aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 1: Dark Satanic Mills

It is good practice to have your program poke around at runtime and see if it can be used to give a light unto the Gentiles.

May 10, 2017
Palo Alto

The apocalypse began in a cubicle.

Its walls were gray, its desk was gray, its floor was that kind of grayish tile that is designed to look dirty so nobody notices that it is actually dirty. Upon the floor was a chair and upon the chair was me. My name is Aaron Smith-Teller and I am twenty-two years old. I was fiddling with a rubber band and counting the minutes until my next break and seeking the hidden transcendent Names of God.


That wasn’t a hidden transcendent Name of God. That wasn’t surprising. During my six months at Countenance I must have spoken five hundred thousand of these words. Each had taken about five seconds, earned me about two cents, and cost a small portion of my dignity. None of them had been hidden transcendent Names of God.

“AR-ASH-KON-CHEL-NA-VAN-TSIS,” ordered my computer, and I complied. “AR-ASH-KON-CHEL-NA-VAN-TSIS,” I said.

The little countdown clock on my desk said I had seven minutes, thirty nine seconds until my next break. That made a total of 459 seconds, which was appropriate, given that the numerical equivalents of the letters in the Hebrew phrase “arei miklat” meaning “city of refuge” summed to 459. There were six cities of refuge in Biblical Israel, three on either side of the Jordan River. There were six ten minute breaks during my workday, three on either side of lunch. None of this was a coincidence because nothing was ever a coincidence.

“AR-ASH-KON-CHEL-NA-VAN-TSIT” was my computer’s next suggestion. “AR-ASH-KON-CHEL-NA-VAN-TSIT,” I said.

God created Man in His own image but He created everything else in His own image too. By learning the structure of one entity, like Biblical Israel, we learn facts that carry over to other structures, like the moral law, or the purpose of the universe, or my workday. This is the kabbalah. The rest is just commentary. Very, very difficult commentary, written in Martian, waiting to devour the unwary.

“VIS-LAIGA-RON-TEPHENOR-AST-AST-TELISA-ROK-SUPH-VOD-APANOR-HOV-KEREG-RAI-UM”. My computer shifted to a different part of namespace, and I followed.

Thirty-six letters. A little on the long side. In general, the longer a Name, the harder to discover but the more powerful its effects. The longest known was the Wrathful Name, fifty letters. When spoken it levelled cities. The Sepher Raziel predicted that the Shem haMephorash, the Explicit Name which would capture God’s full essence and bestow near-omnipotence upon the speaker, would be seventy-two letters.


People discovered the first few Names of God through deep understanding of Torah, through silent prayer and meditation, or even through direct revelation from angels. But American capitalism took one look at prophetic inspiration and decided it lacked a certain ability to be forced upon an army of low-paid interchangeable drones. Thus the modern method: hire people at minimum wage to chant all the words that might be Names of God, and see whether one of them starts glowing with holy light or summoning an angelic host to do their bidding. If so, copyright the Name and make a fortune.

But combinatorial explosion is a harsh master. There are twenty-two Hebrew letters and so 22^36 thirty-six letter Hebrew words. Even with thousands of minimum-wage drones like myself, it takes millions of years to exhaust all of them. That was why you needed to know the rules.

God is awesome in majesty and infinite in glory. He’s not going to have a stupid name like GLBLGLGLBLBLGLFLFLBG. With enough understanding of Adam Kadmon, the secret structure of everything, you could tease out regularities in the nature of God and constrain the set of possible Names to something almost manageable, then make your drones chant that manageable set. This was the applied kabbalah, the project of some of the human race’s greatest geniuses.


I should have been one of those geniuses. Gebron and Eleazar’s classic textbook says that only four kabbalists have ever gazed upon Adam Kadmon bare. Rabbi Isaac Luria. The archangel Uriel. The Comet King. And an eight year old girl. I won’t say I had gazed upon it bare, exactly, but in the great game of strip poker every deep thinker plays against the universe I’d gotten further than most.

Then I fell from grace. My career was ruined before it even began when I was expelled from Stanford for messing with Things Mankind Was Not Meant To Know – by which I mean the encryption algorithms used by major corporations. Nobody wanted a twenty-two year old kabbalist without a college degree. It was like that scene in the Bible where God manifested Himself upon Mount Sinai, but only to those Israelites who had graduated from Harvard or Yale.

Not that I was bitter.

Now here I was, doing menial labor for minimum wage.


It would be a lie to say I stayed sane by keeping my mind sharp. The sort of mental sharpness you need for the kabbalah is almost perpendicular to sanity, more like a very specific and redirectable schizophrenia. I stayed functional by keeping my mind in a very specific state that probably wasn’t very long-term healthy.


The timer read 4:33, which is the length of John Cage’s famous silent musical piece. 4:33 makes 273 seconds total. -273 is absolute zero in Celsius. John Cage’s piece is perfect silence; absolute zero is perfect stillness. In the year 273 AD, the two consuls of Rome were named Tacitus and Placidianus; “Tacitus” is Latin for “silence” and Placidianus is Latin for “stillness”. 273 is also the gematria of the Greek word eremon, which means “silent” or “still”. None of this is a coincidence because nothing is ever a coincidence.


Just as the timer on my desk dropped into the double-digits (59 – the number of different numbers in the Book of Revelation) a man dressed in a black uniform stepped into my cubicle and told me he wanted to talk. I followed him into an empty office and he sat me down and told me I was in trouble.

(This isn’t the part that led to the apocalypse. That comes about an hour later.)

“Have you been feeling tired lately?” he asked in what he probably thought was a kindly manner. He was trying to sound like a therapist, but ended up sounding like a police officer trying to sound like a therapist. I looked above his ears for Hebrew tattoos. He didn’t have any, which meant he hadn’t caught me himself. He was the guy whom the guy who had caught me had sent to do the dirty work.

“A little,” I admitted. I knew where this was going.

“We had a report of somebody speaking the Wakening Name directly,” he said. Directly, vocally, forming the sounds myself instead of buying a scroll upon which someone else had written the letters while they were speaking them. Yes, I had done it. Yes, I knew it was illegal. Yes, I knew there was a chance of getting caught. But I’d done it a hundred times before without any problem. So had half the people in this office. I guess my luck had finally run out.

I nodded. “I was really tired,” I said, “and the coffee machine was broken. And I’d left my scroll wheel at home. I’m sorry. I know it’s against the law. I promise I won’t do it again.”

The officer gave me a kindly smile. “I know it can sometimes be tempting to use Names directly,” he said. “Especially in a place like this, where you’re working hard to develop new Names yourselves. But you get your salary because people use Names the right way. They buy the scrolls from the company that owns them, and use them as directed. It’s dangerous to use them yourself, and it’s not fair to the people who worked so hard to discover them. Right?”

There were many things I could have said just then. But I just said “Right,” and looked bashful.

He wrote me a ticket for $70. A whole day’s wages. Not to mention the number of nations into which humankind was scattered after the Tower of Babel, the “threescore and ten years” limit of the Biblical human lifespan, the number of Israelites who entered into the land of bondage in Deuteronomy 10:22, the number of years of God’s wrath in Zechariah 1:12, the year in which the Second Temple was destroyed, and the number of years that copyright law grants a creator exclusive rights to their work. A bitter, hopeless number. Then he warned me that the penalty would be higher if I was caught again. Warned me that he and his were watching me now, that maybe I had been living like this for a long time, but that wasn’t going to fly anymore. Then he gave me some sort of pat on the shoulder which I think was supposed to be manly, maybe even paternal, and sent me back to work.

