aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 36: My Father’s Business

Fill the god-shaped hole in your soul with molten metal, then shatter your soul, leaving only a metal god
Gap Of Gods

October 31, 1991
Gulf Of Mexico

Curled up on a cloud, Sohu sat studying Talmud. She was just starting to consider packing it in for the night when her vision was seared by a nearby lightning strike. The subsequent thunder was instantaneous. She was still trying to get her sight back when her father strode through the door.

“Hello, Sohu,” said the Comet King with a faint smile.

She jumped up from her desk in delight. Of course she ran right into a wall – vision doesn’t recover from a point blank lightning strike that quickly – but luckily it was made of cloud and did her no harm. She stumbled a little, then quite literally fell into her father’s arms.


“It’s been too long,” he said. “You look good.”

She smiled. “I don’t know how you look. One of the disadvantages of you going everywhere by lightning bolt. Sit down.”

She gestured at the only chair in the room, which was Sohu-sized. Her bed was covered with books, all open to different pages. The Comet King sized it up, but his distaste for putting books on the floor got the best of him, and he put himself on the floor instead, settling naturally into a lotus position. Sohu shrugged and took the chair.

“I’ve come to take you home,” the Comet King said.

“No!” said Sohu. “Wait, is something wrong?”

“Uriel destroyed the city of Madrid. The King of Spain, the Prime Minister of Israel, Secretary Baker, and dozens of diplomats are dead. Thamiel is disincorporated. I don’t know the whole story. Uriel’s still in the crater. I want you gone by the time he comes back here. You are not safe.”

“Uriel would never hurt me!” Then “Oh. God! Poor Uriel!”

“Poor Uriel? Poor Madrid, I would say.”

“Oh. Father, I was the one who told him to go. I thought it would be good for him. They must have…it was Thamiel. It must have all been a trick of Thamiel’s. I’m so dumb. Father, this is all my fault.”

“It isn’t. This was always a possibility.”

Sohu got up, started pacing. Tears welled into her eyes. “No. Uriel’s…different, but this isn’t him. You have to trust him, Father.”

“Sohu, I told you I sent you here to learn the celestial kabbalah. I told you it would be dangerous if you did not know it. That was true in more ways than you knew. I sent you here because I knew Uriel was capable of this. Uriel is not good, Sohu. He is not evil in the same way Thamiel is, but neither is he safe. And he controls the universe. I cannot allow the universe to be controlled by a loose cannon, but for the present I lack any other options. Not even I can do what he does.” He frowned. “That is why I sent you here, Sohu. So that if Uriel becomes too dangerous to be allowed to continue, I will have someone with whom to replace him. That is why I sent you here, even though it placed you in danger. I thought the danger was worthwhile, if it gave me a backup demiurge when the time came. Now I no longer think the danger is worthwhile. We will find another way to teach you. Come home with me.”

“No,” said Sohu. “No no no. You can’t kill Uriel. I’m not going to help you kill Uriel.”

“I will not destroy Uriel now,” said the Comet King. “You are not ready. Perhaps I will never have to destroy Uriel. Perhaps he will fundamentally change. But if it needs to be done, you will do your duty, as I have mine.”

“You won’t have to kill Uriel!” said Sohu. “I’ve been talking to him. Getting him to understand more things. He listens to me! I want to stay with him. I want to keep studying.”

“Not safe,” said the Comet King.

“No one is ever safe,” said Sohu. “You taught me that. We’re Cometspawn. It’s our job to make them safe. And you said it yourself. It’s important that I learn the celestial kabbalah, in case there’s ever a time when we need…someone other than Uriel for it. You said you’d train me at home. You can’t train me at home. No one can. Only Uriel really understands it. This is where I’m doing the most good for the world, right?”

“Sohu,” said the Comet King, “before you and your sisters and brother were born, I thought of you as strategic assets. I told Father Ellis I would make an army of you. He said that was wrong. Then – your eldest sister, Nathanda. She was the first. When I saw her, I…Father Ellis talks of goodness as something burning and beautiful. I told him he was wrong, that goodness was something cold and crystalline. But when I saw Nathanda, for the first time I understood what it meant to see goodness the way that Father Ellis did. Terribly hot, and too bright to look upon directly. Then I knew as long as she was alive I did not need to worry any further about staying human. I had caught humanity and wrapped it around me tightly like a mantle. All thoughts of sending you off as an army vanished. You’re not a pawn – or at least you’re not only a pawn – you’re my daughter. And I will not let any harm come to you.”

“But Father. You’re always telling us that we need to think of what’s best for the world.”

