Ada Palmer’s debut novel, Too Like the Lightning, was the start of a series called Terra Ignota. Fast on its heels have come the second and third books in that series, Seven Surrenders and The Will to Battle. Although published separately, these are tightly connected books. Seven Surrenders is, by its own admission, really the second half of the story begun in Too Like the Lightning. It does provide some amount of closure, but Will To Battle picks up the narrative almost immediately afterward and carries it forward towards a promised fourth novel, Perhaps the Stars.
It’s said that the middle of a series like this is hard to write; rest assured it is hard to review as well. To understand the basics of the plot, I would point you toward reviews of Too Like the Lightning, such as the one written here by Paul Kincaid. To provide a final judgment on whether the series realizes its lofty ambitions, we must await the fourth book. So what is there to say in the meantime?
Maybe it’s best to just say nothing, Matt, if you’re just going to complain this is hard. But since you’re here, just as the middle portions of the series develops the series’ story and ideas, your review should develop an understanding of that story and its ideas. Assuming there are any worth speaking about, that is.
Don’t worry, reader: if we can say one thing about this series, it’s that it has no shortage of ideas. Science fiction is sometimes said to be the "literature of ideas," and Ada Palmer's novels can be read as validating or alternatively refuting this notion. Validating, because her Terra Ignota series is science fiction and, sure enough, jam-packed with fascinating ideas. But perhaps it is an exception that disproves the rule, because the series’ overwhelming focus on ideas makes it feel unlike most science fiction.
One function of a review is to help a prospective reader decide whether they want to read a book. In this case, this is simple. Do you want to read a novel that uses socio-political tensions in its future setting to force its characters to argue about the existence of God, the value of a human life, and so on? If so, you should try reading Too Like the Lightning. There's just not enough philosophical science fiction out there to justify passing this up if you're interested. That said, if you didn’t like Too Like the Lightning, whatever it was that made you dislike it will probably be present in spades in these sequels.
You talk about God and human life, but the cover of Too Like the Lightning just had a flying a car on it. Genre people like to talk of high-minded ideas, but then the actual idea turns out to be something like: maybe, twenty years from now, a tech company executive will die and leave control of the Internet to the winner of an '80s trivia VR scavenger hunt.
You joke, good reader, but that is an idea. And it's a narrative idea by which one might try to indirectly shed light on other questions, such as: maybe we all spend a bit too much time on the Internet these days and should go outside more? Likewise, some have tried to summarize Terra Ignota’s premise as imagining a society where everyone has access to flying cars. It's true that the flying cars have a central position in the series' world: fast flying cars make distance almost irrelevant, nations wither since geography no longer matters, peace becomes essential since distance and borders no longer slow the spread of war, and order is maintained by tightly monitoring citizens via the flying car network and ruthlessly doing whatever is necessary to stop anything that could disturb the peace.
But all that just sets the stage. The actual questions asked by the story are of a different character: Does God exist? If so, is God actually good? Is there an afterlife? What is worth dying for? What is worth killing for? Is truth better than happiness? As with most good science fiction novels, the futuristic setting provides a different vantage point on these questions, but it doesn’t do so merely for us, the readers. Most characters in the story also struggle directly with some or all of these questions. That may seem like a strange thing to say about a book not set entirely in a university’s philosophy department. After all, humanity has spent millennia arguing about the answers to these philosophical questions with no end in sight, so most modern people—and plenty of modern literature—can be forgiven for generally ignoring them. Terra Ignota isn’t alone in its interest in philosophy, but though it is in good company with Neal Stephenson's Anathem (2008), Jo Walton's The Just City (2015) and its sequels, and China Mieville's Embassytown (2011), it’s more ambitious than all of them.
But is its ambition to be a philosophy textbook or a good story? So far you’re making it sound too much like the former.
