aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 65: The Fruit Of My Mysterious Tree

We find that the pattern unifies with the conclusion of the rule which God hath spoken in his holiness

Afternoon, May 14, 2017
New York City

Brenda Burns spoke the Fulminant Name and shot a lightning bolt at Malia Ngo. It missed by a fraction of an inch and lit her desk on fire. Clark Deas had been in the process of lunging over the desk to get at Malia; his grunted as his shirt caught fire and started hitting himself against the wall, trying to put it out.

“I challenge you to a placebomantic duel!” Dylan repeated, and everyone continued to ignore him.

Mark McCarthy was doing…something…with his hands and his staff. Malia Ngo sliced at him with the fiery sword she had summoned, and the sword seemed to dull and fizzle. She cursed, then spoke the Incendiary Name. It missed Mark. Another corner of the office went up in flames.

“I challenge you to a placebomantic duel!” said Dylan again. Brenda and Malia turned to face each other. Clark Deas looked like he would have facepalmed if he hadn’t been on fire.

Erica was saying something, but tripped over a syllable and cursed. Clark grabbed a branch from the potted plant, tried to club Malia. Malia spoke the Incendiary Name again. It hit home, and Brenda Burns went up in a conflagration of nominative determinism.

“I challenge you to a placebomantic duel!” Dylan kept trying to say, over the din.

Clark finally scored a direct hit on Malia’s skull, but it only seemed to make her angry. Erica spoke the Tempestous Name, which was a terrible idea. Everything stopped for a few brief seconds as the wind flung fire and paper and paper-that-was-on-fire around the room. The window shattered, and Malia caught herself just in time to avoid being flung out of it. “I chall…mmmmph!” said Dylan, as a burning piece of paper almost flew into his mouth.

Mark and Malia spoke Names at each other at the same time. The Fulminant Name hit Malia, seemed to half-knock her out. The Kinetic Name hit Mark and flung him out the shattered window. Dylan stared for a second, his mouth open in horror.


A pause in the darkness.


Another pause.


He rushed at Malia, tried to hit her with his boojumwood staff. At the last second, she raised her sword of fire, held him off. Clark was stuck on the wrong side of the burning desk. He made a valiant effort to climb over it, shoving the metal nameplate and more forms into the flames while speaking the Extinguishing Name. Malia saw him coming, looked like she was analyzing the situation.

Then she asked: “What is a placebomantic duel?”

Dylan turned to Clark, held up his hand. Clark made it to the near side of the desk, but stopped coming closer.

“Many people mistakenly believe,” said Dylan, who had suddenly regained his composure and was now speaking in a professorial tone, “that the race is to the swift, or the battle to the strong. This is false. The world has its own peculiar narrative logic that determines the course of a fight far more surely than skill ever could. Placebomancers are those who embrace this. A placebomantic duel is two masters casting off pretense and using the narrative against each other directly.”

“This is where you give a speech about your childhood in Mexico.” Erika could tell Malia was buying time, and she could tell that Dylan could tell this too, and she could tell that he was letting her do it.

“You know,” said Dylan, “those speeches – Mark used to tease me about them too, may God have mercy on his soul. But – ” He opened his eyes unnaturally wide, as if willing them to produce tears. Eventually they did. One fell down his cheek. ” – I was telling them for him.”

He waited to see if someone would say “For him?” Malia and Clark just stared at him. Finally, Erica said, “For him?”

“Poor Mark. Such a guy. But in the end, he didn’t have the fire. So I went overboard. I started telling him about how I was tortured as a child in Baja, about how my whole village was destroyed, about how they killed my father and made me watch – I wanted to get to him. And I never could.”

He leaned on his staff, let out a sigh.

“If you have to know – I was born in a nice suburb of San Diego. My father was a Mexican-American businessman, my mother was a schoolteacher. My childhood was happy. I was prom king of my high school.” He struck the floor with his staff. “Prom king. And this is the point where I’m supposed to tell you the one day it all went wrong, but there wasn’t one, I kept being secure and happy while everything else burned around me. That was the part I could never accept. Knowing that I was on an island of comfort in the middle of – ” He gestured to the city outside, which was starting to burn in earnest now. “There were times I wished I could be like Mark, wished that I could just shrug off all the injustice of the world and be like…” He half-sat, half-slid into Ngo’s desk chair, placed her coffee mug theatrically in front of him, and announced in the middle of the encroaching flames “This is fine.

He stood back up and started pacing across the increasingly-limited not-on-fire part of the room. “If I’d gotten bullied in school, or had one lousy relative die of cancer, I think it would have been bearable. I’d be stuck in the mud along with everyone else. But I didn’t. Barely so much as a stubbed toe! An entire world devouring the weak in the ugliest ways imaginable, and it didn’t even have the courtesy to take the tiniest bite out of me to let me discharge my survivor’s guilt by ritually identifying with them. So of course I had to become a terrorist. The Comet King once said that he could hear the voices of everyone in Hell, calling out to him. Then he admitted he couldn’t, said he lied because it was the only way it would make sense to them. I lied for the same reason he did, to try and make it make sense. You know, I think I would have made a good Comet King.”

He paused for a second, as if admiring the accuracy of what he had just told her. “All my life, I wanted to do better than just accept the privilege I was born into. And all my life, I wanted, needed, to convince people that the world was on fire all around them. Well, now it’s the apocalypse, and I couldn’t be happier. And before I walk into the flames with a giant grin on my face, I’m going to kill the figurehead of the old order, Ms. Follow-The-Rules-And-Ignore-The-Human-Cost herself. So come on. Give me your best shot.”

“I also have a story,” said Malia. “I was born in Hell. To Robin West, the Comet King’s dead wife. And Thamiel, the Lord of Demons.”

She paused to see if anyone would challenge her. No one did.

