Modern Classic: Perhaps the Stars (Terra Ignota 4) by Ada Palmer

And so, the Terra Ignota series is drawing to an end.  It goes out with a bang, both literal and figurative.  And true to the author’s previous books, it offers a brand-new theme and different style, which are just as gripping as before.  Those readers who slogged through the series up to this point will welcome the change to a faster-flowing pace, which makes the book more accessible.  That doesn’t mean, however, that Palmer let go of her moral philosophy.  Here, however, she seems to be letting the reader decide what is right and wrong, and I’m not sure I liked the result.

Palmer’s world of about four hundred years into the future largely abolished geographical borders.  People are free to become members of a country or leave it, even when they don’t have another country to join.  The seven virtual countries are called Hives, each with its own set of values and rules, and people are free to join any of them, or remain hiveless and follow one of the three prevailing moral principles.  The lowest common denominator is a set of laws (called the Black Laws), is mandatory for everyone.

This is a time of unprecedented prosperity and peace.  The peace is shattered, however, when it’s revealed that three of the seven hives conducted a secret assassination program, aimed at removing people who were in the position to cause, often inadvertently, unrest and possibly war.  A few years before the narrative begins, the Hive leaders set up their collective (adopted) son, J. E. D. D. “Jehovah” Mason, to inherit each hive and become the world’s leader.  Jehovah is not an ordinary man, however; he is the god of an alternate universe, invited over by our god, inhabiting the body of a human.  For him, the good is absolute and infinite, so each life has the same value as all other lives combined.

Facing with the assassination program, Jehovah announced a new world order.  Those who would surrender to him unconditionally would submit to his absolute rule over the world, where he’d eradicate all evil.  This did not sit well with a large portion of the population, which saw the assassination program as a necessary evil to preserve peace within the context of human freedom.  Battle lines, often within the hives, formed and war was officially declared.

It may be argued that the first act of war predated the official commencement of hostilities.  The Utopian hive, a faction of highly advanced augmented humans who work towards expanding the human race into the universe, raided Earth and confiscated all “harbingers” – weapons of mass destruction.  They also kidnapped everyone capable of creating such weapons.  So, when war was declared, the first city to fall was the Utopian undersea city of Atlantis.  During rescue efforts, Mycroft Canner, the narrator of the first three books, close confidant of Jehovah Mason and all hive leaders, and former mass murderer, disappeared, presumably dead.

The fourth book begins here.  It is narrated by Mycroft’s successor, the Ninth Anonymous.  Earth is at war.  Hives are fractured, with different factions joining one of the two sides of the conflict.  Fighting is a relatively low-tech affair, as all communications and transport networks were mysteriously shut down.  On a strategic scale, the most important battles are fought at sea.  North America is cut off, but the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Asian coast see heavy combat.  On a tactical scale, fights, often with rudimentary tools, are fought between mobs in various cities. The decentralized nature of the hives allowed the combatants to live in close proximity of each other, so frontline warfare is out of the question.

At first it appears that the two main belligerents are the Masonic Empire and Mitsubishi.  Nominally, they tend to be on the same side, supporting Jehovah’s plan, but with one significant difference.  The Masons hold Jehovah in captivity until he agrees to become their new emperor, while Mitsubishi is trying to rescue him.  This shift in the war goals is just a precursor of a wild ride where new motivations for fighting cause massive changes in alliances and goals of battles.  New factions form and dissolve, atrocities are committed, informational warfare is conducted, and by the middle of the narrative the reader doesn’t know whom to root for.

During the fighting, Mycroft reappears.  He has been rescued at sea, and he spent months to reach Jehovah again.  Once home, he soon disappears again, to try to rescue the reigning emperor, Cornel Mason.  When this fails, he returns and is named the interim emperor, until Jehovah agrees to take up the throne.  He has several crises to contend with, the main one trying to reign in the legendary Greek hero Achilles, who is killing all members of the hive that killed Cornel.  In addition, another hive found a way to blackmail Jehovah into declaring for them, Mycroft is captured, eventually is rescued, Utopian cities in space are under massive attacks from Earth, and other bigger and smaller events must be brought under control.  As peace slowly takes hold and the fighting subsides, it is revealed that the entire war was fought on false premises, by a manipulative hive bent not only on total domination, but also on shaping mankind’s future.  Jehovah must finally accept his role as the Emperor and declare for a faction.

