aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Interlude כ: The Outer Gate


Imagine there’s no Heaven. It’s easy if you try. So easy that millions of people throughout history did it entirely by accident. They went to church, they read their Bibles, they knelt prostrate in prayer, and then they went home and lived a life of sin regardless.

A group of psychologists once did an experiment on children’s willpower. They placed a young child in front of a marshmallow, and said if he could sit there without eating it for just five short minutes, he could have two marshmallows later. The “marshmallow test”, as it came to be called, was found to correlate with all sorts of later-life outcomes like health, wealth, and success. Because unless you were a truly exceptional kid, you couldn’t sit there all five of those minutes with that luscious marshmallow staring at you, begging to be eaten – just for a reward in some sucky future.

So up the stakes a little bit. Sit there for five minutes, and we’ll give you all the marshmallows you can eat, forever. We will give you an entire dimension made entirely out of marshmallows. You can live in a great marshmallow mansion surrounded by woods made of jelly-beans, with gingerbread-man servants, and seventy-two houris made entirely out of sugar. But eat the marshmallow, even a tiny part of it, and you will be carried away to Soviet Russia – where marshmallows impale you on a stick, hold you over a fire, and roast you.

I’m not talking about atheists here. I’m talking about the people who accept the entire premise, the people who go “Yup, this world is basically a cosmic marshmallow test, where if we can go the merest infinitesmal moment without sin we will be rewarded forever and ever with joy beyond our wildest dreams, but if we grab the marshmallow we will be punished forever in ways too terrible to imagine” – and then go “Eh, what the heck,” and eat the marshmallow.

(The Lord said unto Adam: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but you must not eat this marshmallow, for it is the marshmallow of the knowledge of good and evil, and when you eat of it, you will surely die.”)

And it’s not just Adam. What about Noah’s sons, who right after they were saved from a giant flood caused by God being really really vengeful about sinners in the most conspicuous way possible, decided to celebrate with some kind of weird debauched incestuous rape orgy? What about Judas Iscariot, who after watching Jesus commit miracle after miracle, decided to betray him for a measly thirty coins? These were not people wracked with doubt about the terms of the bargain. These were people who knew exactly what that marshmallow was buying and gobbled it down anyway.

I would blame the Bible for being unrealistic, but everything that’s happened since has borne it out. Let’s face it, the sincerely religious have not exactly been spotless in the two thousand odd years after the close of the New Testament.

Imagine there’s no Heaven. It’s easy if you try. Only the cold maw of Hell, voracious for sinners.

When the Broadcast aired on TV that frosty November night, all the pretty lies, all the excuses people gave themselves for eating the marshmallow, came tumbling down. People fell to their knees, begging for forgiveness. Misers went out into the streets, throwing all their money at the first homeless person they could find. Lawyers, bankers, and politicians resigned en masse. So many people went out into the woods to become hermits that the woods became too crowded and the real hermits, the ones who knew what they were doing, took up residence in deserted apartment buildings.

Whole industries collapsed in a matter of days. When you know, with utter certainty, that this life is the antechamber to an ineffable eternity, who the heck wants to spend it canning tuna? Who wants to spend it catching tuna to can? What if you get to the Pearly Gates and St. Peter is some kind of purist who is really upset about what modern industrial fishing methods have done to his former trade?

In Europe, tides of pro-Church sentiment swept the traditionally Catholic countries of the south and east. In Asia, once-arrogant businessmen fasted themselves to death, hoping to gain enough karma to escape damnation. In South America, revolutionary guerillas repented and became wandering friars. In Russia, the Marxist-Lurianist enclaves that had survived the fall of Moscow just doubled down and fought harder.

In the Oval Office, Richard Nixon, who had blown off the Broadcast as propaganda when he first saw it, watched it for what had to be like the twentieth time.

“[Expletive deleted]”, said Nixon.

A few people, through some innate defect of character or the certainty that they were going to Hell whatever happened, took advantage of the chaos. Anyone who could put on a tattered cloak and start begging became an instant millionaire. Nonexistent charities sprang up, collected so much money they needed extra mailboxes to fit the envelopes full of cash, then closed down before anyone asked them how exactly they plan to solve world hunger from Jonesboro, Arkansas. The few businesspeople remaining were terrorized by job applicants pointing out how desperate and needy they were and how it would definitely look good in St. Peter’s celestial ledger if they were to be immediately hired to do minimal work at high salaries.

These were bad people who need to be punished. One might even say “righteously smitten”. There was no shortage of people willing to do righteous things, not now. Soon a persecution was on whose deranged fervor made the Salem witch trials look like the ACLU. The combination of many well-meaning but unexperienced people trying to do good and set up charities, plus a giant witch hunt for people trying to fake doing good and fake charities, went exactly as well as you might expect. Vigilante justice was served.

In the middle of all of this, NASA incongruously announced they were going to launch their long-delayed Apollo 13 mission to “further the study of the composition of the celestial spheres”.

The Catholic countries of Europe united into a theocracy. The Marxist guerillas in South America vanished into the Darien Gap. The Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire told the Dalai Lama they were really really sorry and he could totally have Tibet back if he wanted.

Richard Nixon vanished for several weeks.

Civil aviation in the United States broke down, the complicated supply and maintenance chain beyond the reach of its tottering industries. The Midwest was consumed by riots. The Secretary of State announced that the federal government was no longer able to project force west of the Mississippi, and state governors should do what they could to maintain the peace until order was restored.


