“Book Review”: Terra Ignota

This is a discussion of Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders, which are the first two novels in a sci-fi series called Terra Ignota.

I’ve put “book review” in quotation marks because I cannot pretend that my essay is meant to provide useful information to people who are considering reading these books.  It’s not even really meant to discuss the books’ artistic qualities at all, although in fact it does that thing, in the process of getting where it needs to go.  It is a philosophical complaint that happens to have their text as its substrate. 

I am writing this for an imagined audience that has already read Terra Ignota.  Not even because of spoilers — although there are some spoilers, at least in a plot-structural sense — but just because I’m trying to grapple with the implications of a complicated thing, too complicated for me to be able to reproduce it in summary at the level of fidelity that would be needed. 

If you’re interested in getting a more normal sort of book review from me, all I can provide is the following:

1. For various complicated reasons, there is no way in hell that I can be remotely objective about Terra Ignota as a piece of literature, and you should probably turn to someone else if you want sound analysis of its artistic merit. 

2. That being said: the critics all seem to be describing it as a beautiful jewel of a series, and as far as I’m concerned, in this case the critics are completely right.  The prose is clever, and intricate, and manages to remain fun despite its incredible density; the best of the characters are refreshingly individual, original, and bizarre; the author’s chops as an intellectual historian shine through, and she takes a contagious delight in treating serious ideas with the seriousness they deserve; and yet, in the end, all of these are garnishes beside the real feast.  Given the values her own writing espouses, I can pay Dr. Palmer no higher compliment than to say that she channels the sensawunda of Golden Age sci-fi, in a pure way that we haven’t much seen since the Golden Age.  She dreams up weirdness after weirdness that can be dropped upon the world, and asks “what if?,” and then takes the time to explore all the answers to that question.  I want to call it “great worldbuilding,” but in so doing I would mislead.  In this fallen age, “worldbuilding” is a term that has come to mean something less remarkable than the thing these novels are doing.   This is not RPG-sourcebook material — this is not “check out the clever rules of my magic system!,” or “look at all the heraldry and politics I made up for my feuding noble houses!,” or anything so common — this is imagining substantively different ways that reality could be.  It is good.  You should read it.

And yet.

As a matter of moral theory, there is something rotten at the heart of Terra Ignota.  The story is built upon a conceptual short-circuit, a profoundly destructive failure-of-philosophy, to an extent that it represents a grand betrayal of the thinking reader.  These books are, inter alia, books about ethics, and they are structured such that their ethical logic funnels inexorably down to a single terminal value, and that value is compellingly-framed but necessarily vacuous.

…I realize that this is an absurdly over-charged, melodramatic way to say “I have problems with the philosophical stance that is written into some novels.”  Every text espouses its own value judgments, implicitly or otherwise, and a lot of the time you’re going to disagree; that’s how it goes.  Forgive me my melodrama.  If Terra Ignota were less excellent, my reaction would be less strong.  But Palmer is brilliant, and she bends all her brilliance towards the task of making her flawed conclusions as pitch-perfectly seductive as she can.  Every author’s art, every argument and every bit of poetry, every lofty appeal and every cheap trick — in the end, they’re all used for one main purpose, which is causing you to embrace the vacuity rather than recoiling from it.  And, God! it’s done well.  Even as I write this, there is a heaviness in my heart, because on some level I really want to align myself with the non-value in question, because the books make it sound so damn great.  So, in intellectual self-defense if nothing else, I turn to theatrics.

The crack in the foundation, the poison in the center of the apple, is the Utopian Hive.

I bet you’re not really surprised to hear me say that.

*****

At the very least, I assume we can all agree on this: Palmer is desperately, head-over-heels in love with Utopia.  Or, if we’re playing by Death of the Author rules, the text is in love with Utopia.

Terra Ignota portrays a lot of viewpoints and a lot of philosophies — some in the form of Hives, some in the form of eccentric individual characters, some in the form of abstract thoughts suggested by Mycroft — and it tends to do so in a relatively detached and even-handed kind of way.  Every theory, every way-of-being, gets shown from many different angles.  Everything is heroic and ordinary and stupid and wise and beautiful and destructive.  Except for the thing that the book (with some self-conscious irony) calls Utopianism.  Utopia receives straight-up idolatry.

