Unsong of unsongs

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.

34 Responses to “Unsong of unsongs”

  1. Pete Says:

    Never heard of it before, ordering it n.. Wait, it’s free, gratis, online at the link you posted? Consider the world nerdified 🙂

  2. Metatron Says:

    Whale said.

  3. Itai Bar-Natan Says:

    “could Amanda Marcotte have written this? could Arthur Chu?”

    I want to mention that the first time I heard of Arthur Chu was not in his arguments with the rationalist community, and not even in his success at Jeopardy, but rather as the voice-actor for the web serial Erfworld, which I recommend.

  4. Rational Feed – deluks917 Says:

    […] Unsong of Songs by Scott Aaronson – Aaronson went to the Unsong wrap party. A quick review of Unsong. Aaronson talks about how Scott Alexander defended him with untitled. […]

  5. John Sidles Says:

    Fans of Unsong will perceive a closely parallel worldview in Yoon Ha Lee‘s Hugo-nominated, Nebula-nominated SF novel NineFox Gambit (2016).

    Here “closely parallel” does not imply any form of duplication between Unsong and NineFox, but rather implies that a central theme of both works is that it’s not easy to ground a heavenly life in rational mathematical principles … a theme in which many readers of Shtetl Optimized (including me) take an interest.

    From a high-rated GoodReads review of NineFox Gambit:

    The ultimate power in the [NineFox] universe is pure mathematics. An understanding of number theory has to be agreed on and followed by everyone in the society, right down to the yearly calendar and how many days in a week.

    Within this mathematic “orthodoxy” the laws of physics work as you would expect, and all is right in the cosmos. But from time to time, mathematical heresies arise, like adding a day to the week or computing with a different base number, and the whole fabric of physics starts to warp.

    It helps that Yoon Ha Lee has a math degree from Stanford.

    The upshot is, that Unsong’s math foundations are kabbalistic, while NineFox’s math foundations are calendrical; from these compatible starting points both works read naturally as exercises in the practical problems that are associated to rationalistic mind-melding heaven-construction.

    Importantly, neither Unsong nor NineFox is finished, and so we can hope for sequels from both authors! 🙂

    — — —

    PS: there’s no shortage of writers in my extended family, and so a lot of the more unusual fiction that I end up reading — including NineFox Gambit — has been recommended to me by them.

  6. John Says:

    Can you link to an epub/Amazon page?

  7. Scott Says:

    Metatron #2:

      Whale said.

    That’s extremely large of you.

  8. Scott Says:

    John: I linked to the website where you can read the entire book for free. I don’t believe a printed version exists yet.

  9. John Sidles Says:

    Yes, Unsong’s popularity is no Fluke! 🙂

  10. Anonymous Says:

    And imagine that, when it counted, your most eloquent supporter was a then-obscure poet from Stratford-upon-Avon…

    Like a latter-day Prometheus, Google brought a half-century of insights down from Mount Academic CS, and thereby changed life for the better here in our sublunary realm.

    Today is the 70th birthday of Donald E. Knuth: Priest of Programming, Titan of Typesetting, Monarch of MMIX, intellectual heir to Turing and von Neumann, greatest living computer scientist by almost-universal assent …

    Is there anyone Scott Aaronson likes such that it’d suffice for him to call them ‘decent’ without singing over-the-top praises to them and/or comparing them to some kind of mythical figure?

  11. Scott Says:

    Anonymous #10: Selection bias. If I merely thought something was decent, as opposed to unusually good or bad, what normally would be my motivation to blog about it at all? 🙂

  12. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Hey Scott, your blog software uses IP address to remember people’s login names. Probably should use cookies. I’m in a Starbucks and this Joshua Zelinsky guys name auto-filled for me. I am not Joshua Zelnisky.

  13. asdf Says:

    Wow, this book looks cool, but I don’t see a way to download it all at once. Any idea?

    Other Scott A’s version of the Blue Eyed Islanders story is wonderful:

    http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/10/15/it-was-you-who-made-my-blue-eyes-blue/

  14. anonymous Says:

    asdf: I agree! We even talked about the blue eyed islander problem at the Unsong wrap party!

    If you know how to program you can write a scraper to download the blog and convert it to an ebook. I’ve done this before, it usually takes an hour or two to get right.

    You could also see if there are any tools to convert the rss feed to an ebook. https://www.google.com/search?client=ms-android-google&ei=TygiWfTBKabYjwSc5KzgCw&q=convert+rss+feed+to+ebook

  15. a Says:

    Is this a linear time sort?

