SEVEN SURRENDERS – Ada Palmer (2017)

Seven Surrenders PalmerNormally I read more than 15 other books between installments of a series, but as I was so hooked by Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer’s debut, I decided to read book 2 of Terra Ignota quickly.

Seven Surrenders is not a stand alone novel, and this review isn’t stand alone either. If you haven’t, please read my review of Lightning first – in which I try to explain why that book nearly flabbergasted me.

To cut to the chase: this review will be less raving. While I loved the bulk of Seven Surrenders, a few problems did arise, and taken as a whole – the two novels are one story playing out over a few days only – I can’t give it the full 5 stars. Some of that will be nitpicking. All things considered, it still is a strong 4.5 star read – not a mean feat by any measure.

It is only in Seven Surrenders Palmer shows her true hand: while there were hints of it in Too Like the Lightning, this part makes it fully clear this series is an over the top, theatrical series, heavily influenced by the pulp side of Japanese anime. Not that Palmer writes only for effect and show: she also wants to articulate serious thoughts. And even though she manages to do that, those thoughts also form the heel at which this kind of reader will aim his arrow.

More on that in a minute. Let me be loud and clear first: together, the first half of Terra Ignota – there are 4 books in total – is audacious, daring, dazzling, intricate, high octane, entertaining, dense, a bit pompous, at times soapy & melodramatic, original, fresh. A full on recommendation for anybody in for challenging science fiction. I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy the two remaining books, but as Palmer walks a tightrope, we’ll see. For those who were still on the fence after reading Too Like the Lightning, if that didn’t grab you, Seven Surrenders will not change your mind: don’t even bother, I’d say.

So, taking stock, Too Like the Lightning remains a favorite book. As a series though, based on my reading of Seven Surrenders, I doubt it will eventually match The Book of the New Sun or Anathem as an intellectual achievement of speculative wonder. That’s because there’s also something more fundamental to be said than nitpicking. The biggest problems I experienced have to do with some of the philosophy underlying the books. To explain that I will need to spoil certain parts – including spoilers for Lightning.

It might seem strange for a book I thoroughly enjoyed, but the rest of this review will generally be critical – as I said, check the first review for the laudatory part, all of it still stands, even with the caveats I’ll voice after the jump.

For those readers that turn to this blog for critical analysis, this is were I start my dissection of Terra Ignota. Obviously some of this criticism might change after I read book 3 & 4, but as I also draw a lot from interviews, I’m pretty confident the bulk of what I’ll say will also apply to the full series. And even if certain things will change significantly in the remainder of the series, I hope in that case my analysis will remain interesting to map how certain themes progress throughout the series.

I want to warn you: I’ve written 8600 words. You may not want to read it all, so I’ve provided sections with a heading. Amongst other things, I will discuss the series’ metaphysics – tied with Mycroft’s status as a narrator, its seemingly essentialist outlook, the embedded case study of utilitarian ethics, the nature of J.E.D.D., the question whether this utopia could devolve into war, a gender issue and the books’ politics, intrigues and world building.


Palmer has written a remarkable story: while Bridger’s magical abilities are spelled out on the dust jacket, Too Like the Lightning somehow still manages to come across as a realist book because of the detailed world building and the general prevalence of science & technology. The book’s tone is overall rationalist, and so I expected a rational explanation for the fact that Bridger was able to transform toys into living things. It is only throughout the first book that it slowly started to dawn on me that the series could very well be a science fantasy at heart.

To be clear: I liked this aspect. It offers an fascinating duality to the reading experience, and Palmer provides a kind of slow reveal to something that was actually revealed from the very onset. It’s very well done.

But there’s also something problematic about it, at least, when judged with Palmer’s authorial intentions in mind. Palmer has written a book in which she really wants to communicate certain things – “add my voice to the Great Conversation”, or, at the very least, ask questions. That in itself is no problem, lots of authors want to, heck, me on this blog too.

There’s two methods to communicate ideas via stories: in a subdued manner, almost as a side effect, or explicitly. Palmer goes for the second option, and makes her questions a significant part of the books, with characters ruminating about philosophical and moral issues out loud. That isn’t a problem either. What’s problematic is whether Palmer has anything interesting to say. The answer to that question will be diverse – depending on the topic, as you’ll see down the line.

For now, we were talking metaphysics. And Palmer also talks about metaphysics in a lengthy 2017 interview with Jonathan Thornton on Fantasy-Faction.