This is true in-world.  We never see Utopians who are anything less than incredibly smart and incredibly noble.  While the setting is allegedly full of anti-Utopian suspicion and prejudice, pretty much all the people we actually see — meaning “all the most significant people in the world” — are full of breathless admiration for the Utopian ideal.  Apollo Mojave, the avatar of Utopianism, is presented as being so surpassingly wonderful that anyone of any emotional merit at all is totally obsessed with him.

More importantly, it’s true out-of-world, in the meta-textual presentation that the narrative is making to the audience.  Utopia is loaded up with every charm and glamour, every resonance, everything that could help ensure that the reader likes this most glorious of Hives as much as he’s supposed to.  It’s, well, it’s cool; Utopians get magic pets and window-into-an-alternate-universe coats, Utopians get superior tech for pretty much every purpose that matters, Utopians get all the best toys.  It’s portrayed as the Smallest and Most Outsider-y Hive, the Noble Persecuted Minority, the Most Obviously Special, in a way that makes no fucking sense if you think about it for even a minute — c’mon, even allowing for a “voker requirement,” do you really think that there will be millions more people drawn to Creepy Personality-Dissecting Brain Science than to the prospect of being Awesome Space Wizards? do you really think that nerd culture is orders of magnitude more foreign to European culture and Asian culture than they are to each other? — but being the Most Obviously Special sure does enhance its appeal.  Utopia gets science as its “cultural thing” (sorry, Cato Weeksbooth!), and science is the most straightforwardly positively-connotated concept in existence to a modern audience.  Hell, Utopia is the culture built from genre fiction fandom, and what more blatant enticement could there be for an audience that has to consist entirely of those who read genre fiction?

And all of this is just support-infrastructure for the sheer moral force that the narration itself puts behind the Utopian Dream.  It’s hard to explain exactly what I mean by this — some of it comes explicitly through Mycroft’s voice, which never feels so sincerely auctorial as when he’s talking about Utopia, and some of it is spread through the narrative aether in other ways — but, when you’re actually reading the text, you can’t miss it.  Utopianism is heroism, is far-sightedness, is caring about the Really Important Stuff in life, is being brave and pure and aspiring-towards-the-best-in-humanity.  (And everything else is a little bit sordid and petty; non-Utopians, however virtuous or cool they may be, are kinda just wallowing in the base and limited pleasures of a base and limited mode of existence.)  The infinite horizon of space!  Limitless human potential!  Fighting forever for a better world!  It makes the heart sing.  It makes my heart sing, I know that much.

I’m belaboring a simple point here, I know, but this is important.  We will accept no cowardly attempts to duck behind “this is a complex narrative that gives weight to lots of different perspectives.”  If you’re reading Terra Ignota along the grain, whatever other ideas you may find yourself playing around with, Utopia = Good.

*****

But, if you pay close attention, you’ll notice that there are some weird things going on with Utopia and its role in the story.

For starters: at least through the first two books, Utopia doesn’t actually play any necessary role in the plot at all.

I know!  This seems unbelievable, right?  Everyone is always fucking talking about the Utopians, and they’re on-stage surprisingly often.  But it’s true.  None of them, not even the sainted Apollo, nor the Hive as a collective entity, does anything that isn’t explicitly rendered redundant by some other agent.  Aldrin Bester and Voltaire Seldon are spear-carriers.  Apollo’s personal war obsession jump-starts a lot of the backstory action…but the Mardis were doing all the same war stuff, for practical purposes.  (Also, in any event, there’s nothing discernibly Utopian about Apollo’s military theories.  A member of some other Hive could have done exactly the same [redundant] things without being in any way uncharacteristic.)  We’re given reason to think that the visible-in-the-medium-term completion of the Utopian Mars project is one of the factors making war inevitable, but we’re also given about five other compelling reasons that war is inevitable.