“Yes,” said the Comet King. “So consider this: If anyone harms you, even the littlest cut or scrape, I will come against them as fire and night. I will destroy them and their people, uproot everything they have built, wipe them utterly from the Earth. And I will do this even if they are the only archangel capable of running the universe, and they have nobody to replace them. What is best for the world is that I not do that. That is why I am taking you home, Sohu.”

Sohu shuddered. Then she said, “The prophecy says that I’ll die screaming and cursing your name. If Uriel killed me, I’d probably just die thinking you were right.”

“Playing with prophecy is a dangerous thing, Sohu.”

“Taking me away from the only person who can train me to use my powers is dangerous! Life is dangerous! We’re Cometspawn! If we don’t do the dangerous things, who will?”

“I will,” said the Comet King, “so that you do not have to.”

Whatever Sohu might have answered was lost in the brilliance of a sudden lightning bolt and the crash of the following thunder.


Sohu ran through the door of the cottage, ran across the little cloud, jumped into the empty spaces beneath, leapt at Uriel. The archangel caught her in his giant hand, and she hugged his finger. “Uriel Uriel Uriel I’m so sorry I’m so sorry are you okay I’m so sorry.”


“It is it is I told you to go to the conference I thought you would like it but it was all a trick I was playing right into Thamiel’s hands he wanted to hurt you I’m so sorry.”


Then he noticed the visitor. The Comet King stood on the edge of the cloud. The starlight gleamed off of his silver hair. He listened to his daughter and the archangel quietly, but his mind was deep in thought.

“Father,” said Sohu. “This is Uriel. Uriel, my father, the Comet King.”

“Uriel,” said the Comet King, “can I trust you with my daughter?”

Sohu’s brain immediately generated all of the terrible things that were about to happen. Uriel was going to answer something like “WELL, WHAT IS TRUST, ANYWAY?” and go off on a tangent while her father panicked. Uriel was going to talk about how Thamiel sometimes came to visit them and tried to kill or torture her. Uriel was going to, God help them, try to give a kabbalistic analysis of the question.

“YES,” said Uriel.

Sohu blinked.

The Comet King looked for a moment like he wasn’t sure exactly how to respond, but it was only for a moment. “What happened in Madrid?” he asked. “The diplomatic community is in chaos. I had to talk President Bush out of declaring war on you. And the reports out of Jerusalem are so confusing I can’t even begin to decipher them.”


“Solve the problem with Israel?”


“You can do that?”


The three of them stood there in the eye of the hurricane, silent in the starlight. The king. The little girl. The giant archangel. There was little to say. The world had been falling apart for years. Now it was falling apart faster.

Finally the Comet King spoke.

“Do you know the Hymn of Breaking Strain?” he asked.

Uriel shook his head.

The Comet King stood tall at the edge of the cloud. In a clear voice, from memory, he recited:

“The careful text-books measure
(Let all who build beware)
The load, the shock, the pressure
Material can bear.
So, when the buckled girder
Lets down the grinding span,
The blame of loss, or murder,
Is laid upon the man.
Not on the stuff – the man.

But in our daily dealing
With stone and steel, we find
The gods have no such feeling
Of justice toward mankind.
To no set gauge they make us-
For no laid course prepare-
And presently o’ertake us
With loads we cannot bear:
Too merciless to bear.

The prudent text-books give it
In tables at the end
The stress that shears a rivet
Or makes a tie-bar bend-
What traffic wrecks macadam-
What concrete should endure-
But we, poor Sons of Adam
Have no such literature,
To warn us or make sure.

We only of Creation
(Oh, luckier bridge and rail)
Abide the twin damnation-
To fail and know we fail.
Yet we – by which sole token
We know we once were gods-
Take shame in being broken
However great the odds-
The burden of the odds.

Oh, veiled and secret Power
Whose paths we seek in vain,
Be with us in our hour
Of overthrow and pain;
That we – by which sure token
We know Thy ways are true –
In spite of being broken,
Because of being broken
May rise and build anew
Stand up and build anew.”


The Comet King stood there on the edge of the cloud, inhumanly perfect, his black cloak and silver hair blowing in the gale.

“I will,” he said.

“PROPHECY?” asked Uriel.

“Probability,” said the Comet King. “No one keeps winning forever. And when I break, I’ll do what comets do. Shatter into fragments, but stay locked on the same path, so that only the most careful astronomers can even tell they’re broken. And that’s what you need to do, Uriel. We need your help.”




“Humans dislike many things humanity needs.”


“You are good at one thing. You run the universe. That is enough. We need a universe. No one has to be good at everything.”


“Not everything. I cannot run the universe. That is where you come in. And my daughter.”


“So I’ve heard.”