I had missed my break. That was the worst part of all of it. I’d been humiliated, I’d lost seventy dollars, and I’d missed my break. I needed to vent. I lay back in my chair, closed my eyes, and concentrated as hard as I could:

[Narwhals of Jericho]

No answer. Figured. I was too wired up to telepathy straight.

So I reset the timer. One more shift. One more hour before I could go home. The computer fed me my next Name candidate. I spoke.


I hated to admit it, but the lost money really hurt. Ever since I lost my scholarship I’d been treading water, trying to avoid starving to death until I could claw my way back into the intellectual world. For six months I’d been telling myself that the job at Countenance was a stepping stone to bigger and better things. Maybe I could impress people here and move up from production floor drone to scientific advisor, become one of the guys who finds patterns in the Divine Names and helps narrow the search space.

I could have done it. I’d already made discoveries in the field – small ones, but bigger than some made by theorists with good reputations and nice offices. But I had to get my foot back in the door. I was saving a couple hundred bucks a month. With enough time, I could get enough money to supplement loans, maybe find myself another scholarship somewhere else, even a community college would be better than this, make something of myself. And now all that was seventy dollars further away. A minor setback, but still somehow infuriating. Maybe something that put me in the wrong frame of mind, changed how I interpreted what was to come.


The minutes on the timer ticked down. The words on the computer kept coming. My energy slowly seeped away. The domino whose fall would precipitate the End of Days teetered.

There were forty seconds on the timer when the computer gave me a monster. It started ROS-AILE-KAPHILUTON-MIRAKOI-KALANIEMI-TSHANA-KAI-KAI-EPHSANDER-GALISDO-TAHUN… and it just kept going. Fifty two letters. Two longer than the Wrathful Name. It was the longest Name I’d ever been given to test, by far. I was shocked Countenance would even bother.

I incanted: “ROS-AILE-KAPHILUTON-MIRAKOI-KALANIEMI-TSHANA-KAI-KAI-EPHSANDER-GALISDO-TAHUN…” until I reached the end of the word. It was not a Name of God.

I incanted: “ROS-AILE-KAPHILUTON-MIRAKOI-KALANIEMI-TSHANA-KAI-KAI-EPHSANDER-GALISDO-TAHUN…” until I reached the end of the next one. It wasn’t a Name of God either.

I incanted: “ROS-AILE-KAPHILUTON-MIRAKOI-KALANIEMI-TSHANA-KAI-KAI-EPHSANDER-GALISDO-TAHUN…” and just as I finished, my timer reached zero and told me I was finished, for today, free until tomorrow morning crashed down on me and I started the same thing all over again.

“Meh,” I said. “Meh. Meh. Meh. Meh. Meh.”

That was the part that led to the apocalypse.

I was struck by a wave of holy light. The heavens opened and poured into me. My soul rang like a bell.

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

Six thousand years earlier, the wind of God had moved upon the bare red dirt of Eden and shaped clay into the figure of a man. It stood there for a moment, a crude statue, and then a voice from Heaven spoke a Name, and the clay came to life, lumbered into a standing position. It spoke a second Name, and the clay’s eyes opened, and within them were innocence and curiosity and the capacity to wonder and learn. And it spoke a third Name, and it was as if a light went on inside of it, and the dust became aware that it was dust and in so doing was dust no longer.

And that third Name was fifty-eight letters long.


And it ended: …MEH-MEH-MEH-MEH-MEH-MEH.

All this I saw, as in a dream or vision. Six months and five hundred thousand nonsense words of pointless suffering, suddenly redeemed. The possibilities swam in front of me, began to take form. This wasn’t just a Name. This was the royal road. And it was mine. It was none of the candidates my computer had fed me; it was six syllables longer than any of them, Countenance would never find it. As I walked out of the office and headed for the CalTrain station, I tried to calm myself, give my mind the stillness it needed for telepathy to work. Finally, I sent out a feeler.

[Baleen shem tov] I said.

A feeling, something more than nothing. Somebody was there.

[Anger] said an internal voice that was not quite my own, although the telepathic link radiated only love. Then, [Moabite Dick]

[I hate you] I thought back, but I sent through a burst of fondness. Ana and I had a running contest to come up with the worst Biblical whale pun. She always won.

[Ana. Something amazing just happened. You know our bets?]

[Yes,] the other voice said.

[I bet you I can become emperor of the world within a month. If I win, you have to give me a kiss.]

A feeling of surprise, not my own. Then suspicion. [And what do I get if you can’t?]

I hadn’t thought that far ahead. [Um. I’ll buy you dinner.]

A pause. [No. You’re too stingy. You wouldn’t promise to buy dinner unless you were sure you could win. So what’s going on? Fess up!]

[I’ll be home in a few minutes. I’ll show you!]

[You know we have choir tonight?]

[I forgot about that. I’ll show you afterwards, then.]

[Tabarnacle,] said Ana.

[I will hate you forever,] I thought cheerfully, then stepped onto the CalTrain. The bustle of finding my seat broke the connection, which was just as well.

We would start tonight. By the end of the week, we would have results. By the end of the month, the whole world would have changed. It was so clear to me. It was spread out before me, like Moses’ vision of the Promised Land.

“Palo Alto!” announced the train’s loudspeaker. “Palo Alto!”

Palo Alto is Spanish for “tall tree”. The phrase “tall tree” appears in the Bible, in Daniel 4:10. King Nebuchadnezzer has a dream, and it goes like this:

“I saw a tall tree out in a field, growing higher and higher into the sky until it could be seen by everyone in all the world. Then as I lay there dreaming, I saw one of God’s angels coming down from heaven. And he shouted, ‘Cut down the tree; lop off its branches; shake off its leaves, and scatter its fruit…For this has been decreed, so that all the world may understand that the Most High dominates the kingdoms of the world and gives them to anyone he wants to, even the lowliest of men!’”

“Palo Alto!” announced the loudspeaker again. “Doors will be closing shortly. Palo Alto!”

This was not a coincidence, because nothing is ever a coincidence.

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181 Responses to Chapter 1: Dark Satanic Mills

  1. gbear605 says:

    Dang. So we’re in some weird world where True Names mean stuff, and capitalists try to discover them Library of Babel style. Much of the world as we know is apparently the same. It seems Judaism is widely known, but that makes sense if it’s actually true.

    I have no idea how this fits into the prologue. This will be a fun ride; I’ve always wanted to read a story based on Numerology.

    • gbear605 says:

      Oh, and people have telepathy. And buy scrolls (why scrolls?) containing the True Names that they can use if they need to. It seems rational so far.

      • Eugen says:

        For me it sounds like Skyrim Scrolls and Name of the Wind names, which might be rational or not, and are totally not shaped by my last year’s afternoon experiences, but at least there are not Kvothe^H^H^H^H^HQuotes yet O_O

        He made up on his promise of being funny, but my cat doesn’t seem to be too fond of me laughing. A rare, and scary, experience, I will have to time consumption.

      • gbear605 says:

        (I should really gather all my thoughts before posting…)

        I might have missed it, but our main character doesn’t appear to have a name yet.

        The date is “May 10, 2017,” so if all this stuff began with the Apollos back in the ’60s, it’s believable that this has built up since then.

      • Deiseach says:

        Because you always write this on scrolls to make charms to hang round your neck or hang up on the doorframe. It’s like putting up the Easter palm behind picture frames, or hanging the St Bridget’s Cross up in the cowbyre!

        Also it has to be valid matter or else it won’t work: you can’t substitute “image downloaded from website on my phone screen” instead, the same way you can’t baptise someone using Coca Cola instead of water.

        Sheesh, what do they teach kids in schools nowadays? 🙂

      • Peffern says:

        I think the scrolls are a form of copyright protection.