    For every element x in an array, ‘simultaneously’ start a new program that:

    Sleeps for x seconds
    Prints out x

    needs runs in size(list) + O(max(list)) time. size(list) cannot be avoided to read input and allocate resources. If the scaling of clock is flexible then this truly is size(list) + O(1) algorithm.

  16. Peter Boyland Says:

    a #15:

    If you sum up the amount of work being done by each processor, you get O(n^2) work. It is O(n) span, but there are sorting algorithms with O(log^2 n) span I think, so that’s not a big achievement.

    Your clock-scaling thing also doesn’t work – there is a minimum time a program can wait, so the actual real time scaling doesn’t make a difference.

  17. Aviti Says:

    Thanks Scott A. for pointing to Scott A.’s Unsong. It will be my undertaking to read it in full.

  18. Jochen Says:

    A worldwide industry arises to discover new names of God by brute-force search through sequences of syllables.

    This idea is basically at the heart of Ted Chiang’s Seventy-Two Letters: golem-like automata, powering an entirely different kind of industrial revolution, can be animated by inscribing them with various names of God, found exactly as above by brute-force combinatorial searches. I’ll have to have a look where Scott Alexander goes with it!

  19. Not Jochen Says:

    Oops — I can see this (including an email address for “Jochen”):

    Jochen Says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    Comment #17 May 22nd, 2017 at 7:17 am

    [... Jochen's in-moderation
    comment follows ... ]

    However, I am not “Jochen”

  20. jonas Says:

    Scott, your recommendation has pushed me to read Undong. From what I’ve seen before, it was worth. Thank you.

  21. Ashley Says:

    “What if the Book of Nature were written in English, or Hebrew, or other human languages…”

    But if the human language used was used in a precise manner so as not to get ambiguous laws, wouldn’t you get something that could be classified as math already? (How would one define math, for that matter?) This point makes me curious enough to read Unsong.

  22. Daniel Bilar Says:

    1) “what could it mean for the world to be law-governed but not mathematical? ”

    2) “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?”

    to 1) Haim Vital’s exposition “Etz Chaim” (“Tree of Life”) on the Lurianic Kabbalah system (roughly QFD equivalent in domain of spiritual worlds) explains that. It’s a mistake to call this mysticism, it’s a more precise behind-the-scenes science than almost anyone realizes.

    to 2) This idea and as far as I can tell major premises of Unsong are described by the Sefer Yetzirah (attributed to Avraham Avinu)

    I should note that like its physical counterparts you need a lot of background, a kosher teacher, years of devotion and practice as a devout Jew to be able to access and assimilate the ideas into a hermeneutical framework where you know the whole to situate the details and the details to situation into the whole.

    Start here if you like http://www.azamra.org/Kabbalah/starting.htm

    Daniel

  23. Scott Says:

    Daniel Bilar: It’s hardly a coincidence if major premises of Unsong appeared earlier in Lurianic Kabbalah, because the latter is what Scott Alexander spent months researching in preparation for writing the book. While it’s many other things as well, one thing Unsong is, is an attempt to make some of the ideas of kabbalah accessible to general math/CS/physics nerds who don’t have the time or opportunity to study for years, and who indeed need not be Jewish, or religious at all. This Alexander achieves through the device of presenting the archangel Uriel as a cosmic programmer and sysadmin—which leads to a great deal of nerd humor that at least I appreciated! Of course I’m hardly an expert on kabbalah—I barely remember most of what I learned in Hebrew day school!—so no doubt many errors escaped my notice. But in general, and in the fields where I do have some expertise (computational complexity, quantum computing, etc.), I feel like someone has to put in the effort to popularize abstruse bodies of knowledge, and indeed that the effort to do so intelligently is a high calling.

  24. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Daniel Bilar #22

    “This idea and as far as I can tell major premises of Unsong are described by the Sefer Yetzirah (attributed to Avraham Avinu)”

    The grammar, style and language of Sefer Yetzirah places it in age sometime after the rebuilding of the Temple. Even if Abraham is a historically figure, there’s no way it actually dates to being contemporary with Abraham.

  25. Daniel Bilar Says:

    Joshua: I am speaking from an orthodox Jewish position. Our oral tradition attributes it to Avraham. This does not contradict what you state, a substantial (arguably the main keys) to the Torah were only given orally for a long time. It is possible that the SY teachings were written down much later and indeed, this is attributed to Rabbi Akiva.