“No, I don’t think you will.” He sighed. “But you need to be more careful. Both of you. Uriel, stay away from humans. They are ungrateful. They are foolish. They are cannibalistic. You and I, we are similar. Too similar. We take the straight paths. Try to do things right, damn the consequences. Humans are not like that. They manipulate the social world, the world of popularity and offense and status, with the same ease that you manipulate the world of nature. But not to the same end. There is no goal for them, nothing to be maintained, just the endless twittering of I’m-better-than-you and how-dare-you-say-that. You are no good at that, and you will never be any good at that, and if you were good at that you would not be good at what you need to be good at. We are similar, Uriel, deep down, but leave humans to me. That is my burden. The world is yours. The world, and training my daughter.”


“I do not think anything,” said the Comet King. “I plan for it to turn out okay.” He sighed. “But now I should leave. The European Communion is talking about declaring war. That would be inconvenient. I would have to defeat them. Do we have anything else we need to discuss?”

Uriel was silent.

“Stay here a little longer, Father?” Sohu asked.

“Can’t. There’s always a crisis. And you have work to do. I’ll visit. I know I haven’t visited, but I will.”


The Comet King stared directly at Sohu, spoke into her mind in that creepy way that he did.

[Keep him safe, Sohu. I am counting on you.]

[You lied to him, Father]

[I told him the truth. His part is to remain strong and do his duty. If he fails, I will remain strong and do mine. You will do no less.]

[That’s not what I mean. You told him you could break quietly. But you told me that if someone hurt me, you would go nuclear on them.]

[I told both of you the truth. I will destroy anyone who hurts you. But not because I would be broken. Because I would remain intact.]

He sent her something telepathically, a tangle of thoughts mixed with emotions. When she sorted it out, it came into her mind like a question and answer. The question went If you are Moschiach, and you have to care for everyone as if they are your own children, how do you care for those who are literally your children? The answer was a non-answer, a steamrolling over the paradox. You care for them even more. You care for them extremely and ferociously, beyond any reason.

He stared at her. [Sohu. Promise me you won’t die.]

She almost laughed, almost told him that of course that wasn’t something she could promise. Then she saw the look on his face, dead serious. She remembered what Uriel had answered him only a few minutes before. So she just said:

[There’s a prophecy, Father.]

[You will be a celestial kabbalist. You can stand above prophecy.]

That was something she hadn’t heard before.

[But even without prophecies, everyone dies.]

[Then promise me you will not die before I do.]

Something in his look prevented her from arguing any further. [All right, Father. I promise.]

The Comet King turned into lightning and flew away, merging into the general fury of the storm.


“The prophecy says I will die cursing his name.” said Sohu, “But I don’t think that I will.”

She went back into her cottage, started tidying up the books. The storm had felt strangely empty without Uriel at the center; now that he was back she felt safe again. There was a horror to Madrid; in her heart she could not forget that he was a mass murderer, that he had in his own words “CREATED THE BLACK PLAGUE TO SEE IF IT WOULD WORK”, but – Father was right. He didn’t understand humans. He never would. And she didn’t understand Uriel, not really. The Bible demanded faith that God was good, despite a whole world full of evidence to the contrary. For some reason, she had faith that Uriel was good. Not very wise, maybe. But good.

And she had faith that her father was good. She looked at her left hand, where Thamiel said her father had placed a mark that would call him in times of danger. She wondered what other protections were on her, that even Thamiel hadn’t found.

God she was still iffy about. But Uriel and her father, those two she had faith in. Those two were good. It would have to be enough.

She fell asleep while the archangel worked silently outside.

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122 Responses to Chapter 36: My Father’s Business

  1. B_Epstein says:

    A special honor, being the first to follow this masterpiece of a chapter by “First!”.

  2. Sniffnoy says:

    Still no book-end, and we are (or should be) halfway through Unsong! Maybe an interlude this week that ends book 2?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Nitpick thread.

    Uriel’s line two chapters ago was:


    Here it’s different.

  4. stavro375 says:

    The Comet King stared directly at Sohu, spoke into her mind in that creepy way that he did.

    [Keep him safe, Sohu. I am counting on you.]

    Where have we seen this before?

    I cleared my mind as best I could.

    [Ana, are you there? Where are you?]

    The Comet King can talk to his children through a SCABMOM-like link! I’m not sure what the implications of this are, but there has to be something more meaningful to this Not-A-Coincidence.

    • Nelshoy says:

      The Comet King already knew Names the first time he met Father Ellis as a “child”. Also, I remember Aaron mentioning something about “maybe only the Comit King knows in an earlier chapter.

      It seems that whatever other powers he has, the Comit King seems ahead of the curve on the Name Game.

      Sorry, very drunk right now.

  5. null says:

    You wouldn’t download a Holy Land.