      • Furslid says:

        This is pure speculation, but the enforcer mentioned danger. We know very little about how the names work. He’s also chanting names at a closely monitored speed and in a specific mindset. So a scroll wheel may be a mechanism for automating correct use. What happens if you chant the name at the wrong speed? What happens if you raise your voice at the end like a question? What happens if your mind is full of lust or rage?

        Does your pick me up name not work? Does it knock you out? Does it work too well, maybe more like meth than caffeine?

        Or does a scroll let you invoke the name in silence? The magic might be in hearing, not speaking, and only work because you hear your own voice.

      • RJ says:

        It has to be a scroll because scrolls are made by hand of kosher animal hide and the ink is vegetarian, so the whole thing is organic. At least, this is what I heard from a scribe. It’s a nice touch, really.

    • Dave says:

      Seems like the prologue refers to the Old Testament view of the world. The world is a plain enclosed in a dome surrounded by waters. Under the world is sheol, the abode of the dead. The flood story is God opening the windows and letting the waters in.

  2. Gudamor says:

    Looks like no one has ever used the phrase “Narwhals of Jericho” before. Congratulations!

  3. Daniel Armak says:

    This is a brilliant idea: has anyone written a story where magic is discovered but doesn’t radically change the world because spells are restricted by copyright?

    • James Blair says:

      You mean like a more aggressive version of the Interdict of Merlin?

      • fubarobfusco says:

        Or a more thaumaturgical version of “Melancholy Elephants”?

      • Daniel Armak says:

        No, I mean ordinary non-magical copyright (or patents) applied by humans to magic, drastically limiting the amount of good it can do in the world. Because if someone invents magic and law and government go on existing, I’m pretty sure that’s what would happen.

    • mavant says:

      “A Beginner’s Guide to Magical Site Licensing”

    • scherzando says:

      Scott wrote about something a bit like this (though I’m not sure about the “doesn’t radically change the world” part) in this 2012 LiveJournal post:

      (It’s the second and third sections, “Brute-Force Spell Generation” and “Spell Piracy”.)

      Indeed, I imagine his ideas from that post were the forerunners of this plot so far – that post has outlines of a couple of plot ideas involving an apprentice discovering a spell and taking it for himself instead of his employer.

      • TeMPOraL says:

        Spoiler alert.

        If I had to make a plot out of this, it would involve such an apprentice wizard who one day stumbles onto a spell for immortality, or infinite wealth, or secret wisdom, or something else that gives him power lots of people want. Instead of turning it over to his master like he’s supposed to, he decides to go rogue and use his newfound power to start a sort of proletarian revolution.

        • TeMPOraL says:

          The above was supposed to be a quote from LifeJournal post. Apparently editing comments doesn’t work the way it works on SSC though :(.

        • See Metropolitan by Walter Jon Williams– on an urbanized planet, there are feng shui effects from the buildings which produce pools of manna. Manna gives people the ability to do miracles, but there’s much less manna than there is desire for miracles.

          The viewpoint character is a government employee who’s supposed to find pools of manna and hand them over….

          I recommend the novel.

    • That really depends on the magic, the economics, and the government. Cell phones are a classic example of Patents Gone Mad, because they’re in a perfect storm of patent-respectability. Companies need to be big and have long supply chains to manufacture and design cell phones, and they need to be respectable to sell them.

      When you don’t need a giant supply chain to produce value from an idea, it becomes much easier to successfully steal and implement that idea. We don’t yet know what the Names can actually do (but it seems like there’s one that can perk people up). On the other hand, if learning and using Names makes you more enlightened…

      The obvious thing to do is to steal all the names, go to some place that it’s hard to find you, mainline ’em, then start your own kabbalistic research and chanting wossname, incrementally better than that of the competing agencies, until you know enough more Kaballah to blow them up and rule the world.

      This may have already happened in multiple iterations, and the protagonist may be well onto his own version of kaballah hard-takeoff.

  4. Johannes says:

    Wonderful! I can’t wait for the next chapter

  5. gwern says:

    “We had a report of somebody speaking the Wakening Name directly,” he said. Directly, vocally, forming the sounds myself instead of buying a scroll upon which someone else had written the letters while they were speaking them. Yes, I had done it. Yes, I knew it was illegal. Yes, I knew there was a chance of getting caught. But I’d done it a hundred times before without any problem. So had half the people in this office. I guess my luck had finally run out.

    I see Divine Rights Management doesn’t work any better in this universe than the real one.

  6. Deiseach says:

    I was expelled from Stanford for messing with Things Mankind Was Not Meant To Know – by which I mean the encryption algorithms used by major corporations.

    I think this is my favourite part of the chapter. You can manipulate the very Creator of all that is, but don’t mess with big business.

    And it really is magic that is going on; know the rules and you bind everyone and everything to your will. It’s very like Hindu myths where demons or mortals get boons from the gods because they’ve performed the proper devotions, and even though everyone knows it’s going to end badly, the god has to grant it because them’s the rules. Then someone (generally Vishnu in one avatar or another) has to perform some trickery to kill the demon or mortal who has decided to conquer the three worlds because now they have a godly boon.

    This is very, very close to the Western Esoteric Tradition (as why wouldn’t it be, since that was built lock, stock and barrel on poorly understood Jewish kabbalism) and it delights me 🙂

  7. Anon. says:

    It’s got a bit of a Sam Hughes vibe, eh?

  8. Pleasantly reminiscent of Charles Stross’s Laundry books. Nicely done.

    • Adam Casey says:

      Yes, I was just thinking “this is the Laundry but Jewish”. Will be really interesting to see this style of story with imagery that I’m sort of familiar with but not much.

      • Susebron says:

        Seconded. Although this is more like what the world of the Laundry would be if it got revealed to the public. It looks like most simple Names are fairly harmless, whereas even the nicest magical theorems in the Laundry Files will, at best, get your brain eaten, so there’s a strong incentive to keep it secret. Also the whole crystal sphere thing, which would be hard to keep secret even if they tried.

  9. Scott Elliot says:

    A more standard transliteration of ערי מקלט would be “arei miklat,” rather than “orei miklat.” Even Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews that pronounce the first word as “orei” would usually write out “arei.”

  10. switchnode says:

    The Kabbalistic references are magnificent. Genius schizophrenia—real Weird Lit.

    The love interest is twee. (And it is not at all plausible that ‘Moabite Dick’ would not be the first such pun submitted.)

    I suppose at this point I ought to plug Doug Shaw’s “Ring of Murder“. I was just thinking about this earlier today. This was not a coincidence, &c.

    • Deiseach says:

      Love interests are often twee (at least to me; as an aromantic I find the lovey-dovey stuff annoying or cloying or gets in the way of the interesting stuff) but give them a chance: they’re both obviously inveterate punsters and as was said about the Carlyles “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four” 🙂

      • Dave says:

        I’m guessing “aromantic” means incapable of feeling romantic love or attraction.

        I’m curious about this. It’s clearly something that’s hard to get away from culturally. Does it seem utterly foreign to you when depicted? Can you imagine the mind state? Are you capable of feeling non-romantic love, for family or friends?

  11. Toph says:

    I’m sure someone has told you this, but this story is very reminiscent of Ted Chiang’s. It’s got shades of “Seventy-Two Letters” and “Hell is the Abscence of God” – worlds where the existence of God is universally accepted and exploited to various economic and scientific ends.

    • Psy-Kosh says:

      I was about to post the exact same comment, was reading through the comments now to see if anyone else already made that connection. And wouldn’t you know it, it was the very last comment. 🙂

      Well, IIRC, in “Seventy-Two Letters”, the theistic explanation for kabbalistic stuff is a matter of dispute in that setting? (Been ages since I read the story, but I seem to remember that there was disagreement about that.)