    See eg http://www.inner.org/parshah/genesis/lech_lecha/E68-0205.php

    “Lech Lecha: Abraham and the Wisdom of the Book of Formation
    231 Gates

    God created the world with the holy language, Hebrew. Sefer Yetizrah (The Book of Formation), the very first Kabbalistic text, describes this process and mentions that gates—two letter combinations of Hebrew letters—are a central ingredient in the construction of the universe. Because Hebrew has 22 letters, there are 462 or “231 front and back,” possibilities for combining two different letters. One of the most beautiful permutations of the word “Israel,” ישראל , is יש רלא , which literally means “there exist 231,” alluding to these 231 gates.

    Traditionally, the wisdom of Sefer Yetzirah is attributed to Abraham. The book itself was put into its final form in the Second Temple period, a task attributed to Rabbi Akiva, the revealer of Kabbalistic wisdom in that period and the Rebbe of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.”

  26. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Daniel Bilar #25,

    There’s no deep halachic or other reason to accept that claim. This sort of claim is functionally similar to claims that Unetanneh Tokef is due to Rav Amnon of Mainz, although in this case the unnecessary and unsubstantiated age goes in the other direction. (Of course, I’ve met at least one person who asserted that denying the story of Rav Amnon amounted to kefirah, but at that point was isn’t even trying to really understand the history of Jewish thought and liturgy.)

  27. John Sidles Says:

    Joshua Zelinsky speaks highly (circa comment #26) of “understanding the history of Jewish thought and liturgy.”

    An illuminating survey of the Kabbalic elements of Jewish history (for me at least) has been Abba Hillel Silver‘s PhD thesis A history of Messianic Speculation in Israel from the First through the Seventeenth Centuries (1927, text on-line here, PDF on-line here).

    Unsong builds directly upon the Kabbalic elements of Judaic messianic speculation that Rabbi Silver’s thesis vividly describes.

    Introduction (excerpts)  The pathetic eagerness to read the riddle of Redemption and to discover the exact hour of the Messiah’s advent … proceeded with varying intensity clear down the ages. At times it seems to be the idle speculation of leisure minds, intrigued by the mystery; at other times it is the search of people in great tribulation. … Great political changes, boding weal or woe, accelerated the tempo of expectancy. … The rich fancy of the people, stirred by the impact of these great events, sought to find in them intimations of the Great Fulfillment. …

    The Sixteen Century (p. 137)  Isaac Luria (1534-1572), father of modern “practical” Kabbala, left none of his teachings in writing, so that we have no record of his Messianic calculations. It is clear, however, from the legends which have survived him that he entertained the hope that the year 1575 was the appointed year for the Redemption, and that perhaps he himself would bring it about. He is quoted as having declared that, although the earlier Kabbalists like Nabmanides and Nehunia ben Ha-Kanah did not reveal anything of the science of parzufim (physiognomy), it is permitted to do so now for the day of the Messiah is near at hand.

    The hundreds of utterly failed Messianic prophesies that Silver scrupulously documents — prophesies inferred by methods both Kabbalistic and otherwise — afford comfort chiefly to the not-inconsiderable cohort of people, from many religions and none, who heretically foresee, chiefly upon scientific and rational grounds, that the Messiah’s most plausible date of arrival, will be upon the advent of a humanist era in which his/her services are scarcely required! 🙂

    Assuming that the humanists are correct, nonetheless Kabbalic cognition still is eminently worthy of study. Here illumination is provided by Reuben Hersh and Vera John-Steiner’s recent book Loving and Hating Mathematics: Challenging the Myths of Mathematical Life (2010).

    In particular, chapters 2,3, and 4 of Hersh and John-Steiner’s text sympathetically survey mathematics as, respectively, a foundation for “culture”, “solace”, and “addiction” — these three traits being prominently characteristic of mathematical cognition in general, and Kabbalic practice in particular.

  28. Aula Says:

    Scott #23:

    I feel like someone has to put in the effort to popularize abstruse bodies of knowledge, and indeed that the effort to do so intelligently is a high calling.

    Let me see… Alchemy should qualify as an abstruse body of knowledge, and it certainly seems to be possible to popularize it intelligently, but I think that describing that particular effort as a “high calling” would be utterly absurd. So, unless you can come up with something that separates kabbalah and alchemy, I don’t find that argument very convincing.

  29. Scott Says:

    Aula: Have you read Unsong? Before reading it I was closer to your position. But Unsong makes one hell (har, har) of a case, from one of the Internet’s leading rationalists, that even if we agree that kabbalah is no better-founded than alchemy, there’s still a great deal of broader interest that can be mined from it.