A scene from early in Seven Surrenders might help illustrate how this focus on ideas plays out in the narrative. Carlyle Foster has been lured into a room with Dominic Seneschal. Our narrator, Mycroft, elaborately paints this scene as innocent Carlyle being trapped by evil, predatory Dominic, who is sure to inflict profound torture. Mycroft goes on and on about this in passages too long to quote here, using all sorts of rhetorical fireworks. He rues Carlyle's misfortune in falling into this trap. He apologizes profusely that his own attempts to keep Carlyle away were insufficient and that he himself was too far away to intercede. He even exhorts his reader, though this event is in the reader’s past, to pray to God to intercede, pausing to cleverly defend this as a reasonable strategy for interacting with an omniscient deity. And, in a maneuver familiar to readers of Too Like the Lightning, Mycroft depicts Dominic as male and Carlyle as female—even though biologically Dominic is female and Carlyle is male. He claims other motives, but we suspect he does this to emphasize Carlyle as a damsel in distress.
More on Mycroft’s bizarre use of gender in good time, but for now, what tortures does the menacing Dominic inflict on his victim? All he does is speak.
The conversation is far too long to include in full but here is a taste:
"Tell me, Cousin Foster," he began softly, "what's it like getting up in the morning every day knowing thou hast a coward's religion? [...] The unexamined can get away with it. [...] But as a sensayer thou knowest perfectly well that, of the hundreds of faiths thou'st studied, thou'st fixed on the most toothless. Deism, the comfortable fancy that all religions are coequal puzzle-piece interpretations of the same Clockmaker God, Who made this universe but does not interfere with blights or miracles, trusting Nature and mankind to run ourselves with the hands-off guidance of His beneficent, rational laws. Thy studies have taught thee well how cowardly that is. [...] Thou darest not face a universe without a God, but thou refusest to diminish human freedom, so thou honorest this Clockmaker, Who does not interfere with Fate or freewill, just steps in at the beginning with a happy plan, and the end with a happy afterlife. [...] No commandments to follow, no angels to fear, and all religions are equally valid in the eyes of thy vague God, so thou dost not even have to say that anybody else is wrong. They're all right, thy parishioners, thy fellow sensayers, the priests and martyrs of every faith in history, everybody's right except the atheists, and thou canst tell thyself the atheists too would be happy with a God who does not judge or interfere. Has there ever been a faith that required less of its adherents?" (Seven Surrenders, p. 48)
This is all Dominic does: he talks. Foster, for her part, acts like someone being tortured. She becomes physically ill, and, after putting up initial resistance to Dominic’s arguments, eventually succumbs, crying and slumping to the floor. No doubt this seems overwrought, and, like much in Mycroft's narrative (and Mycroft himself), it is. Later, in The Will to Battle, Palmer even takes this idea fully into parody by showing us Foster tied up while Dominic “tortures” her by reading the “beautiful and terrible” Blaise Pascal out loud.
This is amusing, but there’s also an interesting line of thinking here. What's worse—to feel physical pain, or to be shown through arguments you can't refute that what you have long believed about the world is false? A case can be made for the latter, yet most people (at least in our day and age) do not feel quite so strongly about religion, philosophy, or ethics. In Terra Ignota, however, Palmer has ingeniously created a story that hugely magnifies the urgency of these questions, making their answers important both for the immediate future of the characters and even humanity itself.
She does this in two ways. First, the society she depicts has banished all public discussion of religion and gender to protect people's feelings, but in doing so has, she argues, left its citizens far more sensitive to them than we would be. Second, the plot of the story is designed to make these issues relevant. What finally destroys Carlyle's deism is not any abstract argument but the fact that in the course of Too Like the Lightning she has seen real miracles that she believes prove the existence of an interventionist God. The story ties this and many other questions together, mostly in the form of a strange young man who claims he is the god of another universe, J.E.D.D. Mason. Miracles are important because they seem to lend legitimacy to J.E.D.D. Mason's claims about his own divinity. Gender, meanwhile, is important because J.E.D.D. Mason’s mother, Madame D'Arouet, is using it as a weapon to conquer the world for her son. Ethics are important because J.E.D.D. Mason rigidly adheres to a strict ethical code and is willing to destroy the world system if it requires shedding the blood of even one innocent life. The seemingly inevitable result of all these factors is war, a war that our species may not survive.
All right, fine, it’s very noble that it’s discussing these deep questions, but are these books actually any good?