“My first memories were…much like this. Black smoke-filled skies, and a world on fire. The first sounds I heard were the cries of my mother being hacked to pieces without dying. My father I think ignored me; he has many children, and if they survive and stay sane they become the minor nobility of Hell. We are drawn to evil, Dylan. It is a fascination to us, me and all my part-demon kin. I felt the draw every moment of my life, since the beginning. But I also felt something different. I stayed with my mother, tried to console her. I talked to her and tried to learn from her, and she taught me things about the upper world, in between her screams. She told me about the Comet King, who claimed to be able to hear the voices of the damned from thousands of miles away, when I was half-deaf to them even within earshot. And maybe it was the little part in me that was human, but there was something I was able to respect in that, some part of me that didn’t have feelings but was able to model what they might be like. So when I turned a year old, I left Hell and went into the world, trying to trace his path.

“I wanted to do good, but my birthright was evil. It was my only talent. And then I found UNSONG. It was beautiful, as if it had been made just for me. Maybe it had been; who knows what the Comet King could or couldn’t see. Out of a campaign to conceal the light of God on Earth, to persecute the desperate and poor, come gifts a hundredfold more potent, powers strong enough to hold back Hell and give humanity a fighting chance. But it was a wreck. The Comet King’s successors were weak; too merciful to use his weapons to their full potential. My only talent is evil. But sometimes that’s enough. With the help of a family member in, ah, high places, I rose through the ranks and became Director-General, tried to give UNSONG the best chance I could. Now Uriel has fallen, the lights have gone out, and all the world has to save itself with are the Names I’ve fought to give them.”

She coughed. The air was thick with smoke now. Clark was tensed like a predator. Erica was in the far corner, hunched to the floor.

“My part is over now. I find myself wondering if my mother will be proud of me. I’ll meet her again soon enough. There is no reason I should not let you have your grand exit. Except, as I said, I am evil. And I am vindictive. And I find that of everyone I have worked with, and all the sob stories I have heard, yours makes me the most annoyed. I was born to do evil. I made peace with my nature and tried to save the world. You had every opportunity to do good, and you squandered it in childish games. I find I cannot forgive you.”

“Well,” said Dylan. “That is quite the…”

Before he could finish his sentence, Clark attacked. Malia spoke a name, a new Name Erica had never heard before, and Clark exploded into a shower of glass. Then she wheeled around to Dylan, attacked him with her flaming sword just as he attacked her with his boojumwood staff.

Somehow, inexplicably, the staff missed Malia entirely.

The flaming sword cut straight through Dylan’s neck and severed his head.

Malia let out something resembling a sigh.

“Wait,” said Erica, from the far corner of the office.

Malia frowned at her.

“My name is Erica Lowry,” said Erica, advancing toward her. The fire seemed to frame her face, as if the placebomancy had settled into her, using her as a vessel. “And I think you’re wrong. I don’t care if you were trying to do good or not. I think it’s not up to you to decide who does or doesn’t get the light of God. I think that they enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin. And I don’t have any cool origin story. I don’t have any deep personal conflits. But I have something better. I have your True Name. Do you hear me? I have your True Name!

“Malia Ngo is my True Name,” said Malia, confused.

Erica lunged forward and thrust the molten metal nameplate through Malia Ngo’s throat as the flames closed around them both.

[There is a new Author’s Note up here]

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175 Responses to Chapter 65: The Fruit Of My Mysterious Tree

  1. stavro375 says:

    Rocks fall.

    Everyone Dies.

    This is fine.


    • gwern says:

      Rereading, I’m realizing Dylan actually did lose the placebomantic duel – because Malia’s story managed to turn him into the villain & her a heroine, even though she’s half-demon and the Big Bad of Unsong.

      • The coment king says:

        Yeah. And I think the fact that he missed symbolized that most of all.

        • Gazeboist says:

          Appropriately, I initially missed that you were talking about him actually missing when he tried to strike Malia; I assumed you were talking about the fact that he *missed the point* of … well, almost everything that even he and his nominal allies were saying, but also Malia’s story.

      • The Aleph Garden says:

        Child Of The Dark Lord Who Embraces Her Human Side And Tries To Use Her Evil Powers To Do Good is probably the strongest narrative out there. Dylan, with his Middle Class Terrorist schtick, was really bringing a spitball gun to a bazooka fight.

        • Alsadius says:

          Yeah, really. Of all the narratives to bring to a placebomantic fight, why pick the one that makes you out to be a loser? That has to be the worst tactical decision since marching slowly in well-formed ranks into massed machine guns was fashionable around 1915.

          • Macbi says:

            Actually Dylan earnestly giving his true story is the first time I’ve actually liked him, so maybe it will help him somehow in the long run.

          • Alsadius says:

            I already thought he was everything I hated about idiot radicals, and then I found out he’s all that and a bag of chips. He’s basically “Che wannabe #37” from central casting, complete with the narcissistic self-loathing(yes, I know that’s a contradiction, but he clearly doesn’t) white guilt complex. The only time I even thought he was interesting was when he assassinated the placebomantic guild, since then it’s just been a downhill slide into self-indulgent wank.

          • Aegeus says:

            I almost suspect that he threw the fight in order to set up Erica’s win. In Chapter 53, Dylan points out that he can’t be the one to kill Malia, Erica has to be. Because America created UNSONG, so America will destroy it, get it?

            So Dylan deliberately focuses the duel on who has the more tragic backstory, and that sets up Erica to talk about how she doesn’t have any sort of tragic backstory but she’s going to win anyway. Which is exactly the sort of clever underdog speech that the narrative loves.

            The only problem I have is that Dylan just doesn’t seem like the sort of person to draw up a plan that involves him getting killed.

      • Paul Goodman says:

        the Big Bad of Unsong.

        ? I’m pretty sure this chapter pretty conclusively takes Malia out of the running for that position.

