On Wednesday, Scott Alexander finally completed his sprawling serial novel Unsong, after a year and a half of weekly updates—incredibly, in his spare time while also working as a full-term resident in psychiatry, and also regularly updating Slate Star Codex, which I consider to be the world’s best blog. I was honored to attend a party in Austin (mirroring parties in San Francisco, Boston, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere) to celebrate Alexander’s release of the last chapter—depending on your definition, possibly the first “fan event” I’ve ever attended.
Like many other nerds I’ve met, I’d been following Unsong almost since the beginning—with its mix of Talmudic erudition, CS humor, puns, and even a shout-out to Quantum Computing Since Democritus (which shows up as Ben Aharon’s Gematria Since Adam), how could I not be? I now count Unsong as one of my favorite works of fiction, and Scott Alexander alongside Rebecca Newberger Goldstein among my favorite contemporary novelists. The goal of this post is simply to prod readers of my blog who don’t yet know Unsong: if you’ve ever liked anything here on Shtetl-Optimized, then I predict you’ll like Unsong, and probably more.
[WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW]
Though not trivial to summarize, Unsong is about a world where the ideas of religion and mysticism—all of them, more or less, although with a special focus on kabbalistic Judaism—turn out to be true. In 1968, the Apollo 8 mission leads not to an orbit of the Moon, as planned, but instead to cracking an invisible crystal sphere that had surrounded the Earth for millennia. Down through the crack rush angels, devils, and other supernatural forces. Life on Earth becomes increasingly strange: on the one hand, many technologies stop working; on the other, people can now gain magical powers by speaking various names of God. A worldwide industry arises to discover new names of God by brute-force search through sequences of syllables. And a powerful agency, the eponymous UNSONG (United Nations Subcommittee on Names of God), is formed to enforce kabbalistic copyright law, hunting down and punishing anyone who speaks divine names without paying licensing fees to the theonomic corporations.
As the story progresses, we learn that eons ago, there was an epic battle in Heaven between Good and Evil, and Evil had the upper hand. But just as all seemed lost, an autistic angel named Uriel reprogrammed the universe to run on math and science rather than on God’s love, as a last-ditch strategy to prevent Satan’s forces from invading the sublunary realm. Molecular biology, the clockwork regularity of physical laws, false evidence for a huge and mindless cosmos—all these were retconned into the world’s underpinnings. Uriel did still need to be occasionally involved, but less as a loving god than as an overworked sysadmin: for example, he descended to Mount Sinai to warn humans never to boil goats in their mothers’ milk, because he discovered that doing so (like the other proscribed activities in the Torah, Uriel’s readme file) triggered bugs in the patchwork of code that was holding the universe together. Now that the sky has cracked, Uriel is forced to issue increasingly desperate patches, and even those will only buy a few decades until his math-and-science-based world stops working entirely, with Satan again triumphant.
Anyway, that’s a tiny part of the setup. Through 72 chapters and 22 interludes, there’s world-building and philosophical debates and long kabbalistic digressions. There are battle sequences (the most striking involves the Lubavitcher Rebbe riding atop a divinely-animated Statue of Liberty like a golem). There’s wordplay and inside jokes—holy of holies are there those—including, notoriously, a sequence of cringe-inducing puns involving whales. But in this story, wordplay isn’t just there for the hell of it: Scott Alexander has built an entire fictional universe that runs on wordplay—one where battles between the great masters, the equivalent of the light-saber fights in Star Wars, are conducted by rearranging letters in the sky to give them new meanings. Scott A. famously claims he’s bad at math (though if you read anything he’s written on statistics or logic puzzles, it’s clear he undersells himself). One could read Unsong as Alexander’s book-length answer to the question: what could it mean for the world to be law-governed but not mathematical? What if the Book of Nature were written in English, or Hebrew, or other human languages, and if the Newtons and Einsteins were those who were most adept with words?
I should confess that for me, the experience of reading Unsong was colored by the knowledge that, in his years of brilliant and prolific writing, lighting up the blogosphere like a comet, the greatest risk Scott Alexander ever took (by his own account) was to defend me. It’s like, imagine that in Elizabethan England, you were placed in the stocks and jeered at by thousands for advocating some unpopular loser cause—like, I dunno, anti-cat-burning or something. And imagine that, when it counted, your most eloquent supporter was a then-obscure poet from Stratford-upon-Avon. You’d be grateful to the poet, of course; you might even become a regular reader of his work, even if it wasn’t good. But if the same poet went on to write Hamlet or Macbeth? It might almost be enough for you to volunteer to be scorned and pilloried all over again, just for the honor of having the Bard divert a rivulet of his creative rapids to protesting on your behalf.
Yes, a tiny part of me had a self-absorbed child’s reaction to Unsong: “could Amanda Marcotte have written this? could Arthur Chu? who better to have in your camp: the ideologues du jour of Twitter and Metafilter, Salon.com and RationalWiki? Or a lone creative genius, someone who can conjure whole worlds into being, as though graced himself with the Shem haMephorash of which he writes?” Then of course I’d catch myself, and think: no, if you want to be in Scott Alexander’s camp, then the only way to do it is to be in nobody’s camp. If two years ago it was morally justified to defend me, then the reasons why have nothing to do with the literary gifts of any of my defenders. And conversely, the least we can do for Unsong is to judge it by what’s on the page, rather than as a soldier in some army fielded by the Gray Tribe.
So in that spirit, let me explain some of what’s wrong with Unsong. That it’s a first novel sometimes shows. It’s brilliant on world-building and arguments and historical tidbits and jokes, epic on puns, and uneven on character and narrative flow. The story jumps around spasmodically in time, so much so that I needed a timeline to keep track of what was happening. Subplots that are still open beget additional subplots ad headacheum, like a string of unmatched left-parentheses. Even more disorienting, the novel changes its mind partway through about its narrative core. Initially, the reader is given a clear sense that this is going to be a story about a young Bay Area kabbalist named Aaron Smith-Teller, his not-quite-girlfriend Ana, and their struggle for supernatural fair-use rights. Soon, though, Aaron and Ana become almost side characters, their battle against UNSONG just one subplot among many, as the focus shifts to the decades-long war between the Comet King, a messianic figure come to rescue humanity, and Thamiel, the Prince of Hell. For the Comet King, even saving the earth from impending doom is too paltry a goal to hold his interest much. As a strict utilitarian and fan of Peter Singer, the Comet King’s singleminded passion is destroying Hell itself, and thereby rescuing the billions of souls who are trapped there for eternity.
Anyway, unlike the Comet King, and unlike a certain other Scott A., I have merely human powers to marshal my time. I also have two kids and a stack of unwritten papers. So let me end this post now. If the post causes just one person to read Unsong who otherwise wouldn’t have, it will be as if I’ve nerdified the entire world.