A Tunnel in the Sky

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Terra Ignota

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 28, 2017
Edits and Addenda on January 7, February 27, & March 18, 2024

Too Like the Lightning / Seven Surrenders / The Will To Battle / Perhaps the Stars

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A book series with the collective title of Terra Ignota, Latin for "unknown land," similar to Sir Thomas More's Utopia, which meant "no place." There is a Utopia in this book, or at least Utopians. I originally thought this was going to be a duology, the reasons for which I'll explain later, but it turned out to be a tetralogy. Over the years I colleced the other three titles, but for various reasons kept putting off reading them. I have recently re-read the first book, Too Like the Lightning, which I still think is very complex and ambitious, but not totally successful. The first time around, it took three attempts to get past the first few chapters, but I am glad I persevered, glad I re-read it, and I'm interested in continuing the series. The causes for the earlier failures to engage with the story are threefold. First was the style, patterned after 18th Century literature and political writings, which the narrator justified because the 25th Century society depicted had been inspired by the Enlightenment. Second, the first few pages introduced a character that cast the story into the fantasy realm, or so it seemed, and by the end of the book that was still not explained. Third, I was sure the first person narrator was not reliable.

The main reasons I want to continue with the series are to see if Palmer can explain the fantasy-like phenomena in science fiction terms, and to find out if what the narrator reveals about themselves, as well as what other people believe and say about them, is the truth. My use of those neutral pronouns also reflects how most in this society deal with gender issues. The narrator does use specific personal pronouns from time to time, and continually apologizes for it, but it does tend to confuse things when certain characters are identified as "he" or "she," then later described in opposite terms. Given names are also not a reliable indication of gender. One character, who may or may not turn out to be significant to the reveal of all plot elements, has a gender identity not known even by members of their own bash'. That term derives from the Japanese ibasho, "a place where you feel at home being yourself." They can include families related by blood, as well as by adoption, even simple friendships (bash'mates).

Years after the Church Wars, the world is loosely structured around concepts from the Age of Reason. There are seven distinct cultural "Hives," and the focus of several can be surmised from their names; Humanist, Masonic, Utopian. Others seem more geographically based; European, Mitsubishi. There are also "Hiveless" communities, but that was another element not clearly explained. One can belong to one Hive but work for a company controlled by someone from a separate Hive. The most stable family groups are known as bash'houses, which while the majority of bash'es are people from the same Hive, it is not a hard and fast rule. Personal freedom and autonomy is championed, while religion is proscribed, at least in public. It is acknowledged that people are allowed their personal beliefs, but proselytizing is forbidden. Two citizens can discuss things in private, but three or more in the discussion is considered a church, and illegal. To allow everyone a right to contemplate spiritual matters, a new 'priest' class is established, the Sensayers. Anyone can request a session with these consultants/analysts/confessors as needed. The intent is for the Sensayers to be familiar with all extant spiritual beliefs, so as to be able to answer any question, and/or suggest alternate avenues of thought.

Along with the philosophical themes, there are three basic mysteries explored, but none are solved in this book. One, the powers of the child Bridger is the most frustrating, since it doesn't seem to fit with the SF setting. Two, did the narrator Mycroft Canner commit the crimes he was accused of, and if so, for what purpose? Also, was it of his own volition, or (as I suspect) was it under the direction of other parties? Three, who is trying to disrupt the political balance of the Hives by framing the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash' of a theft of information? That bash', all Humanists (I think, but there may be one exception), is a very prominent one. They control the world-spanning technology of the Mukta (flying cars), a transportation system used by everyone except the Utopians, who have their own system. My main frustrations were the occasional non-linear progression of the narrative, and the philosophical asides which took too much time away from the basic plot. Mycroft is telling the story, and at times it seems as if he is dictating it to someone else, and because he tends to ramble, there are frequent reactions from the listener/reader/editor telling him to stick to the point, to quit stalling on revealing details. He hints at things several times before revealing the information, or in some cases adamantly refuses to divulge it. One prominent leader is only known to the public as The Anonymous, a title passed down to another selected person, the current one being the Seventh Anonymous. Their business is conducted through an intermediary, the Proxy, although some, but not all, of the Hive leaders know who they are. The reader still doesn't, but I suspect we will find out they are someone we know in a different context.

