aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Interlude ע: Hell on Earth

[Content warning: More discussion of Hell.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They can’t be!”

“Why not?”

“It wouldn’t be right.”

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

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

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

“Oh, that’s much better then.”

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

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

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

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

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

[A new author’s note is now up.]

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102 Responses to Interlude ע: Hell on Earth

  1. Pickle says:

    Good lord, that next-to-next-to-last paragraph. As per usual for Hell chapters, I think I need a hug, or possibly to give all my possessions to charity.

    (Typo: “poliec” -> “police”)

  2. ADifferemtAnonymous says:

    I don’t think there’s any notion of free will that will allow a “fair” sorting of souls into heaven and hell. Everything boils down to innate characteristics and circumstances. Aaron’s theory doesn’t actually avoid Ana’s objection, though it could be true in spite of it.

    • Deiseach says:

      If the only reason you are not stealing that tin of beans is because you own the store, then you’re still a thief.

      If you’re stealing that tin of beans because you’re hungry and otherwise you would never do so, you’re not a thief.

      • Galle says:

        But if the only reason you’d steal that tin of beans if you didn’t own the store is because it’s in your innate nature to steal tins of beans, then, well, maybe you’re still a thief, but that’s not really your fault, is it? Obviously, if it’s in your nature to be a thief, it’s in everyone else’s best interest to limit your ability to steal things, but is it really fair to punish you for things that are beyond your control?

        This is a serious question. We prefer mercy when a person’s innate nature led them to commit the crime – that’s why we don’t try children as adults, after all. But we also prefer mercy when a person’s circumstances led them to commit the crime – the person who stole the tin of beans in your example. The area where we don’t prefer mercy is supposedly the area where people are choosing to commit crimes out of free will, rather than innate nature or circumstance, but in a deterministic universe it’s unclear what that would even mean. If your innate nature and circumstance do not effect your decision, then you must have made the decision for no reason at all – and that suggests an insanity defense!

        • gradus says:

          “Punishment” that goes beyond a deterrent or correctional rehabilitation is never just or moral, it’s as simple as that. Hell is inherently evil, there is no justification that can make it not evil, and therefore God is unjust.

      • Anonymous says:

        Can you rephrase that in E-Prime?

      • Daniel says:

        Relevant Buddhist story about the invention of trolling:

        The thought occurred to Kali the slave: ‘This good report about my Lady Vedehika has circulated: “Lady Vedehika is even-tempered. Lady Vedehika is gentle. Lady Vedehika is calm.” Now, is anger present in my lady without showing, or is it absent? Or is it just because my work is neat that the anger present in my lady doesn’t show? Why don’t I test her?’

      • Murphy says:

        By this measure someone who never steals anything in their lives is branded a thief. Which kind of brings us back to Calvinists

      • Allan53 says:

        Sorry, maybe I’m simple minded, but if a thief is “someone who steals”, and someone doesn’t steal, then they are not a thief? Unless you’re postulating some quality of “thief-ness” that is somehow separate from the behaviour of stealing?

      • Walter says:

        No, you are a thief if you steal, you are not if you don’t. Your internal state doesn’t enter into it.

        • Allan53 says:

          That was my intuition, which is why I was responding to Deiseach’s comment of

          If the only reason you are not stealing that tin of beans is because you own the store, then you’re still a thief.

          and Galle’s implicit support of this position with

          But if the only reason you’d steal that tin of beans if you didn’t own the store is because it’s in your innate nature to steal tins of beans, then, well, maybe you’re still a thief

          which contains no qualifier as to actual behaviour.

        • holomanga says:

          It depends on what part of the standard definition “thief” you’re willing to compromise on. If you decide that all people with the label “thief” must be punished in the afterlife, then changing “thief” as to not penalise people doing it to save their starving families seems reasonable.

  3. Yossarian says:

    A minor quibble – wasn’t it already a kabbalistic, not nuclear deterrent, with Wrathful Name and such?