I wanted to use a world that had all the strengths the genre has gained from Asimov and Heinlein but asked Voltaire’s questions about is there Providence? What can you tell about the nature of the maker of the universe from the universe itself? And the political questions of the Enlightenment, can religion and the government coexist? Because those questions have not been asked of a sophisticated science fiction world before.  [my bold]

Now we get to the crux of my beef. If you want to derive something about the nature of the maker of the universe, you cannot do so if you start from a story that has fantastical, magical aspects to it. It logically short circuits. As far as we know, magic does not exist in our reality – except for the miracle of creation itself. If you want to reason about our own universe, you can’t draw valid conclusions from one that is made-up, includes magic and as such differs fundamentally from our own.

Not that I think thought experiments are never instructive. But in this case all Palmer achieves is speculation about a speculative world. One can ask what the existence of Bridger says about Providence – but it only says something about the fictional Providence of the Terra Ignota series, not about our own human reality.

It makes for a mere metaphysical exercise. It is an exercise that ultimately does not interest me, even if I am very much interested in the metaphysical nature of our own reality. So far, on this matter, Palmer’s books are a sideshow only, an intellectual distraction. There’s nothing to learn from them about the metaphysics of our universe because they are not about our own physical reality.

As far as I can see, there is no possibility of transfer from her story to our own world. The book doesn’t work as a metaphysical metaphor nor as a symbol, because our world and the book’s world have different foundations: learning by analogy or negative analogy doesn’t work here. I’m not saying Palmer’s thought experiment doesn’t have any metaphysical value whatsoever, but because of these very different foundations anything that could be derived from these books isn’t fundamental.

At the heart of this discussion lies another question: the epistemological nature of the text. Lots of reviews talk about Mycroft Canner being an unreliable narrator. Maybe Bridger’s miracles are not real?

Palmer masterfully obfuscates the nature of the books. There are a few formal aspects to this: the disclaimers at the very beginning, showing the text went to all kinds of (fictional) offices; hints of others (9A) that redacted Mycroft’s basic testimony; and a few parts that aren’t written by Mycroft himself. Also by means of the narrative structure itself Palmer adds confusion: Mycroft only discloses information slowly, which hints at the possibility he doesn’t show everything and holds important things back. All this makes for a great puzzle.

So if we truly want to grasp the story’s metaphysics, we have to know: how unreliable is Mycroft? Palmer has something to say about that in that same interview on Fantasy-Faction:

So Mycroft is in a way an unreliable narrator, but you’re always conscious that he’s doing his best, and that everything he’s doing he’s doing because he genuinely can’t think of a better way to get this information across to the reader. So I would say in many ways rather than an unreliable narrator he’s an imperfect narrator, or a semi-successful narrator, who bares to you all of the ways in which he’s struggling to communicate something so complicated and also for him so emotionally vexed. (…) Mycroft is a narrator whose biases are incredibly transparent, which paradoxically is less manipulative than a narrator whose biases are veiled, like a narrator who tells you someone is a bad person in such a way that you believe someone is a bad person.

Palmer has also indicated that Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun was an inspiration on the matter – and also with that book there is a giant misconception among readers that Severian, its narrator, lies. (If you want to read more on that, I’ve written a 5500 word analysis of TBotNS.)

The conclusion here is that Mycroft isn’t an unreliable narrator in the strict sense. He is unreliable about the gender he assigns characters, but he’s upfront about that. And while he doesn’t disclose all information immediately, he doesn’t seem to lie, and so we can assume Bridger’s miracles are real.

On top of that, there are other signs that Bridger is real. The most important being what Sniper says in the chapter he wrote: “The Bridger parts are true. There’s proof. Unlike Mycroft, I won’t let you get away with pretending it’s madness.” Add to that the fact that others that have read or even redacted the text – 9A and the offices of the Hives – haven’t added any disclaimer or warning that Bridger’s miracles were fake or of a non-magical nature.

Obviously new information that alters our perception of Bridger could turn up in book 3 & 4. But if that happens, it would have to be information that alters our entire understanding of the fictional text as it is presented so far. It would have to mean that the chapter Sniper wrote is a fabrication – or at the very least that Sniper lied as well, that 9A might be a fabrication too, that Mycroft fundamentally lies about entire scenes, etc. And more crucially: it would would go against what Palmer herself has said in the quote above – unless it turns out Mycroft was delusional or duped himself.


