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Literature / Unsong

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The logo of the United Nations Subcommittee on the Names of God

The timer read 4:33, which is the length of John Cage's famous silent musical piece. 4:33 makes 273 seconds total. -273 is absolute zero in Celsius. John Cage's piece is perfect silence; absolute zero is perfect stillness. In the year 273 AD, the two consuls of Rome were named Tacitus and Placidianus; "Tacitus" is Latin for "silence" and "Placidianus" is Latin for "stillness". 273 is also the gematria of the Greek word eremon, which means "silent" or "still".

None of this is a coincidence because nothing is ever a coincidence.

In 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 crashes into the crystal sphere that surrounds Earth. The logic of the world as we know it falls apart, the Names of God become magical spells, and all of Judeo-Christian theology is suddenly true. The Messiah reads Peter Singer and founds a kingdom in Colorado, The Legions of Hell rise from a lake in Siberia and ally with Henry Kissinger against Soviet Russia, Silicon Valley giants research esoteric Jewish mysticism through brute-force algorithms, and the Unitarian Church leads a secret underground in opposition to the United Nations Subcommittee on the Names of God.

Unsong is an Alternate History Postmodern web-published epic based on a Magic A Is Magic A interpretation of Kabbalah, where metaphors, homophones, and seeming coincidences reveal (and allow control over) the hidden structure of the cosmos. It follows an Ensemble Cast through the fifty years from 1968 (where it diverges from real-world history) to the apocalypse in 2017:

The nature of Unsong's magic system means that trivia, history, linguistics, and narrative have physical significance within the world, leading to a tone reminiscent of Douglas Adams or Neil Gaiman by way of Umberto Eco. It also includes heavy doses of Author Appeal exploration of utilitarian ethics under extreme circumstances, humanist philosophy (including a look at a really disturbing humanist version of Hell), and terrible, terrible puns.

Tropes applying to this series:

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  • After the End: The breaking of the sky might count as an apocalypse in and of itself, but the death of the Comet King left the world — or at least the Untied States — a complete mess. The Midwest is ruled by petty warlords with names like "Paulus the Lawless" and "the Witch-King of Wichita", Hell has established colonies, and there's an ongoing guerrilla war in the Appalachians.
  • Alien Catnip: Holy water has an intoxicating effect on fallen angels, enabling them to fly again, as it brings them closer to God and thus their divine powers.
  • Alien Geometries: The Midwest is challenging to navigate, since the South Dakota landmark Wall Drug has become a black hole-esque attractor — anyone who travels too close to it finds they can no longer travel away from it.
  • All Myths Are True: Well, all Judeo-Christian myths, anyway. A few other bits and pieces of other religions and mythologies do show up in distorted form, however.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Uriel among his fellow angels.
  • Always Lawful Good: Angels, on a deep and fundamental psychological level.

  • An Arm and a Leg: Sohu loses her left hand to an anglerfish.
  • Archangel Uriel: He apparently has the role of cosmic sysop, and has been very busy since humanity broke the sky.
  • Arc Number: The kabbalistically significant numbers 4, 10, 22, and 72.
  • Arc Words: "None of this is a coincidence, because nothing is ever a coincidence." Seen most prominently in the page quote above.
    • Also, "They enslave their children's children who make compromise with sin."
    • "Somebody has to and no one else will."
    • "This is the kabbalah. The rest is just commentary."
    • "A Singer is someone who tries to be good."
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking:
    Then He gets creative. He starts naming all the horrible animals that will come to dwell in Edom. Exactly which ones depends on your preferred translation. The King James Version translates these as unicorns, satyrs, and screech-owls.
    The original Hebrew word translated “screech-owls” is “lilit”, and we may question King James’ judgment. If God starts by promising unicorns and satyrs, screech-owls are going to be something of a let-down.
  • Artificial Human: What Sarah becomes after Gadiriel builds her a body that looks exactly like Sarah Michelle Gellar.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Neil Armstrong, in a very literal sense.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: The Bulletproof Name takes five seconds to pronounce, and stops exactly one bullet before it must be pronounced again.
  • Badass Boast: Several people make them, but the most badass one of all surely comes from the Comet King — while he's speaking to the devil himself, no less.
    Comet King: As God is my witness, the next time we meet face to face I will speak a Name, and you and everything you have created will be excised from the universe forever, and if you say even a single unnecessary word right now I will make it hurt.
    Thamiel: You can't harm me. I am a facet of God.
    Comet King: I will recarve God without that facet.
  • Bad Liar: Sataniel, when he first fell. Fortunately for him, angels are incredibly gullible — they can't even comprehend that lying is a thing.
  • Batman Gambit: Thamiel is the king of this trope. It's one of his favourite devices for getting people to commit sin.