  4. linkhyrule5 says:

    … That’s right.

    THARMAS is the Comet King’s grandchild too, not just Aaron’s.

    • The coment king says:

      Damn, I didn’t think of that.

    • R Flaum says:

      I totally missed that.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Not sure what you’re getting at here.

      • Yumantimatter says:

        ‘They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.’

        The Cometspawn are literally going to make THARMAS into a slave, giving them a soul and self-awareness and then forcing them to continually reboot themselves so that they can’t rebel. (Using ‘they’ for THARMAS because a conscious being is not an ‘it’)

        • The coment king says:

          Should be a him, though.

          • Daniel says:

            Before we met Sarah I was identifying her with Los’s child Orc, but now Enion seems more likely. “In her fallen aspect, she is a wailing woman that is filled with jealousy.”

            Prediction: Sarah and/or THARMAS will get a moral soul. It will be A Problem.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            Oh, good catch. Also someone in a previous thread pointed out that Sarah’s “NE-1” indication probably indicates Enion.

  5. “At the same time, Canada’s restrictive firearm laws were phased out in favor of the more enlightened policies of their southern neighbor.”

    Was this written in 1995? We’ve relaxed gun carrying laws still more since then and the predicted crime wave didn’t happen.

    OTOH, maybe those guns really were designed to damn people. If they were made unreliable, that would encourage their reckless use in trying to threaten people but sometimes they would go off…

    • The coment king says:

      Even if the guns were perfect, relaxing gun laws in Hell Canada would be a lot worse than doing it in Actual Canada.

  6. Jeremy Jaffe says:

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

    “Oh, that’s much better then.”

    indeed – since there is precedent for blaming God in this way

    • Shoefish says:

      Actually there is a precedent to suggesting to God to be more merciful, I added a Wikipedia link but the Hebrew version is a bit different so I’ll give a sloppy translation:

      As Nebuzradan rose to destroy Jerusalem the Lord signaled to Zechariah’s blood that used to rise from the ground and boil, it had boiled for 352 years from the time of Yoash to the Time of Zedekiah. The priests would heap dirt over it but the blood would not rest.
      So the Lord said to this blood: It is time for you to claim your dues.

      Nebuzradan saw the blood and asked them: what is this blood?
      “The blood of oxen, sheep and deer that were slaughtered and sacrificed” he was answered. So he had oxen, sheep and deer brought and slaughtered over the blood but it neither rested nor quietened.
      He then brought an executioner and threatened to have the priests flesh raked with metal combs if they did not tell him what the blood really was.
      They answered: “Since the Lord wants us to surrender our blood to him – we will reveal it, there was a priest who was a prophet and a judge and he prophsied all that you are doing unto us but we didn’t not believe him and we killed him for his criticism.”
      So he brought 80,000 neophytes and slaughtered over the blood but it did not rest. Further, he brought a great and lesser Sanhedrin and slaughtered over the blood but it did not rest.

      At which time this evil man came to the blood and yelled at it: “How are you better than all of these and just what is how is your blood more important than theirs?! would you have me slaughter your entire nation for your sake?!”
      Now the Lord was filled with mercy and he said: “And what, if an evil man son of an evil and wicked man that came to destroy my home feels mercy towards them would not I, of whom it is written (Names 34) `The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious […]` and (Proverbs 145:9) `The LORD is good to all, And His mercies are over all His works`, feel mercy all the more”
      So the Lord signaled to the blood and that soaked back into the ground.

      This, btw, is a expansion in the midrash for the verse “Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness.”
      ecclesiastes 3:16

  7. If Colorado had admitted more refugees, by 2001 they might have recovered from Hell and be ready to resist the Other King’s invasion.

  8. Quixote says:

    Damn. A really good chapter. These compromise with sin chapters always leave me chilled (in a good way).