Perhaps we should start with the writing, since, apart from their focus on ideas, this is the most distinctive part of these novels. Our narrator, Mycroft Canner, is the world’s most famous criminal, a child prodigy turned serial killer who now tries to atone for his crimes by being the humble servant to the world’s rich and powerful. Mycroft is a character who really should be a completely insufferable Mary Sue. We constantly hear other characters praising his incredible gifts in such diverse tasks as translation, multi-factor analysis, and persuasion. He has an air of danger because of his criminal past, yet he is very humble, hard-working, and extremely sensitive. He is insulted and assaulted in nearly every chapter, but Mycroft doesn’t complain: he deserves worse, he tells us. We can’t quite believe this caring and fragile soul could possibly be the sadistic killer he admits he was, whatever J.E.D.D. Mason might have done to change his personality, and sure enough it turns out there were, maybe, hidden good intentions motivating even his worst crimes.
Or so he says.
Yes, Mycroft should be completely insufferable. And sometimes he is, particularly in The Will to Battle, when it seems he’s crying, vomiting, fainting, or otherwise overreacting to nearly everything that happens. "I weep so often it must mean little to you by now ..." he says (p. 264) —and yes, Mycroft, that’s very true. But whatever his other faults, Mycroft is the narrator, writing the text we read from a vantage point of a few weeks or months after the events he describes—and he makes it clear that, first, he is writing not as an objective journalist but as someone who wishes to persuade, and, second, that he is writing at the behest of many of the leaders about whom he writes.
In short, he is an unreliable narrator. It is unlikely he lies; many basic facts are indirectly confirmed by the small contributions to the text from other authors, and, unless he is wholly misrepresented, J.E.D.D. Mason would not allow lies in the text. Yet Mycroft does not merely relate facts, he tries to tell the reader how to interpret them. Indeed, he frequently devotes much more time to his suggested interpretations than he does to the facts. He is obsequious towards the leaders he serves (it is only after Ganymede’s fall from power, for example, that Mycroft’s strong dislike for him begins appearing in the text). He is full of praise, only some of it warranted, for the world system he has tried to protect.
To many readers, all this cannot help but recall Gene Wolfe, who uses these techniques in nearly everything he writes but most famously with Severian’s narration of Book of the New Sun. But, clever as that narrative is, Severian is hard to like. He’s gloomy, naive, and intellectual only in his attempts to explain away his mistakes and cruelty. Mycroft, on the other hand, is truly persuasive, and the thing he most wants to persuade you of is that Mycroft Canner is wonderful. He knows the best way to do that is to talk a lot about how awful he is while recounting events in ways that make him look good. It is left to us to wonder: if he is so nice, why does Mycroft turn into a murderous monster when Thisbe drugs him? If he is now full of kindness for his fellow humans, why is he so happy on those rare occasions when his masters allow him to threaten or fight? And whence his devotion to his lover Saladin, a killer who respects nothing but power?
It also must be said that if you can put up with his oddities, Mycroft is just plain entertaining, albeit in an intellectual way. His text is full of excited asides which discuss philosophy, theology, and politics. He has a pretended reader complain and argue with his writing in italics, and in The Will to Battle he joins the pretend reader with a pretend Thomas Hobbes. And why not?
Transitioning between topics by having pretended readers interject impatient questions seems like it could also be a crutch. A gimmick, like writing a review using an element or two of the reviewed novel’s style. In any case, you’ve gone on and on about Mycroft, but surely there are other characters that matter?
There are, and here the bag is more mixed. There are many characters in these books, enough that the list of dramatis personae printed at the front of both will be much needed by anyone who has not started them moments after finishing the previous volume (I counted seventy names in The Will to Battle’s). It’s inevitable that with such a large cast, not all of them are going to be three-dimensional characters, but it’s a valid criticism of this series that none of them ever really come alive. Many are little more than stereotypes of their respective Hive. Even the main cast tend to be larger than life, chewing scenery and making speeches but never seeming like they have an inner life when the stage lights turn off.