This description may seem a little more exciting than the actual book.  Palmer is not interested in describing the battles or buildup of weapons; she is more inclined to explore the decision making and the aftermath of battles, including what effect they have on key individuals.  True to her previous work, she also spins a multi-faceted web of conspiracies, which has the reader guess at not only who was responsible for all this mess, but also at everyone’s motivations and goals.  She helps herself with her little bit of magic: the boy Bridger, who was the human avatar of our universe’s god, and who left behind magical items that would serve as Alexander’s sword whenever the Gordian Knot of the narrative got too tangled.  This is perhaps the biggest weakness of the book, as the reader can’t say that in hindsight, everything made logical sense.

As before, however, the narrative is simply a vehicle for expansive and yet quite plausible worldbuilding.  Palmer once again creates a sandbox where the reader’s imagination can run amok, but this time she adds another element, which I still don’t know whether I like or hate: she presents a mirror to the reader.  As I was reading, I made my own judgment calls on the merits of each hive and philosophy.  Only to have a rug pulled from under my feet when Palmer changed the motivations to war or explained the consequences of certain actions that I approved of.

At first, the narrative read as a proof of the moral superiority of post-enlightenment Western morality against the barbaric East.  I fully embraced this view, but then Palmer started slowly shifting the avatar of that morality towards warmongering fascism.  I tried to make excuses for them, and when Palmer shifted again, portraying the peace-loving hives as the worst abusers of weapons, I firmly shifted to the fascist camp as the better alternative.  This persisted till the end of the book, when I was sorely disappointed that the responsible hives were not punished enough.  Only thinking back, I realized that the book brought out a side of me I didn’t like.  Perhaps the only thing I’m not ashamed of is my total dislike of Swiss-style neutrality, but even that was probably caused by juxtaposing the book with real-world events, in particular the Swiss position on the invasion of Ukraine.

I can’t think of any other book or series that would manipulate me so effectively to embrace a philosophy I wouldn’t agree with.  This is ultimately the greatest strength of this novel, for which I’m willing to forget any magical shortcuts Palmer was taking.

From a technical perspective, I found the prose to be far more polished than before.  Perhaps Palmer found a different editor who would not tolerate her philosophical segues so much, and perhaps she wanted to insert her own moral judgment or allow the reader to do the same.  She succeeded in the latter, and it also meant making the book far more accessible to readers.  It strikes me as interesting that instead of the usual build-up of complexity as a series progresses, Palmer opted to hit the readers over the head with very heavy language and philosophy in the first two books, and then gradually ease up a little.

Now that the series is seemingly over, I can also evaluate some elements that may be greater than one book.  And here, unfortunately, I find the story lacking a little.  Perhaps the greatest issue I’ve had is the character of Jehovah Mason.  He was first introduced as a ninja-like super detective, interrogating some captives.  This was followed by the revelation that he had supernatural powers of observation and expression.  As the series progressed, however, he regressed.  He became little more than a totem people were fighting for, and his expressiveness reverted to that of an autistic savant.  I expected far more from him, a justification for his value to all the hives.  That never came.  Other characters had also unfinished story arcs, or very abruptly finished ones.  One of the main villains of the series had his motivations, and we could see the consequences of his actions, but we never actually learned about his means or methods.  This, for me, was more akin to magic than Bridger’s artifacts.  Then there is my favorite character, Thisbe Saneer.  She started as Mycroft’s mysterious and dangerously exciting confidant, proceeded to be a murderer, graduated to a mass murderer and the person to most closely represent absolute evil and thus the natural counterweight to Jehovah, only to be unceremoniously disposed of without exploring her motives or thinking.  She was one of the few who had a real character arc throughout the series, and yet we barely knew her.

Despite these drawbacks, I consider the Terra Ignota series to be the best the 21st century has been able to offer so far.  It is largely introspective, dense, occasionally requiring an encyclopedia close at hand, but it’s also incredibly rewarding.  Perhaps the Stars follows the trend of its predecessors of being refreshingly different, and yet just as complex and thought-provoking.  It also serves as a wonderful ending to the entire story.  The resolution may not please everyone – it certainly didn’t please me – but it offers so much food for thought that the series will remain in my mind for a very long time.

This entry was posted in Book reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.