Too Like The Lightning
Seven Surrenders
The Will to Battle
Perhaps the Stars

New York City: Tor, 2016-2021

Ada Palmer

I wrote a review of the first part of Ada Palmer's novel (it's very much one book in four volumes) back when I read it in 2018. I caught up with the next two volumes but felt very confused and bewildered by all of the intrigues and politics at the time and then I had to wait for the fourth to come out. And once it had and one of my kids gave it to me for Christmas, I didn't feel like I was in the mood for it - there are scenes in Too Like The Lightning which upset me as much as anything I've read in a work of fiction. So it sat on my shelf for about a year, its red spine weirdly echoing that of Perec's Life: a User's Manual, from which it is separated by Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, in a curious assemblage of thorny, baroque confections brought together by the contingencies of the alphabet.

And then when I started reading it, I realised that I'd forgotten most of what was going on in the second and third volumes. So I decided to re-read the whole series from the start.

On the one hand, this was great: I don't re-read books anywhere near as much as I used it, and I'd forgotten how rewarding it can be with a text that stands up to it. The manipulations of gendered language which I thought a bit unsuccessful on a first read made more sense the second time, and the unreliability of the narrator (which is extreme) stands up well to closer scrutiny.

On the other hand, it was overwhelming. I find Palmer's world, in which near-instantaneous global transport has dissolved the geophysical nation-state into overlapping and voluntary communities called Hives, very absorbing, and on the second pass I was more able, with the aid of notes, to keep track of what was going on. But by the time I was half-way through Perhaps the Stars I was a nervous wreck. There isn't anything in the subsequent books which I found as upsetting as Too Like The Lightning but the predominant emotion I felt was anxiety.

There's a headspace I associate with being absorbed in dense science fiction and also with having intense dorky conversations, and by the end of the series I was relieved to be able to let this feeling of breathless enthusiasm go.

It's been four months since then and I've been putting off writing this review, partly for the reasons just stated, but also because I've been wrestling with how I felt about the whole series, and how to review it without spoilers. I've tried to avoid specific spoilers but from this point on there will be a few general ones.

It takes its role as Science Fiction Of Ideas a bit too seriously: Palmer says somewhere on her excellent blog that they are part of a Great Conversation, in dialogue with the past history of other writers who've used the fictional device of imaginary worlds to grapple with political philosophy. And this is a book which starts out consciously imitating the genre of an 18th-century conte philosophique which was one of the things which made me want to read it in the first place!

So complaining about this is a little unfair of me, and also may make it seem like the book isn't a lot of fun. It is, but you have to accept that the narrative is being driven by the schema of Big Ideas, not by the characters or even the world-building. And the ideas shift a bit from the start to the finish: there's a lot in the first two books about de Sade, which I think is a really good connection to make with regard to sf, but this seems to disappear by the end.

It's fun of a very particular and dorky kind, though. It's about the biggest and most serious ideas - war, the human capacity for evil, the future of humanity - and it's also self-consciously ridiculous, even camp. One of the biggest Hives is the Freemasons! The Humanists get around in kinky boots with signature soles so they can tread their achievements into the carpet! The Utopians - the tech nerd faction - have invented Pokémon!

It's become a commonplace when writing about political groups you want to mock to accuse them of LARPing, but Palmer, as a historian, is very aware of the extent to which all political activity is a form of dressing up as whatever you admire from the past. And there are less obvious rewards if you know a bit about the history of the forms and attitudes which her 25th-century people have adopted: Freemasonry has become a joke now, but in eighteenth century Europe it was an important part of civil society following the Wars of Religion, so it's possible to see how it could have played a similar role in the shadow of the much more devastating religious conflict which the world of Terra Ignota emerged from.

Palmer points to Gene Wolfe and Samuel Delany as her biggest influences, but the book still reminds me of R A Lafferty: there's nothing that can match the latter's goofy humour, but Palmer's future is not unlike the accelerated world of "Slow Tuesday Night", and Lafferty is the only author I can think of besides Wolfe with a similar approach to metaphysics and religion. If you're a Lafferty fan, imagine the ten pages of "Slow Tuesday Night" expanded to four volumes to appreciate how exhausting it can feel.

Talking of fans gets to the heart of the matter, which that Terra Ignota is an incredibly fannish book. It practically invites you to put on its Sorting Hat, join a Hive and start working on your fanfic, and the in-universe fashion is already cosplay. (I'd probably end up as a Greylaw Hiveless, after ditching the Utopians in an adolescent mental health crisis and then dithering between the Gordians and the Cousins. See, this is another reason why the books made me anxious and at war with nerd culture, which often feels like a process of relentless and static self-categorisation. Palmer is ahead of my objections here, too, with the debate over set-sets, people who have had their personalities artificially tuned for high performance, and there's a whole conversation about neurodivergence in this book which I'm not really qualified to have.)

The fannishness is part of the fun, and, of course, Tumblr has gone nuts about it. Sf has always been a genre in closer dialogue with its fandom than most literature, and if I worry about the present stage of things being a little too ingrown, I can just remember the bad old days when Robert Heinlein ended one of his awful late novels with a creaking parody of a sf convention.

Look, I feel like my doubts and reservations have got in the way of saying that I really enjoyed it even though it gave me Anxiety: a lot of my favourite art does that, and I want people to discover this world for themselves rather than have me spell everything out.

There was one point of worldbuilding that I have to quibble over, which came up when people have to find alternatives to the magic global transit system: in a post-scarcity world run by seven different flavours of nerd, there would have to be a bunch of enthusiasts keeping the railways going for fun, see, if I get started on this I won't stop, I'm probably going to have to go shitpost my notes for this review with appropriate CWs over on Mastodon.