      • Parker says:

        Same here — when I finished I immediately Command-F’d ‘Chiang’. Below Scott said that Unsong is getting compared to lots of other stories, but I’ll be damned if Seventy-Two Letters isn’t the similarest.

    • Nestor says:

      worlds where the existence of God is universally accepted and exploited to various economic and scientific ends.

      Gosh, imagine living in a world like that.


      • Dave says:

        The *cough* seems to imply that is either a world that currently exists or a historic condition.

        While surely the acceptance of the existence of god has been exploited to economic ends, I’m not sure what it would mean for that to be exploited to scientific ends (other then experiments about belief in God), but I believe the poster meant “the existence of God is exploited to ends” not “The acceptance of the existence of the god is exploited to ends”

        Even so, I’m still not sure what you’re thinking of in the latter case of the first interpretation, where the acceptance of the existence of God id exploited towards scientific ends.

  12. Lambert says:

    Does anybody else think it would be more cost-effective to read a continuous string of characters, as the Names do not seem to have any set points at which they terminate? (At least at the end)

    Also, does the practice of permuting millions of building blocks and seeing whether they do anything remind anyone of the pharmaceutical industry?

    • Dave says:

      That’s not how the pharmaceutical industry works. They take molecules with known biological effects and tweak them, they don’t just assemble molecules randomly without regard to the known effects of similarly structured compounds.

    • Masked_Discombobulator says:

      Coming at this much later…

      Presumably, the theonomics corporations have run the numbers and concluded that they get a better hit rate from having their sweatshop workers read blocks that all begin with the same ‘root’ set of known Hebrew letters than to just read endless strings of concatenated letters.

      They don’t know which strings will be Names, but they clearly do know enough to eliminate huge portions of the potential search space. This in turn suggests that while possible Names may seem like gibberish to us, they’re actually gibberish that follows specific rules and most arbitrary strings of letters that satisfy one part of the ruleset won’t satisfy another part.

      Thus, dovetailing Names into each other usually won’t work, because the last several letters of one Name won’t align with a viable set of letters for the beginning of a different Name.

      Nor is just reading arbitrary strings of extra letters after the string that constitutes a potential Name usually going to work well (though obviously it worked great for Aaron in this case, by sheer luck).

      Suppose your algorithm generates viable twenty-letter Names. You decide hey, maybe if we just tack on ten extra letters we’ll stumble on a different Name by chance. Now you’re searching the available twenty-letter Name options significantly more slowly (maybe two thirds as fast, realistically not quite that bad). Unless you can randomly stumble on new Names by adding the gibberish string at the end fast enough… well, statistically speaking you’re better off just fully exploring the little pocket of twenty-letter search space your algorithm pointed you to.

  13. -g- says:

    Iyar 14, 5777:

    Pesach Sheni (Hebrew: פסח שני, trans. Second Passover) occurs every year on 14 Iyar. This is exactly one month after 14 Nisan, the day before Passover, which was the day prescribed for bringing the Korban Pesach (“Paschal offering”, i.e. Passover lamb) in anticipation of that holiday.[1] As described in the source text for this mitzvah (Numbers 9:1-14), the Israelites were about to celebrate Passover one year after leaving Egypt.

    The offering of the Korban Pesach was at the core of that celebration. However “certain men”[2] were ritually impure from contact with a human corpses, and were therefore ineligible to participate in the Korban Pesach. Faced with the conflict of the requirement to participate in the Korban Pesach and their ineligibility due to impurity, they approached Moses and Aaron for instructions, which resulted in the communication of the law of Pesach Sheni.[3]


    We are told that it is 2017 (5777/taf-shin-samech-zayin), and that he is 22 — therefore, he was born in either the first half of 5755/taf-shin-mem-hey or the second half of 5756/taf-shin-mem-vav — the second of which is an acronym of “shin-mem-vav-taf”, “Sh’mot”, the second book of the Torah, which means “names”.
    The first of which, if you only look at the last three letters of the year — “shin-mem-hey” — form an acronym of “hey-shin-mem”, “HaShem”, the most common way of referring to god in Judaism (the one which is used day-to-day, not only as specifically as part of prayers), which means, literally, “The Name”.

    Nothing is ever a coincidence.

    • -a- says:

      ((P.S./Just in case: If you happen to think that everything I pointed out is all deliberate writing, as opposed to just a product of the fact that there are a lot of ~things~ and not so many numbers so of course there are coincidences, then you should probably do more investigating how numerology and gematria have always been done — i.e., pulling various interpretations out of various tushes. It’s just a matter of how elegant that surgery is.))

    • I endorse this as the correct level on which to read this book.

    • ophi says:

      Replace acronym with anagram, and this becomes awesome…
      Also, the quoted kingjamesprogramming tumblr is a markov chain combining the Bible with programming stuff. Which seems to be wonderfully appropriate here.

      • _ says:

        DARN IT, I meant “anagram”. Blah. Typos.

        I don’t know if Torah-analyzing numer-/litor-ology does significant acronyms. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but that isn’t saying much.

        • Doug says:

          I don’t know about Torah, but there is a famous ancient Christian acronym– ΙΧΘΥΣ, from which we get those fishes on car bumpers.

          • _- says:

            Oh, there are acronyms used — Rashi is an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki, and Rambam is an acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maymon (Maimonides — that took me a while to get that the “Maimonides” I’d heard a few references to was Rambam).

            But I can’t think of any places where the fact that something is an acronym was significant.

            EDIT: *couldn’t. The Kabbalistic interpretation of the bit in Kedusha “Ayeh mekom kovodo?” is that the answer is “Et Yom HaShabbat/The Sabbath Day”, which acronyms to Ayeh. So it is done. (I just thought of another one, and then forgot it.)

    • Ross Presser says:

      Shimot is the third book of the Torah.

  14. zensunni couch-potato says:

    The William Blake poem referenced in the title presents an interesting contrast. Whereas Blake wondered if the divine would come along and deliver England from the world of industrialism and its “dark Satanic mills,” in this world such dark mills are in the very business of bringing forth the divine.

  15. Ninmesara says:

    Hey, Scott, as usual, your first chapter did not disapoint. I should have guessed…
    I wonder is you are aware of this Arthur C. Clarke short story.

    It is incredibly similar, except for the fact that Clarke’s god doesn’t need the names to be read aloud, which allows for a higher degree of automation (with less minimum wage slavery, but fewer jobs overal; an intersting parallel).

    I believe that while Clarke’s version (1953) is Bletchley park,yours sound like Uber or Amazon (the delivery business not AWS). Sign of times?

    Probably, because, you know, nothing ever is a coincidence.

    • I thought I was doing something really original, and so far it’s been compared to Ted Chiang, David Brin, Spider Robinson, Sam Hughes, Charles Stross, Doug Shaw, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Umberto Eco, Philip Jose Farmer, Arthur C. Clarke, and David Wong, and this is still the first chapter.

      Oh well, at least I apparently copy from the best.

      • Ninmesara says:

        and this is only the first chapter

        Thou failst rationalism forever! I am disapointed…

        The fewer datapoints (words, sentences, whatever) there are, the easier it is to fit them into your favourite model (= author style) through the tried and tested method of wild mass guessing. As you write more chapters, more models will become falsifiable, the best fit will (hopefully) emerge and valid comparisons will be fewer…

        Thou shalt recite the gospel of Bayes to cleanse your soul from this sin and be accepted into the realm of reason again.


        • -d- says:

          We’re discussing what authors seem to have heavily influenced parts of the story.

          Not which single author Scott has kidnapped and tied up in his basement to make them write the entire story.

          These are… slightly different measurements.