Terra Ignota, thus far, is a story about the complicated politics of a peaceful and prosperous world with a weird-ass political system, and about how violent conflict can arise from multipolar systems even when no one on any side wants it.  It is a story about the strength of gender differentiation, and religion, in a world that is devoted to ignoring those things as hard as possible.  It is a story about the nature of divinity as experienced from the inside.  It is a story about the moral nature of complicated people who do some extremely bad things.  And the Utopians do not actually engage with any of that stuff.  They’re just kind of hanging around on the outskirts and in the backstory, being super awesome, occasionally doing trivial spear-carrier sorts of things that non-space-wizards could do just fine.

(I can’t imagine the editor who would have the heart to cut Utopia out of these books.  It’s too damn cool, and it feels like it’s at the very center of things, given how much people talk about it and how much it defines the text’s values.  But go ahead, try it, piece together the version of the plot where Utopia just isn’t there.  Basically nothing changes.)

Beyond that, the characterization of Utopia is full of confusing little contradictions.

The Utopians wears their “private utopias” on their coats, each one riotously different from all the others — a world of derelict starships, a sword-and-sorcery fantasy world, a world ruled by ants, etc.  The Utopians, and the text, get kind of preachily pious about how they spend their whole lives working hard to make those dreams real.  Except that they obviously don’t, not in any way (with the important-but-atypical exception of Apollo and his war).  Utopia is not a struggle of all against all, each crazy visionary scrabbling to create his own private demiurgic dream; from what we can see, it’s a hugely cooperative and largely unified effort, where pretty much everyone is on board with the single vision of “we’re going to throw most of our colossal collective income towards this terraforming-Mars project.”  The items on the Infinite To-Do list are practical, common-sense make-things-better tasks.  The coats, so distinctive and so symbolic-seeming, are pure set dressing.

Supposedly these are the passionately anti-mortality people, the people dedicated to “disarming death blade by blade,” the people who won’t use a global transit system with < 10 deaths per year because it’s too unsafe — and yet it’s somehow deeply and disturbingly anti-Utopian for an entomologist not to want to get on a rocket ship to Mars on the grounds that she doesn’t want to deal with the danger.  Supposedly the Utopians “hunt down and destroy” everything that ever kills them, but it’s all small-scale stuff (by science-fiction standards), fixing safety rails and curing individual diseases and improving traffic safety and the like.  These “big-picture thinkers” don’t have even the beginnings of a plan to defeat death, not for real, and don’t seem to want one.  All their big-picture thinking is going into high-risk high-mortality space projects.  Hell, the fucking Brillists are better transhumanists than they are; at least the Brillists are making a serious attempt to achieve their alleged immortality-seeking goals!

Any given piece of this can be explained away, or excused.  It’s not like groups don’t contain contradictions and complexities in their makeup, or even in their central purpose.  It’s not like every cool element of a book has to be Strictly Necessary for the advancement of the plot.

But if you look at it all together, well, alarm bells should be going off.

Or maybe not.  Maybe not everyone has those alarm bells in his head; maybe you have to be a genre-fiction writer yourself to recognize the signs.  But to me, at least, once all the puzzle-pieces are lined up, it becomes clear that we’re looking at a very common disease of genre-fiction narratives.  Obviously the author’s beloved pet…constantly discussed, but not really central to the action of the plot…loaded up with all kinds of virtuous and cool-sounding traits, even ones that contradict each other…

…this is not an entity that fits organically into the story.  This is a Happy Thing.  This is a narrative artifact that began its existence as an icon of Squee-Producing Excellence, and that survives by annexing all manner of positively-connoted concepts and thus producing ever-vaster volumes of squee, without any particular regard for coherence or sense.  

Most of the time, a Happy Thing is a character, of the Mary Sue variety.  And you could argue that Apollo Mojave plays that role.  But it’s fairer to say that Utopia itself is the Happy Thing here.  And it is totally characteristic of Terra Ignota that it would get itself tangled up, not by some too-charming fakery of a too-cool-for-school person, but by an entire imagined way of life.