    • Murphy says:

      Ya. I don’t know why but the rational sphere authors seem to write much better and more chilling villains than most normal fiction.

      Something about a smart bad guy who isn’t just cackling and kicking puppies to show off but rather has a goal and goes after it without any moral restraint.

  9. Anonymous says:

    backed by nuclear weapons on all sides

    Didn’t nuclear weapons stop working by 1983?

    Oh, I see chapter 43 seems to refer to Wrathful Name-based weapons as ‘nuclear’. Still seems wrong.

    • Nelshoy says:

      Science has a long history of continuing to use old names for things even when we find out the original names don’t make sense. See every molecule name in biology. I imagine the situation gets worse when science breaks down.

      And intercontinental Kaballistic missiles? Come on!

  10. Nathan Cook says:

    It may be better writing to have the Comet King close the border completely – it shows how tough consequentialist ethics can be – but it would be even more consequentialist to admit women, young children, possibly men over the age of about 50, and selectively admit any other men who could prove their usefulness.

  11. hnau says:

    This reminded me a *lot* of The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis.

    The main difference is that The Screwtape Letters is basically about one person, whereas this is about society and its institutions as an aggregate (and often nakedly about current U.S. politics). I suspect this difference actually says a lot about the different authors’ worldviews. Personally, I find the idea that politics (of all things!) is the basic medium of right-versus-wrong to be so incoherent that it’s almost laughable. This might be related to how bizarre and shallow Unsong’s understanding of Heaven / Hell seems to me as a Christian. (There was some discussion related to that on the “Outer Gate” interlude especially.)

    • TK17Studios says:

      I went back and read that discussion based on being intrigued by your comment. I have known a *lot* of religious people, in a lot of contexts, and I basically disagree with the claim that Unsong’s representation is bizarre and/or shallow.

      I get that you’re gesturing at a much more reasoned and mature and “true” form of Protestantism in those previous posts, but I don’t think that this more mature understanding of religion is particularly prevalent. Of the people I’ve met who professed being religious, maybe 5-10% held this sort of more nuanced and principled view, in which they had done their own thinking, and far far more held shrugs all the way up.

      i.e. I think you’re correct to advocate on behalf of the existence of something less bizarre and shallow, but my personal experience leads me to bet on you being in a bubble, and bubbles being generally small and not all that frequent.

      • hnau says:

        Point well taken. My experience is definitely consistent with my being in a bubble, and your 10% figure may well be accurate among people who, say, identify as Christian or as “believing in God”. But I don’t think that makes much difference to my claim.

        If I wanted to understand the rationalist community’s view on some question, I’d read posts by Eliezer Yudkowsky, Scott Alexander, et al., and not the comments on those posts– let alone, say, random tweets by someone who identifies as rationalist. And compared to people who identify as Christian or even Protestant or evangelical, rationalists seem a lot more homogeneous in their intellectual engagement and background. So when I want to understand the Christian view on a question, it makes a lot of sense to appeal to Christian thinkers and writers. And on this question, my impression is that there’s a high degree of agreement there– even outside Protestantism, if we focus on the main point and not the theological nuances.

        Now, to be fair, it could be that Unsong is intentionally adopting the “popular” view of Heaven and Hell as the in-world standard for plot reasons, which could be explained in terms of placebomancy, NIEAC, etcetera, and that the writing isn’t intended as an authorial comment on actual Christian beliefs. But from the tone in this interlude and “The Outer Gate”, I get a strong impression that Scott is (perhaps unintentionally) using the in-world setup to weak-man Christianity.

        • Anonymous says:

          If you want to claim weak-manning, you better be able to say not only that the position brought up is less defensible, but also unrepresentative. As you just admitted, you might not be in the best position to argue the latter.

          I absolutely reject the premise that theories thought up by Sophisticated Theologians™ are in any sense more ‘proper’ Christianity than the common layman belief. And you can treat rationalists similarly: if you want to know the opinions of the rationalist community on some topic, you better ask directly those who constitute the community, because they may not necessarily agree with what you consider to be their lead figures. Especially given that a major part of rationalism’s whole shtick is not taking the opinions of would-be authorities as, ahem, gospel.