“Houston, we have a problem.”

Houston had problems of its own. Louisiana, long suffering the occasional storms spinning off Uriel’s hurricane, had finally given up the ghost. Texas governor Dolph Briscoe had re-declared the Texas Republic until such time as the federal government recovered. Mission Control in Houston was still working for NASA until such time as an alternate arrangement could be decided.

“What kind of problem, Apollo 13?”

“We think an oxygen tank has blown. The command module’s getting full of carbon dioxide. We’ve managed to jury rig the system, but it’s not going to hold out. We’ve got to return to Earth.”

“Roger that, Apollo 13.”

For a moment, the attention of a collapsing superpower was distracted from its self-immolation by the drama of three brave men fighting a race against time to save themselves and their ship. And millions of Americans watching their television sets cheered as the command module splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean, just off the coast of the newly declared California Republic.

Then their joy turned to confusion, as they saw not three but four people leave the rescued capsule.

John Young, commander.

Kenneth Mattingly, pilot.

Fred Haise, lunar module pilot.

And Richard Nixon, president of the United States.

Why was the President in a spaceship? was what everyone wanted to know.

Air Force One was sent to California to return Nixon to Washington; whether as president or prisoner no one was sure. Witnesses were called. Records were subpoenaed. It was discovered that the President had kept recordings of everything he had said in the Oval Office, and these were added to the pile of evidence.

“Look,” Nixon told Kissinger, in one of the most damning tapes. “Everything I did, I did for the love of this country, I did it to fight communism. But [expletive deleted] God isn’t going to see it that way. He’s going to be too soft to realize what had to be done. And I’m going to end up burning in [expletive deleted] for all eternity. Why the [expletive deleted] did I ever let you convince me to sign an alliance with [expletive deleted]?”

“The idea behind the alliance was sound,” Kissinger answered. “We did not entirely understand how things stood at the time, but even if we had, I would have made the same suggestion. Brezhnev was getting too strong, especially with the Vietnamese and the South American communist movements. We did what we had to do. If the good Lord disagrees with me, I will be happy to point out His tactical errors.”

“[expletive deleted] easy for you to say!” said the President. “You can talk anybody into anything. But I’m the one whose [expletive deleted] soul is on the line. Doesn’t the Bible say something about that? What use is it to something something the world if it cost you your soul? Something [expletive deleted] hippie dippy like that? I’m breaking the alliance. There’s no other choice.”

“There may be another way. As you know, Captain Armstrong disappeared into the cracks in the sky. Exactly where he went is uncertain, but you cannot have missed the popular press speculating that he entered Heaven. I have been having some of my people look into it. I believe that just there is a gate to Hell inside the Earth, so the edge of space may be an outer gate which leads to Heaven.

“[expletive deleted] great. So this [expletive deleted] gate outside the world would get me to Heaven. How am I supposed to get there? Take a ride in an [expletive deleted] spaceship?”

“You have several.”

“God, you’re [expletive deleted] serious.”

“The director of NASA is loyal to the administration,” said Kissinger. “I have seen to it. Apollo 13 has been ready for launch for years now, but it has never been the right time; always an emergency. We will make it known to NASA that now is the right time, and they will need to make room for a fourth person. The astronauts will grumble, but they will not betray the secret. They are military men, and you are their commander-in-chief.”

“I [expletive deleted] am!” said Nixon. “Holy God, you’re starting to convince me. So when can we start heading to this Outer Gate of yours?”

“I believe NASA can have the craft ready within about a month. After that it will be a three day flight to the crystal sphere, and from there you may descend into the Outer Gate and save your soul while our alliance against Communism remains intact.”

“I don’t [expletive deleted] believe this, but let’s do it!” Nixon was heard to say when the full recording was played before a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, whose members voted unanimously to propose a motion for impeachment. It wasn’t just politics. The witch hunts against anyone who tried to cheat the God-fearing, hell-fearing public had only just started to die down. And now here was the President, trying to cheat in the most fantastic way possible, to buy his salvation on the taxpayer dime while leaving his supposed constituents to burn. The question wasn’t whether Nixon would be impeached. The question was how many seconds he would last after Secret Service protection was withdrawn.

As the Outer Gate scandal entered its third week, Nixon bowed out. He struck a deal with the House; if he resigned peacefully, he would be granted safe passage to a comfortable exile in his hometown of Yorba Linda, California Republic. Under cover of night, the President was flown out of Washington DC, as mobs pelted Air Force One with stones and Molotov cocktails.


“Ford” means “to attempt a difficult crossing”. On August 9, 1974, Gerald Ford was sworn in as President of the United States.

In the California Republic, the Texas Republic, the Salish Free State, and various little towns and homesteads of what had once been the Midwest, people watched the inauguration the same way they might the coronation of the Queen of Great Britain – interesting, maybe even inspiring, but not having very much to do with them. In his inaugural address, Ford admitted that the federal government now controlled only the Eastern Seaboard and pieces of the South and Great Lakes.

The way having been prepared before them, the armies of Thamiel the Lord of Demons crossed the Bering Strait and began the invasion of North America.

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114 Responses to Interlude כ: The Outer Gate

  1. flame7926 says:

    Hmm, now I’m wondering why Thamiel doesn’t control the entire world in the present day of the story. What stopped him from taking over the US and such?