  • BFS: Sigh, the family sword of the Cometspawn.
  • Big Bad: There are three serious candidates for the role: Thamiel, the Other King, and Malia Ngo, the Director of UNSONG.
  • Big Good: The Comet King was seen as this while he was alive.
  • Black Cloak: The standard uniform of the Other King's undead soldiers.
  • Blasphemous Boast: When Nixon sees a broadcast showing what Hell is really like and begins regretting his decision to ally with Thamiel, Kissinger assures him "We did what we had to do. If the good Lord disagrees with me, I will be happy to point out His tactical errors."
  • Blow You Away: The Tempestuous Name has this effect, as tempests are a type of wind.
    Then a gust of wind flew all around her, knocked Malia off her feet. The Tempestuous Name. But how?
  • Book Ends: The Comet King's reign began and ended with a duel with a massively powerful evil supernatural creature — Thamiel at the beginning and the Other King at the end.
  • Broken Angel: "Fallen angels", who are neither demons nor evil — they're angels who have crossed the Despair Event Horizon and lost their ability to fly. Because they can never become cynical enough to cope with the human world, they're plunged into a never-ending cycle of disappointment and despair.
  • Brown Note: "The Broadcast", a documentary about Hell, filmed in Hell, which shows just what those damned to Hell are going to experience. Unlike most examples of this trope, there's very little Take Our Word for It here — just be glad you're only reading about it instead of watching it yourself.
  • Cannot Tell a Joke: Despite his unmatched skill at finding obscure verbal connections, Uriel has an extremely hard time making the leap to pun-based humor.
  • Can't Grow Up: Uriel made Sohu West eternally unaging when she was eight years old.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Thamiel, and demons in general. Among (what are presumably) humans, the Other King ( he's the Comet King Jalaketu, so half-human at least) and Dick Cheney.
  • Catchphrase: The Comet King repeatedly says that he does the things he does because "someone has to, and no one else will."
  • Celibate Hero: Ana, since she's asexual. Also Aaron, who doesn't particularly want to be this, but he's in love with Ana, and... well, see above.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Angels can't speak Aramaic.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Sarah to Aaron. Not only is she furiously jealous of any other girl he pays attention to, she's threatened by any other computer she thinks might be faster, sleeker and more elegant than her as well.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Angels forced to integrate with human society, such as Pirindiel, can seem like this due to their Always Lawful Good nature.
  • Coconut Superpowers: In-Universe example with Ritual Magic. "The sudden appearance of flames would have broken natural law, but there was nothing impossible about five sleep-deprived people in an unusual emotional state seeing the gleam of a chalk line a little differently."
  • Compensating for Something: Being an angel, Samyazaz lacks genitals. That, for reasons he isn't exactly sure of himself, makes him feel bad. Also for reasons he can't quite articulate, building really big, tall, pointy ziggurats makes him feel better.
  • Content Warnings: The interlude chapter "The Broadcast" has one, as well as every other chapter where the horrors of Hell or Thamiel make significant appearances.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Lampshaded and ultimately averted as a trope and invoked as an in-universe event. The universe in which Unsong takes place only exists because those coincidences must happen, because only these coincidences allow it to ultimately be a good universe. As Metatron puts it, the Unsong-verse is in the middle of a "vast waste" where no other universes were created, presumably because one of the many For Want of a Nail events fails to happen in those universes and thus Hell would never be destroyed.
  • Crapsack World: The Legions of Hell have enslaved all of Russia and Canada and are actively working on making sure that everyone everywhere becomes as evil as possible, so as to ensure that they face eternal damnation after they die — said damnation, by the way, being both unspeakably painful and carefully documented so that everyone knows what's waiting for them. Most of western America has fallen to a necromancer who commits war crimes terrible enough that even his hardened mercenaries get uncomfortable. Mexico is a Hive Mind controlled by an Aztec god looking to spread his reign north. The few parts of the world that still have something resembling a regular government are controlled by massive corporations who holds the copyright to the sacred Names of God and by the brutal international organisation devoted to stomping out all resistance, while the politicians nominally in charge range from merely corrupt and incompetent to horrifically and gleefully evil. And all of this is about to get even worse, because the celestial machine that maintains some semblance of natural law and keeping supernatural forces from running unchecked is quickly breaking down. All of this is slightly balanced out by the undeniable existence of divinity and goodness, but even that is either so Stupid Good as to be all but useless or so overpoweringly holy that it will devour you if you get too close to it.
  • Deal with the Devil: An unusual example: President Richard Nixon establishes a strategic alliance with Hell; the latter later becomes a member of the United Nations.
  • Death by Genre Savviness: Dylan Alvarez lives by the narrative trope and eventually dies by the narrative trope. He may or may not have planned it that way.
  • Devil, but No God: Thamiel takes a very active role in worldly affairs. God does not.
