Tag Archives: Third millennium

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.

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.