And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
          Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
          People can stand what is true,
          for they are already enduring it.

          • cw says:

            When I read the Great Divorce, that seemed to be more arguing that Hell was a passive state – rejection of God – than an active one, i.e. God was allowing people to suffer by being apart from him rather than actively causing them pain. I’m not sure I buy that – but I might be misunderstanding C.S. Lewis. And I have a tremendous amount of respect for him regardless.

          • Two McMillion says:

            It’s also worth pointing out that Lewis’ view of Hell, like his view on much else, underwent an evolution during his lifetime. His most commonly quoted passed that are seen as “watering down” Hell come from The Problem of Pain, which was written relatively early in his career. A Grief Observed, which was quoted above, was written years later, and it’s clear by then he had started to see Hell as more awful than he had previous thought.

          • John Buridan says:

            @Xerxes Praelor

            I like that you posted C.S. Lewis’ interpretation of the problem. And I agree that he does treat as sufficiently disconcerting thing to believe in.

            @cw and McMillion

            Thanks for both of your explanations about Calvinist conceptions of sin, grace, and redemption. I can see why George MacDonald fled from them so far.

  54. Matthew says:

    This entry was messed up in the best possible way.

    Also, why is China the “Harmonious Green Dragon Empire.” Seems a bit racist.

  55. Pablo says:

    I liked this chapter but I am wondering if I am a bad person for not feeling triggered at all by the description of hell.

    Selected things which did creep me out in other media: descriptions of the holocaust, the description of the Tate murder in the book Helter Skelter, the suicide in the movie El Mar Adentro. I was also creeped out by a book about Mothman and bigfoot and other monsters which I read when I was around 11 and presumably had a lower threshold for being scared by things.

    • Marvy says:

      No. But you might be a bad person if you want be a torture expert.

    • Peter says:

      Similarly untriggered here. I’ve never been religious but I’ve had my phase of seriously considering it, I have bad memories of things about Hell from there.

      I suppose – imagine a giant piano of torture, where each note corresponds with something to be feared. Different people fear different things. A tell-not-show person could say “and imagine slamming your arm down on that piano” but that’ll have no impact, so all you can do is talk about some of the notes, making a chord. It’ll hit lots of people’s hot buttons, but not everyone’s.

      Personally, short of wireheading or some other thing which would basically be cheating in a novel, I think some particular forms of suffering are mutually exclusive. Consider some “mild” torment that you feel you totally ought to be able to cope with and which other people probably could, so that you’re falling apart is accompanied by hating yourself for not coping. Regardless of the effect of the torment on people actually suffering it, some readers will find it rings a bell, matches with their personality and their own propensities for suffering, others won’t.

  56. Rand says:


    There may be no relativists in foxholes, but people in foxholes were never paragons of rationality to begin with.

    • hnau says:

      So being in any kind of bad situation implies that the universe is punishing you for being irrational? Meaning that people have 100% complete control of their destinies regardless of circumstances?

      Not sure how seriously you meant this comment, but it’s staggeringly wrong based on everything I’ve experienced.

      • Rand says:

        I don’t know how you interpreted the comment, but I’ll try to explain it:

        “You tried to dismiss the problem of evil!” she said. “You tried to just say ‘God does lots of weird stuff’, as if this – ” she gestured at the screen, “was of the same magnitude as the platypus! You want to see why theodicy is a hard problem? Watch!”

        Aaron responds to the problem of theodicy by pointing out that “God is weird” that is, that God’s actions don’t quite align with what we call “good” and “evil”. This is fundamentally similar to a relativist’s stance, in that he doesn’t recognize absolute “good” or absolute “evil” and hence the problem of theodicy is a non-problem.

        And the response is the same as well. A popular response to a relativist is to try to convince him that he does recognize some absolute moral truths, like pain being bad. Ana’s response to Aaron is to show him the Broadcast to use the magnitude of the terrors therein to convince Aaron that evil is real.

        Yes, the relativist may fear pain, and spend his life trying to avoid it. Yes, Aaron may be terrified by the broadcast, it may fill his nightmares. But it doesn’t really respond to his objection. If “God is weird” was a sufficient response to platypi and root canals, then it’s a sufficient response to the Broadcast and the Holocaust.

        Aaron may be unable to elucidate his objection that “God is weird” while experiencing the Broadcast, but that doesn’t render the objection invalid.

        • Kinetic_Hugh_Reeve says:

          To steelman Ana a bit: he’s saying “God is weird” flippantly. She’s showing him the full extent of what he’s saying. If, after full reflection on that, he still holds it to be a sufficient explanation (whether or not it’s emotionally satisfying to him), then he’s being more serious and considered about it.