    • stavro375 says:

      * This story is being written by Aaron after the fact, not by an omniscient narrator. So Erica has to survive, and make her way to Aaron at some point. Malia doesn’t know enough about the preparation for her assassination to have told Aaron about all this. Or maybe Aaron finds HaMephorash and becomes God. Who knows?
      * Dylan lost the duel because he made a fundamental narrative mistake: No One Could Have Survived the fall Mark took, even though Nobody Found the Body.
      * Malia’s backstory involves both direct intervention from Thamiel, and and powers strong enough to hold back hell. It seems absurd that Thamiel would let Unsong help humanity amass weapons to fight against Hell. So what’s the catch?

      • JJR says:

        The catch probably has to do with maximizing evil by letting humans think they can amass enough divine name weapons to successfully fight hell and also performing evil acts of their own free will on the road to failure. Sure, it would be quicker to just crush humans with out letting them have extra names. But f they sold their souls for those names then Thamiel gets to play with them forever.

      • Alex Mennen says:

        > Malia’s backstory involves both direct intervention from Thamiel, and and powers strong enough to hold back hell. It seems absurd that Thamiel would let Unsong help humanity amass weapons to fight against Hell. So what’s the catch?

        Would Uriel and Thamiel be considered family members? If so, “family member in high places” could refer to Uriel rather than Thamiel. Especially since Thamiel is in a low place.

        • Shoefish says:

          Thamiel really doesn’t seem like a good candidate for giving jobs in UNSONG.
          I think Obama, who was also a demon, is the most likely family member.
          Uriel is a decent guess seeing how “high places” was emphasized.
          Another possibility would be TCK through some agent.

          • Quixote says:

            We actually dont know Obama was a demon. we just know at the time the narrator suspected it. I don’t recall later confirmation.

          • Cniz says:

            Well, you can see this as further confirmation. I also understood her sentence as referring to Obama. It seems very likely “Malia” is supposed to be a common name for demonkin.

          • MugaSofer says:

            I think Obama, who was also a demon, is the most likely family member.

            Confirmed by Scott on his Tumblr.

          • Andrew M says:

            That Tumblr post leaves me a bit confused over Malia’s ethnicity. The Comet King’s mother was Indian, and he looks Indian (except for his hair). Malia’s mother was white, so I’d expect her to look white (except for her hair, but as white people can have any colour hair, that doesn’t really signify).

            (Mind you, I’m not sure that anything in the story really requires Robin to be white. White people are already represented in the Comet family by Caelius. Robin might herself be of mixed race with some Hawaiian element, which would then account for Malia’s appearance without a problem.)

        • Sniffnoy says:

          Thamiel seems way more fit to helping one gain purchase in a human institution than someone like Uriel.

          Not everything Thamiel does is evil-maximizing; I believe he’s said that several times. Is it so implausible he’d want to help out his daughter? OK — it does say that he ignored her. That’s confusing. But it could just be other demons she knows. Demons seem like they’d be good at this sort of thing.

      • Good Burning Plastic says:

        This story is being written by Aaron after the fact, not by an omniscient narrator.

        He does also describe things Aaron couldn’t know such as Uriel’s thoughts just before being nuked. In general it’s not terribly unprecedented in literature for the ostensible narrator to tell things the corresponding character couldn’t know, e.g. it sometimes happens in How I Met Your Mother and IIRC in some of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

      • boris says:

        I’m not sure I buy Malia’s excuse for running UNSONG yet. After all, it only really works if the people end up being able to use the names. Sure, at this point they can probably do so without fear of reprisal, but how are they gonna learn the names? Radio Free Colorado?

        Also, why do people have nameplates on their desks? On a door it’s a navigational aid. Is it just an authority thing?

        • Ninmesara says:

          Do you think Malia Ngo would be so stupid as to keep her true name so far away from her, nailed to a door?!

        • Alsadius says:

          The names need to be discovered in order to be learned. UNSONG is a pretty good way of doing that. She’s fitting a narrative that many find evil, but IMO there’s nothing actually evil about it.

          (Take a wild guess where I lie on the political spectrum)

      • Decius says:

        A half demon quarter-angel does whatever the hell or heaven she wants to.

        • Jared says:

          There is no reason to believe that Robin West, the Comet King’s wife, is a child of the Comet King or any other half-angel.

          • Decius says:

            A child born to a married woman is presumed to be the product of the marriage unless challenged by the husband.

            Unless TCK challenges Malia’s parentage, she is kabbalistically his daughter.

          • Gyndroid says:

            @Decius Robin had the child in hell, though- – after she died. Marriage ends at death, yes?

          • Decius says:

            I believe for parentage purposes marital status at acknowlement of the pregnancy is controlling.

            I didn’t see any mention of Robin dying. I’m not the most observant, but I figured that she went in alive with the goal of making her husband rescue her.

        • Andrew M says:

          It says ‘the Comet King’s dead wife’. (And we’ve been told that ‘his wife was dead’ before now.)

          The idea that people pregnant at death remain pregnant in Hell (or Heaven?) is a bit disconcerting, but it seems to be implied by the narrative.

  2. Alan Robinski says:

    He half-sat, half-slide into Ngo’s desk chair, placed her coffee mug theatrically in front of him, and announced in the middle of the encroaching flames “This is fine.”

    Should be past tense, “slid” into the chair.

    • YumAntimatter says:

      I guess this is the typo thread now.

      his grunted as his shirt caught fire

      Should be “he grunted”

    • YumAntimatter says:

      announced in the middle of the encroaching flames “This is fine.”

      Probably needs a comma after “flames”

      • David Marjanović says:

        No. Either a colon or nothing.