  • Disc-One Final Boss: The story initially looks like it's going to be about the heroic singers fighting against the oppressive bureaucracy of UNSONG and its Ambiguously Human leader Malia Ngo. The fact that the story is literally named after it doesn't do anything to offset that impression. However, after the first quarter or so of the story, the stakes rise considerably higher than intellectual property rights and UNSONG fades into the background, to be replaced by the likes of Thamiel, the Other King and the Drug Lord. And in the end, UNSONG turns out to be a Necessary Evil run by a literal Noble Demon.
  • Divided States of America: Now the "Untied States of America" (sic). The release of the Broadcast caused, among other things, the collapse of the American federal government. The United States proper still exists, but controls only the east coast. Independent countries include the California Republic, the Texas Republic, the Salish Free State, and the Oklahoma Ochlocracy. The Midwest is an anarchic land ruled by feudal warlords. The American Southwest and northern Mexico were ruled by the Comet King, and have since been mostly usurped by the Other King.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?:
    • Theonomic corporations (like Countenance, Gogmagog, eLeshon (eBay) and UNSONG are a thinly-veiled allegory of the real-world software industry. The Unitarian choir corresponds to the free software/open-source movement; in particular, Reverend Raymond E. Stevens is named after Eric Steven Raymond (although his character seems to bear more resemblance to Richard Stallman). Kabbalah is mathematics/programming, while klipot is DRM. Archangel Uriel himself references (quite anachronistically) the Gale-Shapley algorithm, a "part_sea function", and Ruby on Rails. Ensouling a computer is basically creating an Artificial Intelligence. Many more parallels like this can be drawn, and the point is driven further by quotations from a Tumblr blog populated with the output of a Markov chain mixing the King James Bible with, among other things, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs.
  • Easy Evangelism: When humans first make contact with angels, the angels turn out to have no concept of lying and also to have never heard of any human religions. Religious leaders immediately take advantage:
    The news sparked a free-for-all among Earth’s religions. Jews, Hindus, Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Muslims – the pattern was always the same. They would land helicopters on a bastion, inform the angels that God had granted them revelations. The angels would get extremely excited and convert en masse and agree to do whatever their new religious leaders wanted.
  • Eldritch Location: Any place with strong Kabbalistic significance seems to turn into one, especially the Panama Canal. Uriel additionally turned Israel into one by creating separate superimposed holy lands for Jews and Muslims, with unpredictable results for anyone else.
  • Empty Chair Memorial: The Comet King's throne stands empty, even as his children continue ruling (what's left of) his kingdom. It's a handy visual reminder of how entirely irreplaceable he was.
  • Equal-Opportunity Evil: Part of Thamiel's pitch to the United Nations is pointing out that unlike other nations, Hell enjoys perfect equality of race, orientation, gender, and creed. Everyone gets horribly tortured for all eternity, without discrimination.
  • Establishing Character Moment: A few characters get them.
    • Uriel is introduced apologizing for the "Groundhog Day" Loop he caused trying to fix the universe and giving every human the ability to play the piano as compensation.
    • Thamiel spends much of his first chapter torturing a little girl.
    • Dylan Alvarez is introduced tricking a magical pendulum that was supposed to trace his location on a map of the Untied States into instead tracking his literal location in the basement below the map.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The captain of the Not A Metaphor is only known as "the captain." Back when he was first mate of the All Your Heart, he was only known as "the first mate." He's actually the Metatron.
  • Everything Is Racist: In the Unsong timeline, Barack Obama wasn't required to prove his humanity before getting elected because the idea was considered racist, even though Clinton and the Bushes had also been subjected to the exact same test.
  • Evil Overlord: The Other King. To a lesser extent, the Drug Lord.
  • Exact Words:
    • Dylan Alvarez is fond of this. When he's involved, it's important to learn the difference between a bomb squad and a bomb removal squad.
    • Thamiel also has his moments, such as when he mentions that he "helps blind children" (that is, he helps to make children blind).
  • Fallen Angel: "Fallen angels" aren't actually this; however, actual demons do show up in Hell.
  • Fluffy Cloud Heaven: Angels are capable of shaping clouds into castles and cities. Uriel lives in a more plain and utilitarian hurricane.
  • Foreshadowing: There are both subtle and heavy-handed examples throughout the story, and fittingly so, given the emphasis on kabbalah as a method of predicting the future from hidden hints in the past.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: The Comet King's children. Jinxiang is Choleric, Sohu is Phlegmatic, Nathanda is Sanguine, which leaves Caelius as Melancholic.
  • Freudian Excuse: The motivation for Dylan's terrorist crusade is that he resents the world for not giving him one of these. He claims that if something, anything, had ever gone seriously wrong in his life, he could have settled down into comfortable mediocrity, but the guilt of being one of the few people in a Crapsack World who never suffered at all drove him to extreme lengths to try to awaken his similarly pampered peers to the real horrors of the world.
