In part one of this review, I discussed many aspects about Ada Palmer’s Seven Surrenders and The Will to Battle: their unusual emphasis on ideas, the narrator, the other characters, and the plot. In this second half I want to examine the story’s ideas in greater detail. Now, where to start?
Gender, surely. Most of the talk online about Too Like the Lightning centered on the strange handling of gender, so it’s hard to believe you haven’t addressed this until now. What’s going on here?
Throughout Seven Surrenders and The Will to Battle, Mycroft continues his practice in Too Like the Lightning of using gendered pronouns (all normal characters use “they” in their dialogue and non-Mycroft-written prose) and choosing the gender to use based on his idiosyncratic application to the story’s characters of eighteenth-century gender norms. This has caused some controversy, focusing mostly on whether imposing gender on someone is inevitably hurtful. Those who feel this strongly should avoid these books; Mycroft does it pretty much every page.
For everyone else, the question remains: why on earth are the novels written this way?
There are two different purposes being served here. First, the device forces the reader to question how they view characters and why. Mycroft, by making such a show of ignoring biology, again and again teaches us to see a character as one gender and then shows us that the biology is otherwise. The whiplash effect in the reader’s mind is somewhat similar to that created by Ann Leckie’s use of female pronouns in Ancillary Justice (2013). In both cases, yanking the rug out from under the us like this helps us understand how gender affects the way we view people. A few find this offensive and more find it annoying or tiresome, but I found it a really interesting use of prose.
In Terra Ignota there’s another purpose to this approach to gendering, however, and that is to advance an argument central to the story, that exiling biases from polite discourse does not make them go away:
"As with smallpox, you are more vulnerable now than in the filthy past, since without exposure you build no resistance, yet we do not vaccinate against a thing defeated. The more people insist that feminism has won, the more they blind themselves to its remaining foes." (Seven Surrenders, p. 52)
It is a testimony to Palmer's control over her strangely juxtaposed prose that "feminism" here rings so loudly false, having no place in the language of the eighteenth century that characters like Mycroft and Dominic (who is speaking here) attempt to simulate, as well as no place in the gender-censored diction of the twenty-fifth century. It's out of place here but present, one can't help but suspect, because, after Too Like the Lightning (where this point was made as well, just in a slightly more subtle way), Palmer didn't trust her readers to understand her point.
The analogy to our current time is clearly racism and particularly white supremacy. I’m personally very sympathetic to the idea we need to continue talking about these problems and avoid suppressing discussion, but the way this plays out in the series’ world is creaky at best. Elsewhere, we are told that, although gender was banished from speech and dress, it remained in stories and writings from the past and so continued to contaminate people’s thinking. Yet this banishment wasn’t something that happened a few years before the story started; it’s been like this for generations. That gender might still have an impact under these circumstances seems entirely reasonable, but in many places the series speculates gender is more powerful as a result of this suppression. To use a slightly different analogy, if we are exposed to much less anti-semitism today than someone would have been a few generations ago, do we somehow have less resistance to it? It seems clear to me that we have more, not less.
The argument that would help all this make sense would be an appeal to testosterone, estrogen, and other possible biological bases for gendered behavior. Palmer, however, sticks to a view of gender as strictly socially constructed—yet seems to deny this social construction the power to change. Even if today’s cultural attitudes about matters like gender, race, and homosexuality still leave much to be desired, it seems hard to argue they haven’t changed dramatically over the last hundred years of western culture. Given that, it seems odd that the vibrant culture of the world of Terra Ignota has made comparatively little impact on the psyche.