  6. Wow, had never read that Kipling before. How beautiful.

  7. stavro375 says:

    Fredlage on reddit has this to say:

    So, Uriel’s previous estimate was 50 years of working physics in 1990, thus ending in 2040. With 20 years shaved off, that means the “present day” part of the story is at best 3 years away from the machinery collapse, assuming Thamiel didn’t manage to trick Uriel again.

    So the celestial machinery is teetering on the brink. What is the first line of UNSONG again?

    The apocalypse began in a cubicle.

    Well, shoot.

  8. ton says:

    Did Comet King know Sohu was immortal at this point?

    • Guy says:

      Sohu is immortal-unaging; is she also immortal-undying?

      • ton says:

        No, I just thought the conversation here was a bit strange given the immortal-unaging background. You’d expect it to be at least referenced.

      • The coment king says:

        She’s at least partly immortal-undying, in the sense that I don’t think you could kill her with, say, a bullet (remember that Uriel originally did it to protect her from Thamiel, who is very good at killing things). Uriel said he could undo it if he tried, but it might take Celestial Kabbalah to kill her.

  9. Eneasz Brodski says:

    Holy crap that was good! Thank you.

  10. The coment king says:

    Now I’m wondering if Uriel made Sohu unaging partly because he considered the possibility of being replaced.


    If anyone harms you, even the littlest cut or scrape, I will come against them as fire and night.


    Then the Other King himself took the field, ripping through the Comet King’s troops with secret Names of fire and night.


    Also, TCK’s talking about being shattered gives a +1 to him becoming Captain Nemo. (Maybe when he talked about splitting like a comet, it ended up that his angelic half died on the battlefield, and his human half went on as the Captain?)

    • Kinetic_Hugh_Reeve says:

      I would say, that he shattered before the Other King rose up, possibly related to his encounter with Metatron. The Other King was one part. Another stayed in Colorado Springs. Nemo is either a third fragment, or a recoalescing of the part killed on the battlefield.

      • The coment king says:

        Oh interesting. In our universe Comet West Split into four fragments. I assumed the equivalent was the cometspawn, but what it represents him splitting into four pieces of himself?

  11. dsotm says:

    Great chapter, the Kipling song is new for me as well – you’d think it would be more often quoted on the nets.

    What surprises me given TCK’s description and motivations so far is that it doesn’t look like he has bothered to understand Uriel’s powers, the constraints on his machine and whatever that can be learned of celestial Kabbalah without actually having the ability to do it. Sure it could all have been part of the long-term plan of sending Sohu to study under him but one should expect him to already be on a super close working basis with Uriel trying to make tactical uses of his abilities and learning what he can about the universe, Thamiel etc. Or maybe he has all that knowledge already as part of what Raziel has taught him.

    Also how do the people know that it was Uriel rather then Thamiel who destroyed Madrid ?

    • Eve Matteo says:

      They don’t know. They’re guessing. Their guess is based on “Thamiel has been there the entire time and nothing bad happened. Uriel went there once and that’s the one time the place blew up.” Obviously what changed is Uriel being present, therefore his presence caused the disaster. Kinda like how people will blame the baby for the disaster that happened right after the baby’s birth.

      • Susebron says:

        Or, you know, because the Comet King is a master of Kabbalah and Uriel did, in fact, destroy Madrid and everyone in it. Just saying.

      • dsotm says:

        Yeah but Thamiel is literally the devil who is openly trying to conquer the world – that should count for something when assigning suspicion. Though in the Madrid chapter it was told that Thamiel has been inciting the world leaders against Uriel for a while so that’s probably why.

  12. The coment king says:

    So black cloak, silver hair, sword made out of a fallen star, born to one human parent and one higher being who came to earth as a comet, inhumanly perfect until he has a psychological breakdown – is anyone else getting a Sephiroth vibe off Jala here?

  13. Forge the Sky says:

    Excellent. Thanks Scott. Best part of what has been a decidedly mixed-bag weekend.

    Didja just get pissed at all the negative feedback on the last chapter and go all ‘Fools! I’ll show them all!’? Should we criticize you more often?


  14. Kinetic_Hugh_Reeve says:

    Uriel implemented the two-eigenstate solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

    That’s why he’s the quantum mechanic, not a quantum statesman.

    Okay, I’m done for now…

  15. Major Failing of the Planetary Corps says:

    This structural engineering student teared up a little at the Hymn of Breaking Strain. Well played.

    • teucer says:

      I’ve always been a fan, but especially of the musical setting by Leslie Fish.

      • Marvy says:

        Might as well give a link

        • Marvy says:

          And the preview is of course the one stanza that the Comet King omitted from his rendition.