  • Functional Magic: There are two broad types of magic in the Unsong universe.
    • Kabbalah is a form of Rule Magic based on the Names of God, each of which is effectively a magical incantation that has a predictable and consistent effect when spoken by a sentient being, or when read from a carefully prepared scroll.
    • Placebomancy, which apparently includes all magical traditions aside from Kabbalah, is a form of Wild Magic that depends on effectively fooling the universe into believing that the practitioner has magic powers.
  • Fun with Acronyms: UNSONG stands for "United Nations Subcommittee On Names of God". The haMephorash is an acronym for the first letter of every chapter and Metatron's explanation of the existence of evil.
  • Fun with Palindromes: Another type of plot-relevant wordplay. When Ana and the All Your Heart cross the Panama Canal, Ana is completely unaffected by any of the nominative shenanigans that incapacitate most of the crew and permanently disappear Lin, because her name is a palindrome, and thus reversing her name has no effect.
  • Gag Censor: In interludes where Richard Nixon appears, profanity is replaced with [expletive deleted]. It goes on to ridiculous lengths at times: in a transcript of him talking with Kissinger about his alliance with Hell, the word "Hell" is censored. The real-life Watergate transcripts did indeed censor "hell", among some other relatively mild profanity, which made it an unintentional example of Censored for Comedy.
  • Genre Savvy: Dylan Alvarez prides himself on this and goes to great lengths to stay on the right side of narrative tropes. In fact, the entire art of placebomancy hinges on bending reality toward the most dramatically satisfying outcomes.
  • God Was My Copilot: The ship “All Your Heart” was built by the Comet King to chase down and catch up to Metatron, Voice of God. He was on the ship all along, serving as the Comet King’s nameless first mate and later becoming the nameless Captain. The purpose of the ship was not to find the Metatron, but rather to show that one is worthy of receiving an answer from him.
  • Golem: Naturally, since this is a story that centers on Jewish mysticism, there are several.
  • "Groundhog Day" Loop: Earth goes through one as part of Uriel's attempts to fix the damage done to the sky, with the same day being repeated three times (although with everyone in the world having Ripple-Effect-Proof Memory).
  • Have You Seen My God?: Most appearances by God in the Bible are apparently the work of Uriel, and Uriel himself is a Deist.
  • He Knows Too Much: Diplomats at a UN-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace conference flip out when Uriel admits that Africans aren't being given souls, because there isn't enough divine light getting through to Earth to keep up with human population growth and Africa is the geographic region with the most suffering. Their reaction is so intense that Uriel panics and blows up the entire city rather than let the secret get out.
  • A Hell of a Time: "The Broadcast" promises that the very worst sinners get less torture in Hell, because Thamiel wants to encourage people who think they're going to be damned anyway to sin even more in the hopes of getting better treatment, rather than sin less — and knowing that people like Hitler, Beria, and Delphine LaLaurie get off relatively easily makes Hell that much worse for everyone else.
  • Hell Seeker: The Other King is actively trying to be so horrifically evil that Thamiel can't deny him entrance into Hell when he dies. Because he's actually the Comet King, trying to get into Hell to destroy it the old-fashioned way after his attempt to storm its gates failed.
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier: Angels can speak every language except Aramaic, so learning to speak Aramaic is useful for hiding things from them. Or for spotting an angel who's impersonating a human.
  • Hive Mind: Eating the extract of peyote cactus makes you part of one, directed by the Drug Lord.
  • Hell: It exists, and is quite literal. To quote Thamiel:
    I want you to know that all of those people who say that Hell is the absence of God, or Hell is a name people give to their suffering on earth, or Hell is other people, or Hell is oblivion, or Hell is some nice place where atheists get to live free from divine tyranny – all of that is wishful thinking. Hell is a place full of fire and demons under the earth where you will be tortured forever. It’s Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • Honor Before Reason: Discussed. Most of the major characters agree on the fact that this trope is the way to go, because "they enslave their children's children who make compromise with sin." However, rather than solving anything, that just raises the question of what is the "honourable" thing to do that you should abandon "reason" for — for instance, is it "honour" to follow the course of love and loyalty and Always Save the Girl and "reason" to perform the cold calculations and look to The Needs of the Many, or is that just a way of rationalising your own selfishness (reason) instead of carrying out a harsh moral duty (honour)?
  • Hope Spot:
    • One of the ways Hell tortures its victims is by providing them with a neverending stream of these.
    • The world had a collective one with the rise of the Comet King, who defeated Thamiel's previously unstoppable army and promised to conquer Hell and repair the universe. And then... he tried to do just that, and failed. At the start of the story he's been dead for many years, and the world is heading steadily towards its end.