One other outgrowth of this society’s rejection of gender is that, since its members do not express gender themselves, Mycroft is able to project whatever gender his dubious reasoning suggests to him. This makes for an interesting contrast with the Hives. Mycroft’s narrative is full to the brim with Hive stereotyping. Should we therefore reject his writing as Hivist? A defense is available: at least Hives are not inflicted on people at birth or by those around them. The citizens of Terra Ignota’s society choose their Hive when they become adults. We have had some limited success at changing stereotypes, but given the human mind’s eagerness to categorize, preventing anyone from being stereotyped at all may prove extremely difficult. In that context, the idea that people can freely choose the dominant stereotype that will be applied to them for the rest of their life, is perhaps the most utopian idea in Terra Ignota. And, unlike the inexplicably universal rejection of gender and religion, it feels like this might just be possible someday in the real world.
That may be a utopian idea, but is this world a utopia or not? Many have said it is.
Mycroft loves this world and in any case is writing at the behest of its masters, so he paints this as a beautiful utopia and glosses completely over the dystopian elements of his society. For starters, how was it that the world went from the endlessly diverse religions and cultures of today into one where religion is totally repressed and the world’s Hives draw almost entirely from a narrow sliver of today’s European and Asian cultures? The only conceivable answer is: sustained and ruthless violence. Certainly a “Church War” might take some of the blame, but the laws restricting religious speech must be continually enforced, and destroying religious expression would remove the heart from most of the world’s cultures except those of the most modern and atheistic parts of Europe and Asia. Is it any surprise that every citizen must wear a “tracker”? Meanwhile, though they seem fun and encouraging of personal expression, the Hives are dominated by a narrow clique of figuratively and occasionally literally incestuous leaders. The only ordinary people we meet in Mycroft’s narrative besides criminals are angry mobs.
Lest we think this is merely an oversight on the part of the author, in The Will to Battle, when it turns out the judge of a court case critical to world safety is the spouse of the key prosecutor, Mycroft’s imagined reader actually calls him out on this. Mycroft answers the charge of bias with his usual slippery rhetoric, clever yet totally spurious:
Ah, but we need this bias, reader. This Masonic judge must face the Mycroft “Martin” Guildbreaker, Familiaris, Nepos, bearer of Imperium Vacarii, he who will be Emperor should the Addressee refuse. No Familiaris—indeed, no Mason—is better prepared to doubt Martin Guildbreaker’s word than the spouse who knows Martin’s weakness in the face of cauliflower, and watches his sleep-dazed shuffle as he hunts for his shoes in the morning. (The Will to Battle, p. 291)
I have a single qualm about this foundation, and that is flying cars don’t seem nearly so important in a world with good telepresence. In fact, telepresence in Terra Ignota seems no better than what we have in our world, though much has advanced in other technology. If one removed that piece, however, the Jenga tower of worldbuilding would collapse: the flying car network is what justifies the trackers, since they allow the network to plan for when cars are needed, and (though Mycroft never says this) surely the trackers are how the prohibition on religious speech is enforced.
Your point about telepresence is minor if it’s valid, and there’s no way to prove it in any case. Perhaps debating the classification of the story as utopian, dystopian, or something in between is a similarly minor exercise in critical taxonomy.
Terminology aside, whether or not this world is in some fundamental way good turns out to be pivotal. Despite the prominence of religion and gender in the story Mycroft tells, the way he chooses to tell it, and even in the worldbuilding itself, the central question that drives the political conflict is an ethical one: is preserving world peace worth a handful of innocent lives? Characters in the story frequently remark that most wars have been fought over less noble concerns. And since the world system in Terra Ignota turns out to have been secured through state-sponsored assassination of innocent people, it is a question every character in the story must answer.
Utilitarianism has seen much abuse and few defenses in literature, but Terra Ignota gives its Omelas a number of ardent and sympathetic defenders, most notably the assassin/celebrity Sniper. Meanwhile, J.E.D.D. Mason insists that ends cannot justify means, and that killing is unacceptable no matter what the justification. For a series with so much talk of the Enlightenment, however, it is interesting that the arguments both for and against are based on faith rather than reason. Defenders of assassination explicitly argue that they are willing to put the power to kill in the hands of government assassins because they trust them to do the right thing. The other side is required to put its faith in J.E.D.D. Mason, who intends to tear down the existing world order without making any promises for what he will create in its place.