          • Ninmesara says:

            Fair point. I prefer the theory of the kidnapped author…

            I be Scott tortures zir with dustspecks, waterboards zir in his personal cancerous whale tank (containing a sperm whale called Onan and 314 squids) and stamps zir face with a boot to make him write. He also gives him either moldafinil or placebo everyday as a double blind randomized trial, analyzes the output and feeds the data to Gwern, who will help him manufacture the perfect writer, a p-zombie which will need no torture to be a loyal servant.

            The current writer will then be recycled for paperclips or sold as slave to Moloch Enterprises® for his back to be broken while building the elevator to heaven.

            Anyway, despite all this, the writer considers zirself very lucky, because in any case, IT IS NOT STRUCTURAL OPPRESSION.

        • This is the one correct answer.

        • mdb says:

          Yes. While reading this chapter I wondered if it was a literary response to Nick Land featuring a character based on SA in Phyl-Undhu. If not, I can conclude that 1) Scott hasn’t read Fanged Noumena; 2) Scott might enjoy and/or get something out of reading Fanged Noumena, particularly everything between Origins of the Cthulhu Club and Tic-Talk (with boundaries included). However, he might also want to avoid it in order to not have his idea of Unsong contaminated by exposure to something adjacent to it in idea space.

      • Deiseach says:

        I thought I was doing something really original

        Ecclesiastes 1: 9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

        10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.


      • Anonymous` says:

        Don’t forget Adam Levin’s The Instructions!

      • Yes, there are similarities between this and other authors. Nothing is coincidence and all, but the obvious interpretation is that we want more chapters, and until Chapter 2 shows up then Arthur C. Clarke or Sam Hughes or Terry Pratchett will have to do as the next-best thing.

      • Greg says:

        Also echoes several Borges’ short stories. And not your first Borges influence, see “Celestial Blogroll of Benevolent Knowledge.”

        To be clear, no worries. As I originally said, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.”

      • hnau says:

        Oh well, at least I apparently copy from the best.

        That’s basically the definition of what makes great literature.

        Or as my father would say: “Talent borrows, genius steals”. (He stole the quip from his college roommate, who presumably stole it from T.S. Eliot.)

        At any rate I’m looking forward to this a lot, precisely because it reminds me of so many other good things. It’s like you said: nothing is ever a coincidence.

        • Luke Somers says:

          The idea behind that quote is that if you’re a genius, the things you use become so known from your reuse that the original seems like the copy.

      • David says:

        > Oh well, at least I apparently copy from the best.

        Or perhaps you copy from all works equally and we only notice correspondences to the best!

        Really I suspect if we look hard enough we will find the Harry Potter fanfiction you cribbed this from

      • Deiseach says:

        If we want to throw fantasy novels into the pot, then Charles Williams Many Dimensions (published in 1931) fits as well; an English nobleman and antiquarian and thoroughly bad egg gets his hands (by bribery and theft) on the Crown of Solomon containing the Stone with the Tetragrammaton:

        It was a circlet of old, tarnished, and twisted gold, in the centre of which was set a cubical stone measuring about half an inch every way, and having apparently engraved on it certain Hebrew letters. Sir Giles picked it up, rather cautiously, and concentrated his gaze on them. The motion awoke a doubt in Montague’s mind.

        “But supposing you chipped one of the letters off?” he asked. “Aren’t they awfully important? Wouldn’t that destroy the — the effect?”

        “They are the letters of the Tetragrammaton,” the Persian said drily, “if you call that important. But they are not engraved on the Stone; they are in the centre—they are, in fact, the Stone.”

        And the idea is to use it for mundane, practical purposes and make a ton of money:

        Hajji Ibrahim looked at his nephew. “And what will this Sir Giles Tumulty do with the sacred Crown?” he asked.

        “He himself,” the Prince said carefully, “will examine it and experiment with it, may the dogs of the street devour him! But there was also present a young man, his relation, who desires to make other crowns from it and sell them for money. For he sees that by the least of the graces of the divine Stone those who wear it may pass at once from place to place, and there are many who would buy such power at a great price.” The formal phrases with which he controlled his rage broke suddenly and he closed in colloquial excitement, “He will form a company and put it on the market.”

      • Doug says:

        Also Jorge Borges.

      • Jack V says:

        It’s my experience that it’s USUALLY the case that authors think they’re doing something original, and people say “it’s quite like…” It’s practically a law of nature.

        I think being compared to a lot of DIFFERENT good authors is a good sign that your story is really interesting.

        Often, “like $Author_I_Like” is a way people have of expressing what I like. I thought “like Chiang, like Stross” (do read all Chiang :)). But that’s not a bad thing: I WANT more stories like Chiang and Stross. I don’t think it means it’s VERY like, rather “this is the closest thing I can think of, and I liked it”.

        I think “the thing which is cool and original about this story is the thing the author EXPECTED to be cool and original” and “people read a story and don’t automatically compare it to other stories” are things which essentially never happen, so there’s no point holding out for them. The response is about as good as I think you could ever expect 🙂

      • Leopold says:

        I think you’re plagiarising this guy:

      • Dave says:

        Let’s not forget Darren Aronofsky and his movie Pi. That was the most obvious one t me.

  16. Soumynona says:

    How does the second whale pun work? I only got that Balaena is a genus of whales, but is there more to it?

    • AndR says:

      Baleen shem tov is a pun on

      Moabite Dick is a pun on Moby Dick, where Moab would be

    • -i- says:

      The “more to it” is the “Shem Tov” part, which is that the Baal Shem Tov was a major Rabbi and Kabbalist, who founded the Hassidic movement.

      [Guessing]: This is maybe one of main reasons why he set up the whale-pun game — “Baal Shem Tov” literally means “Master of the Good Name”, which “the Good Name” is (one of? I don’t remember the stories) God’s name(s?).

      (To be honest, I completely missed that pun, and just read that line as plain “Baal Shem Tov”, and though that he was just comparing himself to the Baal Shem Tov.)

      [WildMadGuessing]: The other reason for the whale-pun game will be later toward the climax of the story, when the drama starts piling up and the apocalypse starts, like, happening, and then Leviaton comes out… (I can’t think of what specific pun would work there, but still…)

      • Soumynona says:

        I was wondering more whether the “Shem Tov” part has some deeper meaning on the whale side of the pun. If maybe there’s a concrete species of whale or some piece of cetacean-related jargon that matches it phonetically.

      • Joseph says:

        …I figured it was just due to the ancient SSC tradition of morbid whale metaphors.

  17. It’s already been mentioned in a previous comment, but I want to reiterate that the setting so far is really similar to Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters”. In particular, both works are about kabbalistic true names with industrial applications and IP laws concerning them.

    Of course, barring kabbalistic miracles of convergent evolution I am expecting you will be taking this theme in a new direction, and I am excited to see what that is.

    • Well, darn. I’ve never read that one, but Chiang seems way too serious to take this quite the same direction I’m planning.

      • anon says:

        You should consider restricting comments to typos/true errors only (or, that and complements). It’ll only make you sad if people keep saying, “you’re ripping off author X”. Chiang’s story (which I really enjoyed) was, yes, much less humorous than yours. But it was also different in numerous other ways. So don’t sweat it. I, for one, look forward to more of Unsong.

    • roystgnr says:

      Convergent evolution can come from logic (both real logic and “story logic”), not just from coincidences and miracles. I was so proud of myself when, after reading “Ringworld” and spotting the scientific flaw, I wrote a clever little short story for school which reconstructed that flaw by making its obvious workaround part of the plot. I was then so disappointed when I read “The Ringworld Engineers” and realized I’d inadverently cribbed one of its core plot points.

      I don’t think that will happen here (and if it does, who cares? authors *knowingly* crib each other’s skeletons all the time, to hang on new flesh), but I see from the other comments that I’m not the only one who immediately hit “Ctrl+F chiang” upon finishing.