*****

All of that is by way of background, setup, and grounding.  Were it the sum of my complaint, I would not be writing this review, because there would be nothing worth the discussion.  Genre fiction novels sometimes fall a little too much in love with their Happy Things?  Shock!  Scandal!  It’s a literary sin, but not a mortal one.  It doesn’t turn books into trash.  It certainly doesn’t prevent Terra Ignota from being very excellent indeed.

The problem is that Terra Ignota is not just a series of fun genre novels.  These books are, inter alia, books about ethics.  They have serious points to make.  They aim to influence the reader’s philosophical reasoning in a serious way.

As we learn from the Sequences, Happy Things do not bode well for the quality of anyone’s reasoning.

*****

I haven’t yet discussed the most critical, the most shocking, the most appalling contradiction in the way that the text characterizes Utopia.

Utopians don’t actually care about the future.

I mean, they act like they do.  They talk about it all the fucking time.  They put off the pleasures of today because they’re so very concerned about tomorrow.  They devote all their resources to Space! (TM), because Space! is where the future is going to happen.  Every time they make a philosophical point, or someone makes a philosophical point on their behalf, it’s all “the world of the present vs. the better world-to-come that the Utopians are building brick by brick.”

Funny thing, though.  No one ever tells us what’s supposed to make that better world, y’know, better.  No one ever tells us anything about what it’s going to be like, except that it will take place largely on other planets.  No one ever actually tells us what future the Utopians want.  And no one thinks that this omission is even remarkable enough to be worth a comment or a raised eyebrow.  There’s no vision.

The individual Utopians have visions, in the form of their coats, but they’re conspicuously not working to achieve those visions.  (What would that even mean?  For, say, the ancient-ruined-temples guy?)  Apollo Mojave has a vision, a vision of the Tragically Necessary War, but it’s purely instrumental — it’s Tragically Necessary because it will safeguard the Grand Utopian Dream, whose content is still almost-totally unspecified.  The Infinite To-Do List provides a vision of sorts, as does the hodge-podge anti-deathism, but it’s all nickel-and-dime stuff that fits perfectly well within the Incrementally Improving World of Today.  At no point does any spokesman for Utopia say “this is what we’re fighting for, this is why it’s leaps better than the world we have now, this is why it’s worth all our sacrifice.”

(The books do contain one vision of a Qualitatively Different World.  It’s not Utopian at all.  It’s the Brillist digital-immortality vision, which the narrative treats as being clever and interesting but ultimately kind of contemptible.  Certainly not as heroic as the vision of the Utopians!  Which has rocket ships to Mars!  And also, uh, well…)

In a lesser work, this might be a forgivable omission, because in a lesser work it might represent a mere failure of craft.  Maybe the author just couldn’t come up with a sufficiently-compelling utopian vision to motivate her noble space wizards; maybe it seemed better to fudge by shrouding the whole thing in mystery.  We know that’s not the case here.  We know that Palmer can create really, really gripping visions of small-u utopia.  She did.  She gave us the setting of the Terra Ignota books, the boring petty sordid world with which the non-Utopians are so basely content…which is an amazing vision of a reality that is peaceful and happy and safe and still interesting, plagued by little other than the danger of its excellence proving too unstable to last.  (The text is even explicitly self-aware about this.  Vivien Ancelet, one of the most sympathetic characters in the book, is given the chance to lay out the case for the utopian virtue of the status quo.  It’s a good case.)  If she’d wanted, Palmer could also have given us a better utopia on the side, a worthy vision to drive her Utopians onward to glory.

So why didn’t she?

Because specificity is death to a Happy Thing.

The thing that sets the Utopians apart is not an ideal, or a vision, or even a virtue, but an image: the image of the Heroic Science Explorer, boldly going where no man has gone before, voluntarily undergoing hardship and danger for the sake of a Shining New Tomorrow.  This is a resonant image, especially for nerds of a certain stripe, and I don’t blame anyone for finding it very powerful.  find it very powerful.  But you can’t build a moral philosophy around it, any more than you can build a moral philosophy around “it’s awesome to be a brave revolutionary who throws molotov cocktails and gets arrested for The Cause.”  It has to matter what The Cause is.  And, by the same token, it has to matter that your Shining New Tomorrow is in fact demonstrably shinier than today.  Otherwise you’re just playacting. Otherwise, you’re just shoring up your narcissistic identity as a Heroic Science Explorer, while lying to yourself about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