        • roystgnr says:

          Even earlier in the sentence, “in the middle of the encroaching flames” is a nonessential dependent clause, so you’d think to surround it with commas. However, it’s also an entry in a comma-separated list, so you’d tend to leave off the comma to reduce confusion, since English doesn’t have a hierarchy of delimiters subordinate to a comma. We’re moving from narration to dialogue, and the dialogue is neither a single word nor a subject or object in the sentence, so you’d want to set it off with a comma. But in this case the dialogue is still very short and is immediately followed by more narration so the comma may still be optional. Many publishers insist on commas before all mid-sentence shifts to dialogue, but most grammar books seem to believe that, even when transitioning to long stretches of dialogue, the preceding comma is optional.

          In conclusion, England is a land of contrasts.

    • Kappa says:

      “conflits” -> “conflicts”

    • Anonymous says:

      […] I have your True Name. Do you hear me? I have your True Name!

      “Malia Ngo is my True Name,” said Malia, confused.

      There should be a closing quotation mark after ‘Name!’.

  3. Daniel Blank says:

    Erika could tell?

    Is she catching whatever Ma[geduben]a has, or is it a typo?

  4. Dindane says:

    This definitely means “No angel born in hell / Could break that Satan’s spell” refers to Ngo, although the meaning of the second line isn’t clear (going off the rest of the verse, Satan may actually mean Dylan here).

    • scherzando says:

      Well, in Malia’s speech she refers to “gifts a hundredfold more potent, powers strong enough to hold back Hell and give humanity a fighting chance” – I read this as being about Names produced by the theonomic corporations and protected by UNSONG which she hopes might break Thamiel’s power at least in the earthly realm. In that case the second line may suggest that this plan will not work out.

      I am now curious about UNSONG’s plans to fight Thamiel – this is the first mention of it that I recall (understandably, as it’s the first time Malia has spoken at length and this would naturally be a secret plan).

    • Grek says:

      I figured “That Satan” meant Erica. Who is, of course, an accuser casting a spell at an angel born in hell.

  5. Metacelsus says:

    deep personal conflits -> deep personal conflicts

    I wonder what would happen if one of the scroll wheel things had a typo. (Nothing good, of course.)

    Also, Illuminati Confirmed.

  6. TimothyC says:

    Theory: Malia is also, somehow, Lilith
    Basis: Rectal Extraction

  7. Kolya says:

    “This is where you give a speech about your childhood in Mexico.” Erika could tell Malia was buying time, and she could tell that Dylan could tell this too, and she could tell that he was letting her do it.

    Is this supposed to be Malia speaking?

    • Cniz says:

      I actually thought Erica (well, Erika) said it, because her name appears immediately after the sentence – but I think it indeed makes more sense for these to be Malia’s words. Thanks!

  8. Kolya says:

    Erica lunged forward and thrust the molten metal nameplate through Malia Ngo’s throat as the flames closed around them both.

    Was there any indication in previous chapters as to whether semi-demonic beings don’t die the true death unless they’re struck by Thamiel’s bident like the angels?

    • The coment king says:

      Symbolism Theory: In a way, Malia’s grandfather is God, who made compromise with sin by allowing evil to exist in the world.

    • stavro375 says:

      This is the first time we’ve seen a semi-demonic being at all.

      TCK is dead. We think. He was the son of an archangel and a human, so perhaps the same rules apply to Malia Ngo. AKA Lillith. AKA , as discovered by Ana out on Not A Metaphor and beamed to Erica via SCABMOM.

      Ana clearly discovered this from Captain Nemo, AKA TCK-In-Disguise. TCK is of course dead, and TOK. TOK is naturally either Acher, TCK, or Robin West (unlikely, but still possible if Malia is lying through her teeth. Which she probably is).

      The fan theories are starting to pile to treacherous heights.

      • The coment king says:

        Wouldn’t neccessarily require Malia to lie, if time works differently in Hell.

      • Good Burning Plastic says:

        TOK is naturally either Acher, TCK, or Robin West

        Well, the only possible motive for TOK to nuke Uriel that I can think of is “because fuck you, that’s why”, which sounds a lot like Acher but not particularly like Jala (also, I can’t see any strong reason to think Simeon is wrong about him being the Captain) nor like Robin (unless her encounter with Thamiel changed her more than I think).

        • Cniz says:

          I’d argue that the “Sorry” written on the ICKM would imply that the reasoning is very different than “because fuck you, that’s why”. I’m guessing that TOK is genuinely sorry for having to destroy Uriel and his machinery, but believes it to be a necessary step in a bigger plan, probably a part of the fight against hell.

        • MugaSofer says:

          Nuking Uriel significantly increased the power of Names, which is useful if you want to use Names to do something. It may have increased the strength of all magic, actually, since Mark parried a flaming sword with pure Placebomancy right before he was killed.

          It also significantly increases the strength of angels, demons, and their descendants. Jala is half-angel.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            Yeah, but from the Comet King’s point of view, he may be half-angel, but his enemies are all-demon.

            They get just as big a strength increase as he does. Meanwhile all the merely mortal weapons at his disposal become at best weakened and at worst useless.

            Unless the plan involves something that he personally can do, and wins the war for him very, very fast, that would be a bad plan.

    • Decius says:

      I think that even full angels and demons can be killed by using their true name.

  9. Yossarian says:

    So Malia is an UNSINGER, someone who tries to do good but fails badly? Does that mean that she somehow paves the road to Hell (with her good intentions)? The road to Hell is what TCK needed, so maybe that was Robin’s plan?

  10. I thought Dylan would turn out to be Orc.

  11. Sniffnoy says:

    Question: Where did the name “Ngo” come from? Just a name assigned by Robin, or possibly Thamiel?

    • The coment king says:

      Apparently it’s pronounced “woe”, which suits being born in Hell.

      • scherzando says:

        I saw somebody say that in a comment on a previous chapter, but I’m not sure if it’s true. See e.g. Wikipedia on Ngo Dinh Diem, which gives it in IPA as /ŋo/, and has a couple of audio samples that don’t sound like “woe” to me.

        • Deiseach says:

          Pronounced to rhyme with “woe”, not pronounced “woe”, surely?