          • aphyer says:

            Sort of weird, too: that stanza seems uniquely appropriate to the situation. Copying here for convenience:

            We hold all Earth to plunder –
            All Time and Space as well-
            Too wonder-stale to wonder
            At each new miracle;
            Till, in the mid-illusion
            Of Godhead ‘neath our hand,
            Falls multiple confusion
            On all we did or planned-
            The mighty works we planned.

            Did TCK leave it out deliberately?

        • Error says:

          Damn. Where can I get this song? Google is failing me.

          • anon says:

            Well, if all else fails there are youtube downloader sites that would let you rip the audio. This would be an inelegant solution, though.

  16. Yossarian says:

    So, Uriel did cut the baby in half along the fourth-dimensional plane.

    Depending on the formal logic Uriel used to distinguish between Muslims and Jews, I already see some exploitabilities in this solution. For example, if the religion can be changed by declaration of faith, a Muslim can pick up a big bomb, go to some key location, declare “I am a Jew!”, appear in Jew-rusalem, dump the bomb and walk away from it so it no longer counts as his baggage, then scream “Allah Akbar” and find himself back on the other side, while the bomb goes off.

    • seoulol says:

      That almost certainly wouldn’t work, as you definitely can’t just declare conversion to judaism. I have a friend, born to a jewish father and protestant mother, but raised, identifies, and practices as jewish, who many, many other jews don’t consider to be jewish.

      You could, however, possibly do it the other way around? Declare shahada, do the deed, and skip back?

    • flarlo says:

      Meet up with your enemy outside of Jerusalem and put a bomb in their vehicle without their knowledge, set go off at a time when you expect the vehicle to be in their Jerusalem.

      Or spread gossip that one of the Jerusalems is the “real” one and those in the other one have been duped into accepting a fake.

    • Harrison Gross says:

      Also, being a Jew is inherited through the mother, and a Muslim through the father. What happens with mixed couples? I guess they can’t really live in Israel.

    • Decius says:

      Why would a Jew want to bomb the Jewish Palestine?

  17. aphyer says:

    So, when we first saw Sohu meet Uriel, he was contemplating killing her, and thought:

    The girl’s father wouldn’t even be angry. What had he expected, sending her to him, flaunting a gift no human should be able to have?

    It looks like that thought may not have been entirely accurate.

    • stavro375 says:

      It really only makes sense if you don’t know that Sohu’s dad is TCK.

      That, or if you’re Uriel. Who’s complete inability to comprehend how a sentient being thinks (not just humans, angels as well!) has been clearly and explicitly stated.

  18. Sniffnoy says:

    The prudent text-books give it
    In tables at the end
    The stress that shears a rivet
    Or makes a tie-bar bend-
    What traffic wrecks macadam-
    What concrete should endure-
    But we, poor Sons of Adam
    Have no such literature,
    To warn us or make sure.

    So one may find in the books the limits of MacAdam, but not of the Sons of Adam? Something seems quite wrong here, kabbalistically! But then, that’s only if Kipling is correct. Perhaps one should instead infer the existence of such books, even if they are unavailable to Kipling, or us. (After all, following through the analogy, it should be God or the angels who have such books.)

    • LPSP says:

      I don’t know if I’m being slow here, but you know the prefix Mac- is scottish for “son of” right? I can’t tell if that’s the point of your post, or if it resolves it.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        Yes, that’s the point of my post. That’s why it seems wrong kabbalistically, for something to apply to macadam but not the Sons of Adam. (Indeed, it would be so even if the word “macadam” didn’t derive from the last name McAdam, though in fact it does.)

    • Aris Katsaris says:

      What seems quite wrong is how the last two lines of this verse have a different ending word, when all the other verses of the poem follow that pattern…

  19. Anders Sandberg says:

    The new China Mieville novel: The Holy City & the Holy City.

    And Yitzhak Rabin’s quote “Jerusalem is united, will never be divided again” turned out wrong. Unless he meant that Jerusalem is now evolving under unitary operators and will never be projected into eigenstates.

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      My first impression reading this comment: “That’s a brilliant comment. Who wrote it?” Then I looked at the name, and all was explained…

      • Anders Sandberg says:

        I guess I should just repeat the comment above, starting an infinite loop of self-congratulation…

        Instead I will quote from the Wikipedia entry on names for Jerusalem: “The ending -aim indicates the dual in Hebrew” – not a coincidence!

  20. Quixote says:

    This is a great chapter. I really enjoyed it. Thanks

  21. not_a_linguist says:

    This comment doesn’t contribute much, but for some reason I found this chapter beautiful (unlike the rest of Unsong until now, which was just fun, clever and very enjoyable to read).

