Tag Archives: dystopian fiction

Perhaps the Stars

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Perhaps the Stars [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Ada Palmer, book 4 of Terra Ignota.

Palmer Perhaps the Stars

This fourth book of Terra Ignota provides a conclusion worthy of what has come before. It is longer than any of the previous volumes by at least 50%, and it involves more narrative lacunae and changes of style. It does not resolve all of the enigmas raised in previous books, nor even those opened within its own pages, but it does complete the story and give it greater context and significance.

Terra Ignota has an unreliable and culpable narrator addressing himself to a posterity even further removed from the (actual) reader, but represented by a Reader character whose identity is in some measure disclosed at the end. It entertains metaphysics and vaults into the very highest political arenas of its imagined world. For these reasons and others, it has invited comparison to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and Ada Palmer has admitted to her admiration for Wolfe’s work. There is an especially Wolfean development in this final volume when . . . . . . . . (hover over to reveal) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Poignantly, Wolfe died in 2019 as Palmer was finishing Perhaps the Stars, which has for a recurring theme the ways in which the death of the writer is neither the death of the author nor the death of the story.

I feel petty to notice it, but there is grammatical tic that recurs through all the volumes of Terra Ignota: the use of nominative pronouns where objective ones are called for in subordinate formulae at the tail end of sentences, like: “Who knew that such things could happen to we who had accomplished so much?” As I saw this oddness repeat, I grew to wonder whether it was Palmer or Canner who was to blame, and if the latter, what it could portend. It certainly seems wrong that the academically-accomplished writer of these books should have included such nonstandard English as mere error.

The scale and complexity of these books are impressive. They are still new, and I think that they will have staying power to gain in popularity and acclaim, like the Book of the New Sun and Herbert’s Dune books. Attempts at scholarly criticism and substantial intellectual response began already after the release of the second book Seven Surrenders. I was not surprised to find out that there is a fan wiki to attempt to trace the sometimes bewildering details of character, place, and plot, but disappointed to discover that it is still sparsely populated.

I would advise prospective readers of Terra Ignota to view the four books as a single work and avoid setting it aside between volumes–perhaps especially between the third and fourth books where there was in fact a delay in publication. Do not skip past the fanciful-seeming publication conditions and dramatis personae front matter in each book. These supply important (p)reviews of the social structures, factions, stakes, and characters. If you’ve never read Homer, or if it’s just been decades, consider reading an encyclopedia article for an overview of the Illiad and the Odyssey. Ditto for Thomas Hobbes and his Leviathan, and perhaps Voltaire and Diderot to boot.

The Will to Battle

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Will to Battle [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Ada Palmer, book 3 of the Terra Ingota series.

Palmer The Will to Battle

There was less discontinuity between the second and third volumes of Terra Ignota than I had expected. Narrator Mycroft Canner’s exposition is less polished, more raw (and unreliable) for reasons that become evident near the end of The Will to Battle. The book’s title references a quote from Hobbes’ Leviathan XIII which is supplied as an epigram, observing that war is in effect when that will exists, not merely when it is expressed through actual combat. As the previous volumes established that this one would be, it is concerned with the re-invention of war after multiple human generations of global peace.

There’s a blurb from Cory Doctorow on the cover of The Will to Battle that touts the plausibility of Too Like the Lightning, which I would not really number among Terra Ignota’s virtues. But I would agree with his other adjectives: “intricate” and “significant.” You can tell Palmer is a professional historian, because her 25th-century future doesn’t start today: it starts in antiquity, and the characters think about the 18th century far more often than they do the 20th or 21st.

In this third book, Palmer’s references to literature and history are as manifold as ever, but Leviathan and Homer’s Illiad stand out for the extent to which they are presumed and explicitly referenced by the text. Each contributes an actual character into the mix. Palmer’s Achilles Mojave is (in some still mysterious but actual sense) the ancient Achaean, and a spectral Thomas Hobbes joins “the reader” in the frame conversation with Mycroft that occasionally obtrudes on the narrative.

This chronicle–more “secret” than the one of the prior books–affords some more empirical precision regarding not only the dates of the events chronicled, but the dates at which Canner is supposed to have written about them, along with the composition of the first two books. (Curiously, The Will to Battle begins punctually on the 550th anniversary of the reception of Liber Legis.) Palmer pulls a breathtaking stunt with narrative voice at the beginning of the final chapter that I can’t help but remark yet refuse to spoil.

Because of its complexity and hectic pace, I think too long a hiatus between volumes can pose a problem for readers of Terra Ignota. I was honestly a little worried after just a few weeks when I came back to The Will to Battle. But I was happily impressed by the “Seven-Ten List for Our Changing World” in the front matter as an excellent refresher on characters and plot as they had been left at the end of Seven Surrenders. I will charge on to Perhaps the Stars before the month is over.

Seven Surrenders

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Seven Surrenders [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Ada Palmer, book 2 of the Terra Ignota series.