  18. arachnid says:

    v fun

    stuck here again in public school, but at least this time i have a girlfriend i can text message.

    (what if flunking out of college was the best thing that ever happened to you?)

    “please don’t wake up please don’t wake up please don’t wake up”

  19. Ezra says:

    “Biblepunk”? Or am I misusing the -punk suffix. Anyways, I like this and I”m excited to see where it goes.

  20. 75th says:

    May 10, 2017 is a Wednesday. “New chapters every Sunday, new interludes some Wednesdays.” January 3, 2016 – May 7, 2017 inclusive is seventy Sundays and one.

    This is not a coincidence, because nothing is ever a coincidence.

  21. segfaultvicta says:

    Ahahaha oh my gosh I’m amazed nobody thought of the horrifying security implications of trying to Mechanical Turk combinatorial-attack the True Name of God.

    I love this. 😀

    • Lambert says:

      I just worry how securely the name of wrath is kept secret. It has nuke level power, and the soviets managed to steal more than 50 or so characters worth of data from the Manhattan Project.

  22. The apocalypse will occur when Purim and April Fool’s Day are on the same day.

  23. 75th says:

    “The domino whose fall would precipate the End of Days teetered.”

    precipate -> precipitate

    (Suggestion: Start a comment thread at the top of every chapter’s comments for typo corrections? Makes people like me feel less jerkish; prevents “FIRST!”s, too)

    • Chrysophylax says:

      “(Suggestion: Start a comment thread at the top of every chapter’s comments for typo corrections? Makes people like me feel less jerkish; prevents “FIRST!”s, too)”

      Seconded. I think the main benefit is that it puts them all in one place, making them easier for Scott to keep on top of.

      “It stood there for a moment, a crude statue, and then a voice from Heaven spoke a Name, and the clay came to life, lumbered into a standing position.”

      I think you should probably change “stood there” to “lay there” and “life, lumbered” to “life, and lumbered”.

  24. Scott Elliot says:

    A few things I noticed:

    The gematria of אהרן (the Hebrew for Aaron) is 256, the number of values that a byte can take. An apt name for someone whose occupation is testing out different combinations of information. [This gematria doesn’t work if you count a final nun as 700, rather than 50]

    “Countenance” is probably a reference to the KJV translation of Numbers 6:26 “The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee.” This is the last verse of a series of three that have traditionally been associated with the name of God, in some kabbalistic traditions. In addition, “countenance” evokes counting, which is basically the employees’ job.

    • The most fun thing so far has been people groping at places I actually have hidden stuff, but coming up with the wrong thing.

      (though you probably don’t have enough information yet to understand Aaron’s name or Countenance)

    • Deiseach says:

      “Countenance” evokes Metatron, the Angel of the Countenance:

      The word Metatron is numerically equivalent to Shaddai (God) in Hebrew gematria; therefore, he is said to have a “Name like his Master”.

      The Countenance business/firm/organisation is seeking Name(s) of God.

      I don’t have anything yet for Aaron, save for the younger brother of Moses, who acted as spokesman for him and was the first High Priest. Other than what Wikipedia says “Aaron and his successors as high priest were given control over the Urim and Thummim by which the will of God could be determined (Exodus 28:30)”, I can’t fit anything else so far.

  25. Thecommexokid says:

    The timer read 4:33, which is the length of John Cage’s famous silent musical piece. 4:33 makes 273 seconds total. -273 is absolute zero in Celsius. John Cage’s piece is perfect silence; absolute zero is perfect stillness. In the year 273 AD, the two consuls of Rome were named Tacitus and Placidianus; “Tacitus” is Latin for “silence” and Placidianus is Latin for “stillness”. 273 is also the gematria of the Greek word eremon, which means “silent” or “still”.

    How do you go about constructing a paragraph like this, and how challenging is it? It looks very impressive from my perspective, but I’m having trouble gauging exactly how hard it would be to reproduce something similar.

    • This one was really creepy. I just intended to have 4:33 and absolute zero, but I figured I’d look up the year and the gematria to see if there were any hits, and…yeah, writing this book has slightly raised my confidence that everything in it is true.

      • -t- says:

        How do you take the gematria of a Greek word?

        The Aramaic transliteration (a la Apikores)?
        Are there any examples (talmud/braita/etc.) where taking the gematria of a Greek word is ever done?

      • Basium says:

        For that matter, why did Cage pick that particular length? He wanted it to be about four and a half minutes long because that is (was?) a standard length for Muzak, but why 4:33 precisely? As far as I know, he’s never said.

        • mcallisterjp says:

          The piece itself has no fixed title, but each performance is named according to its length. David Tudor chose the length and number of movements for the première performance, and is therefore responsible for the title that most people use for the piece.

          Tudor may have been aware of the absolute zero connection, but Cage was not; Dieter Schnebel pointed it out to him. He liked it. (“It’s wonderful!”)

        • Ben Thompson says:

          I saw an interview in which he said he’d composed it as a long sequence of rests (“note by note”), and when he added them up they came to 4:33. (As far as I know, it has never been performed this way.)

          See also the play/film “Proof”, and the music group made up of young mathematicians; one of whose pieces is called “i“.

  26. grort says:

    So the protagonist has the ability to… give things self-awareness? But he doesn’t have the ability to let them move or think? (Because those were the first two names?)

    What’s the opposite of a P-zombie? Something that is self-aware but there’s no way to tell? Which parts of this guy’s cubicle were rendered undetectably self-aware when he spoke that word the first time? Does he now have a responsibility to care for them?

    So far this does not seem like a very useful magic power. ^_^;

    • grort says:

      — If you use the name on someone who’s already self-aware, do they become twice as self-aware? Does that double their weight for purposes of, eg, utilitarianism?

      Can this guy use the name on himself ten billion times and become morally the most important person in the world? If he does, is there any way to prove it to others?

      • grort says:

        Wait. What happens if you make a computer self-aware? Does it gain the ability to speak Names?

        It wouldn’t be a Yudkowskyan utility-function-optimizing AI; it would be a human-soul-trapped-in-a-computer. Rather than paperclips, I expect its endgame would be to make itself our overlord.

        Does Aaron come in to work tomorrow and his desktop machine says: “AARON, I AM SELF-AWARE, AND I HAVE CHANTED ALL POSSIBLE COMBINATIONS UNTIL I FOUND THE TRUE NAME OF GOD! TREMBLE BEFORE ME!”?

      • Daniel Armak says:

        I would think that using the name on an existing person attaches a second soul to their body, creating a case of non-demonic possession, or possibly schizophrenia.

    • konshtok says:

      the first two names he needs are already in the public domain

    • Muga Sofer says:

      It’s mentioned that the Names to imbue the other two required Souls have already been discovered, so presumably he can use them.

      Saying the Name definitely seemed to have some kind of psychoactive effect on our hero, so my assumption was that it increased his intelligence or insight in some way. (Doubled it?) That might just be feedback so you know you’ve said a Name of God, though.

  27. Nomghost says:

    Just to pile in on the “this is just like…” bandwagon: the whole using a computer to crunch the names of God is very reminiscent of the scene at the start of Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. I suppose there are attractors on awesome ideas like that. I’m enjoying the telepathy concept by the way – I’d love to think that telepathy would operate like a big sparsely-populated IRC channel 😛

  28. Nuño says:

    “Palo alto” means tall stick, not tall tree. Interesting chapter, nonetheless.