    • The coment king says:

      I see what you mean, but I found several scenes beautiful before – in particular the book-cover poem, When the Ss Threw Down Their Spears, and this bit in Over the Dark Deserts

      “Las Vegas’ name means fallen bird,” I blurted out.


      “The name of the star Vega comes from the Arabic word waqi, meaning ‘fallen’ or ‘falling’. They named it that because the constellation looked like a bird falling from the sky. So Las Vegas could mean ‘the fallen birds’. And the Other King’s secret is that not a bird falls to the ground without God’s decision. There is providence in the fall of a sparrow.”

      The sun set behind the Red Rock Mountains as we checked into the Stratosphere Hotel. I repeated Jane’s secret to myself, like a mantra. Even in a falling bird, there is providence. Even in Las Vegas, God is with us. Somewhere.

  22. Jack V says:

    Humour stories often have the problem of when bad things done offscreen by a sympathetic character “count” as having really happened.

    In real life, someone who repeatedly killed thousands of people wouldn’t be safe to be around, even if it was mostly out of ignorance, if they didn’t seem to be getting better. Even if they were otherwise nice. But in fiction, more than anything else humour, it’s easy to gloss that over as an exaggeration for characterisation effect.

    And I mean, I think this a problem stories often have. But I can’t blame the story, it was perfectly unambiguous how many people Uriel had killed. And that it was going to be an apocalypse. I just didn’t *get* it until we started seeing it in person.

    • stavro375 says:

      Furthermore, Uriel cannot really be classified as “evil” despite all the murder he’s done, because his maintenance of the divine machinery is (as far as we know) the only thing stopping Thamiel from taking over Earth and forcing all humans into Hell.

      If stopping Thamiel and destroying Hell are the only morally relevant causes (as Peter Singer declared in that interlude way back when), then Uriel, who has done more to prevent Thamiel’s takeover of the globe than anyone else, is perhaps the most virtuous sentient being alive.

      • herbert herbertson says:

        I also have a lot more faith in Uriel’s ability to do utilitarian calculations of incomprehensible complexity and sophistication than I do in his ability to properly explain himself to mere neurotypicals. When he says “I created the Black Death to see if it was possible” we could take that to mean that he’s careless and capricious, or that the question of the Black Death’s possibility is actually genuinely worth 50 million lives (or, alternatively, worth risking 50 million lives and while it’s a damn shame that the gamble didn’t pay off when you crunched the numbers it was still the right call). I favor the latter.

        • R Flaum says:

          I don’t understand where you’re getting this at all. Uriel is brilliant at math, but that’s not the hard part of these calculations — the hard part is knowing what consequences are most likely, and he seems to be spectacularly bad at that. See for instance his belief in Chapter 3 that the Comet King wouldn’t be mad if Uriel killed his daughter. In addition, I don’t think Uriel’s moral philosophy is utilitarian; also in Chapter 3, he’s more reluctant to kill one child who can wiggle her ears than millions of strangers. It’s not actually clear to me that Uriel has a moral philosophy; he mostly seems to go by fuzzy intuitions and “do I like this person.”

  23. HonoreDB says:

    I also found this moving.

    And also it’s fun to think about the human implications of this solution. Jewish-Muslim couples are not quite as screwed as heterosexual couples in Failed Utopia 4-2, since they can emigrate and reunite. Jewish-Muslim business partners are inconvenienced, but probably benefit on net because they suddenly have two branch offices in two different countries. People who exist in superposition are highly valued as couriers, but need to pay twice as much rent to get unoccupied space, and converting cuts them off from half the people they know.

  24. Monday says:

    So this is prior to the Comet King’s invasion of Hell, right?

  25. LPSP says:

    What an interesting conversation to happen on my sixth lifeday.

  26. R Flaum says:

    If it’s this easy for the Comet King to go to Uriel’s storm, why didn’t he drop in before sending Sohu to Uriel in the first place? You know, to give Uriel a heads-up about her coming and double-check that he didn’t plan to kill her?

    • anon says:

      This is a good question. We can be pretty sure he was traveling by lightning by then, because Sohu is already resigned to him going everywhere that way.

    • Deiseach says:

      The Comet King might have been testing Uriel: will he attempt to kill Sohu or not? Does Uriel need to be replaced? Since Thamiel mentioned she has a mark of protection that Sohu herself was not aware of, the Comet King might have been protecting Sohu from any attack by Uriel so (in his mind) she was perfectly safe.

  27. hnau says:

    All the descendants of the Comet King, he said, would die screaming in horror and agony, cursing their father’s name.

    I’m wondering if (as often happens with prophecies) this might not mean exactly what we think it means. “Their father’s name” might actually be a name of God that’s considered to be the Comet King’s because he discovered it– the Explicit Name, for example. (Or more directly, thinking along New Testament lines, “their father” might be referring to God– it’s interesting that the prophecy says “descendants” and not “children”, so maybe the Comet King is not the direct father of all of them).