  57. Lux Sola says:

    I am now utterly convinced Ana is the villain in a manner similar to Eve in Genesis. She’s a theodicist (sp?) after having seen the Broadcast? She is quite clearly evil or incredibly stupid, and she will lead gullible stupid Aaron to do something horrible that eventually causes the apocalypse.

    • LHC says:

      Aaron’s handling that quite well on his lonesome.

    • Timothy Scriven says:

      Given that the existence of G-d in some form in this story is assured, then there is a problem of evil- even if the solution is ‘G-d is fully or somewhat evil’ in the story. Places like SF suggest that this may not be the case. So yes, there is a problem of Theoidcy here, and no, you don’t have to be crazy to follow it up.

  58. Timothy Scriven says:

    The hate for Ana in these threads really bugs me. She’s clever, she’s brave and she’s motivated to do good- what’s not to like?

    • Assuming that this is a legitimate question …

      She’s reactive, which is a bad feature in a heroine and an unlikeable quality in a character. She’s a theodicist, which some people see as a foolish pursuit. She’s asexual and rejected the advances of the story’s primary character, while still seeming to lead him on in various ways. Aaron exalts her and she doesn’t appear to deserve that much praise. Like Aaron, she enters into magic recklessly (both the kabbalistic marriage and everything they did with the ensouling name). The whale puns get on peoples’ nerves.

      Other people can probably add more, but those are the things that people have complained about.

    • Marvy says:

      She’s my third favorite character so far; right after Sohu and Uriel.

  59. aphyer says:

    How is Hitler’s soul present in Hell given that he died before the sky cracked? Did the reappearance of the divine light somehow ‘bring back’ souls from the time when it was not around?

  60. John Buridan says:

    Deeply disturbing. If anyone else of Christian upbringing needs a palette cleanser see the soundcloud link below. It’s a theodicy lecture.

    Some therapeutic theodicy is in order for those of you who need to clear your head of such night terrors. I know I do. It doesn’t matter what I actually think of this old lecture. It clears my mind from brilliant horrors of this chapter by belittling the Christian proponents of Thamiel’s agenda.

  61. Aztalan says:

    This gave me nightmares. I wasn’t expecting that.

    • Stone Soup Scientist says:

      Same here. I haven’t had a nightmare in about a year, and Scott has gone and screwed up that streak.

      For me, the worst part about the dream was just the knowledge of it – I wasn’t in hell, but I knew it was coming. I don’t think I’ve ever felt despair like that. So… good job, Scott?

  62. Yossarian says:

    There is one thing this chapter reminded me of: a certain (fake) excuse that some god-botherers use both for a proof for God’s existence and even a sort of theodicy:
    Now, here is an assumption here that the axis of morality looks like this:
    , where * is the absolute absence of God(absolute evil), and the vector of goodness goes to infinity (the # here represents the average man's position on this moral axis, the
    , where the * is the maximum possible good, and the > is the infinity of possible evil. I mean, did any of you guys ever read the holy books of various religions or some science fiction, and feel that the goodness of “heaven” described there just doesn’t, by orders of magnitude, match the horrors of the possible hell? Like, for any of the hell-horrors you may inflict on your theoretical victims, I can easily add something like “yeah. I can imagine Hell where the victim gets the same stuff you said, but also gets a 2000-degree hot spike driven into their balls.” If you say that this is already included into your vision of Hell, then… well, let’s put it this way, I do not want to get this story banned from the Internets by the descriptions of the other punishments that some imaginary sinner in Hell may endure, that I can produce in my imagination…

    Saying the same thing simpler – I am the only person surprised by the fact that it seems to be really easier to imagine a REALLY HORRIBLE Hell, than imagine a REALLY AWESOME Heaven?

    • Two McMillion says:

      I am reminded of what G.K. Chesterton said- the problem with the world isn’t that we don’t know what’s wrong, it’s that we don’t know what’s right.

    • hnau says:

      I was struck by the difficulty of imagining a “REALLY AWESOME Heaven” too. I wonder what the reason for the discrepancy is. Might be the state of the world; might be culture; might be human nature; might be some combination of the above. Whichever it is, it might be helpful to remember that good and evil are probably not symmetrical concepts. In general it’s easy for us to visualize things (plans, technology, relationships) going worse than expected, but hard for us to visualize things going better than expected. The same probably goes for morality.

      • Resuna says:

        The most awesome heavens I can imagine are the post-human virtual realities depicted in Greg Egan’s “Diaspora” and “Schild’s Ladder”.

  63. Yossarian says:

    damn, for some reason, my comment did’t display the second line, that was supposed to be something like this:

  64. Yossarian says:

    Ah, crap, part of my comment got swallowed up by the “less than” and “more than” signs, which were apparently mistaken for a tag. Wishing for an edit function right now…

    • Sniffnoy says:

      For the future, you can include “<” and “>” by writing them as “&lt;” and “&gt;”, respectively. (And if that doesn’t actually work, I am going to have egg on my face since there is no edit function.)