  • Hotline: Played with — shortly after the sky is broken, Richard Nixon starts getting calls on the red telephone. Not the actual link to the Kremlin, the plastic prop he keeps on his desk.
  • Husky Russkie: In 1969, Russia is invaded by the Legions of Hell. Most countries would have been taken aback by this, but:
    What a normal country would call getting suddenly invaded by a vastly more powerful adversary who committed unspeakable atrocities in their wake, the Russians just called Tuesday.
  • I Have Many Names: Discovering the many, powerful names of God has been commercialised, and thousands of sweatshops across the world are dedicated to finding and patenting as many as possible.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Aaron. He admits early on that he's with the singers not out of any idealistic zeal but because among them he gets to have some of the importance he lost when he was expelled from college and therefore denied a career in the theonomic industry, and that he'd sell out to the establishment so fast that it'd make their heads spin if they ever showed any indication of being willing to let him back in.
  • I Know Your True Name:
    • Erica pulls off a subverted version of this during the "placebomantic duel" with Malia Ngo — she attacks Malia with the metal nameplate on her desk.
    • The Comet King’s children attempt this on the Other King, but it doesn’t work. They were wrong about who the Other King really was.
  • Incredibly Lame Pun: Wordplay is a central part of uncovering the secrets of reality, and something the lead character and his significant other have spent their lives doing. They really like their puns.
  • In Spite of a Nail: Lots of things turn out like they did in reality in spite of all the crazy stuff that happened; for example, the same people became President of the US. Or at least, what appear to be the same people become President of the US.
  • King Incognito: "Jane" is actually Jinxiang West, daughter of the Comet King.
  • Lame Pun Reaction: Erica has several of these to Aaron and Ana's terrible whale puns.
  • Legions of Hell: Hell is ruled by Thamiel, and populated with fallen angels and creatures created from their corpses. They've invaded and occupied eastern Russia and have a seat in the United Nations.
  • Literal Metaphor: The Drug Lord is a supernatural entity that controls the Hive Mind that you join if you take peyote cactus extract, and the Drug War was a literal war fought between the Untied States of America and the Drug Lord-controlled Mexico.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Turns out to have been the Other King's Start of Darkness. When the Comet King's wife "sells" her soul to Thamiel, it solves his dilemma about how to get damned to Hell on purpose: he stops caring about the rest of the damned, and if becoming the worst Evil Overlord the world has ever seen is what it takes to see her again, well, that's just too bad for the world.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: The entire city of San Francisco is continuously experiencing a connection to the divine mediated by LSD in the water supply.
  • The Magic Comes Back: Apollo 8's collision with the crystal sphere broke reality bad enough that Uriel had to move in personally to fix it. The Names of God can now work miracles, the Devil is now real, and there's something called "placebomancy" that works on weaponizing narrative tropes to convince the universe itself that you ought to win.
    • The Magic Goes Away: At the same time, the old laws of physics no longer work consistently, meaning much of what humanity has built is no longer functional.
  • Magic by Any Other Name: Kabbalah. Probably because "Ritual Magic" is a heavily-regulated thing In-Universe.
  • Magic Versus Science: Science is still around (computers are still being made and used), but the Names of God are effectively magic spells and undeniably real and powerful.
  • Magitek: "You can still run a car on internal combustion, if for some reason you don’t trust the Motive Name."
  • Mass Super-Empowering Event: "Thirty years ago, when the sky cracked, the assortment of hermeticists, Wiccans, and uncool teenagers practicing magic noticed that their spells were starting to actually work."
  • Master of the Mixed Message: Ana Thurmond. On one hand, she refuses to go on a date with Aaron and insists that she isn't his girlfriend or wife. On the other, she had no problem joining him in a Psychic Link ritual which she herself named "kabbalistic marriage" (in a universe which practically runs on Meaningful Name and Clap Your Hands If You Believe, to boot), of which she doesn't hesitate to remind him when he is kidnapped by Jane.
  • Meaningful Name: Goes with the World of Pun. There's a recurring bit of narration where the given meaning of a word is provided, and then the kabbalistic interpretation of the same word is provided, usually derived from the acts of a famous person whose name was similar to the word in question. Names given new meanings in this way include "Teller", "King" (by way of Martin Luther, Jr.), and "Kissinger", among others.
  • The Messiah: The Comet King. Possibly.
  • Milkman Conspiracy: Aaron Smith-Teller belongs to an ancient cabal and a religion that's outlawed in every civilized society on Earth: the Unitarian Universalist Church.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: Uriel will happily delete entire countries from existence if it's necessary to keep the world from crashing. He'll even kill specific humans if they're causing him enough trouble. But he can't bring himself to kill a little girl who can wiggle her ears.
