Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Unsong by Scott Alexander

Unsong is based on a really compelling concept. As it turns out, the Torah is literally true. God is real, angels and demons literally control the fate of the world. Kaballah is indeed the fundamental way that the universe works. Some people continue to irrationally cling to their old beliefs (Science, Pluralism) despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Earth is the center of the Universe, and when Apollo 11 launched, it crashed into the firmament and left a gaping hole in it.

Alexander's novel excels at world building. The back story to how the world came to be is fascinating. Unsong is full of gullible archangels and clever Kaballists-programmers, San Francisco is Jerusalem, magical incantations possess true powers and a righteous police force enforces their usage. These are all super creative components of the complex universe conjured from thin air.

Unfortunately, despite the awesome concept, Unsong is not well executed. The storyline is dull, the characters all speak in one voice, the pacing is off, the interludes break the flow of the story, and the puns get annoying fast. This is in stark contrast with Ted Chiang's works, which are great conceptually and share some of the same fascinating themes (Tower of Babel, Hell is the absence of God, the one about golems). The difference is that Chiang’s stories are well crafted and come together as coherent wholes. They are emotionally driven, memorable, well paced, and appropriate in length.

I got through half of the book over the last few months, in small chunks because Eliana is so small, often having to put the book down out of annoyance. Today I have decided to declare bankruptcy. I am not invested in the story, I don't care about the characters, and I don't care what happens in the end. Perhaps one day, if it is aggressively edited, I will give it another chance.