          • hnau says:

            I think this might be (in part) an argument over definitions. If by “Christianity” we’re referring to something that presents itself as a belief system, then that historically has meant some combination of the New Testament, various creeds, and Church teaching– all of which line up unambiguously behind more or less the same position I’ve described. This has been true of every Christian book I can remember reading and every sermon I can remember hearing. So, insofar as Christianity as a set of teachings or propositions is well-defined, it definitely includes different teachings about the nature of Heaven / Hell / righteousness / salvation than Unsong is presenting.

            On the other hand, if we’re talking about “Christianity” simply as a cultural phenomenon– a cultural phenomenon that was the default option for anyone in the Western world up through less than a century ago, and continues to be the default in many places– then yes, it may not be fair to present my understanding as “Christian”. But I’d hesitantly suggest that it may be more useful to refer to this “popular” understanding of Christianity as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or something similar, and to recognize that it too may be a kind of bubble– having more to do with the state of the culture in this particular time and place than with Christian tradition more generally.

            As far as what’s representative or not, I’d say that it depends heavily on the context, the intended audience, and the implicit argument being made. If you’re talking to shoulder-shrugging Moralistic Therapeutic Deists trying to get them to improve their theology, then I’m totally on board with ridiculing this understanding of Heaven and Hell. But if you’re talking to mostly non-religious people who generally operate at a high intellectual level, then it smells like weak-manning to me, because the position being ridiculed has little in common with the understanding of Christianity they would gravitate to (as I have) if they were Christian.

          • Daniel says:

            Thanks for this, hnau. I myself was raised in a Popular Moral Therapeutic Deist Christianity and lost interest in it pretty fast. (Probably one reason this kind of argument is common is that a lot of Western atheists have that background.) Can you by any chance recommend a favourite “Intro to Christianity for Smart People”?

          • hnau says:

            @Daniel– Thanks! I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t have a single definite recommendation. I know several good books in the vein of “introduction to Christianity”, which I’ll list below, but there are a few reservations I have with recommending even those good ones. First is that, due to the nature of the genre, they’re all going to be (at least in part) works of apologetics pitched at general readers– so maybe not quite the thing you’re looking for. Second, they all have a tendency to reflect the author’s ideosyncrasies and cultural background, so I get the impression that there’d be plenty of people who’d like one of them but not the others. Third, there are all more or less Protestant in outlook; the Catholics have a longer and richer intellectual tradition, but it tends to have a different approach to the material (though it answers the big questions the same way) and I’m not as familiar with it, so I can’t really offer any recommendations there.

            With those caveats in mind, here are my favorites:

            1. As you may have noticed, I’m a C.S. Lewis fan, so I can’t not mention his classic Mere Christianity. It’s written very accessibly (it started out as a BBC radio broadcast in the 1940’s) but it does a good job of coming at the question “what do Christians believe?” fairly dispassionately and with an intellectual’s point of view. I’d describe the style as generally matter-of-fact / down-to-earth / cards-on-the-table.

            2. Of the introductions I’m familiar with, Basic Christianity by John Stott probably has the most theological sophistication behind it while still being in a popular style and not assuming too much about the reader’s background (including Christian versus non-Christian). On the other hand the writing is not always quite as engaging. I only read it once or twice… I wish I remember it better.

            3. The Reason for God by Timothy Keller is more openly a work of apologetics, written specifically with the modern/urban/young/skeptical population in mind. But it’s got some great thinking and great material, and it’s well-written to the point where I don’t find it simplistic or embarrassing. Very popular, and somewhat more contemporary in style and substance than the other two.

            Hope this is helpful!

