Ada Palmer’s debut novel Too Like the Lightning (2016) made a big impact when it came out five years ago, generating plenty of discussion as well as a Hugo nomination. Two sequels followed in fast succession, but readers have had to wait almost four years for the concluding fourth book of the Terra Ignota series, Perhaps the Stars. Fans of the series are probably wondering one thing: is it the exciting conclusion they’ve been hoping for? The short answer is: yes! For the much, much longer answer, read on.
Perhaps the Stars is the sort of conclusion every series ought to have. It provides a climax that feels tense and unpredictable, yet thoroughly in line with the previous books. That’s rare enough as it is, but the book also introduces new ideas and situations. There are many science fiction series—including quite good ones—where all the fresh ideas are in the first book, leaving the rest of the series to mechanically resolve the plot and character conflicts. Certainly the worldbuilding is mostly behind us by this fourth book, but Perhaps the Stars is at least as thought-provoking as the previous volumes, which is really saying something.
Lest expectations get raised too high, a corrective may be necessary. A big, complex series like Terra Ignota has a major advantage while it’s still ongoing: readers can focus on what particularly interests them, whether that’s a specific plot thread, character, aspect of the world, or—especially in books like these—a philosophical or religious idea. They’re free to imagine it’s going to resolve in the way they personally would most appreciate. When it comes time to actually wrap everything up, however, the author must make choices, choices about how things should end up as well as choices about how much time to spend on particular aspects. It’s inevitable that every reader can’t be equally satisfied by those choices.
One example of how this plays out is that while previous books sketched out over a dozen world leaders and their Hives in a lot of detail, most of them really only get a few scenes in Perhaps the Stars. The notable exception is Emperor Cornel Mason of the Masons. One can say this is because of his particularly close relationship with one of the series’ key figures, J. E D. D. Mason, and the way the plot plays out, but of course all this is a choice Ada Palmer made and any fans more interested in, say, Ando Mitsubishi will just have to deal with it.
Another example of how no conclusion can keep every reader happy all of the time—and one that particularly impacted my reading experience—was the choice to quickly sweep aside any doubts about J. E D. D. Mason’s nature. As discussed at length in the second half of my joint review of the two previous books, Seven Surrenders and Will to Battle (both 2017), there’s a lot of reasons within the text to question the conviction of the series’ principal narrator, Mycroft Canner, that J. E D. D. is a divine being. Possibly in response to readings like this, Perhaps the Stars has a few brief remarks from a different narrator about brain scans and other scientific-sounding evidence that corroborates J. E D. D. Mason’s lived experience and seems to put to rest any Cartesian doubts. I nonetheless read to the end waiting for some sort of twist to complicate this narrative, but it doesn’t come. Incidentally, this may seem like a spoiler, but I actually think it’s the opposite: if, like me, you were wondering about this, knowing the book isn’t interested in this question ahead of time improves the book. Science fiction is full of non-supernatural explanations for characters’ religious claims and I’m probably not the only one who mistook authorial intentions enough to think J. E D. D. Mason’s nature a live issue. Instead, it’s not really addressed, and Perhaps the Stars almost certainly functions better if you accept its religious concepts on their own terms (we’ll let that “almost” foreshadow some discussion much later in this review).
Maybe the most surprising thing that Perhaps the Stars doesn’t emphasize, however, is gender—because this is such a huge change from the previous books. Too Like the Lightning had many unusual qualities, but the one that caused the most comment upon release was its strange handling of gender. Briefly, the series’ future society has a taboo against expressions of gender, particularly gendered pronouns, yet in his narration Mycroft Canner insists on applying gendered pronouns throughout. He doesn’t base his pronouns on either biology or the chosen identity of the character, but rather his idiosyncratic ideas of how to apply eighteenth-century gender roles to the people around him. This distinction is foregrounded in countless asides to, and even arguments with, the imagined reader over the correct pronoun to use. Mycroft defends his practice on the grounds that gender has been made into a weapon by the antagonist Madame D’Arouet in her quest to rule the world, so the reader must think in gendered terms to understand the world she’s created. Indeed, there are a number of Bond-villain speeches from her, her followers, and even Mycroft on occasion about how this society’s suppression of gender has only served to render them powerless against it.