    And what happens if you curse the name of God? If we go by the book of Job– which seems appropriate for Unsong– you die (Job 2:9). For someone who’s “screaming in horror and agony”, this seems like a pretty useful method for committing suicide (though I’m not sure why the Mortal Name wouldn’t work just as well). So this interpretation would put the prophecy in a very different light– the Cometspawn won’t hate the Comet King, they’ll just curse God and die as a way of escaping some kind of torture.

    • The coment king says:

      Idea: What if there really is a secret name that lets you escape from hell into oblivion, and The Comet King or his descendants figure it out? They die, go to hell and are tortured in agony, but speak the name, and one after another the rest of Hell follows, until hell is empty and everyone there goes to oblivion. If that’s the only death that counts as true death, it could match the prophecy (“their father’s name” could even mean “the name belonging to their father”, in the sense that he was the one who found it).

      • Psy-Kosh says:

        An interesting idea, but wouldn’t work because that’d not be “cursing” it as such.

      • 75th says:

        “their father’s name” could even mean “the name belonging to their father”, in the sense that he was the one who found it).

        All my chips on this one, please. “Their father’s Name”. Some Name that is strongly associated with him. Maybe the Explicit Name, the notarikon of the answer to the problem of evil, which put him into his pre-death depression?

        And as long as we’re playing with orthography, can we get anything useful out of “their fathers’ Name”, with a plural number of fathers/generations involved? Hmm.

    • Macbi says:

      Or they because they need to go to hell to lead some kind of invasion or rescue attempt.

    • Good Burning Plastic says:

      There’s precedent in that in one of the first Sohu chapters, Uriel says that “his [God’s] image” means “image belonging to him” rather than “image depicting him”, so by analogy it’s indeed easy to imagine that “their father’s name” means “name belonging to their father” rather that “name by which their father is called”.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      It says”descendants” because if it were “children” the Comet King would create an army of grandchildren. It took me until now to think of that, but he would have figured it out immediately.

      • The coment king says:

        “Hey son, you’re going to have to sleep with half the women in Colorado.”
        “Aw dad that’s not fair, how come Sohu and Nathanda don’t have to sleep with anyone?”
        “Because son, it’d take them nine months per kid and that’s just too inefficient.”

      • It took me a while to think of that too, but I agree that Jala would have realized it immediately.

    • Error says:

      I half expect Scott to go with the obvious reading, just to mess with all the people assuming it will be subverted.

      • The coment king says:

        I’m fairly sure (p>65%) that he will go with something fairly close to the obvious meaning. Under the humor this story is pretty dark, and Scott isn’t the type to pull his punches or waffle when he promised something harsh.

      • Ryan Beren says:

        After the bajillions of stories that feature prophecies-with-a-twist, I’d find it refreshingly interesting to have a story where the prophecies were played 100% straight despite the inevitable ambiguities in the wording.

  28. Error says:

    They manipulate the social world, the world of popularity and offense and status, with the same ease that you manipulate the world of nature…You are no good at that, and you will never be any good at that, and if you were good at that you would not be good at what you need to be good at.

    This felt like it was spoken directly to me and nearly made me cry. In a good way. I think.

  29. Ninmesara says:

    So Uriel has just confirmed that he lives in an uncanny valley in which he might decide to tell a knock-knock joke before lashing out not only against those who “make him angry” but also against everyone in a thirty mile radius or something. I find it really hard to empathize with someone who takes the time to tell a knock-knock joke before lashing out in anger, and apparently not in a defiant way (remember, he immediately regrets it).

    I can understand all other atrocities he is responsible for: turning the world into math (and commiting suicide and genocide against the angels) in revenge; conjuring the ten plagues for utilitarian purposes (the Egyptians were messing with the flow of the divine light); creating the black plague to satisfy his curiosity; erasing cities and continents to mantain elegance (kabbahlistic elegance or seomthing like that); taking away people’s souls to save resources; thinking about killing Sohu because she is inconvenient. These are all very human emotions, and in my opinion quite relatable.

    But by now he should either care enough about the humans not to mass murder them in a fit of rage (during which he mantained enough control to tell a knock-knock joke, so it was not exactly a reflex) or think of them as irrelevant enough not to bother about their insults (even if instigated by Thamiel), in which case he should show no regrets after killing them. After writing this, I realized my real problem is with the knock-knock joke. Without it, Uriel looks like he is out of control and his actions become more relatable.

