Any synopsis would be spoilery. These are books 2 and 3 of Terra Ignota. If you liked Too Like The Lightning (book 1 of Terra Ignota), you will continue to like these. They’re really good. If you haven’t read any yet, see my post on Too Like The Lightning, or my interview with Ada Palmer.
This review kinda contains some spoilers, in a general sense, but nothing that isn’t already strongly telegraphed in the first book.
The more I read about today’s Culture Wars, the more I see Terra Ignota in everything around me. When I started Too Like The Lightning, I thought this was a wonderfully built future world. Fabulously imagined, meticulously built up in many layers across wide domains, and incredibly imaginative. Now I read it and I think “Holy fucking shit, this is the world we are living in right now, with the skin changed so that observations on the current day can be made through metaphor.” And yes, I know that all fiction is contemporary. I know that SF/F has been used since its very first works to actually be conversations about pressing current-day issues that pretends to be fanciful so it can say things one couldn’t say otherwise. But it still startled me just how insightful these works are when I woke up to what was happening around me.
The hives are our cultural tribes taken to their fullest extreme. One of our great problems today is that our geographic nations rule greatly disparate cultural tribes under a single government, binding them all with laws that are morally unacceptable to every one of them (although which laws it is are that are morally unacceptable differs from group to group, so everyone despises some thing, but never the same thing, and often what one group considers morally abominable is a moral requirement of others!). This leads to constant struggle to seize power and rewrite the laws (and norms) binding everyone, and thus The Culture Wars. This is exactly the situation in the Terra Ignota series, except they’ve found a way to prevent anyone from having to live under laws they find morally abhorrent. Problem solved!
Except not really, because all this did was paper over the problem and tell everyone it’s fixed, so we should all ignore it. The root cause, the incompatibility of the cultures, is still present. It continues to cause social strife and conflict, so that it can only be averted by a global regime of full surveillance and preventative assassination.
Let’s also take a moment to admire how Palmer included the parallel social construct of suppressing all gender expression. She says on more than one occasion, both within the books themselves, and in interviews, that she is portraying a society that went post-gender badly. Instead of resolving the sex divide, everyone simply agreed to remove any acknowledgement of gender and pretend this fixed the problem. It leads to deep pathologies within society, as well as individual defenselessness to sexual desires and sexual predators. This is the exact same tactic that was used to “resolve” the culture wars. I didn’t realize it while reading the novels, but in retrospect it’s so obvious it’s blinding. Palmer is yelling “Hey, society! Stop burying problems and pretending they don’t exist! Actually solve this shit!!”
She seems to be less than hopeful as to what will happen to us if we don’t. The society of Terra Ignota is descending into full civil war. A vicious, terrible war, because there are no borders, and thus there is no place that is safe. Every combatant lives interspersed with the enemy at all times. There’s a lot of people in the US worried that we’re heading for a Civil War II. We would find ourselves in the same situation. Sharing our grocery stores, our subways, and our neighborhoods with filthy Alt-Righters, Social Justice Activists, Rationalists, etc.
I also want to take a moment to highlight how damned prophetic Palmer is. She started writing this series in 2008. 2008!!! When I heard that I asked “Waitaminit… you were already writing the post-gender They/Them world in 2008? I know I haven’t been on college campuses in quite a while, but that seems really freakin’ early! I’m not totally out of touch, and this has only been a thing for a few years now. Was this already a thing where you were in 2008?” She replied, with some exasperation, “No! It came out in 2016 and people were all ‘oh, she’s jumping on this gender bandwagon’ but I totally want credit for coming up with it way before that!” And first of all – mad props to her for just that. But think about what she’s done. Combining historical insights and the subtle interactions she saw building in the world around her in 2008, she created a world that reflected the most pressing cultural issues of ten years in the future before any of us were even near that stage. Back when we were still freaking out about the worldwide financial collapse and catching Bin Laden. I know it’s partly luck, but even so, it’s damned prescient. I am honestly shocked.
And as frustrating as it must be to have your book in limbo for years before it finally makes it to print, I think it may have been a boon in this case. Five years ago, we didn’t know this was the world we were living in. It may not have made this same impact, and drawn this much attention.
Or who knows, maybe it would have. Maybe we could have more clearly seen what was coming, and been better able deal with its unpleasant surprises. I don’t think most people are quite that insightful. I certainly wouldn’t have been. Hell, I didn’t even fully realize what was happening when I read these two books a few months ago.
If you are at all interested in the world around you, or how truly exceptional SF can be more historically relevant than anything in the New York Times: Highly Recommended.
(added: a few hours after I wrote this, I discovered Ada has launched a Kickstarter to fund a lecture & discussion series on Censorship & Information Control In Information Revolutions, should you be interested in that as well)