    • expletive deleted says:

      Comet King taking over the parts of the continent that the federals lost. Consequent establishment of UNSONG. And then CK’s invasion of Hell itself with Singer’s ashes as a war relic.

      • expletive deleted says:

        Additionally, HJDE seems to be too powerful for Hell to invade compared to the Untied states, Europe became a theocratic superstate, and Russia is still somehow kicking even after losing the capital. Africa and Australia are out of Hell’s immediate reach. Plugging the European and American paths of expansion leaves only southward route to India.

        I wonder what’s happening in India.

      • stavro375 says:

        Except the CK wasn’t even born until 1976. And Alaska may be huge and mountanious and hard to move an army through quickly, but it wouldn’t take two years to march from Anchorage to Seattle.

        Maybe Canada became a massive superpower while nobody was looking?

      • rossry says:

        Singer’s bones, canonically.

    • LAMAR_Mirabeau says:

      Isn’t the implication that he does? That that’s what UNSUNG and the UN etc. is all about, and the companies and big buisnesses that regulate names and kabbalah and everything? It seems to me that Hell is compromising a little bit, knowing that they’ll be getting a lot of them anyway. Also, many religions associate that you have to make some choice to impugn yourself, so maybe just directly torturing everyone on earth or whatever would make it less likely for them to wind up in Hell.

      • stavro375 says:

        In chapter 14 it’s stated that the drive to create UNSONG was lead by the Comet King, and its first leader was an innocuous Brazillian who spent all his time going after organized crime. The closest we have to evidence that Thamiel has any influence in the human realm at all, besides the whole USSR debacle, is in Chapter 12 when it’s stated that the death of the Comet King lead to the security situation in the American midwest literally “going to hell.” Aaron and the UU church never seem to worry about how their tax money goes to the devil, so the California Republic must be independent.

        So no, I don’t think it’s implied Thamiel rules the world.

    • Utilitaria says:

      I’m also interested in exactly how these wars are fought. Space travel clearly still works and I’m assuming explosives do, or guns wouldn’t fire. But all bets are off since this isn’t a world that follows the ‘universal fire’ type rules about consistency. I would retool all the US’s ICBMs to carry conventional explosives or kinetic buckshot, i.e. like Iran’s ballistic missile program, start building big artillery guns to deal area damage and other things. The way these wars turn into slow standstills seems consistent with advanced technology suddenly failing; does it turn into some kind of trench warfare style slog?

      • AnthonyC says:

        I recall the Comet King hypothesizing about loading a rocket filled with bits of paper with the Wrathful Name on them as a way to change the moon’s orbit, since each had the power of a hydrogen bomb. So there’s that possibility.

        Which, actually, is quite odd consider the crystal sphere(s) now that I think about it.

        Also RE: Universal Fire: reminds of of the Discworld book Pyramids, when all the old Egyptian myths become literally true at once, even the mutually contradictory ones.

        • GreatWyrmGold says:

          Geez. Egyptian mythology went through a lot of changes over the millennia; that’s like putting the Left Behind stories in the same basket as those first-century manuscripts where a young Jesus terrorized Nazareth with his divine powers. And possibly Islam, older Jewish traditions, possibly going back all the way to when it was just Caananite polytheism with dietary restrictions. (And possibly other aspects that don’t leave an archaeological record like temples and food waste do.)

          Does that include the couple of decades when Akhenaten tried to make Egypt monotheistic?

  2. Quixote says:

    holy s!t

  3. Pickle says:

    Typo thread: “infinitismal” should be “infinitesimal”

  4. Sniffnoy says:

    So we’re at interlude כ, meaning we’re going through the Hebrew alphabet rather than using Hebrew numeral system. Meaning we’re halfway through the interludes. But we’re probably not halfway through the chapters; we’re not even on to book 3 yet. I guess the later books are going to have many fewer interludes?

    Once again the question is raised of why neither the Comet King nor anyone else tried the “load everyone onto spaceships” plan (unless they did?).

    • Moving everyone off planet would be surprisingly hard. And trying to move only a few important people failed spectacularly, and doesn’t seem like the Comet King’s style anyway.

      • Also, it wouldn’t do anything for the people already in Hell. I don’t think the Comet King would be happy with a solution that just saves the small fraction of people currently alive if there were any other option. And you can’t launch an invasion if the whole population is in space.

        • Murphy says:

          The Ascending Name,The Kinetic Name,Motive Name and Wrathful Name all seem like they’d be really useful for getting really large payloads into orbit cheaply.

          Get a large group of people inside an airtight but reasonable light vehicle chanting the Ascending Name, it’s already been mentioned that the Kinetic Name could be used in spacecraft, since names have no mass they don’t suffer the problems that space craft that need to carry their fuel do. I’m not sure about the motive name but it sounds like it could help get you to the top of the atmosphere.

          So we can make our main payload mostly weightless, we can get to the edge of the atmosphere with a substantial payload without needing to carry/expend fuel for that part of the trip and we may be able to get some level of thrust without any fuel at all.

          The Wrathful Name seems like a project orion option without the fallout but since we don’t know how it works best to assume the worst, that it makes the speaker explode like an A-bomb thus making it impractical for this use.