          • Forge the Sky says:


            Don’t consider myself a Christian currently but I’ve found ‘Between Noon and Three’ by Robert Farrar Capon to be a great and engaging antidote to popular Christian moralism.

          • Daniel says:

            Many thanks, hnau and Forge, and merry Christmas!

          • Kamila says:

            I second the mention of Lewis’s “Mere Christianity”. In particular, the idea that God wants us to have free will, and does not want to punish us but does want people of a certain kind, seems relevant. “The Problem of Pain” (also by Lewis) addresses the question of good and evil and such, it is also relevant in this context.

            I am also currently reading Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” and I’m so far really enjoying it, although I am not sure whether that is a good introductory book.

        • The coment king says:

          I don’t think this is weak-manning christianity, I think it’s imagining a “least convenient possible world” scenario. Sure, actual Christianity has a bunch of reasons why this isn’t how hell works and things are better, in the same way that actual medicine has an explanation for why the organ donor problem is unrealistic. But it is interesting to consider, what if we took the least-convenient-world explanation as true? where would it get us, and how would we deal with it?

  12. Rafinius says:

    Wouldn’t a country run like Hell’s terrestrial empire really harm the productivity of its population more so than it increases sin? How would they be able to even sustain a gradually controlled decline of the economy? In fact, how would they be able to feed people and generally give them a stable enough standard of living that wouldn’t cause constant revolutions and uprisings?

    • Decius says:

      Economics no longer runs on math.

    • The coment king says:

      Demonic powers, presumably.

    • 27chaos says:

      I ask this question all the time about North Korea.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      Thamiel lets things run down juuuust as far as he can without causing more trouble than he’s willing to put up with. He calculates that level of “how far can I let it go” based on many millennia of experience causing the maximum possible level of human suffering. He is *really good* at this kind of thing.

      Thamiel, in short, behaves a lot like you’d expect from a divinely constructed and *highly effective* mechanism for maximally punishing sin, that has gone completely out of control and is now actively, rationally, trying to maximize the amount of sin, in order to maximize the amount of punishment.

      • Peter D says:

        So, the point is that Thamiel is an AI that ran amok in optimizing for sin punishment? Wow!

        • Simon_Jester says:

          Well yes and no. He’s not an AI, except in the sense that he’s intelligent, and is ‘artificial’ in that he is in some sense ‘an artifact’ created by God.

          But to repeat what others have said, Thamiel is based on the Jewish concept of the devil. Persecuting people and convincing God they stink is his job. In Unsong, the evidence we see supports this- he does everything in his power to make everyone hate everyone else, and even the specific details of Hell from Thamiel’s broadcast focus heavily on how Hell is calibrated to make people loathe and betray each other. It’s not just about physically torturing the sinners (that too, but…) it’s about making everyone angry at everyone else, and hate everyone else. Making children forswear their mothers, et cetera.

          The catch is that he is extremely effective at what he does, or appears to be extremely effective insofar as we can measure what he’s accomplishing. It’s not actually clear if he’s “run amok,” or if this is actually part of the divine plan to have such a tremendous amount of discord and chaos and suffering wrought by a being who has been described as “the Left Hand of God.”

          • Aegeus says:

            I think he’s “run amok” in that his actions no longer fit the “accuser”/”God’s prosecuting attorney” job description. His job is to advocate for damnation, not to cause it.

            An earthly court will forgive your crime, if the police overcame your resistance and pushed you into committing a crime you wouldn’t have committed otherwise (the entrapment defense). This law prevents the police from running amok, from doing things that would drive good, moral citizens who don’t deserve punishment to commit crimes. Shouldn’t God’s court offer the same forgiveness, to stop the Devil from running amok?

            (Aaron’s theory that Thamiel exists to damn the rest of the world, not the residents of Hell, is looking more and more plausible.)