Palmer Seven Surrenders

In Ada Palmer’s “Author’s Note and Acknowledgments” appended to Seven Surrenders she mentions such earlier science fiction writers as Alfred Bester, Jo Walton, Gene Wolfe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Voltaire, Yevgeney Zamiatin, and Yoshiyuki Tomino, among others. She does not include Frank Herbert, but the book that I was most reminded of in my reading of this second of four books in the Terra Ignota series was Dune Messiah, in the ways it expanded on the inventive world-building of its predecessor volume and in the incredible pitch of political and personal intrigue. The scale of Terra Ignota is smaller than the vast interstellar empire of Herbert’s Arrakis, but a global terrestrial society of the 25th century seems big enough for serious work.

In the midst of the story, Palmer uses a metafictional device to reflect on the ambitions of science fiction: “Apollo didn’t really think the war over Mars in two hundred and fifty years would be fought with giant robots, it was just the only way they could describe a war that would be meaningful, conscionable, with space for human dignity” (249-50). I wonder which aspects of Palmer’s own sometimes extravagantly-imagined future she finds least likely, but it is clearly not a prognostication. It is an engaging, immersive way to describe in high relief the tensions and vulnerabilities provoked by secularism, feminism, humanism, and other species of thought that have emerged from the Enlightenment with consequences yet to be determined in our present world. It also seems to be trying to sound the humanity that we share with Hellenic antiquity, in order to understand what of us can be maintained and/or transformed in centuries to come.

The four books of the series are evidently divided into two pairs, and this second completes the opening arc concerning the “Days of Transformation” that bring to its end an existing world order. While curiosity does drive the reader toward “the Crisis still unfolding” in the next two books, this one (unlike the first) offers some sense of a plot climaxed and concluded.

Too Like the Lightning

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Too Like the Lightning [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Ada Palmer, book 1 of the Terra Ignota series.

Palmer Too Like the Lightning

To begin at the end: this book is far from a standalone novel, and I would only recommend it to those with a reasonable expectation of continuing to the later numbers of the Terra Ignota tetralogy. It opens a variety of plots and questions, but it supplies very little closure. Mostly, this volume accomplishes the presentation of a future world society and the definition of key characters within it.

The setting is a 25th century that I found a little improbably optimistic in terms of the perpetuation of our contemporary civilization, although there are increasingly explicit references to upheavals that have happened in the interim. The questionably reliable narrator is a sort of public slave (“servicer”) with intimate connections to the global elite, and his conscious efforts to supply historical perspective mostly reference the 18th-century Enlightenment. It has really been a joy for me to read sf that is in overt conversation with Voltaire and de Sade!

Ada Palmer’s future world supposes a formidable transportation network that makes the whole planet local. Ethnic phenotypes and nationalities have become merely ornamental, while public expressions of human gender are socially discouraged. Religion has been actively suppressed by universal legislation, with individual spiritual needs ministered to by non-prostelytizing “sensayer” professionals. The largest polities are a handful of Hives which adults join voluntarily.

The Hive with the greatest population is that of the Masonic Empire, distinguished by–among other features–its official and social use of Latin. This detail reminded me at once of the Martian language in the Church of All Worlds in Stranger in a Strange Land. The connection is more than incidental. Like Heinlein’s touchstone work, Too Like the Lightning also concerns itself with sex and religion, and suspends much of its plot from the advent of a child with miraculous powers. In fact, there is an explicit allusion to Valentine Michael Smith (267).

The style here is however more Wolfe than Heinlein, where the fictional narrator’s exposition assumes a hypothetical audience whose needs are different than those of the 21st-century reader. Palmer cleverly highlights this fact with a device that has apparently irritated some reviewers: The reader is conscripted to protest elements of the narrator’s presentation, and given the actual verbiage of doing so, with these interjections distinguished by italic type and archaic diction.

The book is an ambitious and intricate start to a work I will certainly continue reading.

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Memoirs Found in a Bathtub [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Stanisław Lem, trans Michael Kandel and Christine Rose, book 2 in the From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy series.

Lem Memoirs Found in a Bathtub

The twelve-page introduction is more overtly sfnal than the body text of this novel, which is a romp of epistemological ambiguity set in the dystopian Building. From the far-future documentary context of the intro we are led to understand that the Building contains a sort of continuity-of-government American microsociety in an underground site in the Rocky Mountains. And yet the exit from the windowless Building in the memoirs themselves is at the bottom rather than the top (185)–unless that “Gate” is merely a sham or a trap, as it may well be.

The narrator of the memoirs gives neither his name nor his origin. He begins in media res with an effort to “find the right room” (13) which quickly eventuates into his recruitment as an intelligence agent. Once he has achieved this status, the first parts of the book are concerned with his striving to acquire his “instructions,” which he accomplishes in a sort of tentative and temporary fashion. Later passages are more focused on determining the actual authority and allegiances involved with his activities, which tend toward the scripted and ritualistic, implying all manner of codes and betrayals.