          If millionaires are willing to spend vast fortunes on trying to follow the voice of god then I imagine there would also be a massive market for a shuttle service to the outer gate.

          Of course if for some reason Uriel really really really doesn’t want any more people going through the crack for some reason then with the level of control he has it seems it would be easy for him to sabotage any programs to move people to the crack en-mass. (like Apollo 13’s problems)

          • K. Darkdiamond says:

            The Wrathful Name seems like a project orion option without the fallout but since we don’t know how it works best to assume the worst, that it makes the speaker explode like an A-bomb thus making it impractical for this use.

            Given the post-Broadcast religious fervour and the virtuousness of self-sacrifice, I wouldn’t think it would be *that* difficult to come up with enough martyrs to shove out the back of a pusher plate with instructions to speak the Wrathful Name, on a project intended to save all of humanity.

      • Escapement says:

        Getting people off-planet would be easy. You just have to look to your bible for instructions.

        Genesis 7:9 – They entered the boat in pairs, male and female,

        Revelations 1:7 – “Look, he is coming with the clouds”

        Obviously, they should use the clouds to ascend in pairs. More specifically, have two people bind themselves together strongly. One must use the Mistral Name to control the winds into a cloud around them to breath and below them to constantly raise them up, while the other uses the Airwalker name to keep them standing on the air. They must rise up to the ark of the sky in pairs, with the clouds, and fulfill this obvious bible prophecy.

      • Thamiel says:

        With the Wrathful Name, aomething like Project Orion would be downright easy.

      • Galle says:

        What guarantee is there that the Outer Gate plan would even work? Surely whatever sorting principle is at work in heaven isn’t going to be fooled just because you got there by way of a physical hole in the sky rather than by dying.

    • Daniel Armak says:

      Because even with the budget of the US you could only build enough spaceships for a few tens or hundreds of people? Granted, you may be able to do a bit more since the goal is “throw people into the crack in the sky” not “land them safely on the Moon and then return them”, but even saving a few thousand people wouldn’t justify spending all the resources it requires.

      Of course, we don’t know how much the Comet King’s supreme kabbalistic knowledge could replace spaceship technology. At the very least he can probably make kayaks that float upward and maybe that’s all it takes.

      But more importantly, falling into the crack in the sky doesn’t get you to Heaven, it just gets you transcendent joy, which is *probably* different. Armstrong came back, and his experience there has been likened to that of the people in San Francisco, but people aren’t rushing to SF en masse, and Ana didn’t want any part of it.

      • Vadim Kosoy says:

        I think it’s likely that transcendent joy *is* heaven i.e. San Francisco is heaven-on-Earth and actual heaven is something similar but even more dopey. Thamiel rules hell and he is the LHOG and Armstrong is the RHOG so there is a symmetry there. Admittedly, we only know Armstrong is the RHOG from “his” words from the mouth of an LSD user, but I think that the miracles of San Francisco and the general mixing of map and territory in this world mean that Armstrong is truly the RHOG. Note also that the LHOG’s nature is duality and conflict so it makes sense that the RHOG’s nature should be unity and peace/passivity which seems consistent with what’s happening in San Francisco. Now, we do have the question of how can Armstrong be the RHOG when the LHOG existed since time immemorial, but it seems no stranger than Christian Theology holding that Jesus is the son of Mary but also existed since before creation. Moreover, I have a suspicion that placebomancy can interact strangely with time and it is even possible the whole Uriel / math universe origin story was created retroactively by the events of the Apollo mission.

    • Moshe Zadka says:

      Heheh, I committed to odds between 60%-80% that we’re going by alphabet rather than gematria. Should have bet money… (See my comments on interlude Yud). Agreed on the progress…probably around half-way through book 2, or around 1/3 of the way through the book.

    • 75th says:

      There are going to be 71 chapters proper (seventy weeks [of Daniel] from the date of Chapter 1’s publication to the date of Chapter 1’s setting) plus one interlude for every Hebrew letter. Last chapter published will be Interlude Tav, the day the story starts. Total of 93 chapters.

      • 75th says:

        …barring something weird with the Interludes, where we get a second run-through of the Hebrew alphabet (forwards or backwards?) using a different noun than “Interlude”.

        • Seems unlikely, assuming you’re right about the seventy chapters – at this rate we’ll have interludes until chapter 50, and they’ll probably become rarer as the story progresses.

          • 75th says:

            The only reason I suggested this might happen is that Scott said Unsong won’t be too many fewer chapters than HPMoR. 114 or 115 are a lot closer to 122 than 93 is.

            After I posted that, I linked you to the Prophecy of Seventy Weeks Wikipedia article, which I just saw has a large section that goes ABCDEF-FEDCBA. Nothing is ever a coincidence.

          • Good Burning Plastic says:

            I’d take “too many fewer” to mean something more like “less than half”.

      • Seventy weeks of Daniel?

      • Sniffnoy says:

        Seventy-one, huh? Now that’s an interesting number…

      • Daniel says:

        Huh. I got the same result based on different considerations: if you include the prologue, that’s seventy-two chapters. “A SEVENTY-TWO-FOLD DIVISION, WHICH WE INTERPRET AS THE SEVENTY-TWO-FOLD EXPLICIT NAME OF GOD.”

        Total of 93 chapters.

        Well, the word of the Law is Θελημα, which is not a is ritual magic, it could always have been a coincidence.