But it’s the image that’s important, as far as the text is concerned, not the content.  It doesn’t really matter what Mars is going to be like, or what crazy inventions the Utopian labs have coming down the pike, or whether the Utopians ever actually achieve immortality.  What matters is that Utopians think and act like Heroic Science Explorers, regardless of the circumstances.  Whatever else is going on, however utopian the world already is, they have to be stretching ever outward and heading always for the horizon.  We know this, because the books are taking place in an already-built utopia, and it’s made perfectly clear that the Utopians are special and awesome precisely because they maintain that attitude nonetheless.  And thus the text can’t actually provide a Utopian agenda with any particulars.  If it did, sooner or later that agenda would be achieved, and then the Utopians would be faced with a narratively-intolerable choice: either they’d have to turn to a new agenda (thus admitting that the original one was imperfectly heroic), or they’d have to dedicate themselves to cementing and defending their gains (thus giving up their heroism to become icky defenders of the status quo).  So long as things are kept vague, they can be Science Heroes forever, perfectly aligned with all the Happiness of the Happy Thing.

The Utopians don’t love the future.  They love the feeling of being in love with the future.  They worship a black box labeled “Infinite Regression of Heavens,” and as far as I can tell that box is actually empty.

*****

In theory, you could turn this into a form of science-fiction-flavored virtue ethics — y’know, “the Virtuous Man does what Captain Picard would do,” or some comparable construction.  Maybe something akin to my own identity-driven morality, where the ethical goal is to construct yourself as an awesome science-fiction person.  The text won’t let us make any such move.  The Utopians aren’t individualists of any kind, not where it counts; they’re eusocial hive insects, allowing themselves to be cogs in the machine of the Great Project, giving their all for the sake of a Shining New Tomorrow that most of them will never see.  (Maybe it’s cheating to bring in an author’s other works, but just for the sake of clarifying illustration, Palmer’s song “Somebody Will” is exactly on point here.)  It’s a very realistic, hard-nosed, consequentialist picture of the Heroic Science Explorer.

Except that the consequences don’t actually matter.  They matter so little that they aren’t even discussed.  It’s all about the image.

What we’re left with is, well, vacuous.  It’s a particularly stupid form of virtue ethics, where the virtue concept devolves to “act like a sad heavily-future-oriented consequentialist.”  It’s a fetishization of explore-over-exploit, whatever the environment might be.  Work hard and dream of Mars, not because we have any reason to believe that Mars will be especially great, but because the Virtuous Man works hard and dreams of Mars.  And we’ll spin you some stories about how, in a better and more glorious world, you would…be doing the exact same thing, but wearing a badass space-wizard coat.

The hard part of utopia-building is the part where you lay out the particulars.  There’s a reason we have to do it anyway.  An actual fleshed-out model of the Shining New Tomorrow will never shine quite so brightly as an idol crafted from pure Happy Thing…but the fleshed-out model is something that might conceivably be achieved.  More importantly, you can think about it, analyze it, prove to yourself that it’s worthy of your labors.  The Happy Thing will just draw you ever onwards, never knowing where you’re going or why, but always somehow sure that each step must surely be taking you in the right direction.

*****

Yet I still find myself wishing that I were a Utopian, clad in a Griffincloth display of a private paradise, confident that my children’s children’s children would inherit the nameless boundless joys to be found on a terraformed Mars and beyond.

This is what scares me.  Terra Ignota, as I said, is really good.  Good enough to sing to a new generation of far-thinking, brave-hearted children.  Good enough to cause some of its readers to rethink their values.

So, please, if my own poor words have any power in your ears:

Don’t accept moral vacuity.  Don’t become addicted to an image — or do, if you like, but let it be your own image, crafted to exalt the particular glory for which your own heart yearns.  Understand your goals before you make sacrifices for them.  If you decide to fight for a better tomorrow…as you should…make sure you first find out what kind of tomorrow it is.

