Unsong: Celestial spheres and whale puns

Unsong by Scott AlexanderUnsong by Scott AlexanderUnsong by Scott Alexander

Sometimes, you pick up a book expecting to know what’s in it, and expecting that you’ll like it, and your expectations are met and everyone goes home happy. This scenario is at least good, often excellent, sometimes superlative, and by this time in my book-reading life that’s usually what I get.

But there’s a peculiar kind of pleasure in picking up a book which you have no expectations for, good or bad, putting it down after the first chapter, and saying, “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I think I like it.”

Scott Alexander’s Unsong (2017) fell into that category for me, and that’s a big part of what makes it one of my favorite books this year.

Unsong is set in a world which was, until the Apollo moon landing, indistinguishable from our own — but when Neil Armstrong quoted the Bible on the moon, he cracked the celestial sphere containing the moon and upset the archangel Uriel’s carefully contrived mathematical rendering of the sublunary world, letting in a flood of divine light from the higher dimensions of existence.

This causes a lot of problems, especially for Uriel, but it creates some interesting opportunities. For Thamiel, the maleficent aspect of God, it means he can lead his diabolic forces out of Hell and begin his conquest of the world. For the Comet King, the half-angel ruler of Colorado, it meant the chance to defeat Thamiel and Evil once and for all and bring about the salvation of the world. (Unfortunately, the Comet King failed in his first attempt and hasn’t been seen for years.) And for those more interested in just making a profit, speaking specific names of God now allows direct manipulation of reality. Clever people have other immediately ways to monetize the use of the names of God, other clever people resent this co-opting of the names of God for commercial purposes, and the end result is UNSONG — a United Nations organization which monitors the use of the names of God.

If you get the feeling there’s a lot going on here, you are absolutely right — and there’s a lot more where that came from.

Unsong is a first novel, and is published as a web serial, and has some of the weaknesses one would expect for a first novel in that format; the pacing isn’t always even, and the interplay of the major story arcs (there are at least three) isn’t always handled smoothly. There’s a lot of complexity here, and a lot of deep questions addressed, but this is a book where we spend one chapter getting a video tour of Hell, which is hellish, and another chapter on how the lyrics of American Pie are a vision of the apocalypse. So, expect shifts in tone. (I read the book as it came out, week by week, so I noticed this less than a reader might reading the whole thing straight through.) Alexander also manages to cache a lot of whale puns throughout the book, (the Orca the Covenant, anyone?) which is more relevant than you might think for their being whale puns.

So. Unsong. It’s pretty unusual, and is not for everyone — but it’s free online and you will almost certainly know if it’s for you within a chapter or two, so it’s easy to test the waters. I venture to guess that those who like it will like it a lot. I did.


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Unbeknownst to all, including himself, NATHAN OKERLUND has been preparing for the role of "reviewer of fantasy novels" since he first read Watership Down thirty-odd years ago. He is especially fond of Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Steven Brust, Neil Gaiman, and books that have to be read twice to be understood at all, but will happily read anything which does not actually attempt to escape the nightstand. When not occupied with the fantastic he takes brains apart to see how they work, as a postdoctoral fellow studying neurodegeneration, and supports his wife and daughter in their daily heroics.

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