After three books of this, what happens in Perhaps the Stars? We get a brief moment that’s essentially an aside during a larger scene in which a narrator other than the gender-poisoned Mycroft assures us that, actually, its suppression seems to have pretty much crushed the whole concept of gender as a negative force after all! Madame D’Arouet was wrong. The evidence put forward is that, once Madame’s influence was removed, the world didn’t immediately end up literally ruled by men. Uh, yay? That’s basically all we get. Mycroft continues to deploy his chosen genders, but much less attention is called to it. So I guess we are to believe Madame D’Arouet took over the world in spite of her weaponization of gender instead of because of it?
The fate of Madame herself is likewise handled in a perfunctory manner that appears calculated to send the message that, in the end, all her manipulations failed and events spun completely out of her control. I’m not sure what to make of this. Did Ada Palmer herself change her mind about this, and the aggressive publishing schedule of the first three books meant the change didn’t manifest until this final book? Did she simply feel enough had been said on the subject previously? Or is it foolish to make any assumptions about authorial intent in a series with such opinionated narrators? The narratives of the first two books, which make Madame seem like an unstoppable force, are composed, after all, while Mycroft is being held by her faction. Whatever the intent, Madame’s influence is a major thread that, while not dropped, is given significantly less emphasis.
Since Perhaps the Stars is a fairly long book, it’s reasonable to ask why there isn’t time to give a thorough resolution for all the series’ characters, plot threads, and ideas. The answer is that, even though it begins three quarters of the way into the series, the first half of this concluding volume continues to introduce new characters and add complications to the plot, deferring resolution to the second half. I might have criticized this pacing choice, except some of these early chapters turn out to be the best in the series, and taken together the whole section is essential to its themes.
After spending the previous three books marinating in this future’s profoundly interconnected world, hopping from one location to another on its border-destroying flying cars, in Perhaps the Stars Palmer spends a long stretch of her opening chapters tightly focused on characters completely trapped and isolated in a single neighborhood of a single city at war, unable to leave or even communicate with the outside. And after three books' worth of Mycroft’s enthusiastic tour-guide patter exulting in the achievements of his society, the stakes of the fighting feel unusually high. This isn’t the Death Star blowing up a planet called Alderaan that we’d never heard of until ten minutes previous. With series readers having spent dozens of hours reading about this place, Perhaps the Stars generates an unusual amount of tension when major characters start dying and cool science fictional infrastructure that will take decades to replace starts getting destroyed.
For three books, the specter of war has loomed over the story’s world. Some of the characters were so frightened of war that they committed murder to stop it, while others who thought war inevitable tried to hasten it, reasoning that a longer peace would mean an even worse war. But Perhaps the Stars is the first book to feature actual conflict. It’s hard to write about war without glorifying it. Many authors try to manage this by rubbing the reader’s nose in death and gore, but this strategy often suffers from the Alderaan problem. Palmer uses a different strategy that proves extremely effective: the viewpoint characters don’t fight and the fighting is never depicted “on screen” in the story. The result is that we experience war through the eyes of those waiting helplessly for news of the results of battles, worrying not just about who wins but also what will be lost along the way. Most characters we sympathize with didn’t want the war at all, so they experience all of the resulting deaths and destruction as a profound loss of human potential. War isn’t exciting or dramatic, it’s just an incredibly degraded state of living compared to peacetime, a failure of all sides, not an opportunity for heroes to prevail. It’s taken for granted that whoever the eventual victor is, they will emerge diminished. Humanity will lose no matter what; the only question is just how much ground we’ll lose.