  65. TheAltar says:

    >“Most people think the words on these gates were written by demons to sound foreboding, but that’s not quite right. This is the outside of the gates, where the demons’ sway is lesser. This warning was written as helpful advice by some friendly power.”

    >The gates of Hell opened, and Santoni and his crew stepped inside. The camera view wheeled around. The inside of the gates said “KEEP HOPING, SUCKERS”.

    This part scared me the most.

  66. jes5199 says:

    This week I also read a description of a real hell-on-earth, an American prison:

    As strong as the description of Unsong Hell is, on some level it cannot be frightening because I cannot suspend my disbelief. A much milder hell, but one that I could physically visit with a few days of preparation, cuts much deeper.

  67. not_a_linguist says:

    Thank you for a disturbing and verisimilar portrayal of hell, which makes the current reality, even in the light of current events, seem beatific in comparison.

  68. Nobody says:

    Am I the only one who found this chapter hilarious? It has exactly the same humor as the rest of the story. Anyone who complains that this is “too dark” must be reading children’s literature.

    • Anonymous says:

      “Hilarous” would be an overstatement, but I did find it a bit funny. The descriptions of torture were somewhat disturbing on an intellectual level, but they certainly don’t deserve the “content warning”.

      • Marvy says:

        see comment above: “I wish I’d paid attention to the trigger warning”

        • Anonymous says:

          I don’t believe it was entirely serious. I’m quite confident that commenter is fine now. Fiction is full of all kinds of disturbing imagery, some of which is orders of magnitude more graphic than this, and some of which makes even me feel uneasy. But I just learned to deal with it, and not complain when it takes me by surprise. You people should too; it’s a valuable ability. This is just fiction, after all.

  69. Good Burning Plastic says:

    Sounds like Eliezer’s Fun Theory is useful for writing dystopias as well.

  70. Timo Timo says:

    I think it unlikely, but I want to be surprised: Have there been or are there any believing Christians who have actually attempted to destroy (what they believe to be) hell?

    • Dirdle says:

      Plenty do. Their best shot is to convert everyone to (their particular brand of) Christianity. Relevant XKCD.

      I don’t think any have ever tried to locate Hell using, say, high-energy physics experiments, and then invade it using, say, spaceplanes with laser guns. Unless there’s a lot of things CERN aren’t telling us.

      • Timo Timo says:

        Converting people to their brand of Christianity will only save those specific people from going to hell, though. I know people who say they try to do that, but I don’t know anyone who seeks to rescue those already in hell.

        • Quixote says:

          Mormons can retroactively convert dead people with the ascent of living relatives, so they have a shot at emptying hell.

  71. Jack V says:

    Holy fuck that’s scary.

  72. Jack V says:

    Ok, Thamiel is literally the incarnation of evil, but don’t forget, Nixon was an unparalleled douchebag in many respects, and we only have HIS word that this videotape appeared. It specifically DIDN’T appear all over the world at once.

    Maybe Nixon faked the entire thing to win a propaganda victory against Thamiel.

  73. Tempo says:

    Present-day Americans have been talking ships for a while. Or maybe you haven’t seen tumblr.

  74. R Flaum says:

    Minor correction: the term is “in medias res“, not “in media res“.

  75. Chrysophylax says:

    I realised today why Thamiel’s hell doesn’t look like the one from the Divine Comedy. It’s because he lacks the necessary raw materials. Specifically, he has the wrong type of music. Unsong, while highly unpleasant to listen to, isn’t a good building material; everyone knows that they built Dis City on rock and roll.

  76. Subbak says:

    I’m coming late to the party, but I just realized that Brimstone Acres can’t work. As the demons point out, it’s really, really hard to get humans to stop believing that there is hope for them. Similarly, they would just believe the Hitler in Brimstone Acres was a fake Hitler. The demons can probably do a very convincing fake (especially since most damned wouldn’t interact enough with both the real live Hitler and the possibly fake damned Hitler to be able to tell), and why would they pass on the opportunity to torture someone, since they clearly love it so much.

    Also, it’s pretty obvious that the demons are literally worse than Hitler. They could achieve the same sort of injustice by parading demons living in luxury.

    • Chrysophylax says:

      There’s also the point that many awful people were not sociopaths: Hitler, for example. Many of them were the heroes of their own stories, nihilists and so on. I imagine that having literal demons tell you that you are the third worst person ever and constantly praising you for how evil you were, when you thought you were the good guy, is pretty unpleasant. Add in a constant terror of losing your privileges if you don’t seem pleased about all the evil you now regret, and having to keep oppressing the victims who hate you most, and I think it adds up to pretty effective psychological torture.

    • satanistgoblin says:

      Wouldn’t demon’s time be more effectively spent plucking eyeballs than pretending to be Hitler?

