Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Review: Terra Ignota

i. e., Too Like the Lightning, Seven Surrenders, The Will to Battle; excluding Perhaps the Stars

I have many wonderful friends who consume far more media than I can ever hope to keep up with, so I'm pretty much always inundated with recommendations that I know I'll never get to. But when the same book is independently recommended to me by a (grad student in philosophy) old friend from college and a (mathy, rationalist-y) work colleague, I'll sit up and listen. And shortly thereafter, buy the entire trilogy on my Kindle for airport reading almost on the spot. Which turned out to be a good choice.

My spoiler-free recommendation is that the trilogy is extant first three books of the quartet are a brilliant feat of worldbuilding with a triple-helping of shockingly clever philosophy stirred in, clearly pitched at nerds by a dyed-in-the-wool nerd sci-fi fan. Its stylistic quirks are sometimes charming and sometimes frustrating, but it never really gets bogged down long enough for me to despair of getting back to the good parts soon (and yes, they keep coming, through all three books). Rarely have I felt such absolute joy at discovering piece after piece of an author's world.

spoilers: Assume constant worldbuilding spoilers from this point on; I'll try to flag spoilers for plot and characterization section-by-section.


Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning and its sequels share much of what I enjoyed about Anathem -- incessant, rich, clever worldbuilding, characters who deeply believe that ideas matter (and aren't utterly stupid about it), and a sort of wish-fulfillment adventure for nerds desiring a valorized life of the mind (in a way that gets it, instead of falling into the uncanny valley).

They're set in a shiny, meaning-rich Better World Than This One, where great philosophical and theological debates between well-read, polylingual, aesthetically sensitive world leaders who Take Philosophical Debates Seriously steer The Course of History -- where, while organized religion is taboo, countless and constant earnest philosophical conversations are a cultural institution and a way of life. I found some of the personalities tedious, but the conversations never so.

If you're looking for a sci-fi novel that takes its worldbuilding and Enlightenment philosophy equally seriously, and don't mind a cast of walking hyperboles and a tangled, multithreaded plot that keeps incestuously looping back to the same clique of philosopher-kings (any one of whom would make Plato proud) and goes through an everything-you-thought-you-knew-was-a-lie about once every hundred pages (for at least the first two books), then the Terra Ignota trilogy (Too Like the Lightning, Seven Surrenders, and The Will to Battle) is the best I can recommend.

I mostly enjoyed it slightly less than Anathem, but more than Remembrance of Earth's Past (The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death's End), which admittedly I read in translation. In this genre especially, your mileage might will vary according to your own philosophical bent.

A bit more discussion of particular details follows, more for my own good than for anyone else's -- if the above has convinced you to start Too Like the Lightning, then you really should just go ahead and read it, since my worldbuilding spoilers don't do Amanda Palmer's wonderful world justice. I did find the narrative style mildly annoying to deal with at first, but I mostly got used to it after a hundred pages or so. I'm serious about the Surprise Plot Twists never letting up, so if you find them overly tiring, maybe it's not for you, but I think you should mostly be in it for the philosophical rants and the worldbuilding anyway, suspending as much disbelief as you need to go along with the implausibilities of characterization or narrative.

If you've already read the series and are interested in the Thoughts I Have About It, well, you're in the right place.


One thing that Amanda Palmer hits home, out of the park, clear over the next park, and deep into the outfield several parks away -- is her Better World Than This One's post-nationalist, post-hereditary, post-*, post-*, post-* social world, which she manages to make seem as natural and plausible(-for-a-tech-utopia) as it is appealing. To continue comparing to Anathem: where Stephenson's world calls to my avocational hindbrain (wishing I could have a Part to Play as a cloistered academic), Palmer's calls to my social one, which wishes that it were natural in this century to wear my kinships, excitements, allegiances, and deepest moral convictions quite literally on my sleeve, stride the globe in an afternoon, and come home to an intentional community who really, truly understands me and wants to see the same better world I do.

Certainly, as an American expatriate writing these words [ed: two months before publication] on flight number nine and country number four between having left a home in New York and having not yet found one in Hong Kong, it makes perfect sense to me that...

...it does not take a firebrand leader to make someone who lives in Maui, works in Myanmar, and lunches in Syracuse realize the absurdity of owing allegiance to the patch of dirt where babe first parted from placenta.

Don't get me wrong -- in the world in which we actually live, I choose to be swayed to some degree by bonds of patriotism to my country of citizenship:

[T]he story of each of our lives is characteristically embedded in the story of one or more larger units. I understand the story of my life in such a way that it is part of the history of my family or of this farm or of this university or of this countryside; and I understand the story of the lives of other individuals around me as embedded in the same larger stories, so that I and they share a common stake in the outcome of that story and in what sort of story it both is and is to be: tragic, heroic, comic.

...I will obliterate and lose a central dimension of the moral life if I do not understand the enacted narrative of my own individual life as embedded in the history of my country. For if I do not so understand it I will not understand what I owe to others or what others owe to me, for what crimes of my nation I am bound to make reparation, for what benefits to my nation I am bound to feel gratitude. (...)