It’s also in this first half of the novel that Palmer sets off her biggest stylistic fireworks. The previous books in the series all had memorable chapters told in unusual ways, but Perhaps the Stars outdoes them with the series’ most astonishing chapters. Two in particular depart from the book’s first person narration (one is a diary of a wounded character and the other is—of all things—a garbled computer log file) and are so startling and emotionally moving that I would expect them to win awards had they been published as freestanding short stories. (A third chapter, which centers on characters reacting to a letter, depends too heavily on the series’ worldbuilding for its impact to function in isolation but is nearly as brilliant.)
But all things must end. About halfway through, the book turns its attention to the long list of plot and character matters that it needs to resolve. There are twists, revelations, and emotional moments aplenty, and if it’s all just a bit overshadowed by the amazing material that comes immediately before it, well, that’s a very mild criticism.
Fittingly for a series that spent so much time elaborating on its “Hives”—nation-like factions—a lot of the conclusion is devoted to working out what shape its world will take going forward. The war has put everything in doubt: will there be Hives? How many? Who will lead them? How should those leaders be chosen? And what of the gender taboo? The speech restrictions around religion? The new shape of the world is explained at length and the changes do make sense, but they also feel small and incremental compared to what has taken place. There’s an air of The West Wing about it, where we put a good person in charge and as a result they make some nice, common-sense changes and the world is better as a result.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but as a way of resolving and moving on from the biggest war in many generations it seems awfully small, not to mention very elite-driven. Leaders congregate in rooms for secret discussions and then they call a press conference and tell the waiting world what’s to be done. It’s as if, after World War I, the Allies made (say) economist John Maynard Keynes world dictator, and after a lot of secret discussions, he gets on stage with everyone from the Kaiser to Gavrilo Princip so they can all give speeches about how everyone should embrace peace and rest assured everything will be all right due to the minor governance tweaks the German Empire and Austria-Hungary have made—alongside the victorious Allied governments who are likewise making similar changes.
A lot of Terra Ignota commentary has discussed the series’ utopian elements, so it’s worth pausing here to mention that the series is perhaps at its most utopian when it posits that each Hive has leaders who truly exemplify that Hive’s virtues to the utmost. Even though each Hive has a different method of selecting its leaders (the methods themselves exemplify Hive values, of course), somehow each method is very effective. To take just one example, in our world Gavrilo Princip was a bumbling teenager, just a pale shadow of Terra Ignota’s heroic and (by its own lights, at least) virtuous Sniper who helps start the war in pursuit not of power or ambition or patriotism but of human excellence. With leaders like this, maybe it really is the case that, after a catastrophic war, winners and losers alike can get up, orate about accepting the peace and turning together to heal the world, and most people who have just been killing each other for months will simply abandon their desire for revenge and put down their weapons.
The idealized leaders, then, help the war serve as a clash of ideals in a way that real wars almost never are outside of propaganda. That in itself is a bit unfortunate—it’s great that fighting itself is not glorified, and that some unusual downsides of war are shown, but I still feel war gets off too easy here. The intense focus on virtuous leaders itself causes a larger problem, perhaps the biggest flaw with the series as a whole: while the cast dutifully includes characters of every race and sexual orientation, every character with any depth is extremely powerful. The only ordinary people we encounter are members of xenophobic mobs or faceless armies. Many of the Hives are democracies of one sort or another, but what we hear of the popular will (“the people of Europe love the King of Spain!”) sounds more like North Korea than a functioning democracy. Even in an autocratic Hive like the Masons, one would expect the Emperor needs to keep powerful internal factions appeased, but instead he seems completely unaccountable. It’s not some personal charisma of Cornel Mason either, because we see a temporary Regency get established when the throne is vacant, and extremely unqualified people rule without much difficulty.