One of the mysteries surrounding Mycroft is why he did what he did – all those murders. Different answers are given, and Mycroft possibly has blind spots about his own motives, he might be insane, but I won’t go into all that here. It is of note that one of his questions surrounding the crimes – a question about the Nature of Man – is repeated by other characters too, most notably in this passage voiced by Sniper:

Philosophers had long speculated about Savage Man, whether the conscience is innate or implanted by society, and whether the human mind is actually capable of willing evil for the sake of evil – even the most heinous killers still tend to imagine some goal (revenge, profit, personal pleasure, some mad command). It’s an important question, fundamentally really – can we choose actions that purely make the world worse without any perverse perceived benefit? – but we couldn’t discover whether the true Human Beast could exist back when the Beast was like a craftsman in an age of mass production, negligible beside the infinitely greater evils: Democide and War.

Is this really an important question? Fundamental? I dare say no. While research about the exact relations between nature and nurture are still ongoing, phrasing it like that obfuscates a number of other questions. Before you start debating the possibility of moral choice, a much more basic question is whether free will exists? All else is secondary.

I don’t see the urgency of Sniper’s question either, or rather, it forgoes reality’s complexity to try and come up with blanket answers about “Man” or “Human”. Palmer’s characters have the tendency to speak about “humanity” and “Man” as if there are certain essentials that are true for all of us. I think that is misguided. True: we all breath oxygen, but aside a very small number of other basic biological features, that’s about it.

Being human is being on a spectrum. Sure – there are people who are capable of cruelty. Such people tend to be psychologically damaged by trauma, or received inadequate nurture. Others were born neurodiverse – take psychopaths for instance. What does the existence of all these different kind of people say about “Man”? Even if such evildoers would still exist in a future utopia free of violence and cruelty? That brains are fragile? No shit, Sherlock.

While it is partly a matter of taste, this particular philosophical strand of the book simply doesn’t interest me, because I don’t see a moral mystery at all, nor do I think Palmer adds something interesting to the debates.

It is not only taste: Palmer is an historian, and it seems to me she is a bit stuck in the 18th century as far as reasoning about these matters goes. I’d rather read The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory by Buchanan and Powell again, or Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and The Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene, or Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny by Tomasello – 21st century non-fiction instead of 18th century thinkers that were flying blind to genetics, evolution, hormones and basic neurology. I don’t want to dismiss 18th century philosophers out of hand, but they are generally more interesting for the questions they ask than the answers they provide. To observe behavior is one thing, to explain its bio-sociological workings in detail another.

While Palmer’s world building is top-notch and detailed – more on that later – it seems as if there hardly has been any progress in ethics and philosophy between 2017 and 2454. And while the future Brillists supposedly do have much more advanced insight in psychology and the brain than we do today, that scientific knowledge doesn’t seem to have any impact whatsoever on the moral debates that are central to the books. It is an important weakness for a series that has an outspoken goal of adding to “the conversation”.

Moreover, philosophy aside: why would any sane and happy person choose evil in the first place? And why should you be proud if you don’t? If one thinks to be proud is a valid feeling on the matter, does that mean they think free will exists?

There before the cameras Mycroft preached that, in these days of peace when we choose our Hive and values for ourselves, human individuals finally have the change to be the worst thing in the world, and the right the be proud of our choice if we are not.  [Sniper]

I’m not debating De Sade & Diderot didn’t pose interesting questions about morality in the 18th century. But these questions were interesting because of their historical context. Nietzsche followed their ilk, and I think it is safe to say this day and age moral philosophers have moved beyond Nietzsche as well – I again refer you to those three non-fiction titles I listed a few paragraphs above.

Granted, big parts of the general public have more crude and traditional conceptions about right and wrong, and maybe those kind of readers might be inspired by what Palmer has on offer.

Back to free will – the much more fundamental question.

Mycroft acknowledges he lacks free will, for instance in this passage:

When Hope left she took Doubt with her, leaving only resolution, and a quiet curiosity about the larger nature of the universe. I mused, those seven nights, abstractly about what forces had conspired to put me in such a place, and make me such a person that I would choose this. I almost thought the dread word ‘Providence.’ (…) How dare the world make me do what I had done (…).  [my bold]

And while he admits the larger world determines his actions, he struggles with what determines that larger world. And so ‘Providence’ features heavily in his thoughts – and seemingly Palmer’s too, if you recall that first fragment from the interview I quoted. Mycroft seems to have the need to project personality or volition on the order of the world.