  77. Moshe Zadka says:

    [Meta — about title of chapter, not content]
    This is intelude Yud, which raises the question: is the next one going to be Yud-Aleph (11 in gematria) or Kaf (the next Hebrew letter)? If it is the former, than there is no reasonable upper limit to the number of interludes. If the latter, there’ll be at most 22 interludes. I put a higher probability on the latter, but no more than 80% (possibly as low as 60%). Comments? Disagreements? Third alternatives?

  78. barquentinian says:

    I want to make a couple of predictions about events in this interlude and about the role of Hell in the story more generally.

    First, it’s pretty clear that the unfortunate Mr. Santoni has accepted one of those “deals” whereby the demons say they’ll torture him less if he helps them torture other people more, but during the whole process of filming they’re reminding him that he has no reason to trust them and no recourse if they go back on their word. I predict that it will turn out that, as part of that deal, the young woman being painted blue is going to receive a kind of torture that has already been inflicted on Santoni, taking his place during his respite. The kicker is that he knows her from his life on Earth, cares about her in some way, and is now responsible for what’s going to happen to her. I think this will be revealed to readers later, maybe when Hell is besieged or finally destroyed.

    Which brings me to my second prediction: there’s going to be a basilisk. That’s based on three data: that Scott is interested in powerful AI; that there’s an intelligent, ensouled laptop on the loose in this story; and that I don’t think Scott buys into traditional theodicies whereby there is a natural order of justice and Hell, infinite torment, is the naturally just punishment for rebellion against God’s infinite goodness. If he plans for Unsong to include a theodicy that could satisfy him, then the positive consequences of Hell existing for a limited of time are going to have to outweigh the negative ones – and that’s bearing in mind that Hell is made by God, Who could do things quite differently if He wanted to, and that, in any good theodicy, He wants what’s best all around. So I think it will turn out that there is a benevolent basilisk at the end of the story, who has the power to reach back in time and bring about the conditions that will lead to its own existence. One of those conditions, unfortunately, will be Hell, but on the bright side, once the basilisk is brought into being, it will abolish Hell and all the damned will be proportionately rewarded. Is the basilisk in question the laptop of which it’s true that there is something that it’s like to be that laptop? Is it God? I wouldn’t venture to say.

    • Chrysophylax says:

      That’s not what a basilisk is. A basilisk is a thought that a particular mind cannot safely think; the name comes from David Langford’s visual basilisks, fictional images that caused death or insanity to any human who looked at them. (

      That’s also not how acausal trade works. If you don’t live in a world that already permits changing its own past (one described by a directed cyclic graph rather than an acyclic one), there’s nothing you can do directly to affect your past. All you can do is decide to condition your behaviour on observations controlled by people in your past, giving them incentives. This is exactly what happens when you buy groceries: the only difference is that the interacting agents don’t need to exist contemporaneously. This trick only works on agents who are willing to engage in the acausal trade, which requires, amongst other things, using a decision theory with certain properties and knowing about the trade partner in sufficient detail. *You can always escape from an potential acausal bargain by simply deciding not to make it, because this removes the incentive for the other agent to offer the bargain.* Acausal trade basilisks don’t force you to make bad bargains. They are called basilisks because they’re *harmful thoughts* that can hurt you if you don’t understand why you can’t be acausally compelled to make bargains you don’t like. The problem is panic attacks and thinking you’re trapped, not actually being trapped. (It’s kind of a jerk move to bring up acausal basilisks in the same way that it’s jerkish to talk about your new diet at an event for people with anorexia.)

      • barquentinian says:

        Thanks for the link. Not my field of expertise, I’m afraid. Is there a convention here against talking about such things?

        I still think the justification for Hell in Unsong will turn out to be that it somehow brings about its own destruction and the realization of a better world, as Scott understands it, than would have been possible if it hadn’t existed for a while.

        • Aegeus says:

          That’s only true if you want your theodicy to include omnibenevolence, but I think Scott is okay with the idea that God is not perfectly good. That’s a pretty common view among atheists, actually – the universe doesn’t care about you, the universe is not a good place except when we humans make it so through our own power.

          Also, the story has had repeated comments about how the universe must contain evil in order to exist, or evil is a part of god, or is necessary for redemption. And there’s a similar running theme in this story that Heaven and divinity are incompatible with human thought – the fallen angels, Neil Armstrong, etc.

          Basically, I think “God is not omnibenevolent” is the easiest answer to theodicy in Unsong. Or perhaps “God’s definitions of good and evil are incomprehensible to humans,” which is functionally the same.

          (It’s also a very appropriately Jewish answer to theodicy. The Torah has several occasions where humans argue with God over his decisions, and win the argument. Clearly, the writers of the Old Testament didn’t think much of the divine plan.)

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