In the previous books, the frequent invocation of the eighteenth century made me wonder if Palmer might be intentionally setting the stage for an equivalent of the long nineteenth century. where the leaders of Terra Ignota would be swept away by the winds of revolution. Perhaps Madame D’Arouet intentionally molded the world into this sclerotic form while raising J. E D. D. Mason to be the revolutionary who crushes it! But Perhaps the Stars reveals J. E D. D. to be much more like Josiah Bartlett than Napoleon Bonaparte.
Within the context of the story, this is particularly odd since it means Sniper and its faction have started a war in which many thousands of people get killed in order to prevent … a bunch of pretty minor reforms. In previous books J. E D. D. insisted that he must rule the world before deciding what to do, asking Sniper’s followers to make a blind leap of faith, but he never defends the necessity of this proposition. There might be an analogy here to Christian theology, which holds that each person must make a choice about whether to trust God, but must do so in a very confusing world where it’s not clear God exists at all. The common theist defenses of a mostly hidden God suggest we can’t make free choices without God giving us a lot of distance, but the story inverts this by J. E D. D. forcing everyone to make the leap by conquest, like a Second Coming which, after all this fuss, treats believers and unbelievers exactly the same.
Whatever we make of the religious subtext beneath the political outcomes, Perhaps the Stars must also answer the overtly religious question that characters have asked throughout the series (and indeed throughout human history): why does God allow evil in the world? Ordinarily this question is downstream of God’s existence, but in Terra Ignota God is accepted to exist due to the presence of the miracles performed by the mysterious boy known to Mycroft’s narrative as Bridger, so the focus is on theodicy. It’s a lot to ask of any fiction to go somewhere new on such well-trodden ground, but I think Perhaps the Stars provides a genuinely new answer here for readers to mull over. The reason a new answer is possible is because it’s built in part off another of the story’s miracles—the existence of J. E D. D. Mason—so the applicability to real life seems fairly minimal. The answer the novel comes up with also involves a pretty big leap of faith, making as it does a set of assumptions about God for which there’s minimal evidence within the story. Leaps of faith are common in religions, of course, but it’s a bit surprising for books so focused on philosophy and reason.
Then there’s the book’s last chapter and final exclamation point, which is another matter entirely. This really would lose some of its impact if spoiled, so I’ll only say that it comes via a great deal of metafictional sleight of hand which I didn’t find very convincing. However, it certainly builds on themes and questions of narration and identity that have run throughout the series and takes them to an interesting (albeit very strange) place.
A very reasonable objection could be raised to this review at this point: how is it you spoke so glowingly about the book at the outset, but when you came to the real meat of the novel, to how it resolves its political, religious, and even metafictional ideas, none of them seem to have satisfied you? Isn’t this a series about ideas? If you have all these complaints about the way things end, don’t they undo the series that preceded them?
I don’t think they do. I think fiction serves us better when it spurs our thinking than when it tells us what to think. Science fiction in particular has always tempted authors to insert a character to tell the reader, at length, what they should think while those who disagree are shown to be malevolent villains, hopelessly stupid, or both. Perhaps the Stars, and the series as a whole, is written from the point of view of a couple characters who have a set of ideas they favor, but usually opposing ideas are noted and presented in a very sympathetic light. Of course it’s not possible to discuss every possible dissenting view, but there’s never a moment where there isn’t room left to disagree. We live in an era where overconfident voices are amplified, but while Terra Ignota proudly advances ideas, it isn’t afraid to admit reasonable people will disagree. It would be easy to have simply said that Ada Palmer advances ideas, but the truth is this is a series where everything comes from a character’s point of view. This makes it much more friendly to radical alternative readings than most other novels.