  • Missing Episode: In-Universe, Uriel accidentally forgot to give humanity the Book of Jezuboad, which was meant to be The Torah's Mind Screwdriver chapter.
  • Mindlink Mates / Psychic Link: Played with. The protagonist has this with Ana, but she's asexual and they set one up purely for the side-benefits. She also has a weaker one with Erica, their housemate. Eventually, psychic links proliferate to the point that most of the main characters either have mind links with each other or are linked to someone who has a link with another main character.
  • Multiple-Choice Past: Dylan's stories of his childhood seem to be tailored to whatever narrative he's currently trying to sell.
  • Mundane Utility: All the time. The "Wakening Name" is a Name of God derived from Kabbalah that has much the effect of a cup of coffee, for example.
  • Mystical Hollywood: Hollywood is the way it is due to the Angel of Creativity having elected the area as her temple.

  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Some of the theonomic corporations have relatively reasonable names, like "Countenance". But then there's one called "Gogmagog".
  • Necessarily Evil: Most of the villains would say that they fall under this category. Even Thamiel.
  • Non-Indicative Name: The names given to... well, to the Names of God sometimes describe their effects in a quite oblique manner. For example, the Wrathful Name, which creates nuke-equivalent explosions.
  • No Place for Me There: Uriel's plan to convert the universe from running on divine light to running on logic and the laws of physics eventually erased even him from existence, which he was well aware that it would. He came back along with the other angels and demons once the celestial machine broke, though.
  • Not Completely Useless: The Mortal Name kills anyone who speaks it. As magical spells go, that's pretty useless. Unless of course, you're clever enough to put a row of syllables that are phonetically identical to the Name in a written message that you know one of your enemies will read out loud. Dylan Alvarez is clever enough.
  • Offing the Offspring: There is a prophecy that the Comet King’s children will all die in agony, cursing his name. Killing his own children is the last evil deed the Comet King, in his guise as the Other King, has to do before he will be absolutely certain that he has become evil enough to go to Hell when he dies.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: We never actually do get to see the Comet King laying waste to Hell with the Explicit Name and rescuing all the souls of the damned, but Aaron has a vision of it in the last chapter and it's treated as a certainty that it's going to happen.
  • Omniscient Morality Licence: This, in essence, is the Metatron's answer to the problem of evil. God created the universe with evil in it because he wanted to create the best possible multiverse rather than just one perfect universe, and the best possible multiverse contains all the possible universes with more good than evil, not just the perfect ones with no evil at all. As it happens, our world does not contain more good than evil right now. However, God foresaw the entire history of the universe before creating it, and brought it into being specifically because He knew that it would have more good than bad in it in the end — whereas He refrained from creating a number of similar possible universes because He foresaw that they would end up being more evil than good. And sure enough, while the Unsong universe has been a Crapsack World up to now, by the end of the story it does look like things are about to take a cosmic turn for the better.
  • Our Angels Are Different: Angels live in Fluffy Cloud Heaven and are Always Lawful Good on a deep and fundamental psychological level — they're almost completely incapable of understanding concepts like "deception". Angels who are exposed to the harsh realities of the world eventually lose the ability to fly. On the other hand, they're really good at killing demons with flaming swords. Angels falling after being exposed to humanity eventually became such a problem that the United States government had to establish a "Strategic Angel Reserve" to preserve what few uncorrupted angels were left.
  • Overshadowed by Awesome: Aaron, Ana, and Erica are all fairly smart and capable, and even have a few special abilities that are, if not completely unique to them, then at least not available to a regular person in the Unsong universe. However, given the kind of people they quickly get tangled up with, their role is frequently reduced to keeping their head down, doing as they are told, and trying not to get caught in the crossfire.
  • Parody Magic Spell: Placebomancers can do this for real. “Canis est in culina!”
  • Plant Person: The Drug Lord manifests as a cactus-person.
  • Post-Modern Magik: One Name allows you to teleport, but the situation you end up in is always complementary to the one you left. If you were being accosted by a certain band of hooligans in one bad neighborhood and spoke the Name, you would end up in a different bad neighborhood being accosted by a different band of hooligans. How, then, do you make this name useful? Well, you create a setting that is so specific that when you speak the Name in that setting, you will certainly end up in the only other complementary situation that exists, which is one that you have personally set up. For example, standing in a pentagram with purple Beanie Baby dragons at each corner.
  • Press X to Die: The shortest effective Name of God is the Mortal Name, which kills the speaker. It was the last Name of God to stop working before the crystal sphere cracked, which is why Jewish law forbids saying "Jehovah" out loud.
