aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Interlude ע: Hell on Earth

[Content warning: More discussion of Hell.]

In 1985, the Hellish Empire stretched from Moscow to Montreal, a sprawling stain over the northern quarter of the world.

After the defeat at Silverthorne a tenative cease-fire had taken hold, backed by nuclear weapons on all sides. Multistan, the Cyrillic Union, the Untied States, and the Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire established their own ideas of borders, sometimes as mutually agreed treaties, other times as pragmatic lines of actual control. Miraculously, the borders held. The demons were waiting, gathering strength. So was the Comet King. So were all the nations of the earth.

Maybe it would have been different if there were some atrocity to rally around. Some genocide, some torture, to remind people visibly and graphically of the evils of Hell. There wasn’t. People who expected the rivers to run red with blood were disappointed.

Genocide is a good way to kill people, but not a good way to damn them. Desperation brings out the best in people. Starve people to death, and some of them will give their last crust of bread to a stranger. Torture them, and they’ll bear all sorts of horrors to protect people they love. Kill them, and they’ll die with prayers on their lips.

Give a man a crisis, and the best in him will rise up in a sudden glory. It’s the grind of everyday life that brings out his little hatreds and petty cruelties. Shoot a man’s wife, and he will jump in front of the bullet and sacrifice his own life for hers; force him to live in a one-room apartment with her, and within a month he’ll be a domestic abuser.

Thamiel knew this better than anyone, so he avoided inflicting anything too dramatic upon his new subjects. Just a gradual, managed economic collapse, a percent or two a year, to squeeze people without squeezing them. And for those who couldn’t manage? State subsidized liquor stores, every brand and vintage of alcohol at affordable prices, and with them coke and speed and a dozen different kinds of opiates to dull the pain. No one was forced into anything – being forced into things by demons has a certain dignity about it. But the option was presented with flashing neon lights around it, and as more and more people got paycuts or layoffs, it started looking more and more attractive.

The ability of a vast empire to subsidize heroin stores was no match for the ability of addicts to want more heroin. People started running out of money. When they did, the Hellish Empire graciously presented them with quick ways to earn cash from the comfort of their home. Tattle on anyone criticizing the government, and that was good for a week’s pay. There was no quality control to ensure that the people tattled upon had really criticized anything, so it was pretty easy money. Men who would have jumped in front of bullets meant for their wives turned them in to the mercies of the Hellish secret police on trumped-up charges in exchange for a little extra spending money.

Big factories sprung up in every city center, producing nothing. Their industry nevertheless released great gobs of lead into the air and soil. The higher the lead levels, the more impulsive and criminal people become – some kind of neurotoxicity effect. At the same time, Canada’s restrictive firearm laws were phased out in favor of the more enlightened policies of their southern neighbor. Soon quarrels that would have involved heated words a few years before started involving blows, then knives, and finally a different form of lead poisoning, far more final.

Let it never be said that Thamiel the Lord of Demons was soft on crime. The new puppet government raised entirely new police forces and told them not to worry too much about brutality. The steady stream of arrestees were funnelled into new sprawling prisons that seemed to have more correctional officers than strictly required, almost as if the government’s entire goal in the penal system was to let as many people as possible play the role of prison guard and see how it changed them.

“But it makes no sense!” Ana had said to me one night over burgers and fries in a Palo Alto cafeteria. “Suppose that in the absence of demons, 5% of Canadians would have been dreadful sinners, and gone to Hell. And suppose that thanks to the demons’ campaign to promote sinfulness, a full 50% of Canadians ended up that bad. That’s ten million extra damnations. They’re not being punished for their innate virtue or lack thereof – in some sense that’s the same whether the demons took over Canada or not. They’re being punished for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, for being in a land controlled by demons rather than one controlled by good people trying to promote virtue or at least somebody morally neutral. How is that just?”

“I thought we’d already agreed things generally aren’t,” I said.

“Right, they generally aren’t, but this is cosmic justice we’re talking about. The whole question of who goes to Heaven versus to Hell. If there were anything at all that was going to be just, it would be that. And yet we have people being sentenced to eternal punishment for what is obviously a contingent problem that isn’t their fault!”

“In the end, it was their decision to sin, no matter how many incentives Thamiel dangled in front of them.”

“Yes, but – if they wouldn’t have sinned without the incentive, and now they did sin, then it’s the presence or absence of the incentive that determines whether they’re in Hell or not! It doesn’t make sense!”

“Maybe there’s a special clause in Divine Law that says that if you were coaxed into a sin by a demon who’s really good at behavioral economics, then it doesn’t count.”

“But it’s not just the demons! Yes, they open lead factories on purpose in order to turn nearby people into criminals. But we opened lead factories because we wanted products made of lead, and people became criminals by accident. Whether any given person is good or evil depends a lot on factors out of their control, both in terms of things like lead and in terms of things like what values society inculcates in them, and in whether they even need to be evil. You know, rich people are a lot less likely than poor people to steal, just because they’re not tempted to do so.”

“So maybe God grades on a curve. You take a reference human, perform the necessary adjustments, and say ‘if this person were in the same situation as the reference human, how sinful would they be?'”

“But then what’s the point of actually living your life, if God’s going to throw out all the data and judge you by a simulation of how you would perform in a totally different situation instead?”

“Look, we already knew free will was really confusing. Maybe the Calvinists were right about everything.”

“They can’t be!”

“Why not?”

“It wouldn’t be right.”

“It’s like that quatrain from the Rubaiyat that turns out to be kabbalistically equivalent to all that stuff.

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

“I’m not blaming God for being insufficiently merciful, I’m blaming God for being insufficiently just.”

“Oh, that’s much better then.”

At first, the gates of all the righteous countries of the world were left open for refugees fleeing the slow-motion collapse of the North. What greater mitzvah than to save people from their own inevitable moral dissolution and subsequent damnation? But it turned out that people who had grown up in a country whose education system, economic system, justice system, and social system were all designed by the Devil to most effectively convert them into bad people – were not very nice people. A few heavily publicized incidents of criminal behavior, and the gates started to close. A few terrorist attacks, and they were locked tight. A few neighborhoods ruined, and military trucks were crossing the borders weekly to return refugees back to the grateful Hellish authorities.

Why didn’t Thamiel take over the world? Some said it was weakness. Others nuclear deterrance. Still others the threat of the Comet King.

Ever since that conversation with Ana, I’ve had a horrible theory of my own. Maybe God did forgive the Russians and Canadians their transgressions, knowing the pressures they were under. Maybe Thamiel wasn’t after the souls of his own citizens. Maybe the point was to damn everyone else.

(The Comet King heard arguments on both sides of the issue, then closed the Colorado border, saying that anything that weakened the state threatened his grand design. Then he accelerated his already manic pace – gave up sleep, gave up most food, spent his nights poring over in kabbalistic research and military planning.)

(But the soul is still oracular; amid the market’s din / List the ominous stern whisper from the Delphic cave within / ‘They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.’)

[A new author’s note is now up.]

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