    • Walter says:

      Rebelling against Daemons doesn’t work. You can’t kill them. Rebelling against them is just suicide. And since that’s the case, there’s a cliff right over there…

  13. Oort says:

    Uriel said that souls are epiphenomenal. So, souls are being punished for things they had no control over right? Is that just because human bodies are now made of math? Maybe Uriel broke the universe in some sense.

  14. This chapter is a very strong argument in favor of Calvinism.

  15. Anaxagoras says:

    This chapter strikes me as largely good news, actually. It establishes something of a lower bar for avoiding damnation, since Thamiel is actively working to make people worse. If we interpret his actions as trying to maximize suffering, he must therefore think that this system will push a decent number of people below the threshold where he gets them after death. While these policies probably push most people’s morality downwards, if all but the most virtuous were damned anyhow, it seems a fairly major waste of effort to make the already-damned slightly worse when a system tailored to the narrower subset that he wouldn’t otherwise get would increase the number of souls claimed.

    I’m not sure what this implies for the theory that Hell doesn’t have actually have any humans in it and the Broadcast is a lie. It depends how much the goal of Thamiel’s society is to itself increase suffering vs. increase the number of people who suffer in Hell later on. It looks like it’s more aimed at the latter, so that suggests Thamiel is getting something out of it long-term. As the chapter says, genocide may be ineffective at damning people, but it’s pretty effective at making them suffer.

  16. Dindane says:

    I wonder how many Hellish refugees San Francisco could take in?

    • The Drug Lord would welcome the refugees.

      • Adrian Smith says:

        What the American Dream is in fantasy, we are in reality. We accept everyone alike, regardless of race, color, or creed. We put up no barbed wire, we turn back no boats full of refugees. We take heart in the old words of Emma Lazarus: give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send them, your homeless, your tempest-tossed, to me. And send them you do, a tide of humanity struggling toward our gates with a desperation that puts Ellis Island to shame, and we turn none back, nay, not even the meanest. Especially not the meanest.

        – Thamiel

  17. R Flaum says:

    I feel like Ana is ignoring the possibility that your actions can change your inner character. If you commit one murder then committing the second is easier (at least, some of the time). It’s not just that Thamiel is tempting people into doing bad things, it’s that he’s tempting them to become different people.

    • Decius says:

      The Ship of Thesusus problem applies. Is the person that goes to hell after Thamiel subverts them the same person as the one that existed before?

      • Simon_Jester says:

        Since there is a ‘conservation of personage’ going on, it’s kind of a moot point. The person who was virtuous before being subverted by Thamiel is *gone.* They cannot be found anywhere. All that remains is the sold-out, vicious remnant of that person. And *they* are going to Hell.

        (‘Vicious’ is here used in the sense that ‘vicious’ is to ‘virtuous’ as ‘vice’ is to ‘virtue’)

  18. Nick says:

    Did Thamiel ever prove to the world that many more people in his empire were going to hell? If he never did, I think that’s strong evidence that Thamiel’s actions can’t appreciably affect cosmic justice.

    • The coment king says:

      But Aaron’s theory is that it’s not about damning the people in the Hellish empire; it’s about damning the rest of the world for not helping them. And that wasn’t influenced by Thamiel in the same way – no lead, no social conditioning. Just presenting us with a tough situation and seeing us make all the wrong choices.

      • Nick says:

        You’re right, but I’m not speaking to Aaron, I’m speaking to everyone else who, like Ana, appear to believe that Thamiel is trying to pervert cosmic justice. Aaron’s theory is probably immune to my objection.

      • tcheasdfjkl says:

        Though also the first few paragraphs of the description of Hell country reminded me uncannily of Soviet Russia.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          Well, half of it *was* the Soviet Union. The other half was Canada. The point is, in both cases Thamiel is trying to make it into something no human agency has ever done- a nation specifically intended to make its inhabitants as spiteful, vicious, hateful, and treacherous as possible.

      • Placid Platypus says:

        Just presenting us with a tough situation and seeing us make all the wrong choices.