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“Book Review”: Terra Ignota

3 thoughts on ““Book Review”: Terra Ignota

  1. a) It’s “Dr Palmer” if you have to have a title, and why do you have to have a title? You wouldn’t if the author was a man. You wouldn’t say “Mr”. I get this all the time — reviewers will be comparing me to a male author, and they’ll say “Ms Walton and Mieville” or worse “Mrs Walton and Turtledove”. I may be a little oversensitive on this, but it’s… you really wouldn’t be saying Mr Wolfe if Gene Wolfe had written these. Cut it out. And if you feel you have to use a title of respect for some reason, then the correct one is Dr. (The only reason I can think of for even wanting to use a title here would be knowing Ada personally, but you couldn’t know her without being aware she has a PhD, and that comes with a title conveying intellectual qualification, not gender.)

    b) Wait for book 3 and the Utopian revelations in Book 3, because it will answer all your issues. I really want to engage with things you’ve said, but I can’t because spoilers for The Will To Battle.

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    1. …yes, it obviously should be “Dr. Palmer,” or “Palmer” if we’re talking about the auctorial voice rather than the person. Fixed, and thank you.

      As for the other:

      Obviously I can’t comment on text I haven’t seen. I’m absolutely sure there’ll be lots of Interesting Utopian Stuff down the pike. Even just on my own, I think it likely that some of the comments I’ve made on the literary aspects of the books (e.g. “Utopia has no direct influence on the plot”) will cease to apply.

      Philosophically — well, perhaps I’ll be surprised. You know better than I what lies ahead. Certainly I look forward to hashing it out with you, or anyone else interested, once spoilers are no longer an issue. But the particular moral short-circuit that I’m trying to talk about here isn’t only an artifact of Terra Ignota in particular. You see it a lot in future-oriented science-loving geeky circles generally. You see it in Palmer’s own non-novel work (e.g., famously, “Somebody Will”). It’s very easy, and very common, to fall in love with an attitude rather than an actual vision of the future. As it currently stands, Terra Ignota is serving as something of an artistic flagship for that kind of philosophy, and I’ll go out on enough of a limb to say “it would represent a substantial shift in tone and meaning for it to cease being that thing.”

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  2. I can agree, to an extent. Utopians definitely sort of relate to LW, and have the same vulnerability. You can’t increase rationalism for its own sake, or it is circular. (I want to be Less Wrong, why? To be Less Wrong!). Similarly, the Utopians want to colonize Mars? Why?

    The thing is, these are smart folks. I mean, they are pretty much the nerds, right? So you KNOW there are constellations fighting over what part of Mars will have what Utopian’s dream. It’s the world’s biggest campus, on the inside. But that’s not exactly foreign to nerd culture.

    Who hasn’t spent an afternoon arguing about Hogwarts Houses or Dynasties in Game of Thrones or whatever? There is No Way that the Utopians don’t do similar stuff about some arcane process that determines who gets what on Mars. But Mycroft is an outsider, as are the rulers. They don’t see that.

    Greyjoy apologists and Martell fanatics both get together and praise GoT when the jocks come round. The Utopians put the knives away when the children are looking on. Nothing to see here, just those wacky inventors with their stupid space dreams.

    The unanimity that you are decrying as a enforced conformity really represents something much more basic, a Schelling point. You and I, fellow Utopian, may not agree on what Mars will be like, but we DO agree that the Masons suck, and they need to stop taking our lunch. So let’s work together on Mars. Once there, we will hash out what nerd gets what space.

    There is probably a lot of cackling about how sorry their more popular peers will be, once they are gone. You KNOW there is. We are a deeply petty tribe, come to that.

    Ultimately, though, I don’t think the black box that you see at the heart of Utopian discourse is anything like as bad as you make it out to be. It is ok to unite in service to Progess, without a clear idea of where that goes. The Utopians do their best on a day to day basis, dreaming of a red paradise. You and I, clear thinking readers that we are, know that that paradise will still not match their coats, and they will rest for but an hour before inventing yet another task to be completed before they can hash out their differing visions.

    The joke is, of course, on them. They may colonize Mars, but their kids won’t all be nerds. Within a generation the Red planet will have Cousins, Masons, etc

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