Mycroft is on J.E.D.D. Mason’s side and, though he paints very sympathetic portraits of the assassins Ockham and Sniper, he nevertheless tries to make sure we don’t side with them. First, he argues that J.E.D.D. Mason is not just a good man but divinely Good, someone incapable of accepting lies or murder. Who could be more trustworthy? Meanwhile, in complementing Ockham’s devotion to duty and following orders, Mycroft again and again reminds us that Ockham has been following the orders of the Humanist President, Ganymede, who is anything but good or trustworthy.
Actual arguments for J.E.D.D. Mason’s position are not made because, one suspects, they would convince no one. Should we not trust the government with the power to kill? At least in the story it has a long track record of success; J.E.D.D. Mason is a strange young man who has been given everything and, so far, achieved nothing. Should we, then, not trust government assassins because they serve world leaders corrupted by Madame D’Arouet? J.E.D.D. Mason is just as much Madame’s creature as they; more so, in fact, because, unlikeable as they are, they are at least recognizably human. Most if not all readers of this review live in countries whose governments have, at some time or another, shed innocent blood. Should we rise up, throw down these immoral governments, and only then figure out how to replace them? Mycroft’s frequent invocation of Hobbes in The Will to Battle prompts us to remember why we don’t: an imperfect Sovereign is better than chaos. To think otherwise is to embrace a sort of nihilistic, bomb-throwing anarchism unthinkable to all of us in our daily lives; yet Mycroft’s narrative tempts us in this direction, even though his world is far less imperfect than our own.
J.E.D.D. Mason’s claim to divinity is the only thing that elevates his position from the classic argument for a dictator’s coup d’etat: you can’t trust these broken institutions, so put your trust in a man you trust personally. History tells us this rarely works, but isn’t J.E.D.D. Mason an Alien, someone from outside the universe? Well, he says so. And Mycroft claims he believes him. Yet J.E.D.D. Mason performs no miracles to demonstrate his divinity; he’s just really smart and really strange. He was not born in a manger to humble parents, but is the son of a woman who has turned psychology into a weapon for dominating the world. Ganymede and Dominic have been conditioned at birth to be very strange, and Mycroft as much as says that they were test runs for her true project, J.E.D.D. Mason. So: is J.E.D.D. Mason really a God who happens to have been born into our world as the son of an evil genius psychologist, or did the evil genius psychologist decide that she wanted her son to think himself a God as the ultimate in self-actualization? “I thought to see the Liberated Man,” J.E.D.D. Mason, as a child, says in disappointment when he first meets Mycroft. Perhaps he sees the liberated man when he looks in the mirror.
That leaves the story’s truly miraculous sign: Bridger, the boy who can bring toys to life. Mycroft believes Bridger appeared when he did so that he could meet J.E.D.D. Mason. Maybe so. The argument that Bridger must be miraculous because he has no belly button is not very convincing in a world with advanced technology. The army men and other toys brought to life likewise seem on the edge of what is possible given the Utopians can create dragons and other animals that have never existed. Perhaps Madame could brainwash someone into thinking they are Achilles. Either Bridger was a miracle, or else he is the product of an elaborate conspiracy supported by Mycroft. If the latter, then Ada Palmer has created one of the most ambitious unreliable narrators in literary history, a man lying to the world around him as much as he lies to us. If the former, it’s not easy to see how this can resolve in Perhaps the Stars in any satisfactory way, because that will make the narrative fully rest on its religious element.
And what is the religious element, exactly? That some character is God? That seems enormously silly, something out of place in a science fiction novel and certainly nothing with any relevance to us in the real world.
