Tag Archives: Utopies Romans nouvelles etc

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.