I was already reminded of the Kafkaesque British TV series The Prisoner (1967-8) when Major Erms said, “Be seeing you” (58). I guess any intentionality there must be ascribed to the 1973 English translators, since the Polish original was written in 1961. Another comparandum for me was Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Authority.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I picked up this book, but I was surprised to find satirical theodicy skirting the edge of nihilism in an anti-fantasy of espionage and authoritarianism. It’s a short book and I would read it again.

“I only know that you told me what they told you to tell me.”

“And you wouldn’t believe me if I denied that, and you shouldn’t, because even if I did, it probably wouldn’t be the truth. Who knows?” (169)

Utopia Avenue

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Utopia Avenue [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by David Mitchell.

Mitchell Utopia Avenue

This review is for my recent and extremely tardy read of a LibraryThing Early Reviewer copy of Utopia Avenue. My explanation–though it’s not an excuse–is that when the book first arrived, it was filched from my TBR pile by my Other Reader. It was the first David Mitchell she had read, and she liked it well enough to read six other novels by him right away. (I think she still hasn’t read Cloud Atlas, although we saw the film together.)

Utopia Avenue is very much of a piece with Mitchell’s universe of psychosotery and atemporals; it may even make connections of plot and character among earlier novels that had previously seemed to be detached from each other. I found it distinctive from my other Mitchell exposure (Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks, and Slade House) in having a smaller number of viewpoint characters and keeping them all contemporaneous, with the action (outside of ten pages of epilogue) contained within a very limited timeframe of 1967-8.

The story centers in loose rotation on keyboardist/vocalist Elf Holloway, bassist/vocalist Dean Moss, and lead guitarist Jasper de Zoet, the three songwriter members of the English psychedelic rock-folk fusion band Utopia Avenue. Drummer Peter Griffin (oops! a search engine could have saved Mitchell from accidentally evoking a character from a long-running US cartoon!) got a writing credit on one track, and a corresponding viewpoint chapter–as did producer Levon Frankland. The entire book is structured around the band’s three albums, and each chapter is named for a song, focuses on the member who wrote the song, and generally includes the moment of the song’s inspiration. It is an impressive, tightly-built container. (I’ve seen the novel-as-album, chapters-as-tracks conceit done before, notably in Newton’s Wake by Ken MacLeod, but not with this level of rigor.)

Within the container, there is a lot of rich character development and a healthy mix of tragedy and triumph. The sfnal psychosoteric business is pretty much invisible until halfway through the book, and becomes the dominant concern at about the 3/4 mark, which is a pattern I have seen in other work by Mitchell. I didn’t find so much of the authorial and publishing reflexivity he has dropped into other books. Instead, the story is full of delightful and borderline-gratuitous cameos from music and counterculture celebrities of its era. The chapters are long, but they read quickly. There are plenty of sex and drugs, and they are treated with realistic ambivalence, rather than celebratory glee or cautionary horror.

The sort of brother-sister dynamic between Elf and Dean is quite sweet. After the first third of the book, the band of initial strangers–“curated” by the benevolent Levon–have become fast friends. By the novel’s end, they feel like old friends of the reader.

Logan’s Run

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Logan’s Run [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by William F Nolan and George Clayton Johnson.

Nolan Logan's Run

This short novel was the basis for the 1976 film, subsequent television show, and sequel novels: a dystopian action-adventure in the twenty-second century very much along lines laid down by Huxley’s Brave New World. The principal addition to the scenario is the idea of dealing with population pressure by using the global technocratic state to impose a maximum lifespan of twenty-one years. The protagonist Logan is a “Sandman”: a policeman/executioner assigned to eliminate “Runners” who fail to report for their scheduled euthanasia. Contrary to the jacket copy and many synopses, Logan is not a desperate Runner himself, but is in fact a thoroughly ambivalent character, attracted to a Runner whom he accompanies in order to infiltrate the Runner network and reach the rumored Runner destination of Sanctuary and its architect Ballard. 

A sense of impending climax is structured into the novel with chapter numbers that count down from ten. There are two plot twists at the end of the book, neither of which was ever translated into the screen adaptations. One concerns the location of Sanctuary, and the other is about the identity of Ballard. The first works fine, but the second I did not find compelling after the contrary setup. 

The book is very fast-moving, with plenty of sex and violence — though not quite so much that it seems like a mere pretext for them — and seems to have been written with the intention of inspiring screen adaptations. The film and television show actually made from it were toned down by setting it another century further into the future, and raising the age of “Lastday” from twenty-one to thirty. They also added the spectacular euthanasia ceremony of Carousel, to replace the simpler “Sleepshops” of the novel. Another film version is apparently in the works with a projected release date of 2014, and rumor has it that they’ve brought several points of the scenario (most notably the maximum personal age) back in line with that of the book. 

This is not a philosophical work by any stretch of the imagination, and yet it includes interesting material for meditation. The idea of engineered neoteny as a response to socio-economic and political stresses is not so very far-fetched. Certainly, in the 1970s wake of the youth counterculture it must have seemed very credible. It is doubtless one of several such programs available to the Crowned and Conquering Child.