      • The Pachyderminator says:

        Whoa. This is ingenious, and I’ll be surprised if it turns out not to be right, as regards the chapter numbers. It can’t be a coincidence (because nothing ever is) that it’s exactly 70 weeks and 3 days from the first chapter’s publication date to its setting date.

        Regarding the interludes, I don’t know; something else might still be going on. The numbering system in the angelic library demonstrates that there are a lot of possibilities. Unless there’s some special significance to the number 93?

    • Jack V says:

      I agree Scott might have planned the number of interludes in advance, but it’s also possible he’ll just move to another alphabet or double letters if he runs out of hebrew.

  5. DanielLC says:

    How did they turn around? I’d expect them to only carry enough fuel to take them to the sphere. They’d use almost all of it on the initial burn, and then spend the rest of the trip in free fall. Turning around would take tons of fuel. They could skip dropping Nixon off, but carrying him will use more oxygen than it will save by not dropping him off. Is there a Name that lets you reverse your momentum or something?

    • ton says:

      This was before names, right?

    • I assume the same way they did in real life.

      • Aegeus says:

        In real life, they looped around the moon and came back, they just needed enough of a burn to return to the “free-return trajectory.” But you can’t loop around the crystal sphere to change direction – it surrounds you completely.

        But of course, NASA knows this, so they must have planned the Apollo mission to have enough fuel to turn around and come back. Whether they land safely or not, turning around has to be part of the mission. (Only Nixon is going through the cracks, remember).

        My best guess for a mission profile is that Apollo flies up to the “Lagrange point” (Lagrange sphere?) where the forces from the Earth and the Sphere cancel out, and then sends the lander the rest of the way. Then, to return, it just needs enough of a push that it starts falling back towards Earth. Re-entry could be hairy (you’re supposed to sort of skim the atmosphere, not plunge straight down), but I think good planning on the outbound leg could put you in the right spot to get home safely.

        • nonternary says:

          The Sphere doesn’t have any gravitational effect on anything inside it (shell theorem). I’m still confused about how exactly Apollo 11 landed on the sphere.

          • _____ says:

            It landed on the outside

          • Sniffnoy says:

            It didn’t land on the outside, it would have to pass through the cracks for that. As for the shell theorem, well, who says it has to follow Newtonian physics? (The real question is how they knew how to land on it…)

          • Guy says:

            Since Apollo 8 crashed into the sphere, it’s reasonable to assume it’s solid. Then all they have to do is bring enough fuel to slow down when they get up there, and they can dock with the sphere, essentially, by slowing down enough that they aren’t moving relative to it. Assuming they have enough fuel for that maneuver, it’s relatively trivial to just burn less if they discover the sphere has its own gravity (which seems to have been the case). In the same vein, Apollo 13 needs to have enough fuel to turn around and come back, so they presumably have enough to turn around early.

          • Good Burning Plastic says:

            The sphere was spinning and Apollo 11 was held against it by centrifugal force, or something.

    • András Kovács says:

      In real life they started on a near free return trajectory, which loops around once the Moon and comes back to reentry/low Earth pass.

    • bean says:

      Actually, there was an abort mode which involved turning around in front of the moon and coming straight back, using the Service Propulsion System (SPS), and Apollo 13 was theoretically in the window for it. The problem was that they weren’t sure the SPS hadn’t been damaged by the tank blowing up, so they kept going. Also, it might have involved dumping the LM, which would have been lethal.
      That said, the biggest problem with this is that there was genuinely nowhere to put a fourth person in the Apollo capsule for long-duration missions. (Yes, I’m aware of the Skylab rescue configuration. That was marginally suitable for a few hours, not for a 10 day mission.) And you’d have serious problems with the LM, too. Even leaving aside the space constraints, that vehicle had no margin. CG issues and life support would both be problematic.

  6. Good chapter, but the premise that many parts of the world are more-or-less stable in 2017 (to the degree where they have BART, the internet, computer games, and international copyright law) is getting hard to believe.

    • Daniel Blank says:

      Most of it is probably Name-based (at leas Bart probably uses the Motive Name), but I’m not too sure about the Internet.

    • Amelia Kelly says:

      A lot can happen in 43 years, especially if the Comet King gets involved. And I got the general impression that California weathered the storm a lot better than most places, which doesn’t seem totally implausible.

  7. Daniel Armak says:

    You can think an oxygen tank really malfunctioned. But I prefer to imagine Nixon secretly stowing aboard, and his exhalations providing the extra CO2 that made the crew think something was wrong.

    I know it wouldn’t work (where would he hide?) and anyway it’s explicitly said later that the crew were in on his plan. But I’m sticking to my first idea. It’s too narratively satisfying and leaves no coincidence of a malfunction convenient to the story.

  8. 75th says:

    Arkansas getting a lot of air time in Unsong! So far you’ve mentioned Little Rock, my current home, and Jonesboro, where I lived for 13 years and went to college. Drop the name of my original hometown and it’s going to start getting a little stalkery

    • CAE_Jones says:

      Yeah, for a second there, I thought some weird Google Tracking alert popped up in the middle of the text.

  9. The thing about Nixon trying to get away from hell by using the outer gate kinda reminded me of this.

  10. Pedro Silva says:

    AFAIR, the debauchery involved Lot’s daughters rather than Noah’ s sons

  11. Jack V says:

    Ah! Ok, very interested to hear the backstory of how the broadcast led to the world we saw. I agree, it’s not obvious how we got there from here, but I assume we’ll find out how.