          • Hyphen-ated says:

            People who don’t know how to pronounce “Nguyen” are often advised to pronounce it “win”, which is a certainly a lot closer to correct than “nagooyen” is

            “Ngo is pronounced Woe” sounds like someone taking this advice farther than it should go

        • Good Burning Plastic says:

          Ngo is the Vietnamese version of a surname which is pronounced Wu in Mandarin; but I’d guess someone spelling it the Vietnamese way would pronounce it the Vietnamese way as well.

    • eqdw says:

      I assumed it was nominative determinism, given that the US is in fact an NGO

    • Mike says:

      I think it’s meant to be a reference to NGO, as in non-governmental organization, which UNSONG is.

      • Good Burning Plastic says:

        From Wikipedia:

        A non-governmental organization (NGO) is a not-for-profit organization that is independent from states and international governmental organizations.

        (emphasis added).

        • Shoefish says:

          Does this come up every time M. NGO appears in a chapter? I suspect so.

          If the dictionary definition of NGO does not fit it does not mean the colloquial (or literal) definition doesn’t.

          • Anonymous says:

            By what colloquial definition are the United Nations an NGO? Would you call the International Criminal Court an NGO? The European Commission? NATO?

          • Good Burning Plastic says:

            What Anon said. I can’t remember anyone ever calling the UN an NGO except in Unsong comment threads.

          • Sigivald says:

            “I call them giant wastes of time.”

          • Shoefish says:

            Unsong comment threads are a place too… I can’t remember anyone debating what an NGO is anywhere else.

            A colloquial definition (also known as “a word”) doesn’t have a formal form just attempts to construct one out of usage. a verbalization would be something like – “An organization that is neither part of the government nor a company(not that I know what these two are), and umm.. the UN? probably not… WHO? I dunno maybe, they kinda sound like one so why not? International Criminal Court – how about 70% NGO?…” etc…
            It’s just an intuitive cluster of probability in thingspace without clear borders.

          • holomanga says:

            TV Tropes lists United Nations is a Superpower as a subtrope of NGO Superpower.

            There’s also GONGOs, which is clearly a slogan by people who oppose the director of UNSONG – “Go, Ngo!”.

          • Good Burning Plastic says:

            UNSONG is way more similar to (say) the CIA than to (say) the AMF for all practical purposes I could think of off the top of my head.

  12. Yossarian says:

    “I chall…mmmmph!” said Dylan, as a burning piece of paper almost flew into his mouth.

    Doesn’t seem like placebomancy agreed with Dylan anymore at this point. Was it because Dylan finally crossed too far to the wrong side of the tropes by Mortal Naming the little innocent guard at the UN embassy? Or was it because it was Erica who started the placebomantic exchange by saying that they are Singers and then everyone spoiled it by charging into melee instead of waiting how it plays out?

    • Droid says:

      His challenge was issued after the fight had already begun. Can you blame the universe for not taking him seriously?

      • Yossarian says:

        Nope, not really. Though it is quite not like Dylan to miss that sort of narrative correspondence.

      • Sigivald says:

        Leaders challenging a mano-a-mano duel during a battle is an established trope, though, isn’t it?

        (Parallel but not identical the more general “let the leaders of the two sides settle it” trope somewhat more common either between battles or at the start of a confrontation.)

  13. Lapisdust says:

    Does anybody else feel like Dylan’s story was sort of pointless?

    • Skeeve says:

      Yeah, pretty much. His job was, apparently, to be vaguely entertaining and provide a reason for Erica to be in this place at this time.

      • Good Burning Plastic says:

        Well, it was him who made Malia’s parents meet — and I’m very disappointed this didn’t play any part in the narrative of this chapter.

        • Cniz says:

          There’s little reason to believe Malia would know this; she might know that her mother had help from a placebomancer, or might not, but it seems likely her mother wouldn’t remember or mention Dylan’s name – he was not at all infamous before Robin’s death, and she probably had no news of the outside world while in hell.

          Dylan, however, might have figured it out – but only after hearing the missing link just now, that Thamiel had a child with Robin West. Such a piece of information seems likely to have reminded him of the time he helped a poor woman summon Thamiel in Colorado against all plausible logic, and he might have connected the dots. He didn’t get much chance to apply that knowledge, though, as his next sentence was cut off by Clark’s interruption (ending the duel), which was soon followed by Dylan’s loss of vocal chords (among other things).

          My theory is that if the duel had not been interrupted, Dylan would have remarked that Malia’s existence is partly due to his actions, and if she is a hero, then he should get the credit for bringing her into the world. Which might have worked, or might not; as he didn’t get the chance to point it out to the universe, it didn’t matter.

        • Ninmesara says:

          This will probably be revisited when Dylan, Erica and Malia meet again in hell, so I wouldn’t worry. I can even see these three raising a ruckus in hell (with the help of Madgebuena, alternating between planes and killing demons from behind), thus distracting Thamiel and buying the earth a couple of hours. Nah, just kidding.

          But it would be narratively appropriate for Dylan to redeem himself by trying to pull a Harrowing of Hell.

    • Ian says:

      I think that may have been the point, possibly? He’s a sociopath, nothing he says can be trusted, which kind of means nothing he says should really have much value in peoples’ minds unless it can be verified some other way. (Because nothing he says is really that predictive of his behavior…”We’re friends Mark!” –> imprisoned for a decade.)

      Who cares what his story actually was? You’ll never know if he was telling the truth, and it doesn’t really matter in determining what kind of person he is. We already know!

    • Deiseach says:

      Do you mean his overall part in the story, or the origin story he gave as part of the narrative of Hero Vs Villain at the end? Because yeah, I think we all believed that he’d been lying all along about being an undocumented migrant/illegal immigrant and suffering all kinds of persecution; he’s exactly the kind of bored, materially well-off middle-class kid who went into 70s small-scale terrorism because it made him feel important to have a Cause on behalf of which he could feel contempt for the rest of society.