    (Then again, if someone wrote an Unsong based around alchemy, I’d probably end up feeling that way about alchemy as well…)

  30. Sniffnoy Says:

    I vaguely recall that “The Trumpeter of Krakow” did some interesting things with alchemy, although I don’t believe it was the main focus of the book… I read it as a kid though and can’t claim to remember it well.

  31. Sniffnoy Says:

    Also, y’know, the alchemy didn’t work, because, I mean, it’s a historical novel, not a fantasy about an alternate universe where alchemy works. But I remember it managing to make alchemy more interesting than anything else I’d read involving it…

  32. Aula Says:

    Scott #29: I have reached the end of book 1 of Unsong; since reading the rest will probably take me several more days, I’ll reply now. So far Unsong has been pretty much what I expected based on reading some of the other Scott A.’s short stories on Slate Star Codex: some parts I found highly entertaining, while other parts made me want to say “meh” repeatedly (and not just because I have a habit of vocalizing any strange names I read). As far as the kabbalistic aspect of Unsong goes, I think it’s just an ordinary case of scifi/fantasy worldbuilding; there’s nothing specifically wrong with it, but it doesn’t really stand out either. And that is likely to be a problem for the “broader interest” thing you mention; people who don’t have any religious or cultural reason to learn about kabbalah, but do have an interest in books like Unsong, are almost certainly people who have seen it all done before in umpteen thousand other stories, so they might not be all that impressed by it.

  33. Alice Says:

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I just want to to offer some honest comments (like I am prone to do when I read stories – I apologize for the length):

    I skipped some chapters in-between because of the following reasons. Overall I am not satisfied, and do not feel more interested or sympathetic to the kabbalah or Jewish culture as portrayed. I expected to see much more computer science from a story recommended by Scott-freaking-Aaronson!

    But on a deeper level, I expected some deeply scientific approach to the divine or magical, where humans could mechanically understand and use them to change their fate for the better that does not primarily depend on beliefs. Not something advertised as a simulation/computational world managed by sysadmins but turn out to depend on emotions, culture-specific scripts and philosophies. Maybe it feels like home to some people, but I doubt whether it actually puts kabbalah in a good light to people from different cultural traditions, or to highly secular people (and I fit into both of these categories). Specific reasons:

    1) I find the sysadmin aspect of the story unconvincing. Being into simulation games, I strongly believe that the best thing about stories based on a simulation-like worlds is making the rules understandable and exploitable to readers. But I don’t feel the presence of underlying rules in the story, and caught no glimpse of how the various areas and levels of reality interact. In justifying obviously religious rules like “don’t boil a goat in its mother’s milk” with out-of-the-blue glitches that have no pattern, it does not feel like there’s actually an understandable consistent simulation there, but that the author is enforcing rules that he wants, whenever he wants. It feels like a defense or apology to kabbalah that picks whatever evidence is convenient, not an honest exposition to make the reader know how it works – OK, I know stories can’t follow everything to logical conclusions, but many stories do better, like “the 72 Letters” mentioned above.

    2) The underlying philosophy is unpalatable to me and possibly many other readers of this blog. I may have skipped over many things, but the notion that God is a force that optimizes everything for perfection and joy sounds incredibly …illogical, or at least dangerous and inhumane if you think it through, especially considering what happened in the story (don’t wanna spoil it and scar random readers), and does not make that school of faith attractive to outsiders. Also, immortal souls that actually goes to heaven and hell forever (unavoidably and provably) amounts to total bankruptcy of the scientific enterprise and rationality and even all human values, and as far as I know, successful and logical fantasy stories all avoid this point. It just ruins the logical/computational premise and make the setting instantly alienating to non-believers. The author made a point of analyzing and resolving this issue, but still, it turns out unscientific and emphasizes one faith above other interesting ideas about the divine and the spirit/afterlife, and in the end the resolution is not by some clever scientific/mechanical approach, but an emotional and religious one, related to the points above.

    I don’t know how many of your readers belong to the Jewish culture, and you may think I’m not one of “your own kind” and my concerns are of little importance. But if you honestly expect this story to introduce your culture and faith to nerds in general, and not just Jewish nerds, you may be doing many a disservice.

  34. Scott Says:

    Alice #33: Scott Alexander is an atheist, and Unsong is sacrilegious on more levels than I can list in the space of this comment. Whatever else the novel is doing, it’s clearly not proselytizing Judaism, at least not a Judaism that any rabbi in the world would recognize as such. Like, it’s totally fine if the novel didn’t do it for you—to each her own. And it’s also fine if you have no particular interest in Jewish history or culture (yes, even while reading a blog called Shtetl-Optimized). Just don’t conflate these two different apathies! 🙂

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