    I also wonder if maybe the reason there’s been some backstory missing is Scott wanted to write it in order and didn’t get the broadcast story written until last week. That’s just a guess, but I feel a lot better about some of the things I felt left out. I did feel the hell chapter was a major omission, I didn’t understand how the characters could be as normal as they were with that in the background. But now hopefully we’ll find that out.

    I was really attached to the theory Nixon faked the tape! But apparently not, that really was part of the larger backstory.

    Thank you Scott, keep it up!

  12. anon says:

    The phrase “Outer Gate scandal” kind of sounds familiar…

      • roystgnr says:

        The use of funny jokes for serious foreshadowing is pretty brilliant. In many plots you can’t make it past chapter 1 without seeing some factoid that has no other Doylist reason to exist and screaming to yourself “Ooh, ooh, I see a Chekhov’s gun! It’s a Chekhov’s gun!” Your genre-awareness thereby spoils some of the story. But that doesn’t happen when there are alternative Doylist explanations for everything, and “the writer probably put it here because it’s funny” seems to be a very all-purpose alternative explanation.

        Now that I think about it, HPMOR pulled that trick a lot too, with both humor and characterization used to give plausible deniability to foreshadowing.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      The real question is, did the “-gate” suffix come about in this universe? 😛

  13. Sniffnoy says:

    Man, the hate for Nixon seems a bit much. Seems a bit hard to blame the guy. I mean, yeah, it’s scummy to spend taxpayer money on it, but…

    • Marvy says:

      > Seems a bit hard to blame the guy.

      Kissinger, however, is easy to blame.

      • According to Martin Luther, if you do good only because of fear of Hell, you don’t deserve to be saved. If we turn that around, someone who does what he thinks is right even at the possible cost of his soul would be a candidate for Lutheran sainthood … but only if he doesn’t believe Luther. You can think of this as salvation by doubt.

  14. stavro375 says:

    The Catholic countries of Europe united into a theocracy.

    I kind of want to hear more about this. That encompasses, what? Spain, France, Italy, Benelux, Austria? Yugoslavia is pretty Catholic, but it’s also pretty Orthodox and pretty Muslim. And how does this interact with the Iron Curtain? Poland, Czechoslovakia et al are all Catholic, but they’re also USSR puppet states. Did they fall to the legions of hell? Did they break free in the USSR’s hour of need?

    And what about Germany? The southern parts of Germany are mostly Catholic, but the north and eastern-parts-of West Germany are mostly Protestant. And with the USSR collapsing it’s now or never to tear down the Berlin Wall and reunify the fatherland. Did German patriotism or religious desperation win the day?

    • kechpaja says:

      I was wondering about that as well — Switzerland, specifically, has some cantons which are officially Catholic and others that are Protestant. Did it get split up, or retain its neutrality?

  15. LHC says:

    I’m kind of reminded of:

  16. stavro375 says:

    Didn’t Chapter 19 mention US-Hell relations going south in the 1980s? I recall it did, there’s a comment to that effect in the thread for War and Peace, and there was something about in the wiki outline.

    Except now it doesn’t. Was it silently retconned?

  17. The Broadcast might have had less of an effect on Protestants. If salvation comes from either faith or predestination…

  18. Jeremy Jaffe says:

    what happened to interludes 11 through 19?

  19. hnau says:

    Joseph already alluded to this, but the first part of this Interlude *really* seems to be misrepresenting religion. The charitable interpretation is that most of it is referring to how people *perceive* religion, not to what it actually teaches. But the following paragraph seems to be an exception:

    I’m not talking about atheists here. I’m talking about the people who accept the entire premise, the people who go “Yup, this world is basically a cosmic marshmallow test, where if we can go the merest infinitesmal moment without sin we will be rewarded forever and ever with joy beyond our wildest dreams, but if we grab the marshmallow we will be punished forever in ways too terrible to imagine” – and then go “Eh, what the heck,” and eat the marshmallow.

    I take “accept the entire premise” in this context to mean “accept the religion’s orthodox doctrine regarding salvation, Heaven, and Hell”. This seems to be the most obvious and natural reading, though I’d be open to hearing if other people interpreted differently.

    For the sake of simplicity I’ll limit my discussion of “religion” to Protestant Christianity as it’s practiced in modern America, since that’s (1) the majority U.S. religion at the time this is set, (2) the plurality U.S. religion at the time this is written, and (3) my own religion. This form of Christianity, at least as I learned it, places *great emphasis* on teaching that Heaven and Hell do *not* work as described in the above paragraph.

    To be more specific: Christian teaching points out the same fact that Scott does– that in practice, no one seems to be capable of living a life free of sin, either in the Bible or today– and concludes that, naively speaking, we should expect that *everyone* will go to Hell. It then posits that God can intervene, and in fact has intervened, to save us from this state, with our consent. The reasoning and details behind these claims are, unfortunately, beyond the scope of the current argument. The crucial point is that sin (aka marshmallow eating) is *not* the determining factor between Heaven and Hell, whereas the “cosmic marshmallow test” description above clearly implies that it *is* the determining factor.