      As part of the entire arc, I love this because Dylan has very plainly been leaning heavily on the Narrative of Reality all along and getting away with it, and he had positioned himself as the Hero who would (by necessity) triumph at the end over the Villain. The fact that he’d been doing wickedness all along didn’t bother him because he thought he could rules-lawyer Narrative Necessity into making him the Hero.

      And not alone did he get defeated in the end, his grand Placebomantic Duel never happened because Malia was not playing by the Rules Of Narrative about how the final showdown between the hero and the villain is supposed to go – she doesn’t even know what placebomancy is (so much for all Dylan’s scheming to do away with the Ritual Magicians of America!) and has no idea who or what these latest bunch of idiots are all about.

      Dylan’s end was as pointless as he was, and that’s the whole point. And I am very glad how it turned out, as it happens, since I am not a nice person either 🙂

      • Tetrikitty says:

        But the Placebomantic Duel did happen. Malia just won.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          The whole point of placebomancy is that you can never be *sure* whether it’s actually happening or not. It bends the laws of probability, but doesn’t break them.

          Maybe the placebomantic duel happened, and Ngo won by beating Dylan at his own (rather tattered) game.

          Or maybe the placebomantic duel didn’t happen. Maybe placebomancy doesn’t have power over angelic beings at all.

          Just like maybe the placebomantic Dylan-finding ritual actually did cause the pendulum to swing to track him. But maybe it was just random twists in a knotted old rope causing chaotic motion of the pendulum bob.

          If you could be *sure* it was really working, and that it wasn’t just a coincidence, it wouldn’t be placebomancy, now would it?

          • Aegeus says:

            Malia definitely acted as if she was participating in a placebomantic duel. Dylan explained his tragic backstory and motivations. Then Malia explained her tragic backstory and motivations. And then they attacked, and the one with the stronger narrative won.

            If Malia wasn’t interested in controlling the narrative, why did she stand there and swap banter with Dylan?

          • MugaSofer says:

            Except the pendulum actually tracked Dylan’s movements (at least accurately enough to serve as a clue he was under the map.)

            Also, Placebomancy can seemingly have “real” effects on magical things, as it did just this chapter:

            Mark McCarthy was doing…something…with his hands and his staff. Malia Ngo sliced at him with the fiery sword she had summoned, and the sword seemed to dull and fizzle.

          • boris says:

            It accurately tracked his movements, but the rope had weird kinks and twists meant to cause it to behave erratically–we never see anything happen with Dylan’s placebomancy that couldn’t have happened anyway.

  14. Raymond Arnold says:

    I… don’t know if I just missed this, are we supposed to know whether/how Erica knows her True Name?

    • Vanillafog says:

      Erica doesn’t *know* her True Name, she *has* her True Name, as represented by her nameplate. She’s holding the nameplate that says “Malia Ngo”.

  15. Dindane says:

    It seems like the major free parameter in characters’ names — maybe excluding the Cometfamily, I don’t know how to analyze all theirs — is Erica’s last name, Lowry. (And maybe Dylan’s first name, but I’m going with that as being a connection to Bob Dylan for the purposes of the American Pie prophecy, for the moment.) I looked up “Lowry” on Wikipedia, so maybe she’s named for any of:
    – “an archaic Scots name for a fox”
    – or maybe
    Of these, the second seems strongest.

  16. Anonymous says:


    • Anonymous says:

      Malia spoke a name, a new Name Erica had never heard before

      I figure the first ‘name’ should be capitalised as well.

      And speaking of those. We’ve seen those typos in nearly every chapter. In contrast, I don’t remember many times I’ve spotted a typo in an SSC post, or seeing a comment pointing one out. (And I don’t think it’s just because most of them were written some time ago.) I smell something fishy…

  17. vashu1 says:

    Drop this silly slowgoing book and write a new one, about Dylan only!!! Or I will challenge you to a placebomantic duel!

  18. Arancaytar says:

    > Brenda Burns spoke the Fulminant Name

    Nominative determinism strikes again.

  19. Deiseach says:

    Personally I find this very satisfying, I’m glad Dylan got his. The shambolic attacks they were all making on Malia had me going “All that preparation for sneaking into UNSONG and he never thought to teach them to co-ordinate their attack?”

    Then I realized “No, of course he didn’t because he wanted to be the one to take out Malia; he wanted to be the hero/anti-hero/anti-villain of the story, so he was sure there would be one big climatic duel between himself and Malia. That’s why he didn’t teach the others any basic army training”. (Because part of turning raw civilians into soldiers is exactly this: shoot at the enemy without getting in each other’s way).

    I’m hoping Mark escaped; even if he’s really most completely dead, I’ll be in denial about that 🙂

    And even if I personally find Erica as much of a pain as all the rest of them, I did like very much the part with the True Name and the nameplate. Bravo!

    • Mengsk says:

      In fairness, the original plan was to just shoot her. The only reason that didn’t work is because that was the precise moment when physics stopped working.

      That said, for a placebomancer, preparing for a zillion highly improbable complications before a heist basically guarantees that the zillion-and-first that you didn’t think to prepare for will actually happen.

      • Decius says:

        And doing all the preparation on camera, telling the audience how it is supposed to go, ensures that it doesn’t go according to plan.

        If he had made it a montage instead of revealing the details, it would have worked as planned. But you can’t have a plot scene in the middle of a montage- Sohu showed up and made it a full scene, meaning that the plan could not be executed properly. Alvarez of course knew this, and concealed it from the others so that they would think that the rigorous preparation for unexpected outcomes was going to work. Since that part of the plan was concealed from us, it worked as planned.

    • Jubilee says:

      Mark could easily have used the Ascending Name; I see no reason to assume he’s dead.

  20. Macbi says:

    Aha! I knew Dylan was going to die, and Aaron is going to be next!