As I said, it is complex, and I'm convinced I missed what might have been obvious clues along the way. [EDIT: That was an original comment, and after re-reading I still feel the same way.] It's well-written in parts, poorly structured in others. There are too many contradictions in what Mycroft says and what we later learn to be common practice, such as the open discussion of religion in larger groups, and in the use of specific gendered pronouns. A long book, although the second and third are shorter. The reason I thought there would be just two is this one ends with the statement, "Here ends Too Like the Lightning, the first half of Mycroft Canner's History." That may mean that Mycroft does not appear in books three and four, but since I have not sought out any of the information, I can't say at this time. I will get to the second book next month, and while I would like to, I doubt I will have time for companion readings of Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and even de Sade, which might help in deciphering some of the clues. There is no rule that a narrator/protagonist has to be sympathetic, but if Palmer can pull that off in the full reveal of Mycroft Canner and his actions, I will be both surprised and impressed.

UPDATE: Ada Palmer was the winner of the 2017 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which has been renamed the Astounding. Too Like the Lightning won the Compton Crook Stephen Tall Memorial Award for Best First Novel at Balticon, and was finalist for a Hugo, and a Tiptree (now known as the Otherwise Award)..

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Posted February 27, 2024
Other than when the complete series was a Hugo finalist, the only award recognition for the second book was for a Locus, for which it came in ninth place in the SF novel category. I have to wonder now if it should have been in Fantasy instead.

Seven Surrenders is shorter than the first book, but has just as many philosophical ramblings. The story is supposedly being told by Mycroft Canner, but again I had to wonder how reliable he was. Several passages featured events where Canner was not present, so where did he get the information of what was said and done at those meetings? Almost everyone wears a 'tracker' all the time, which relays information in both directions, and in several instances it was stated who, other than the person wearing it, could access the information. It is possible Canner had permission to listen in on conversations, or had found a way to hack someone's tracker, but a few times he states people had relayed information to him directly, and if so, maybe they were unreliable reporters too. There are multiple flashback scenes, the first of which recounts when Mycroft was on trial, thirteen years prior to the 'current' events. It was not a public trial, but one conducted in secret by the leaders of the various Hives, and it was the first time Mycroft met Tribune Mason.

I didn't mention them in the previous review, but Tribune Mason is a significant character. The secret trial was conducted in an exclusive building in Paris, essentially a brothel, with private chambers where multiple Hive leaders met frequently. It was revealed in the first book that the Madame (and that is how she is addressed most of the time, although we learn her real name in this book) was the mother of Tribune Mason. We eventually learn who their father is, but for a long time it was agreed that all the Hive leaders would share parentage. Each Hive had a different name for them. The general public knew them as J.E.D.D. Mason, even if they didn't know what the intials stood for. The Chief Director of Mitsubishi, who is Japanese, called them Tai-Kun, but the Chinese members of Mitsubishi knew them as Xiao Hei Wang. The surname of Mason came from being adopted by Emperor MASON, leader of the Masonic Hive, who called them Donatien, the first D of their initials. The sensayer Carlyle Foster was flabbergasted when they learned their full name, particularly what the J stood for; Jehovah. That was also the first time Foster was exposed to multiple people gathered together to discuss religion and philosophy, which was supposedly proscribed. As in many eras of our history, there are different rules for the elite than for us plebes.

I mentioned the child Bridger, who has uncanny abilities to change matter, animating the inanimate, and spontaneously creating something just from their thoughts. Mycroft thought they were a manifestation of God on Earth, and if that is the case, this has to be considered a religious text, or fantasy. I'm still not satisfied with either prospect. On top of that, Jehovah Epicurus Donatien D'Arouet Mason thinks of themselves as a God, but from another Universe, not our own. The Utopians called him Micromegas, which is a reference to a early science fiction satire by Voltaire. Mycroft thought it was destiny that Bridger and Jehovah were to meet, to bring about a radical change in the world, to create the true Utopia the Hives had been striving for. Those who called themselves Utopians, several of whom had adopted and nurtured Mycroft as a child, held themselves apart from the other Hives (or maybe not), concentrating on scientific endeavors, including their own flying car system, habitats on the moon, and the terraforming of Mars, all in preparation for extra-solar expeditions. The murders Mycroft freely admits committing were of a group of Utopians that were planning a war. The peace that had existed since the Church War had lasted for more than 300 years. It was thought that the longer the peace, the more devastating the next war would be, so why not start a small war to burn off some of the tension?