For a novel with so much talking, it is particularly unfortunate that most of the characters sound pretty much the same. Only J.E.D.D. Mason’s polyglot speech and Dominic’s seventeenth-century affectations are the exceptions. There is a very neat scene in The Will to Battle, in which someone visits each world leader in turn to speak to them about war—and, rather than show these scenes one after another, Palmer (or Mycroft, if you prefer) blends them together, so that we shift from one to the other unexpectedly, like in a dream, with unmarked dialogue serving as the transition point. This is an inversion of a common practice of Gene Wolfe’s, whom I’m mentioning again because he’s surely one of Palmer's chief influences. Wolfe, especially in his later work, likes to drop the attribution of dialogue and rely on the different voices of his characters to avoid confusion. But, though cool, the dialogue-phasing in the The Will to Battle scene only works is because the voices really aren’t differentiated at all.
That’s unfortunate; but what, if anything, actually happens amidst all of this talking?
For the most part, the mode of Terra Ignota is intrigue. Characters and factions scheme and circle warily around each other in the manner celebrated in science fiction since Dune (1965) or earlier. And, yes, there is also a lot of talking, much of it in an unusually formal mode. There are many vaguely Socratic dialogues and, especially in The Will to Battle, quite a few more speeches than one would expect in a modern book (that is to say, more than zero). Speeches are not necessarily bad, of course. I still remember my first reading of Fellowship of the Ring (1954) and how much I enjoyed the infamously long Council of Elrond because I finally got more information about the world. So it is here. Most readers who enjoy Terra Ignota’s world and the ideas being debated will enjoy the speeches, and readers who aren’t enjoying those things probably won’t make it this far into the series anyway.
One matter deserves special attention. Right from the outset, Mycroft makes it clear that The Will to Battle is about an approaching war. Yet, despite what its title might lead one to believe, The Will to Battle is not about a battle. It comes from a Hobbes quote to the effect that war is not merely fighting, but instead describes any time in which people genuinely desire to fight, because in such times you can't trust the civil authority to protect you. Palmer explores this quote by spending an entire book in the space between when war becomes inevitable (at least, according to the Seldonian analysts in the story) and when it actually begins. This is already an unusual tack, but it's made quite unique by the strange notion that, although the war is inevitable, not only is no one sure who is on what side, no one even knows what the sides are.
The idea here is that civil war (and any war in a globe-spanning civilization is a civil war) is an outgrowth of anger and fear and anxiety and dissatisfaction. In The Will to Battle there are many reasons why people are upset, yet they are conflicting and overlapping. If the war is about how children are raised, the sides might be one way, yet if the war is about ownership of land, the sides will be different. The Will to Battle depicts one possible process by which a war might coalesce while also considering how, if war is inevitable, its negative consequences might be minimized. Some of its suggestions are obvious, like stockpiling food and medical supplies. Others are less so, like creating symbols to help identify friend and foe.
This war also has an unhappy resonance with our present day, in that much is made of how the abandonment of nation states and borders means that the warring factions are not regions but value systems, meaning coworkers and neighbors who live amongst each other will find themselves on opposite sides. As an American it’s hard to read this without thinking about the polarized politics of America. This angle, though, is not emphasized by the text. Mycroft is full of discussions of Enlightenment philosophy, but he has little to say about how the Enlightenment’s greatest triumph, the French Revolution, swiftly descended into bloody, partisan madness.
It must also be said that those who like clean endings may want to wait until the fourth book. Seven Surrenders takes the many loose ends of Too Like the Lightning, pays most of them off, and ends with some closure. The Will to Battle, on the other hand, leaves things just as open-ended as Too Like the Lightning did and is perhaps worse—because it doesn’t even have much in the way of revelations at the end. It just stops.
Speaking of which, this review must now stop as well.
Really? It’s true this has already gone longer than most reviews, but much remains unclear. At the very least, where is your promised discussion of Mycroft’s strange use of gender?
I must ask for your patience. Just as the part of Terra Ignota I am discussing is spread across two novels, so too this review is spread across two separate posts. In the second half, I’ll indeed discuss Mycroft’s use and misuse of gender as well as the political, ethical, and religious questions the text raises in its setting and plot. I do hope you’ll join me!
Do I have a choice?
Alas, probably not, but more on that very interesting question and how Terra Ignota helps us think about it next time!
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