There’s a bit more to it than that. In short, the religious element here is the idea that there are two universes. Ours, and a completely different one. J.E.D.D. Mason believes he is the God of this other universe and that he has been incarnated in this one to have a dialogue with its creator. Like many humans before him, J.E.D.D. Mason is perplexed by the existence of pain. Why did the God of our universe create such a thing? Like far fewer humans, however, he is equally perplexed by time and distance, which to him simply cause separation and ignorance, which are in turn other kinds of pain. Why would the creator do such a thing?
Mycroft loves citing French philosophers, but one who never gets mentioned is René Descartes. One can't help but think that this omission intentional, since Descartes would not be impressed by J.E.D.D. Mason's claims of divinity. “How do you know you are a God?” a Mycroft-simulated Descartes would ask him. “You say you can feel your other universe, but what if a demon is lying to your senses?” In this novel, the demon even has a name: Madame D'Arouet, who is, to reiterate, a scheming psychologist who uses her scientific knowledge to manipulate adults and create bizarre children.
Whether or not J.E.D.D. Mason really is a God as he thinks he is (answers will have to wait for the next novel), there is a surprisingly simple answer to his questions. There is, in fact, a single creator of the universe of Terra Ignota: a woman of our world named Ada Palmer. She has a great plan—and the characters, though they feel as if they have free will, are nevertheless slaves to that plan. People suffer and die because this heightens the drama of the narrative and makes the series more interesting. J.E.D.D. Mason is right to think that the great events shaking the Hives to their foundations are the creator's attempt at a dialogue, but it is not a dialogue with him at all, it's a dialogue with the reader. I doubt Palmer will make this explicit in the series since most (including me) would not find that a satisfying move, but it does point to an interesting answer to the problem of evil. J.R.R. Tolkien did something similar in the much-derided biblical opening to The Silmarillion. His God creates the world and purposefully allows Melkor to add evil to it, declaring that evil actually makes it more beautiful. The presence of evil really did make The Silmarillion's stories more beautiful, and the same can be said of Terra Ignota.
Likewise, J.E.D.D. Mason complains about death, and regrets that he cannot tell people whether there is an afterlife. Is Palmer evil for allowing her characters to die? Do they have an afterlife? Well, in a way they do, for the characters live on in the heads of their readers. I think Palmer has thought about this as well. Otherwise, it's an awfully large coincidence that within the story there are multiple characters who achieve a sort of afterlife because of their place in the minds of readers. Thomas Hobbes lived and died, but he sees the future through Mycroft's eyes. Then there's Achilles, who never really existed as such, but has been resurrected from Homer’s stories by Bridger to walk among the living in the Terra Ignota universe. Is this sufficient compensation for his suffering at Troy, or that of the various characters of Terra Ignota and indeed of most fiction books? Achilles here, as in the Odyssey, says that being alive is worth a great deal. But are these characters alive?
Yes, they are!
I can’t help suspecting that your own circumstances, reader, may be biasing your opinion, but you are free to draw your own conclusions. If these characters live in the reader’s mind, perhaps you even have an ethical imperative to bring them to life by reading! That would certainly be a new argument for reading an unfinished series without waiting for it to be complete. I’m pretty sure I don’t agree, but it’s fun to think about whether this is true.
And that, more than anything else, is the reason why I think anyone at all interested should read these wonderfully challenging novels now. There is, of course, a concluding novel yet to be published in which Palmer will hopefully resolve many of the story’s plotlines and character arcs, but it’s probably too much to ask that the last book also resolves questions about the existence of God, evil, and so forth. Answers to those questions must come from each reader, and they aren’t easy questions, either, so you might as well begin grappling with them now! And if it seems a daunting task, at least you’ll have company, for every reader is joined in the task of interpreting the story not just by long-winded reviewers but by the characters themselves. Mycroft, J.E.D.D. Mason, and others actively try to interpret the story that’s happening around them and even convince us of the correctness of their views.
So it’s a story where everyone is a critic. No wonder you like it so much! Perhaps your own circumstances are biasing your opinion?
Touché, reader, touché.