    It is not possible to save the analogy by mapping the new determining factor (roughly speaking: acceptance of God’s saving action) to marshmallow eating, either. Christianity teaches that this acceptance is eyebrow-raisingly easy and is a one-time occurrence that is not invalidated by subsequent sin; in fact, if memory serves, there are large branches of Christianity that treat it as irrevocable. There’s more to it, of course; in particular I don’t mean to imply that Christian teaching treats sin or lack thereof as unimportant, only that it doesn’t directly relate sin to Heaven or Hell in the way it’s portrayed to here.

    I consider it unlikely that Scott was either unaware of this or deliberately misrepresenting religion. So I assume that the misrepresentation was either a mistake in the writing or part of a deep plan for Unsong’s plot that will be revealed later on. Either way, I look forward to seeing it remedied. Unless, of course, I’m missing something in my analysis and someone can explain to me why it’s wrong.

    • Murphy says:

      Re: members of the group you’re referring to, if pointed at someone who has been baptised and then, say, subsequently killed and ate a few hookers. Do you think they’d declare that the person is definitely in heaven since they accepted christ?

      I know there’s definitely a small fraction who hold the hardcore line that accepting chirst = heaven with no caveats or messing about along the lines of declaring that if you then kill a few hookers then you’re not just sinning, you’re annulling your previous acceptance of chirst.

      But if you talk to a random religious person on the street in America most are likely to link sin to heaven vs hell.

      • hnau says:

        Last point first… yes, the “random person on the street” perception is that the Heaven / Hell difference is about being good / bad. As I mentioned, I’m specifically dealing with orthodox Protestant teaching on this issue, which is what I take Scott to mean by “the entire premise”.

        As far as the hooker hypothetical goes, I think you’ve got it wrong. I don’t know of any mainstream Protestant teaching that treats sin as somehow “annulling” one’s acceptance of Christ, even egregious sin. That being said, let me try to give a more nuanced view.

        I still understand Heaven as being free from all sin, despite believing that God’s grace is what makes it possible to get there. That’s because, to put it plainly (and imprecisely), the *point* of God’s grace is to free us from sin. So while it’s God’s power that enables the Christian to fight against sin (however incompletely and, for the moment, unsuccessfully), the Christian is still supposed to be fighting. In this context, repeated and unrepentant sin might be taken to mean that the person didn’t understand what it meant to accept Christ in the first place. But in general, Christians are supposed to be VERY wary of forming opinions of this kind (i.e. “this person is definitely going to Hell”), because we have no idea where that person stands with God.

        The crucial TL;DR is that in Christian teaching, one is “saved” first and then deals with one’s sin as a result, not the other way around. Getting rid of sin is still definitely part of the process, it just isn’t a precondition.

      • CatCube says:

        If somebody has truly accepted Christ and repented, they are saved, regardless of the sin.

        Now, the One judging you can see into your heart and your true motivations, so cynically sinning with abandon because you can always repent later is done at your peril, since that might call your “repentance” into question.

        Hnau’s nitpicking of the story is correct: standard Protestant doctrine is that nobody is deserving of salvation (we all fail the marshmallow test, many times per day), and is saved only by God’s grace. Different denominations will have different answers as to exactly what merits that grace.

    • I think he was taking the least convenient possible world explanation – Most religious people believe a milder version than what he said but still sin more than they should, given their beliefs, and you do have people on the edge who both believe his tough version and still sin. So the issue, as he raises it, is valid (even if it’s not a representative description of theology).

      • hnau says:

        The theology I described isn’t in any meaningful sense “milder” with respect to sin. In fact, it insists that *any* amount of sin, no matter how small, is “more than they should”. Even Scott’s Unitarians understand this. From “Cantors and Singers”:

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

        (“We’re not making compromise with sin. We just want to be less than maximally saintly sometimes.”)

        (“Exactly what do you think compromise with sin is?”)

        Even aside from that, the paragraph I quoted explicitly draws a link between sinning or not and going to Heaven or Hell. That’s what I consider to be invalid. I have no objection to the accurate portrayal of religious hypocrisy, only to the inaccurate portrayal of the religious teachings that the hypocrisy betrays.

    • Yossarian says:

      There are indeed the churches, Christian and Jewish, that have that particular point of view. Also, I feel that most of the Christian churches just add an additional meta level above the whole marshmallow thing, as in, you can’t really be expected not to eat the marshmallow, but you should a) try to minimize your intake of marshmallows, and b) you shouldn’t eat the meta-marshmallow, as in, if you eat the marshmallow, you should repent, but it’s not really even humanly possible to completely sincerely do that either, so you should at least abstain from eating the meta-meta marshmallow, which most of the people aren’t even capable of thinking of, let alone to be able to discover the further infinite levels of this recursion. And if you do eat a marshmallow at any of those meta levels, as in, sin and not repent, then God isn’t exactly obligated to go in and save you.

      • hnau says:

        If you just mean that this is what Christian ethical teaching *urges* on Christians, then yes, I totally agree. But if you’re suggesting that the meta levels are understood as determining who’s going to Heaven or Hell, then that’s not consistent with the teaching I’m familiar with. “God isn’t exactly obligated to go and save” anyone… that’s the whole point of grace! Yes, a Christian is still going to fail at every one of the meta-levels. But in some sense, accepting Christ means that at least he or she is trying not to fail (and relying on God to do the rest).