There is a Will behind this universe, reader, that I know. There are miracles, and a Divinity behind those miracles, Who has a plan, but have you ever, reader, heard me claim that that Plan is benevolent.

On the other hand, consider the following fragment, in which Mycroft also acknowledges there might not be a teleological reason for existence – no Providence with a will.

“(…) I let myself fall into the delusion that Providence might be simple. It isn’t simple. It isn’t kind. It isn’t working toward some happy end where we’re all saved, and every bad thing that happens turns out to be for the best in ways we can’t yet see. It isn’t cruel either, though it often seems so. (…) It’s not trying to destroy humanity, or torture us, or leave us in the dark alone. It’s something else. There is a guiding Principle, not Good, not Evil, not Justice, not even Progress, something else that we can’t understand or name yet, one of these God-sized concepts that even Jehova can’t describe in all His languages. Providence planned this war. (…)”

I do think things are simple, or at least, that the complexity isn’t situated where Mycroft (Palmer?) puts it. I do think we understand this “guiding Principle” fairly well – and they surely would understand it even better in the 25th century. It is cause-result, the basic principle of evolution and physical reality. Granted, we don’t fully understand certain aspects of our material world, and certain domains in the quantum realm seem to operate in a more complex manner, but on the macro scale of things – the scale Mycroft is talking about – we live in a deterministic world driven by countless cause-result reactions. It really is that simple.

What is not simple is the mystery of creation/existence itself. How and why did our universe came into existence? What is its metaphysical nature? These questions possibly have a religious answer, and the debates about deism in Seven Surrenders do have their place, but they only get you so far morally – that is, not far at all.

And here we come full circle in this section: morally the questions whether there is a God, and, if there indeed is one, what kind of God it is, are hardly are relevant, because it is loud and clear that – practically, as far as our behavior goes – we do live in a material, deterministic environment, and, even more importantly, any moral law that needs a religious justification isn’t satisfying rationally, as there are lots of people alive that don’t believe, or doubt the existence of God or gods.

The conclusion is the same: for my taste, and from what I have read on these matters, Palmer doesn’t add that much to this particular part of the conversation, on the contrary, she seems to be stuck in a conversation from the 18th century past.

THE TROLLEY PROBLEM; Or, RATIONAL CALCULUS & J.E.D.D. in the First Half of Terra Ignota

We are not done with ethics yet. For those unfamiliar with the trolley problem, it boils down to this: there are 5 people tied to a railway track. You can’t get to them in time, and a train is hurtling towards them. You are close to a lever however, and if you pull it, the train is diverted to a different track, to which only 1 person is tied. What do you do?

The central crimes of Too Like the Lightning and its political fallout in Seven Surrenders revolve around a variant of the problem. Questions like these are interesting, but they are old. Long before Phillipa Foot devised of the trolley problem in a paper in 1967, the British fed counterintelligence to Germany so that the Germans adjusted the aim of their V-1 rockets, placing southern suburban London in danger, and not the more populous center. Apparently 10,000 lives were saved as a result.

Given the scale of what they need to govern, it is what politicians are asked to do the entire time – COVID showed that again. One of the essences of policy making precisely is utilitarian calculus.

As such, from a philosophical point of view, I don’t think Palmer offers anything new, and I don’t even think the debate is that interesting in terms of black and white morals: what is more interesting is how these things work in our minds. Books by Joshua Green, David Edmonds and Thomas Cathcart offer such insight, and deal with the current research on the matter, lifting the matter from its fumbling philosophical origins into the illuminating light of science.

All this is not fundamental criticism: Palmer does provide an entertaining mystery, and again, people not versed in the trolley field will have a blast making up their own moral minds on the matter.

There is actually a second version of the trolley problem in the book: the corruption of the CFB, the political system that governs the Cousins Hive. It is similar to the trolley problem in that one chooses a lesser evil over a bigger one: that’s why the Anonymous rigged the system with good intentions, and clearly good consequences too.

But it is a bit of a convoluted version of a moral problem, and it defies suspension of disbelief. Why? Essentially, the Cousins’ feedback system works well, but it has a few minor design flaws – it reacts too quickly at times. Some of the characters are very dramatic about the exposed corruption, but instead of abolishing the entire system, tweaking it would be better, all the more as the necessary tweaks have already been tried and tested by the exposed corruptors. It’s unbelievable a character in the position of Bryar Kosala would not be more pragmatic about it. I would even say that in the real world such design flaws probably would have been avoided from the onset, as it would be one of the first things to be tackled by its designers: how do we deal with fads? But again: I need to remind myself from time to time that this is not a series whose primary aim is realism.