...but as someone who has found no small degree of self-definition in a jacket representing my tricontinental tribe; a neck pendant here, a ring or two there; a hobby that consumes whole weeks of the year; a chosen second family now scattered across five-to-seven cities; and a keenly felt mosaic of loyalties -- residual, fading, ascendant, and nascent -- to researchers, do-gooders, likeminded artists and awesomeness-seekers, cohabitors, colleagues, co-authors, collaborators, and friends...I definitely feel the truth that there's a richness to the world Palmer spins that goes deeper than the ties we find ourselves granted by mere accident.

Keep your identity small!, the counterpoint goes;

More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn't engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people's identities. But you could in principle have a useful conversation about them with some people. And there are other topics that might seem harmless, like the relative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, that you couldn't safely talk about with others.

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it's right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you. (...)

But I'm more convinced by the response, that you should:

Keep your identity large. Don’t just identify as a Lisp programmer. Identify as a poet, a mother, a Communist, a Jew, a weightlifter, an altruist, and a Lisp programmer.

If the only identity you have is Lisp programmer, then it’s terrifying to think about not being a Lisp programmer. How will you know who you are? How can you relate to other people? On the other hand, if you have a lot of identities, you have something to fall back on. Even if you have to switch programming languages, your children still exist, you can still benchpress twice your body weight, you still light Shabbat candles, and you still spend an absurd amount of time explaining that your preferred economic system wouldn’t have any gulags at all not even a little bit and capitalism has killed more people than socialism anyway. Your sense of self in a social context remains secure. You can admit the flaws in Lisp or that prices are an elegant means of solving coordination problems, without threatening who you are as a person– because who you are as a person isn’t grounded in just one thing. (...)

And furthermore, I feel more and more with time that the keep-your-identity-small stance misses, in its reflexive defense of freedom and lightness, what we human, social creatures defend our freedom for. There is something of the good life in being chosen to be bound by ties to the people you choose, with the permanence you choose, to take common joy in the life you could only make together.


Tangentially, this description practically drove me to happy tears of recognition:

It is hard for me to express what extraordinary praise Eureka's reply carried: <voker.>

Why do we shorten the words most precious to us? [...I]n the old days mom from mother, Price from princeps, Pope from papa, and here the hasty 'voker,' never the archaic 'vocateur.'

In 2266, when the work week finally shortened to twenty hours, and crowds deserted those few professions which required more, the first Anonymous, Aurel Gallet, rushed to defend 'vocation' with a tract which is still mandatory reading for three Hive-entry programs.

Why is a calling passive, he asked? Why is one called helplessly to one's vocation, when surely it is an active thing? I find my calling, take it, seize that delight, that path before me, make it mine. I call it like summoned magic, it does not call me.

His new word 'vocateur' (one who calls) was born to remind us that a person with a strong vocation is not a victim driven helplessly to toil, but a lucky soul whose work is also pleasure, and to whom thirty, forty, fifty hours are welcome ones.

Surely the inconvenience of pronouncing one more syllable is a small price to commemorate a term so powerful that here it cuts across the barrier to thrill the hearts of both Cousin and set-set.

Carlyle smiled a true, warm smile at the compliment. "You too."


Palmer, quite pleasantly, (mostly) avoids ripping up her interesting world For Dramatic Effect -- one of those ubiquitous tropes that I rather despise -- and instead follows the opposite strategy of doubling, tripling, and quadrupling down on:

  • exploring the myriad things that people choose to believe -- or abandon -- in a world of true liberty
  • showing off a series of increasingly-fantastic utopias built by dedicated communities of people earnestly seeking the good life
  • dialing up the absurdities of colliding-worlds that force deeply incompatible characters to figure out how to live in the same world as others fundamentally other without giving up what makes them themselves -- what they can't give up, and what they give up first.

She's also got a truly incredible knack for driving home the intense feeling of wrongness for the violation of a fictional moral norm that she invented and introduced a few dozen pages ago. It's actually just shocking to me how often she manages to pull this one off, considering that you feel like you should start to expect it after a while.


It's impossible to shake the feeling that a big part of what makes the world tick is that Palmer believes in the vision of it -- in the beating heart of it -- and furthermore in each of the separate beating hearts of it. And that, without that, the whole achingly beautiful and intricately brilliant edifice couldn't hold together, because the seven (or maybe ten? eleven? twelve?) factions of Palmer's twenty-fith century are given life by the ways they grasp for eternity.

In the hands of a writer who doesn't really believe in eternity themself, it could probably never work. And in the hands of a writer who only really believed in one kind of goodness, you'd have a Harry Potter-esque problem of one faction being mostly-well-fleshed-out and the others flattened to mere caricatures and strawmen. But while Palmer's narrator brooks no illusions about which two specific eternities he's inescapably torn between, his cutting asides show that she understands -- really, truly understands -- believing instead that eternity is found in the human spirit, or the march of science, or undying tradition, or true liberty, or selfless service, or...