For example, Mycroft is extremely fond of the Utopian Hive and presents them very sympathetically. There’s also a strong implication that Utopians are at least very similar to, if not literally descended from, today’s science fiction fan culture, so a lot of readers are going to be naturally sympathetic to them as well. But the Utopians are actually just one side of one of the war’s several axes of conflict. They believe the future of humanity lies in space, spreading first to Mars and eventually across the galaxy. The alternative view, represented in the book by the Gordian Hive, is that the future of humanity lies in deeply understanding the brain so that we can achieve a sort of posthuman immortality, perhaps by uploading personalities into a computer. This posthuman alternative is one that’s easy to ridicule, but Perhaps the Stars allows Felix Faust to make his best case … and his case is very good indeed! It helps that by this point J. E D. D. Mason has convincingly argued that the concept of distance itself is a source of pain and therefore evil, so it follows that spreading humanity across galactic distances will inevitably cause humans to suffer. Although Mycroft does his best to persuade us the Utopian dream is beautiful and necessary, an alternative reading remains completely viable: Utopians are space-obsessed weirdos who are secretly making everyone’s lives worse because they think it will help their Mars project to succeed. Having completely failed to convince the rest of humanity that their Mars project is important, this tiny minority is dedicated to finding a way to force everyone else to go along with it anyway. It’s as if Elon Musk was so dedicated to his Martian dream that instead of Tesla he started a new, high-tech oil company to speed up global warming and make Mars look better by comparison.
An even more radical reading is to assert that Mycroft is a lying propagandist, that his miracle-child Bridger never existed, that no toys were given improbable life by him, and that the assassination of J. E D. D. Mason in Seven Surrenders was faked. It wasn’t actually Sniper who shot J. E D. D. Mason, after all, but a Bridger-animated Sniper doll, so even J. E D. D. Mason’s death, to say nothing of his resurrection, can’t be independently verified by anyone outside of Madame’s influence. J. E D. D. Mason isn’t divine, he’s just a boy raised by his scheming psychologist mother to believe he’s divine, corroborated by convenient brain scans performed by Utopians who had already surrendered to Madame. Perhaps the Stars helpfully includes several scenes of a frightened J. E D. D. literally clinging to his childhood friends, a level of emotional neediness that seems odd for a divine figure but extremely understandable for a teenage boy whose mind has been warped by a scheming psychologist. Having put her son on the throne of the world, Madame fakes her own death to get out of a now-needless marriage to the King of Spain, no doubt to continue ruling as the power behind the throne.
I’m almost positive Ada Palmer didn’t intend this interpretation. If nothing else, it’s hard to imagine an author spending so much time on Mycroft Canner’s character without genuinely liking and sympathizing with him. But even living authors are dead, literary criticism tells us, and it’s up to readers to take the text where they will. Because of its nuance and respect for alternative opinions, Terra Ignota is able to support many different readings and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Gene Wolfe, an author whose influence Palmer has acknowledged, used to write novels where this sort of sneaky reading was not just possible but almost required. The surface narratives of his books were interesting but strangely paced and unsatisfying, sending fans on a quest of understanding via rereads and intricate online textual analyses. The influence of Wolfe on Terra Ignota is obvious, from the opinionated but possibly unreliable narrator to the interrogation of matters of identity. Even the old joke about Wolfe’s work, that the key to every one of his novels was finding the point where the narrator died but didn’t realize it, turns out to apply to Terra Ignota too. But Palmer has her own voice, and if she hasn’t (yet) reached the linguistic heights of Wolfe’s very best work, in this debut series she’s deployed many of Wolfe’s techniques in a much more accessible way. A single read of Terra Ignota gives the reader a rich and satisfying surface narrative. Contemplating hidden possibilities like those I’ve mentioned is a strictly optional activity.
As someone who appreciated Wolfe but finds his work too opaque to recommend to most people, then, it’s exciting to see Ada Palmer taking parts of what he did and improving on it. The comparison also makes me excited about what the future might bring. Gene Wolfe’s early novels were good, but not his best work. Terra Ignota urges us to hope for a bright future for humanity among the stars; we can also hope Ada Palmer has an even brighter future as an author. Even if she never publishes another book, however, Terra Ignota is a great work of philosophical science fiction that’s going to be read and discussed for many years to come.