Zooming out from the trolley problem, a bigger theme of the books is rationality as such.

I’ve been fairly critical so far, and you might be wondering: how come this guy still likes this? Well, one of the reasons is because the books are so rich that it’s not that big a deal if certain parts don’t click, there’s plenty of stuff that does. And specifically this next thing, this is were Palmer shines: she ties ideas from Diderot to how societies change to thinking & writing about utopia, and even to our own current political reality. Part of the conversation indeed.

I’ll first quote Palmer, again from the Fantasy-Faction interview:

Diderot in particular, you see in his writings like Jacques The Fatalist and Rameau’s Nephew was aware of the fact that what they were really doing was destroying the society they lived in and they didn’t know what the attributes of the next society that developed would be. It wouldn’t share their values, it would be a society they themselves wouldn’t be comfortable in. But it would be more rational, and Diderot then had faith that a rational world would be better, even if it would not be a place comfortable for him.

It’s funny to say he has faith when he’s one of the most famous atheists in all of human history, but he had faith in reason, in that sense. Faith that it would bring about a world worth bringing about, and worth destroying his own world for. That is a very sophisticated relationship to have with progress. I think we often see, many of the tensions we’re having right now around liberalism and progress have to do with people enthusiastically supporting progress, thinking yes, I and my family and everyone will be better off, and then it advances a bit, and they’re like, wait a minute, this is changing things more than I expected. I am no longer comfortable in the new order that’s being created by this and now I feel like this is wrong. And they don’t recognise this is the nature of progress, and instead try to turn it into a progress has gone wrong because of something, we direct blame somewhere.

This fragment goes to the core of the book, and the reason it is – without doubt – a worthy addition to the utopian and speculative canon, and even, on a larger scale, to political literature as such. Palmer again:

I think that was one of the questions I wanted to get at, is those figures in the Enlightenment like Diderot had a healthier if less optimistic relationship with progress than a lot of us do, in that they recognised progress is the act of destroying our world to make a better one. And the book asks many times this question, would you destroy this world to save a better one, or conversely would you destroy a better world to save this one, not meaning, you know, there are all multiple universes and inside another one there’s a better world than this. But if the future world will come about, that will be better than this one because of progress, will you destroy that to protect the world you already have and are comfortable in. And that’s a very important tension we don’t talk about very much but underlies almost all I think of our current, certainly political and social upheavals.

And again, Ada Palmer:

And so I think when anyone looks at the real future, it’s one third dystopia, one third utopia and one third depressingly familiar. And I wanted to write a book that was like that.

Maybe I should say a few words about J.E.D.D. MASON here too, as his character ties into rationality and Diderot as well. For starters, his mother, Madame D’Arouet, has this to say about him:

“(…) The Enlightenment tried to remake society in Reason’s image: rational laws, rational religion; but the ones who really thought it through realized morality itself was just as artificial as the aristocracies and theocracies they were sweeping away. Diderot theorized that a new Enlightened Man could be raised with Reason in place of conscience, a cold calculator who would find nothing good or bad beyond what his own analysis decided. They had no way to achieve one back then, but I did it. I raised an Alien.”

(Notice how Palmer speaks through her characters, almost as if Madame quotes from Palmer’s interviews.)

Here is Palmer herself in a 2017 interview with Chris Urie in Clarkesworld, on Madame, J.E.D.D., Diderot and de Sade:

Madame de Pompadour is the obvious corollary, the incredibly powerful mistress of Louis XV. That’s how Madame sees herself, but for me it is more directly based on some of the fictitious stories of devious and powerful women told in the course of Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist, and also in de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom.

Diderot and de Sade were interested in the artificiality of social mores, how patterns of power, and seduction, and marriage, and relations are largely arbitrary rules invented by human society, and how it’s easier to manipulate those rules if you start thinking of them as arbitrary and not real.

But unlike de Sade, Diderot believed that it’s very hard to do that because society works so hard to ingrain belief in social mores in us, and that even people who can distance themselves from and manipulate social mores in some circumstances often remain viscerally locked in to other social mores. And Madame’s plans for her son are modeled partly on the version of the Roman Empress Livia (Augustus’ wife) as depicted in Robert Graves’ I Claudius.