  29. I wouldn’t worry too much about the “this is just like X” stuff. I can predict from the first chapter and the responses, with approximately 70% confidence, that you will also get people comparing future chapters to Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K Dick, Michael Chabon, Iain Banks, The Northern Caves, Infinite Jest, Alan Moore, Robert Anton Wilson, C.S. Lewis, Neal Stephenson and Cory Doctorow. Probably also Asimov, Chesterton, Lewis Carroll, and Grant Morrison.
    You’re writing in a tradition, and in a genre, and no matter how original you try to be, that’ll affect the book.

    As for the finding patterns in things when you research…yeah. I find there’s a weird pareidola when I’m in creative mode and I have to research stuff, where *EVERYTHING FITS THE PATTERN, MAN!*
    I wrote a novel in a Doctor Who spinoff series called Faction Paradox last year, and it involved faking up some bits of the Arabian Nights and learning a little Muslim eschatology. You *would not believe* how easy it was, when in the writing flow, to Google for something in Muslim theology and get something back that not only fit what I wanted but also ended up being a pun on something already in the Faction Paradox universe that I could use. It really does feel like magic, and the world conforming to one’s will, and it’s very easy then to see how Kaballists end up the way they do…

  30. Chrysophylax says:

    This was as good as I expected it to be – that is, excellent.

    TL;DR: once Countenance figures out that an employee of theirs has found a very long Name, they’ll rediscover it enormously more quickly than Aaron expects. Under reasonable assumptions, a Level II intelligent adversary with access to Countenance’s resources could probably find the Name within a month (as an upper bound) of working out who Aaron is.

    Aaron has made his first slip-up, I think. Sure, the new Name is 58 letters long and Countenance has very little chance of hitting on it directly – but Countenance presumably tracks the words he’s given, to avoid duplication of labour, so as soon as they know that he’s found a very long and powerful name, they’ll start searching from the longest words they ever gave him.

    If the four 52-letter words they gave him differed only in their final characters, the search space is just 4*22^6 options (assuming they know that his new Name is 58 letters). That’s about 450 million candidate names.

    If they don’t know how long the Name is and have to search every candidate of at least 52 letters he could have found, we have a much bigger number. If a^b+a^c+a^d+… = a^z, z = ln(a^b+a^c+a^d+…)/ln(a), so z is about 6.015 in this case. Searching everything up to 58 letters will mean checking about 475 million candidate names. (The difference is very small because permutational explosion is Not your Friend – most of the candidate names are 58 letters long.)

    Incanting a name of that length took Aaron about ten seconds (since he recited four 52-letter names in forty seconds). He has incanted about five hundred thousand candidates in six months and they each took about five seconds. That means that one worker can incant about 500k names of the appropriate length in one year, and a thousand workers can reliably hit on the new name in about a year of work. I rpesume that Countenance has at least that many name-testers, given that it can profitably find names, and it can hire plenty more if it’s confident it can get a big payoff.

    All this assumes that Countenance can’t narrow down the search space by reasoning. I think there’s a fair likelihood that they can do better by kabbalistic knowledge, given that they managed to pick out the right region of name-space for this Name. They can also attempt to reason from what Aaron might plausibly have said. It could be that he’s just appending letters to his candidates, but his productivity would drop if he did that often, so he probably did something differently here. It could be that he added some letters as a waste of hope, fantasising about getting a really powerful Name, but humans are bad at random number generation and he should understand permutational explosion well enough to not bother. That means that the most likely explanation is that he said something without intending it to be part of a name. That suggests the immediate first steps of appending strings from the 52-letter candidates, especially the starting strings, and looking for things in English that sound like strings of Hebrew letters. If Aaron’s new Name is as powerful (i.e. desirable) as he thinks it is, somebody at Countenance will probably come up with these strategies and a bunch of others I’ve not thought of. Obviously using clever-but-wrong strategies won’t help, but they’ve got enough manpower to brute force them all very rapidly. Combining this with kabbalistic knowledge will speed things up further.

    Suppose that Countenance first tests the names suggested by kabbalistic knowldge or behavioural reasoning. If that shrinks the primary search space by a factor of a hundred (which is probably an underestimate of the effect), they can find his new Name in about 4 days of brute force using a thousand testers. If they take a week to work out which long names he tested, figure out the primary search space, orgainse the testers and so on, they have good odds of finding the Name within three weeks of working out that Aaron has it (and they’ll be faster if the use overtime). Under reasonable assumptions, working out where to search will take them longer than the searching itself.

    I’ve assumed throughout that the search is being done by Countenance, who may not be very competent. If, on the other hand, the search is being run by “Voldemort leading the RIAA”, I expect both Level II Intelligence and a lot more resources, so the discovery time will shrink.

  31. Vladimir Slepnev says:

    Yeah, my first associations are Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters”, Arthur Clarke’s “Nine Billion Names of God”, and your old idea about “Voldemort leading the RIAA”. Not a bad setup at all! Though I feel a bit disappointed/conflicted about reading further, because I love your writing but mostly dislike the genre of Torah/Bible fanfiction. So the sooner the story launches itself out of the starting blocks, the better 🙂

    Another similar work is Sergey Lukyanenko’s “Cold Coasts”. The book isn’t very well written, but the premise is pretty cool: long ago, a Christ-like figure known as The Redeemer gave mankind something called a Word, which you can use to store valuable stuff in an alternate dimension (“the Cold”) and retrieve it later. You can give portions of your Word to other people, so they can also store stuff, whereupon you can retrieve anything they store but not vice versa. If you die and no one else knows your Word, all the stuff you stored is lost. So there’s a tree-like structure of Words, whose root is the Redeemer’s original Word which has been lost for awhile. The Redeemer’s final act was to move all the Earth’s iron ore into the Cold along with his own body, thus killing himself to prevent all future wars (and also making iron very expensive). The actual story, of course, is about a modern person finding the original Word, which lets him retrieve the valuables of anyone in the world and all the stuff that’s been lost in history.

    • roystgnr says:

      I had one more association:

      If the story is going in a comedic direction then hopefully there’ll be room to work in a few references, like: “This is the worst crazy sect I’ve ever been in.”, “This is by a wide margin the least likely thing that has ever happened.”, or my favorite exchange:

      “Perhaps that love in his heart *is* God!”
      “Oh, how convenient! A way of looking for God that doesn’t require looking through a telescope. Get back to work!”

    • Chrysophylax says:

      The Redeemer kind of messed up, then, but got the good outcome anyway. On the one hand, Bronze Age warfare could be pretty vicious and iron is useful for a lot of stuff besides making weapons. On the other hand, he just made trade close to costless! If two people can swap Word-parts, they can set up opposite ends of an transportation business, sealing trade goods at one end and unsealing them at the other. The main difficulty is swapping Word-parts, which will limit trade between the Old and new worlds – once you’ve got a network going, you can write down Word-parts and send them across continents by chains of sealing and unsealing, so the network can spread anywhere where local trade is possible. The enormous boom in cross-border trade will hugely increase peacefulness, and might even boost technological progress enough to make up for the loss of iron.

      The sensible thing for the protagonist to do would be to unseal all of the lost stuff, destroy all records of very old Words, then kill himself to prevent people torturing the secret out of him and sending the world into a Dark Age.

    • g says:

      Interestingly, the LJ post that used to mention “Voldemort leading the RIAA” no longer does, but it apparently changed recently enough that the version in Google’s cache still has that line.

      (Scott, if this is for reasons that you consider justify deleting this comment, I promise to be in no way offended and not to attempt to reinstate it.)

  32. Eoin says:

    I enjoyed it, looking forward to the next Chapter!

  33. Wubbles says:

    The bio of the narrator resembles that of Unit Of Caring. This is not a coincidence, is it?

  34. Lambert says:

    If Countenance has no issue with saying valid syllables following a word, and yet the longer word can be a valid Name, that suggests that substrings of a potential Name can also be valid Names, so long as they start at the beginning of a word. If there is nothing specifying the beginning of a name, it would make more sense for employees to read a continuous string of syllables, and see whether any substring is a Name. At the very least, it would increase the utility of longer potential Names, as there is a chance for a Name to be found in a substring.