  • Pungeon Master: It's practically a job requirement for Kabbalists.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Uriel tells Sohu a version of the Talmudic story of Elisha ben Abuyah, also known as "The Other One", a rabbi who saw a boy breaking a Torah law go unpunished while another who followed that same law fell out of a tree and died — and reacted to this injustice by becoming an enemy of the God who allowed it to happen. The present-day Other King is speculated to have once been this rabbi in ancient times.
  • Reality Is Out to Lunch: When the Apollo mission crashed into the crystal sphere, it broke physics, and things were rather weird until Uriel managed to get things fixed enough to stabilize the world in its current state, although most of the higher-level applications of the laws of physics like air travel and internal combustion engines don't work anymore.
  • Reasoning with God: Henry Kissinger assures Richard Nixon that an alliance with hell against communism, despite any celestial opinions, is rational.
    Kissinger: The idea behind the alliance was sound. We did not entirely understand how things stood at the time, but even if we had, I would have made the same suggestion. Brezhnev was getting too strong, especially with the Vietnamese and the South American communist movements. We did what we had to do. If the good Lord disagrees with me, I will be happy to point out His tactical errors.
  • "Reason You Suck" Speech: Malia Ngo delivers one to Dylan as part of her Motive Rant.
    Malia: I am evil. And I am vindictive. And I find that of everyone I have worked with, and all the sob stories I have heard, yours makes me the most annoyed. I was born to do evil. I made peace with my nature and tried to save the world. You had every opportunity to do good, and you squandered it in childish games. I find I cannot forgive you.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: In chapter 20, Uriel is the Blue to Gabriel's Red.
    • He later develops a similar dynamic with Sohu.
  • Ritual Magic: Played With. Kabbalah runs on a combination of this and Words Can Break My Bones, but "ritual magic" is entirely made-up rituals that seem impressive and convince the universe that this is a magic ritual.
  • Russian Reversal: Explicitly in-text a couple of times.
    • Chapter 15 has a few:
      • Ana invokes the "Party can always find you" line when she attempts to find UNSONG's detention facility by getting UNSONG agents to track her down.
      • In America, Mohammed goes to mountain. In Soviet Russia, mountain comes to you. Or whatever.
    • Hell's legions are nonplussed by Russia's willingness to throw its soldiers' lives away. "In Soviet Russia, demons shocked by atrocities of you!"
  • Satan: Notably, Satan and the Devil are two different characters. The Devil is Thamiel, the Left Hand of God and personification of evil. Sataniel was a high-ranking angel whom Thamiel corrupted, and who then deceived a third of the Heavenly Host into following him.
  • Screw Destiny:
    • The Comet King receives a prophecy from the Dividend Monks, stating that all his descendants "would die screaming in horror and agony, cursing their father's name". However, he later tells his daughter Sohu: "You will be a celestial kabbalist. You can stand above prophecy." The trope is ultimately Downplayed, even to the point of Subversion: Sohu still dies, as do her siblings, but she doesn't curse her father's name.
  • Script Swap: Dylan Alvarez hacks Bush's teleprompter to add the name "Sonja Horah" to a list of thank-yous he was delivering, thereby tricking him into speaking the Mortal Name and dying as a result.
    • This also provides an example of a Stealth Pun, because the means of his death is consumption by holy fire, as he speaks to the nation. A Burning Bush indeed.
  • Self-Insert Fic: In-Universe. Sarah mentions that Aaron's hard drive contained stories about him having kinky sex with someone named Buffy Summers.
  • Semantic Superpower: Both Kabbalah and Placebomancy can resemble this at times. How do you open a broken water lock? With sand from the Florida Keys, of course!
  • Shipper on Deck: Sohu is very enthused about the idea of her father and new stepmother becoming genuinely romantically interested in each other, as opposed to just marrying for political reasons.
  • Shock and Awe: Presumably the Fulminant Name used in Chapter 15, as "fulmen" in Latin means "thunderbolt" and "fulminatus" — "[striking] like lightning".
  • Shut Up, Kirk!: Simeon Azore is entirely unmoved by Ana's well-rehearsed "Reason You Suck" Speech against him and the industry he represents. Justified in that none of her arguments are new to him — he's heard them all before, including from his own family members.
  • Signs of Disrepair: When Aaron first meets Ana, she's just stolen two letters from a "Cash for Gold" sign to turn it into "Cash or God" in what she claims is a kabbalistic protest.
  • Signs of the End Times: The crystal sphere around the earth has been cracked, and when it did, things were definitely a little... off. Eagles pecking out the Pope's eyes, unattended babies rolling uphill, that sort of thing.
  • Soapbox Sadie: The Comet King's plan to breed an army of his superhuman children is met by widespread protests, with critics accusing him of trying to create a blonde, blue-eyed master race and of exploiting women for their wombs. The Comet King releases public statements to the effect that one, he's Asian-Indian and thus unlikely to produce any blonde and blue-eyed offspring, and two, being The Messiah and a Universally Beloved Leader, he's already got thousands of women volunteering to bear his children so the protestors' wombs will not be required, thank you all the same. Subverted in that after the birth of his oldest daughter (and learning about the prophecy about his children’s fate to die cursing his name), the Comet King decides that fathering children as a means to an end is morally abhorrent, making the protestors Right for the Wrong Reasons.