As a pacifist I abhor war, and can't condone murder, yet this book presents me with a dilemma. Which is worse, the seventeen murders Mycroft committed to forestall a war, or the more than two thousand killings authorized by members of the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash'? Killings we later learn were sanctioned by many others in multiple Hives. Those were reportedly due to information that told them the people killed were a threat to continued peace. Is murder acceptable if it prevents more death? I am not prepared, or qualified, to answer that question. Perhaps Palmer is qualified, and prepared to answer it, since the third book, The Will To Battle, will probably be about the war. I have not searched for information about it, so I don't know if Mycroft Canner will still be telling the story. If he is, will he be the new Anonymous as was hinted? Even if it is even more frustrating than the first two books, I am anxious to get to the fourth, Perhaps the Stars. Stay tuned..

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Posted March 18, 2024
The frustrations continue in the third book. Instead of featuring the war, it is only the preparation for it. First it had to be determined who had the will to engage in war, then detail how the various factions fell into (or out of) alignment. In order to explain my frustrations I will have to indulge in spoilers. I have already mentioned that J.E.D.D. Mason thought of themselves as a god from another universe. His mother was Joyce (Faust) D'Arouet, sister to the head of the Gordian Hive, and previously only referred to as Madame. One of her intentions had been to restore the gender norms that had prevailed earlier in history, and to indulge in any and all sexual expression. Her house in Paris was essentially a bordello, and it also became a haven for the heads of the various Hives, all of whom considered themselves joint parents of J.E.D.D., who referred to them as aunts and uncles. For the longest time none of the men knew if they were his father. Considering Joyce's proclivities that might even have included her brother, Felix Faust. There was never any hint that she was other than human, so it is puzzling how her son, Jehovah Epicurus Donatien D'Arouet Mason, ever thought of himself as other than human, and also why so many others believed he was other than human. In addition to the various names he was given by different people, Mycroft Canner also referred to him as The Visitor, or He Who Visits (from a Better Universe), or the Stranger God. Jehovah considered our universe's God to be his Peer, equal but separate.

Then there is Bridger, the boy with miraculous powers, who had been sheltered by both Mycroft and Thisbe Saneer, in a somewhat hidden location near the Saneer-Weeksboth bash'. I again have to say Bridger and Jehovah throw this into fantasy territory, since after more than 1100 pages they are not explained in any way to make this science fiction. Bridger could transform inanimate objects into animate ones, including a set of toy plastic soldiers, one of whom was the Major. The toys who became men had memories of previous battles, which I suppose came from stories Bridger had read. Mycroft believed Bridger was our universe's God incarnate, and that he and Jehovah were destined to meet and transform the world. The one and only time they did meet was after Jehovah was shot by an assassin, and Bridger brought him back to life. Bridger felt guilt about possibly influencing the assassin, and not preventing the shooting. In his despair Bridger transformed himself. He became the Major, not in his miniature toy form, but in his own body, but in addition to being the Major he also became someone Bridger knew from literature; Achilles, King of the Myrmidons, from Homer's The Illiad. Whether he had been an historical figure, or just a fictional creation of Homer's, this Achilles seemed to have all the memories and knowledge of war and its tactics of the Greek hero. ???

Given the title of the fourth book, Perhaps the Stars, I had assumed it would be post-war, detailing the Utopians' scientific endeavors on the moon, Mars, and beyond. It may end that way, but I guess it begins with the war proper. The fact that Perhaps the Stars is the longest book, almost twice as long as The Will To Battle, discourages me as much as the other books have frustrated me. My intention had been to read one book each month, but with others on my calendar I'm not sure I can finish in April. Maybe I can read the first half of the last novel next month, then complete it in May. We shall see, but I'm definitely not enthusiastic about it.


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Ada Palmer


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