Unsong Review

Meh.
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Just kidding. Spoilers follow, naturally – read it first here. And opinions. So many opinions. On the whole, I liked it a fair bit – hey, I read the whole thing! – but not enough to not try to take apart the flaws. Essentially, I’m trying to explain why Thing Is Good but I Don’t Like Thing (a state of affairs which is, for better or worse, much more common than the inverse).

The thing – one of the The Things – about serial web fiction is, it’s hard to tell how compelling it is. You read the new content when it appears, and if you’re left desperate for more – well, that feeling burns itself out pretty quickly. Did Unsong feel unspecial because I read it serially? It’s pretty plausible. There’s very little chance I’d have guessed at any of the Reveals without reading other people’s comments, which would have made them actual surprises, so maybe reading the comments made the story seem worse. Then again, the story would also have been fairly opaque to me and much less impressive without those commenters’ knowledge. Maybe I’d have liked it more if I read it all at once.

What else could it be? Well, Scott struggles with action. This is unfair because I compare every prose action sequence to the best ones in Fine Structure, and predictably everything keeps losing out in this comparison. But still, in Unsong, things just sort of happen. Like so:

Thamiel touched both sets of threads. AARON shifted vowels, became RUIN. From the whistling of the wind he drew an S, added it to CHAI, shifted it into CHAOS. Chaos and ruin. The carefully arranged threads of symbols that made up Uriel’s machine began crumbling, falling apart in the wind.

Uriel drew water from the sea in a great waterspout. The Semitic pictograph for “water” was the origin of the Hebrew letter mem. He turned the water into an M, then grabbed the CH from CHAOS and the n from RUIN, made MACHINE. The remaining letters R and S he stuck together, slashed at the S until it hardened and became a Z. RZ. RAZ. Secrets. Through the angel Raziel, the secrets of kabbalah in particular. A machine of kabbalistic secrets. His machinery stopped crumbling, starting putting itself together, glowing with renewed light.

Thusly. It’s not bad at all, but the combination of word-based magic and the need to explain everything makes it drag out. Even in the last fight, it still has to explain what each iteration of the combat is doing, because it’s not like Harry Potter where once you know what a particular (short! snappy! evocative! stupid cod latin, but!) incantation does, it can be used freely. “The $Polysyllabic_Word Name” doesn’t have much force because of how it has to take the voice out of the sentence (‘they spoke the Name’ rather than ‘”Name!,” they said’). The Names themselves are too long to use in the text, of course. The next-level kabbalistic wordplay fights have amazing potential imagery but it struggles to be done justice in written word (animated adaptation when…?).

That actually might need some explanation. One can imagine the metaphorical twisting of one thing into another whose representation is similar, but descriptions of that shift are inevitably a bit flat. A book is a dance between what the writer makes clear and the space the reader explores by imagination, and I think this leaves too much space unfilled. Obviously that’s purely a matter of personal taste, but still. Opinions abound.

Also, despite my love of JRPGs, I never quite understood why they took turns in kabbalistic wordplay fights. I guess it just looks that way because every chain of bizarre logic works like a single action, no matter how long it is? Still.

I don’t think I can criticise the characterisation. There are a lot of strongly-voiced, deeply-varied characters, and they all felt pretty solid and real. Everyone loves Uriel because who could not love a kilometers-tall autistic archangel, and it’s hard not to appreciate Jalaketu’s Spiral King imitation passion or Dylan’s comic villainy, but on the whole something seemed to be missing. It’s not that the characters don’t like each other – clearly they do – but that it sort of felt hard to appreciate that fact? Uriel and Sohu did the best at this by far.

Sometimes it seemed like the story had missed itself. Here:

I thought of the Comet King. Who in one sense had just confessed to striking the greatest such compromise [with sin] of all time. But who in another sense might have been the only person in history never to compromise with sin at all.

This is a definitely interesting puzzle! What does it even mean to “compromise with sin,” in the end? Well, that’s the question of metaethics, isn’t it? A conclusive answer would be more than a bit much to expect, but when your Comet King is somewhere between Homura and Stalin on the “did absolutely nothing wrong” scale, some kind of deeper analysis is missing somewhere. It’s also a bit hard to tell whether the conditions that damn a soul are a well-kept storytelling secret or a deus ex machina (since they don’t get explained until the point where they are very conveniently exactly what they need to be for the story to conclude happily), but maybe that’s just my distaste for virtue ethics talking.

Other times it seemed like it had found its theme, but the theme sucked. When I first criticized Scott’s Answer to Job, I said:

This may make very little sense to anyone except myself, but it just seems like there’s not much difference between “intelligent designer creates every universe that meets minimum moral standards, we should expect to be near the minimum” and “unintelligent process creates every universe that meets minimum mathematical standards, we should expect to be among the universes that will only just barely support life while still having a simple mathematical structure,” except that the latter doesn’t need any intelligence.

And then the Comet King also said:

People always say God isn’t a person, but then what is He? To me, He’s always been a sort of logical necessity. The necessity for everything in the cosmos to be as good as possible.

Well. Yeah, that’s another way of putting it. A vast multiverse is just too powerful an explanatory tool, even worse in its own way way than “it was all a dream or computer simulation.” I guess the point would be that the weakness of the theodicy cancels out the weakness of the story? Like, there’s a reason there’s a big multiverse, and that reason is also the reason there’s a story? That sounds like it’s from the same “cute, but no” class of answers as turning in a blank paper for the question “what is the Tao?”

That kind of leads into the last point. I love it when a piece of fiction gambles on its own brilliance and wins. Like this:
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See? It would be much less funny if it hadn’t come true after the fact. There are other, deeper examples later in the game (but they are spoilers). And Unsong makes just such a deep gamble with “placebomancy,” the magic of things working out like a story, in a dramatically satisfying fashion. This would be great and could prop up the whole story with a whole extra layer of narrative fabric, but for things not really working out in a dramatically satisfying fashion. It’s like any other magic trick: if you just make a rabbit appear, well, impressive. If you tell everyone you’re going to make a rabbit appear, show them the empty hat, tap firmly on the table, roll up your sleeves, and then make a rabbit appear? That’s magic. But if you put on the full show, and then the rabbit doesn’t appear? Ouch. Though I should again acknowledge that the rabbit here is a metaphor for a personal opinion, not a universally agreed upon fact of the matter like actual conjurers’ rabbits are.

Oh, and whale puns. Not my cup of tea. Not actively unpleasant, just another thing that’s probably better in a non-written format, where the double meaning is less immediately obvious. The trouble is the knock-on effects: it makes Aaron and Ana’s relationship fall a bit flat, then that weakens the drama of Aaron’s encounter with Samyazaz, and that by analogy weakens the drama of the Comet King’s relationship with Robin, and so forth. As with the gamble above, there’s a delicate structuring to Unsong that can just totally fail to become if the foundation is lost.

To summarise, Unsong reminds me a lot of Tom Holt’s stuff – the same sort of imaginative structure and groan-worthy humour, that kind of thing. And while neither are bad reads, Good Omens they ain’t.

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Unsong Review

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