    We know that Blake’s four Zoas – Uriezen, Tharmas, Luvah and Urthona – correspond to Uriel, Tharmas, Dylan and Aaron in that order. I suggest they also correspond to the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the order Conquest, War, Famine, Death. (Whilst I’m listing correspondences I should also note that the Zoas are associated with the compass points in the order South, West, East, North, and the ritual magicians associated these with the archangels Uriel, Raziel, Gabriel and Michael. The Zoas Tharmas, Luvah and Urthona also correspond to Father, Son and Holy Ghost, which explains why Alvarez translates as “Son of the Warrior”.)

    I think the correspondence with the Horsemen goes in this order because the Zoas were created in the order Uriezen, Tharmas, Luvah, Urthona, and Uriel, Tharmas, Dylan and Aaron were born in this order so the Horsemen should correspond in the order they are created which is Conquest, War, Famine, Death (also I guess Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, Borderers which makes sense since Conquest rides a white horse and mayflowers are white).

    The Horsemen are also the first four of the seven seals of the Apocalypse, which are broken by the Lamb of God. This explains why Tharmas, Uriel and Dylan have been killed, and predicts that Aaron is next (note also that in terms of location they were killed in the West, South and East, so Aaron should be killed in the North. Lake Baikal?).

    • Peter D says:

      I think it was suggested before that Urthona actually corresponds to Anna (Thormond), not to Aaron. And I saw Scott suggesting Tharmas (Zoa) corresponding to Thamiel, not THARMAS (the computer, who is only mostly dead, There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead)

      • Macbi says:

        Scott’s exact words are:

        There are connections between everything.

        Uriel/Thamiel = Urim/Thummim = uranium/thorium = uracil/thymine = Urizen/Tharmas = Uranos/Tellus = Aaron/Teller

        If we’re looking for a correspondance with the Zoas then we certainally can’t allow all of these pairings because then we would have Urizen=Aaron=Teller=Tharmas which would be silly. We have to look at only the strongest connections, and I think “Aaron Smith=Iron Smith” and “THARMAS=Tharmas” are kinda strong.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Brenda Burns went up in a conflagration of nominative determinism

    Twice so. German brennt means “burns” – the verb form, as in “she burns”/”she’s burning”.

    “My name is Erica Lowry,”

    Wasn’t the whole point that she would say “I am Erica”?

    “I, America, I, even I have your True Name.”…

  22. Amy says:

    Note that the power of placebomancy must have also increased massively when Uriel’s machinery failed, just like it came into being when the sphere cracked. This would suggest that this interaction was driven by placebomancy much more than it would have normally.

    (Also this means that Dylan, the self-appointed placebomancy expert, really failed spectacularly – he had everything stacked in his favor)

    • jzr says:

      Maybe he didn’t fail at all, maybe he was just setting up Erica all along, with motivation he would never have revealed to anyone so as not to tip off the universe to his true shenanigans.

      • Ybell says:

        +1. He seemed to play his role so poorly… I can’t fully understand his strategy here.

      • David Marjanović says:

        Well, he doesn’t really strike me as the kind of person whose plans require his own death…

        • jzr says:

          I would say that he was never truly a person, but rather a role fabricated to make universe dance to his tune. Whatever his true personality, background and intentions were, we can never be sure…

      • simoj says:

        Yeah… Dylan has been so lucky/competent so far. Surely Malia is a tough opponent, but he still seemed surprisingly ineffective.

        Scott has a lot of story threads to tie up quickly, so I’d say this is only like a 30% confidence level, but I think there’s a chance Dylan has some deeper game here / isn’t as dead as he looks.

        On the other hand, there’s lots of dying to do too: Father Ellis prophesied that the Cometspawn (possibly except Sohu) would die today, and Uriel is already dead with the other Zoas potentially quick on his heels.

        • So… All the characters wind up in Hell and have to fight their way out?

        • Amy says:

          I doubt Uriel is dead, remember that angels can reconstitute unless killed by Thamiel’s bident. However, we know without his machinery, he is a very weak fighter so he’s still in a lot of trouble since Thamiel is probably coming very soon to finish the job.

  23. :-Daniel says:

    Now I want Scott to hook up with Malia Obama just for the epic moment of awkwardness when he has to explain this.

  24. Ninmesara says:

    So Malia says her reason for running UNSONG is specifically to amass names to use against her father. When she met Ana, she had a reason to suspect that Ana was in league with Aaron, who clearly knew how to ensoul a computer. This would be very useful to her purposes, of course. So, she was actually telling Ana the truth when she told her they were on the same side. On the other hand, I still can’t understand why she would shoot Ana with a gun, which could kill her and make her unable to share the secret.

    It’s also interesting that if Malia knew Erica had the Vital Name somehow hidden in her mind, things might have gone a little different.

  25. JJR says:

    “The Kinetic Name hit Mark and flung him out the shattered window.”

    So, what action takes takes longer for a ritual magician; falling all the way to the ground, or saying the ascending name?

  26. dsotm says:

    This whole storyline reminds me of the Southland Tales movie, specifically the end sequence with the zeppelin bowl and the neo-marxists taking over US-Ident
    But could just be a Sarah Michelle Gellar non-coincidence.

  27. Anonymous says:

    I think this is the first confirmation we have that hell exists. For a while, I thought the Broadcast may be a studio production and the reason TCK couldn’t get into Hell through lake Bokal was because there was no Hell (or that it at least had a very different form/location).

    Previous discussion:

    But then wouldn’t telling the world about how to get into Hell do much more good? Or could Melia Ngo only travel one way?

  28. “A part of that power which always wills evil, yet ever produces good.”

  29. Stib says:

    Given that backstory, I’m actually pretty sad that Erica (seems to have) killed Malia Ngo 🙁

  30. Mengsk says:

    Okay, so new theory: Uriel was nuked by Viahhan to disable all computers so they couldn’t be ensouled or enslaved to create names. Or by THARMAS itself, to commit suicide.