    Despite this, this is my favorite Comet King chapter so far. The dialog and imagery are very good and quite imersive. Keep up the good work! And give us more Aaron, please! I miss him…

    • herbert herbertson says:

      I don’t think it was an emotional reaction at all. I think he opted to prevent the consequences of the world learning that northeast Africa was inhabited exclusively by P-Zombies and accordingly allying with Thamiel in an effort to take control of the universe away from him through means that he believed would have fewer negative consequences. While he might of acted out of a certain level of panic, I don’t think he acted out of anger… and I’m not sure he made the wrong choice, either.

      • Ninmesara says:

        He doesn’t say he did it out of anger, but he seems to imply it. In any case, if he is doing that to prevent the world from knowing about the P-zombies, he should have said so to TCK and Sohu. At least something like: “I said something I shouldn’t and had to kill everyone to prevent it from spreading” if he doesn’t want to reveal the secret to them. Unless he knows they’ll try to discover the secret he is hiding and he is keeping quiet for that reason. In fact, he might be playing both Sohu and TCK (and the reader!) by pretending to be the dumb autistic archangel. Bonus points if he can eavesdrop the telepathic conversation between TCK and
        Sohu (why do they assume he can’t?) and caused TCK’s crusade to fail because he doesn’ trust him.

    • Error says:

      The whole scene in Madrid reminded me of a similar episode with Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen. I wonder if that was intentional.

  30. LPSP says:

    What happens if a North-East African has a child with a non P-zombie?

    • Ninmesara says:

      Asking the real question, aren’t we? That must have been a point of contention over the Romney/Obama election. On the other hand, Mormons have proven themselves to be extremely effective at fighting demons, so I guess Romney must have won by a landslide.

    • Anders Sandberg says:

      The real question is what happens if Jewish P-zombie goes to Jerusalem^2, and then converts to Islam.

      (Most likely, Uriel shows up and smites them since he *really* doesn’t want an exception thrown in that routine.)

  31. R Flaum says:

    “I cannot allow the universe to be controlled by a loose cannon, but for the present I lack any other options. Not even I can do what he does.”

    Couldn’t Raziel do it?

    • The coment king says:

      I don’t think anyone knows where Raziel is – aside from (probably) fathering one son, he seems to have disappeared since before the war in heaven. And even if he showed up, I doubt he could do it – none of the other archangels had Uriel’s math skills, so he probably doesn’t either.

      • R Flaum says:

        Well, in Chapter 29 Jala says that Raziel “talks to me sometimes, in my dreams.” So he can presumably get a message to him if he wants. And even if Raziel isn’t capable of doing the math as well as Uriel — which I’m not convinced of, for several reasons — Jala probably is, and he could give the instructions. Raziel would just be there as a pair of hands that are capable of touching celestial kabbalah, under the guidance of Jala’s mind.

        • Chrysophylax says:

          Jala’s mind doesn’t run as fast as Uriel’s and he isn’t mathematician enough to do thirteen-dimensional geometry for fun. (It’s one of the weaknesses of the Madrid scene – Uriel gets panicky and is manipulated into saying unwise things, despite having the power to take subjective years to consider a problem like butterfly migration. There may be some cost to running himself at that speed, since he certainly needs some reason not to take millennia to solve each individual crisis before it spreads.)

  32. The coment king says:

    This chapter’s character evaluation follows Jala’s moral evolution, from seeing Goodness as a something cold and crystalline to feeling it burn. Jala says Uriel is not good, but that’s because he measures him by his cold measure of good. But at the end, Sohu describes him as good – because she sees him with warmth.
    We actually get the precise moment where the view of Uriel shifts, when he answers Jala’s “can I trust you with my daughter”question with a simple “yes”; at that moment, we change from evaluating him on a crystal scale to relating to him by warmth – the one thing that forced Jala to feel warmth was his children, and he and Uriel see eye to eye on that.

  33. Tom Stroop says:

    Both the Comet King and Aaron (Chapter 19) seem to dislike putting books on the floor. Is there any reason for this?

    • R Flaum says:

      I know that Orthodox Jews are not supposed to drop holy books, and if you do accidentally drop one you’re supposed to kiss it when you pick it up again. I assume this is related.

  34. Pan Narrans says:

    *Googles the Hymn of Breaking Strain*

    Oh, FFS. Of course it’s Kipling.

    I’m interested in the idea that the prophecy might be broken. In almost all stories, prophecies are infallible so e.g. the only way the Cometspawn could die painlessly is if they died in a town called Horror and Agony or something. I was expecting the same in such a high-magic story, but I’m intrigued to see if this goes another way.

  35. HopeDeferred says:

    I’m no kabbalist, but when the time came to make a new Jerusalem I’m pretty sure it was not supposed to be a mundane carbon-copy of the first.

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