  20. somnicule says:

    I made a little userstyle to show the links on the Table of Contents in purple if they’ve been visited, to make it easier to keep track of which chapters I’ve read and which I haven’t.

  21. R Flaum says:

    “First things first, I’m the realist,” said Kissinger

  22. Sammy says:

    Given the general density of puns and allusions, can I expect Thamiel to say ‘please allow me to introduce myself…’? Frankly I’m surprised it hasn’t shown up already

  23. Vadim Kosoy says:

    Anyone has an idea what is going on with “California Republic” vs. “California Confederacy”?

    • Option a: Confederacy was when they thought of themselves as seceding, republic was later, when they saw themselves as their own country?

      Option B (more likely): There were further political developments we find out later, probably to do with TCK. In particular, 2017 US seems a bit more united than in 1974 (they have the strategic angel reserve coordinated nationwide, for example).

    • No wait, it was just a mistype. He fixed it to Republic now.

  24. Galle says:

    Alright, time to update the timeline with the information we’ve recently gained. As before, question marks indicate things I’m only vaguely sure about the timing of.

    1968: The sky breaks.
    1969: The Long March. Uriel first contacts humanity. Hell emerges from Lake Baikal and begin their invasion of Russia. Apollo 11 lands on the crystal sphere, and Neil Armstrong passes into Heaven. Thamiel establishes an Earthly capital at Yakutsk.
    1970: Marxism-Lurianism becomes a thing? Mao is overthrown by a peasant farmer with an army of golems made from Qin Shi Huang’s tomb and the Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire is founded? The Right Hand of God emerges in San Fransisco.
    1972: The United States forms a strategic alliance with Hell. Hell joins the United Nations. The Broadcast is created, but the Nixon administration suppresses it. Nixon is re-elected.
    1973: Moscow falls to Hell. Nixon releases the Broadcast to the US public, and the world collapses.
    1974: The United States government can no longer project force west of the Mississippi. California secedes? Texas secedes? Oregon and Washington secede, and form the Salish Free State? A Catholic theocracy is formed in Europe? The Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire grants independence to Tibet? Nixon attempts, but fails, to physically escape to the crystal sphere aboard Apollo 13? Nixon is forced to resign by the Outer Gate scandal. Gerald Ford becomes president. The Shrouded Constitution becomes a thing? Human religions start evangelizing to the Angels.
    1976: First known appearance of Comet West. Birth of the first Cometspawn, Jalaketu.
    1982: Birth of Sohu.
    1984: American relations with Hell have “really started to go south”. Reagan establishes the fourteen remaining angelic fortresses in the United States as the Strategic Angel Reserve.
    1985: TV broadcasts stop working?
    1987: Llull is first programmed?
    1988: George H.W.? Bush elected president.
    1989: The Comet King has already established his capital at Colorado Springs, convinces Bush to create the California Zephyr?
    1990: Sohu goes to study with Uriel.
    1992: The Comet-King and President Bush create UNSONG? Reverend Stevens writes The Temple and the Marketplace?
    1994: A major drop in technological efficacy requires massive refits to the California Zephyr to work on the Motive Name?
    2000: A contested election begins a smouldering conflict on the east coast. George W. Bush wins, but is later assassinated?
    2001: Dylan Alvarez assassinates Senator Henderson and most of the archmages of North America, and founds BOOJUM. The Comet King begins his invasion of Hell, but the invasion fails. The Comet King is killed by the Other King.
    2002: The Other King’s forces overrun most of Royal Colorado. President Cheney cracks down on the Unitarian Universalist Church?
    2007: Malia Ngo becomes director of UNSONG?

    • Galle says:

      Aaand crap, I probably should have added, “Hell invades Alaska” at the end of 1974. Curse you, lack of an edit function!

    • Sniffnoy says:

      The bit about relations with Hell going south in 1984 seems to have been edited out, presumably because it’s a continuity error.

      Probably also worth mentioning on the timeline: The Comet King’s quest for Metatron (1997), and the 2002 theft of the All Your Heart. On that note, I would guess that the beginning of the war against Hell is probably closer to 1997 than to 2001.

  25. Blue says:

    I find Nixon’s behavior here fascinating in terms of critical theory. Remember, he’s the only one who actually knew about the tape for years before it was released. So he is the only person who did NOT learn anything new about Hell on the day of the Broadcast (maybe he dismissed it as a fake, but that wouldn’t change). And yet, after everyone in America now believes in Hell, THEN he is so convinced that Hell might punish him. And he is determined to escape that fate, but not in terms of being a better person, but in the most legalistic, amoral way possible.

    His attitude towards God in this case (or whatever parcels out reward/retribution) is solely his attitude towards the American people. They are to be manipulated, and he isn’t worried unless the American people are enraged.

    • The Pachyderminator says:

      Well, it also says he rewatched the tape twenty times. I can imagine someone dismissing the Broadcast on a first viewing, but then finding that they can’t forget about it, returning to it again and again, and finally finding that they have to take it seriously, regardless of the public’s opinion.

  26. RMcD says:

    Queen of Great Britain? Did the United Kingdom dissolve?

  27. Hedr says:

    I’m pretty sure the marshmallow test thing is associated with poverty, from an evolution standpoint eating any available food when you are used to an impoverished environment is a good idea. Not really a good analogy for “sin”

  28. Is John Young deliberate?
    Jim Lovell was the commander of Apollo 13.

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