  • Spot the Imposter: Made extra hard because the possible imposter can read minds.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Sarah is obsessed with Aaron.
  • Take That!: In "Cantors and Singers", Aaron explains that the kabbalistic meaning of "singer" is "one who tries to be good". Later in "War and Peace", he explains that the kabbalistic meaning of "kiss" is "to betray divinity". "The yetzer ha-tov, the inclination to do good in every one of us, is divine in origin. When we stifle it, we betray divinity. [...] So somebody who betrays the divine urge toward goodness inside himself again and again, playing Judas so many times that his own yetzer ha-tov withers and dies – such a person might have a name like -"
  • Technology Erasure Event: As the Divine Machine suffers malfunction after malfunction, the archangel Uriel has to gradually turn off various concepts, including the Internet and airplanes.
  • Thanatos Gambit: Robin West, the Comet King’s wife, sold her soul to Thamiel in exchange for... nothing. After the Comet King failed to reform Hell while still alive, she wanted to go to Hell herself to inspire the Comet King to find a way to save her. It worked. The Comet King couldn’t be sure he’d go to hell “naturally” as long as he only had good reasons for doing evil deeds — but being willing to hurt others for his wife’s sake gave him an “evil” motivation for being evil, and once he got to Hell he could then reform it anyway.
  • Theory of Narrative Causality: Placebomancy is all about this.
  • There Are No Coincidences: The work's overriding ethos; see Arc Words
  • Too Spicy for Yog-Sothoth:
    • The Comet King single-handedly won the Drug War by taking peyote cactus himself and convincing the Drug Lord that he really, really didn't want the Comet King inside the Hive Mind. Twenty years later, Aaron, Ana, and Jinxiang West do it to him again.
    • Hell had difficulty taking over the Soviet Union, because the Russian government's willingness to throw away its own citizens' lives to defend its territory was so fanatical, even the demons attacking them were shocked.
  • Underdogs Never Lose: "Now an entire guild of people who prided themselves on remaining on the right side of narrative tropes had to deal with a devilishly handsome rebel with a cause who had sworn to dismantle their entrenched oppressive bureaucracy with fire and sword."
  • Unexpectedly Real Magic: Chapter 8:
    Thirty years ago, when the sky cracked, the assortment of hermeticists, Wiccans, and uncool teenagers practicing magic noticed that their spells were starting to actually work. Never unambiguously. But the perfectly possible things they asked of their magic were starting to happen more often than chance. Of course they ran around telling everybody, and some people did controlled experiments, and finally people started to believe them. A hundred different schools of witches and warlocks went around curing people's illnesses and blessing sea voyages and helping people find their true loves.
  • United Nations Is a Superpower: At the very least, the UN is responsible for policing the use of Names.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Aaron goes on at great length about how coincidences don't exist and there are hidden meanings in everything. It's heavily implied and eventually confirmed by God himself that he's wrong, and his confirmation bias blinds him to coincidences all around him.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Ana literally says "euphemism" in place of just about every swear word.
  • Villains Blend in Better: In general, demons are better at understanding and interacting with humans than angels are.
  • Weaponized Landmark: During Hell's invasion of the collapsing United States, Rabbi Schneerson saves New York by transforming the Statue of Liberty into a Golem.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: The Comet King was one, and the Cometspawn are trying to take over where he left off. Aaron aspires to be one. Dylan is certainly one. On a much larger scale, so is Uriel. So, as it turns out, is Malia Ngo. And Simeon Azore. And freaking Thamiel. Really, it's a running theme of the story that everyone thinks that they're the unsung hero of the story, simply doing what must be done, and that everything they do will be worth it in the end. The ending implies that most of them, if not all, were quite right — everything all of them did was part of God's plan from the start.
  • Whatevermancy: In-Universe example: Robert Anton Wilson writes a book called Placebomancer! about Ritual Magic and the term catches on.
  • What Do You Mean, It's Not Didactic?: Pervasively so, as the author explains.
  • Words Can Break My Bones: Kabbalah.
  • World of Pun: Quite literally. One effect of nothing ever being a coincidence is that puns are absolutely vital to the study of Kabbalah.
  • Wound That Will Not Heal: The Other King is said to have received one in his battle with the Comet King.
  • You Are Worth Hell: The Comet King is actively trying to be damned to Hell so he can rescue his wife from her eternal torment. Subverted in that once he's in, he's planning to use the Explicit Name to make Hell a lot nicer.