    • Good Burning Plastic says:

      …or by Sarah, somehow?

      • Ninmesara says:

        Sarah could be in league with the other king, but that wouldn’t explain Vihaan.
        Vihaan’s suicide makes much more sense if TCK is TOK, somehow. But it is also likely that TCK is The Captain. However, note that Aaron has seen the other king, and it is a disembodied robe, as in a “remotely controlled robe”, which can be controlled from inside the Not a Metaphor, by The Captain. I still can’t see the point in TCK killing TOK and pose as him while fighting his children, but Malia’s story also seems a little contrived and artificial: “I wanted to do good but was attracted to evil?” (it feels artificial because it should, we must remember she is NOT a human), so I guess it’s possible.

      • Mengsk says:

        It remains to be seen if Sarah can survive the death of Uriel. Golem body notwithstanding, she may stop “working” with the rest of the technology, unless her soul somehow keeps her working.

  31. Blueknight says:

    “Furthermore, I am a placebomancer. These things have their own logic. When a young woman with a mysterious past comes to you bearing strange secrets and offering to join you, you take her. If she has no apparent skills or abilities, you super take her. If you hurt her, bad things will happen to you. If you take her, then, when all else is lost and your own power avails you nothing, she hands you victory in some totally unexpected and hilariously ironic manner.” –Dylan Alvarez

    Does anyone else think Dylan just planned it this way, and maybe isn’t really dead. After all:

    1) He invoked placebomancy
    2) Then sort of deliberately pisses off reality with his little rich boy speech
    3) Then maybe throws the duel (to set up the next point in keeping with Narrative)
    4) Erica wins the duel for him using the ultimate bit of Wizardy, Kabalistic Placebomancy. Literally using someone’s true name to kill them.


    • Ninmesara says:

      You wanted it to be like that. I wanted it to be like that. Unfortunately, I think the point of Dylan is that the audience is supposed to sympathize so much with him that they want this to be true, but in fact he is only a stupid rich boy who likes to make us think he is something more. He isn’t.

      • Blueknight says:

        Do you think Alvarez was Prom King at this High School:,_California)

        Also, the American Pie verse that seams to apply to this scene the most:

        Oh, and as I watched him on the stage
        My hands were clenched in fists of rage
        No angel born in Hell
        Could break that Satan’s spell

        And as the flames climbed high into the night
        To light the sacrificial rite
        I saw Satan laughing with delight
        The day the music died

        • Macbi says:

          Kabbalistically, the meaning of “king” is “one who fights for freedom”.

        • Ninmesara says:

          We know that the dress rehearsal is important:

          Oh, and as I watched him on the stage
          My hands were clenched in fists of rage

          During the dress rehearsal, Dylan gives them an amulet with Malia’s blood (apparently she is human enough to bleed).

          “Come tonight, I will be placing a drop of her blood on a placebomantic opal amulet, which I will give to each of you. Whatever strange powers she may have coursing through her veins, through whatever means, these amulets will protect you.”

          An now we know that:

          No angel born in Hell
          Could break that Satan’s spell

          Who is Satan? Sataniel? No, he is long dead. So maybe “that Satan’s spell” should be parsed as “the spell from that Satan”. So, someone who is evil enough to be a Satan. Well, Alvarez has spent years trying to become as evil as possible, annoyingly evil even. Which spell? The spell from the placebomantic opal amulet, with a drop of blood from “An angel born in Hell”. The spell is so strong that the the “angel born in Hell” could not break it, even if she managed to kill the party.

          So what was Dylan’s goal?

          And as the flames climbed high into the night
          To light the sacrificial rite

          Which sacrificial rite? The rite in which Dylan offers himself and the rest of the party as sacrifice, while ritually wearing the amulet with the Angel’s blood.

          I saw Satan laughing with delight
          The day the music died

          Later, when they wake up in Hell (which was Dylan’s plan all along), Erica/Clark/whoever is supposed to be the narrator in this part of the song will see Dylan (= Satan) laughing with delight because his plan worked.

          We even see him picking a very specific party to go with him (even going as far as freeing Mark from prison and abandoning Murray, the best shooter in the group).

    • Ninmesara says:

      Could Dylan have a very good Golem body to fake his own death? We don’t see him using any names during the fight… The real Dylan might have remained invisible the whole time. I still prefer my theory of the ritual sacrifice (based on the fact that they’re all wearing the opal talisman), but this one is also interesting.

  32. teucer says:

    ITT: when did it become fanon to interpret all of Unsong as being about American Pie, rather than other frameworks people have tried? I don’t think it was just after the American Pie interlude.

    But I definitely enjoy attempts to figure it all out based on that. It’s fun, for sure.

    • Macbi says:

      It because as Father Ellis was being taken to space he mentions a longer prophecy using the phrase “righteous grown children” which is a really excellent fit for “good ol’ boys”.

  33. Good Burning Plastic says:

    “Malia Ngo is my True Name,” said Malia, confused.

    Why is the daughter of Thamiel and Robin West née Allison Minstrell surnamed Ngo?

  34. marx says:

    “He half-sat, half-slid into Ngo’s desk chair, placed her coffee mug theatrically in front of him, and announced in the middle of the encroaching flames ‘This is fine.'”

    I’m pretty sure this is a reference to this meme.

    Wow that was subtle and hilarious.

  35. Yossarian says:

    Well, at least now we know where the copyright enforcers come from. “Spawned in Hell amongst the demons and evil, conceived when a righteous woman was defiled by the Devil in the act so vile and abominable that it made the plants wilt in a mile radius and the stars themselves closed their eyes and hid, so as not to witness such eldrich, unholy terror”… damn, it certainly does fit.

  36. Another look at someone with both a conscience and a talent for evil:

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