Put another way, there's no way J. K. Rowling could pass an Intellectual Turing Test as a Slytherin. Her books are all the flatter for it. Ada Palmer could undoubtedly pass an ITT as a Humanist, or a European, or a Mitubishi, or a Mason, or a Brillist, or a Cousin, or a Blacklaw, or a Utopian. And so the series is all the richer.

aside: To someone familiar with Sorting Hat Chats, I'd describe Terra Ignota as "imagine the SHC Houses grew up, multiplied a bit, formed governments, aged a few hundred years, and then the heads of those governments kept running into each other at parties."

spoilers: characterization spoiler and very oblique plot spoiler, this section (skip to next)

Though, perhaps I'm a bit biased toward thinking she gets it so well, in that I suspect Palmer actually, truly believes in what I believe in. Perhaps I'm mistaken in the same way the public is willfully self-deceived in The Will to Battle...

Each Hive even managed to read my history as proof that [J.] was still theirs: still the Mitsubishi's trusted Tenth Director, still the loyal Porphyrogene, still a Brillist at heart, still as noble as His royal line, still sensitive and kind and Cousinly, still bold and brave and human; all Hives saw in Him what they wanted...

...but just listen to Somebody Will (which Palmer wrote for Sassafrass) and just try to tell me that she doesn't actually, at the end of the day, believe in the same bright future I believe in:

It’s so easy to run—
            hide away in my books, games, and fantasy plans—
let them call me a coward who can’t face reality’s grownup demands…

But if I love my fantasy worlds,
      it’s not fantasy love that I feel;
            and so much more I feel for this:
the world that created them—
      world we create with them—
                  one chance to make them all real!

And I know we won’t stop;
            we’ve planned too many wonders for one little star.
Though often the present may seem too complacent to take us that far…

But I’ll tell the story
      and I’ll draw the picture
            and I’ll sing the anthem that banishes doubt,
and host the convention
      that summons the family
                  that carries the fire that never burns out!

There are so many chances
            to give up the journey,
especially when it’s so easy to stay…

But I am willing to sacrifice
      something I don’t have for something I won’t have—
            and not only me,
but we are willing to sacrifice
      something we don’t have for something we won’t have
                  so somebody will someday.


Things I didn't like:

  • As I alluded to above, I found some of the personalities tedious or annoying, and found myself wanting to get back to the fun characters, please. My guess is that different readers may have this reaction to different characters, but that the reaction may not be uncommon.
  • Similarly, the narrator's (very distinctive) voice sometimes veers into the tiresome, and while I appreciate that it's for effect, I'd still prefer slightly less of it on the margin. (This is one of those things that's difficult to explain, but which you'll easily get a sense for in the first three chapters or so.)
  • The constant plot twists in the first two books started to grate on me after a while, and I found myself wishing that the plot would just go straight forward for a hundred pages or so for once. Still, if extremely plot‑twist‑y mystery-chase-adventure novels are your thing...

But I think my biggest problem with it is this: For all that Palmer's worldbuilding is astonishingly expansive and many of her characters quite richly fleshed out, the whole suffers in my opinion from a pretty stark divide between what feel like obvious-PCs and obvious-NPCs. The cool, important, agenty People Who Matter -- we are to believe -- all know each other, and keep having interesting interactions with each other, and the rest of the world is mostly there as (some truly incredible) stage dressing.

aside: Still, this is a clear improvement over every character just being everyman-protagonists/stage-dressing for the Cool Action.

And if the world really does hinge so much on a cast of characters that can assemble in a room and hash their conflicts out in person, what then? When new developments so often depend on the same few personas and so rarely new faces from elsewhere in the (we're assured, quite well-interconnected) world, the whole thing starts to feel...claustrophobic? Certainly starts to feel a little bit small -- fantastic, sweeping vistas of imaginative alt-cultures aside.


spoilers: minor oblique spoilers, this (final) section

Then again, maybe there's something to be desired about a world so small it can be understood by mortal ken, as Palmer's narrator muses to the reader in Seven Surrenders:

I can see clearly in my mind the expressions of the others, Nostand, Medic, Lieutenant Aimer putting on a brave face after his ordeal. They watch raptly, hanging on every syllable of this quarrel between their absolute commander and their young creator. It is enough to make these brave men shake.

But you are braver still, reader. Yes, you, who trust your life to distant leaders whom you cannot watch firsthand, and whose Creator decides your fate invisibly, without warning, explanation, or apology—and yet you rise to face each morning, head held high. Brave reader, these happy army men are here to hear their maker’s argument themselves, and will hear the verdict firsthand, instead of having to deduce it from a thousand years of experiment and guesswork. And, best of all, they know that both these beings, Bridger and the Major, love them. Benevolence, real, before their eyes.

Do you not envy them? Does it not make you call This Universe’s God a little cruel? These are the sorts of questions [J.] calls me to His rooms to ask, that He was asking me at that very moment as I sat beside His desk, forgetting Carlyle downstairs, forgetting the investigation, forgetting even Bridger as His questions made the present seem just a drop of history. I rarely manage to offer Him any answer, but it is a comfort to Him that at least I understand.