        That seems like most of what he’s doing inside his territory too.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      Thamiel doesn’t give specifics about how many people are in Hell. He explicitly said during the Broadcast that he wasn’t going to tell us if it was, I forget, something like “5% or 90%” of humanity that wound up in Hell.

      Remember, if his goal is to maximize suffering, persecution, and damnation, that won’t work out for him no matter what he says. If it turns out that his efforts to make Hell’s empire on Earth worse are succeeding, then other Earthly powers will probably react by saying “gee, if MORE humans go to Hell when we treat them like this, then maybe we should do the OPPOSITE!”

      Certainly the Comet King would throw his weight behind social reforms intended to reduce the risk of people going to Hell, if it didn’t imperil the ‘grand design’ of ultimately defeating Hell (the way admitting millions of refugees from Thamiel’s earthly territories could).

      Thamiel only directly rules over a small minority of all humans (much of Russia, plus Canada). So the indirect effect of him proving that he can make more people go to Hell by making life on Earth worse for them… That could actually result in less people going to Hell than if he’d done nothing at all.

      Furthermore, insofar as Thamiel has a comprehensible function in the divine plan, it is to make people WORRY about whether or not they’re going to Hell, make them worry about whether what they’re doing is right or wrong.

  19. Aran says:

    That got a bit allegorical.

    • The coment king says:

      I don’t think so – It’s not an allegory for Soviet Russia being terrible, it’s Scott taking the idea of “how would I make a maximally terrible country” and running with it.

      Remember, Scott spent five thousand years designing micronations, mostly trying to optimize them. I think this is his attempt at the opposite exercise – design the worst micronation imaginable.

  20. Wander says:

    Ana’s complains seem sort of weird. It’s not exactly unfair for someone to fall to sin after being enticed by the Devil – my theology isn’t great, but I know a lot of folk Christianity and that’s basically his entire thing. He’s supposed to test you, and you have to be stronger.

    • The coment king says:

      In Jewish tradition, the devil is literally the angel with the job of persecuting humans and convincing God they suck (Job being the classic example, but there are also examples where he’s more successful). Ana should know this, but she clearly doesn’t like it.
      Jala referenced this in their fight – “You take the measure of humans, but who takes your measure? That is why I am here.”

    • Simurgh says:

      But is someone who is tested and fails less deserving of Heaven than someone who would have failed if tested, but wasn’t?

  21. Renal Diet says:

    Kidney Dialysis: ways you can get from it without dropping your way of life

  22. Is Juneau, Alaska in the regime of Hell?

  23. Unaussprechlichen says:

    The demonic administration must have a hard time on January 19th, when all water turns into holy water. Maybe they simply stop the water supply on that day.

  24. Well, reading this chapter got me to donate more to help out the Syrian refugees.

  25. Evidence Thamiel is in the ransomware business:

    Infected victims of the ransomware known as Popcorn Time, have the option to either pay up, or they can opt to infect two others using a referral link. If the two new ransomware targets pay the ransom, the original target receives a free key to unlock files on their PC.

  26. I just read the Wall Street Journal’s review of The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars by Daniel Beer and I was reminded of this.

  27. What are the moral implications of people behaving worse because they’re poisoned by lead?

  28. Seph says:

    Interludes ayin and pe seem to be mixed up.

  29. Historymaking101 says:

    I’m very annoyed by Ana’s supposition that there’s such a thing as innate virtue. ACTIONS matter. Predestined good and evil is morally abhorrent.

    The only thing that annoyed me anywhere near this much was when you had Israel and the PLO reverse negotiating positions for your story for no reason.

  30. Pingback: Unsong, a fantasy novel where the universe is programmable with Hebrew by Banana699 -

  31. Sithoid says:

    Russian here. I’ve read Unsong a few years ago, and this chapter hit the hardest; I was astonished by how on point you were, if slightly exaggerating. Now that I’m rereading the chapter, it fully came true. How does it feel to be a prophet?

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