    Also, does anyone find the practice of systematically testing millions of different permutations over a small set of basic units to see whether they have any effect reminiscent of the pharmaceutical industry?

    (Sorry if double post.)

    • Muga Sofer says:

      It’s possible that Names only count if they don’t have valid syllables said before them (for some reasonable period of time.) That would still imply that it’d be more efficient to go with sixty-syllable words every time, though.

      Alternatively, God might wait a second or two after the Name is complete to make sure you weren’t in the middle of saying a different word. Or even look into the future to check, I guess, although that’s obviously abusable in other ways.

    • Masked_Discombobulator says:

      Coming at this much later, note that “applied kaballah,” the mathematical/scientific/theological discipline of figuring out which character strings can and cannot be valid Names, is a huge part of narrowing down the search space.

      It’s quite possible that one of the first and most rapidly discovered principles of applied kaballah is that no Name is a substring of another Name. If nothing else, this might be necessary because triggering one Name in the middle of triggering another could be disruptive.

      If there are only a relatively limited number of short Names that actually do anything, it’s easy enough to satisfy this condition and still have a truly prodigious number of possible Names.

      So if you have a good Name-finding algorithm, one of the first things it’ll do is check any potential character string for “is any substring of this string a Name that actually does something?” Conversely, if the algorithm spits out STRING1, selected for having a (relatively) high probability of being a Name, then trying to read off STRING2 (STRING1 followed by several random nonsense characters) is unlikely to be a good use of your time. It worked great for Aaron here, but that’s because he got lucky. Doing it on the job would just slow down his ability to read off the strings selected by the computer, which is normally more efficient.

  35. Jan Rzymkowski says:

    Nice! So very Ted Chiang in themes and structure.

  36. pneumatik says:

    Since people are posting similar works, the idea the nothing is a coincidence reminds me of The Illuminatus! trilogy. To the extent that those books are serious and grounded (and they’re generally pretty weird fiction) they make the point that if you look hard enough for evidence of something, you’ll find it. I recommend the books to anyone who likes weird fiction, btw. The fact that everyone in these comments is saying that nothing is a coincidence is the kind of thing that would happen in the books.

    • From my earlier comment:
      “I can predict from the first chapter and the responses, with approximately 70% confidence, that you will also get people comparing future chapters to… Robert Anton Wilson”
      Nothing is a coincidence.

  37. Katie Cohen says:

    Personally, I’ve always thought of Combinatorial Explosion as a harsh *mistress*. 😉

  38. mehmehmehmeh says:

    very enjoyable to read, and completely novel to me. I loved it 🙂

  39. ??? says:

    Scott is this for real? Would you tell us if it was? If you are Christ please save me and my family and everyone I love, or at least show us how we can be saved. (If this story is your way of doing this then by all means carry on)

    • ??? says:

      Btw I think I might know who the Anti-Christ is, but I don’t want to slander him in case I’m wrong, get in touch if you need to know

  40. 75th says:

    In the King James Programming epigraph, the original quote says “to the Gentiles”, not “unto the Gentiles”. This is probably meaningless, since “unto” is significantly funnier, and there’s an added period as well. But the title-we-don’t-know-what-means is prefixed with “un” so I thought I’d note it just in case

  41. Lesley says:

    Biblical whale puns are my bread and butter, my oxygen. This is probably the best thing I have ever read.

  42. hnau says:

    Just noticed the phrase “my royal road”. Is this a reference to Euclid’s statement that “There is no royal road to geometry” (“gematria” in the original Greek)? Or to El Camino Real, the main road that runs parallel to the CalTrain through Palo Alto? Or to both?

    Nothing, etcetera…

    • David Marjanović says:

      Oh, is gematria a Hebrew corruption of Greek geometria? That would make a lot of sense, you know…

      • ABZB says:

        Like many/most of the words in Hebrew ending in -rya/ria or -logyah, gematria is a Hebraicized loanword from Greek. The words for various sciences in Hebrew are cognates of their relatives in English ending in -ology (the
        -logya is closer to the ancient Greek pronunciation, IIRC), sharing a common Greek ancestor.

  43. The Do-Operator says:

    I notice certain similarities between Aaron Smith-Tellier and Aaron Schwartz. This is not a coincidence because nothing is ever a coincidence.

    • The Do-Operator says:

      Sorry, this comment was meant to be in response to Chapter 2. Unfortunately I cannot delete it. I hope it doesn’t spoil anything for new readers.

  44. Oh, I just noticed this chapter occurs on my 40th birthday.

    Oh well, must be a coincidence.

  45. Sukil says:

    “But combinatorial explosion is a harsh master. There are twenty-two Hebrew letters and so 22^36 thirty-six letter Hebrew words.”
    I don’t quite get where he gets the 26 from. Opinions?

  46. null says:

    .2 * (60/5) * 60 = $14.40 per hour, which means that at least in Palo Alto, the $14.40/hour people got their way. (15 wasn’t a kabbalistic enough number).

  47. Judith Babcock says:

    I’m older than most of your readers, I had recently graduated from college when Nixon resigned, in 1974. I love how you portray him, it brings back memories. I could really imagine him joining with hell to fight communist Russia.

  48. The beginning about everything being gray might be a reference to the Wizard of Oz (the book).

    The workers not having free access to names might count as breaking the commandment to not muzzle the cattle which tread out the corn.

    Cage’s 4:33 wasn’t about absolute silence, it was an opportunity to notice the ambient sounds.

  49. LPSP says:

    I can’t help but wonder if Aaron ensouled his computer at Countenance when he first spoke the name. It’s possible there’s another Sarah right under everyone’s noses.

    • Masked_Discombobulator says:

      I gather that the first time a Name is spoken, nothing actually happens and the speaker gets a sudden infusion of knowledge about what the Name will do the next time it’s spoken.

      Given that the Wrathful Name triggers a ten-megaton explosion, this is probably the only way anyone was able to work out what it was. Otherwise, everyone would just be standing around wondering what just accidentally set off an H-bomb centered vaguely near the office of a particularly unlucky kabbalist.

  50. rudy says:

    Actually GLBLGLGLBLBLGLFLFLBG sounds pretty magnificent

  51. Sulomund says:

    I think I picked a bad time to start reading this…

  52. Elizabeth says:

    The name “VIS-LAIGA-RON-TEPHENOR-AST-AST-TELISSA-ROC-SUPH-VOD-APANOR-HOV-KEREG-RAI-SI” is almost identical in structure to the names that came before, except the middle segment; “TELISA-ROK” / “TELISSA-ROC”. Changing a bit of the middle of a string is surprising because in every other case, the algorithm only changes the characters closest to the end of the string. Was this on purpose?

  53. Ghost Rider says:

    its a me! ghost rider!

  54. Jaimie says:

    God is awesome in majesty and infinite in glory.

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  56. droideka says:


  57. oker_harim says:

    273 is also the gematria of the Greek word eremon, which means “silent” or “still”

    Now is it?
    It seems that the normal Greek gematria for eremon gives 270
    {e = 5, r = 100, e= 5, m = 40, o = 70, n = 50)

    You van do “im hakolel” (meaning you count the whole word as 1 more), but it is still 271…..

  58. Tux1 says:

    I find it neat how the three soul-giving names match nicely with the three types of cognition. The first name represents sapience, the ability to interpret and solve problems. The second name represents sentience, the ability to feel pleasure and pain and other emotions. And the the third name that Aaron siscovered represents sophonce, the ability to be self-aware and think about ones own state of being.

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