The nature of J.E.D.D. is one of the other mysteries of the book – just like Bridger’s, which I discussed in the section about metaphysics. But I don’t think the metaphysical nature of Bridger and J.E.D.D. is the same. Bridger seems a fantasy miracle, but J.E.D.D. seems to be the result of determined Nurture, a project of Madame.

J.E.D.D. supposedly became who his is, because he was exposed to seven languages, intellectual contradictions, tons of philosophers, etc. from a very early age on. On top of that, he was exposed to lots of sex and power.

“Those people our world respects most, emperors and kings, Jehova saw fucking like animals since before He knew the difference between beast and man. No child could absorb social values after that. I birthed a Being Who believes in nothing He did not conceive Himself. I hadn’t realized Enlightened Man would turn out to be a God.”  [Madame]

Obviously, this is over-the-top and absurd theatrics. Back in the days, children were exposed to their parents having sex too. Being raised in a brothel with high profile customers will undoubtedly influence your moral compass, but to say such a child “could absorb no social values” because of that is baloney, let alone it would turn a child into a solipsist.

It’s obvious that Madame is crazy, and Palmer is a master storyteller because she generally manages to uphold the impression that her characters are more or less normal. Most of the time I bought everything they said, and it is the tension between serious realism/rationality and insane theatrics that makes these novels so unique – not unlike The Book of the New Sun, now that I think of it, as Severian is also much more crazy than readers notice at first.

Anyhow, a more prosaic reading of J.E.D.D. would be that he is indeed emotionally damaged by his particular upbringing. I’m not even talking about the brothel here, but by being treated as a science & political project by all his chaperons from the different Hives. He obviously is extremely intelligent, and thinks himself to be special and unique, a God in his own mind – not unlike some other gifted people. People are bad judges about their own status, and fanboys like Mycroft aren’t objective too, so, in the end, so far, at the end of book 2, J.E.D.D. seems to have no supernatural powers. It is of note that Bridger calls Mycroft’s theology about J.E.D.D. crazy.

Could it simply be that J.E.D.D. is somewhere on the autism spectrum? Consider what Andō Mitsubishi says:

“I don’t believe TAi-kun is capable of that kind of ethical compromise. (…) We aren’t discussing a normal . . . person here. (…) Tai-kun is psychologically unique, without the precedent even in the annals of Brill’s Institute. You cannot predict their actions or reactions, not if you don’t know them. Words, ethics, the decisions where we every day see gray and compromise are to Tai-kun as rigid and precise as mathematics.”


Marion Deeds refers to this next problem in her review of Seven Surrenders on Fantasy Literature as well. Supposing the war will start full on in the second half of Terra Ignota, why would it start in the first place? It is not fully clear, as the world of Terra Ignota does seem to be a utopia – even if it has problems with suppressed gender and religion, and a level of competition between the Hives.

I’m no historian nor a political scientist, but to me it seems most wars have economic realities underlying them. To Palmer’s defense, the books do offer some explanation of why a war would start. The main reason Palmer offers is a particular ratio of membership, landownership and GDP between the Hives, but it is not really explained why that particular ratio would be so problematic in a world where there is no poverty, everybody is fairly affluent and has “unprecedented political self-determination”. Some additional factors are named too: the landgrab, Nurturism: “those were potential fuel.” Also Apollo and the Mardi bash did some preparatory ground work, but again, all this is shady, and it is unclear how it would work in a real world.

The effect evolution and change have on society – discussed in the previous section – also plays a possible role. In the words of Cornel MASON:

“Every life has the potential to be a good one, for the first time in history. And everyone is secretly afraid that it’s fragile, that if we try to make it better, change something, if the Hive proportions shift too much, if science raises the life expectancy too fast, or Brill’s Institute finally figures out how to upload our brains into computers, or make us all into impossible geniuses, it will fall apart.”

As for the spark, there are the O.S. and the CFB scandals, and the exposed machinations in the brothel. Again, it is not really clear how all this would lead to war – especially as both O.S. and CFB had clear positive results. Mass rioting for a few days is plausible. But world war? It will be interesting to see how The Will to Battle and Perhaps the Stars will continue, and if they will provide more clarity on this front.

I do agree a kind of end-of-history thinking is probably naive, and it will take more than 4 centuries to truly eliminate the risk of war. Be that as it may, I think the book would have been deeper if the motivations had been made more clear, especially the (economic) motivations that would drive common, affluent, free and more or less happy people to support violence & worldwide war.

So far for political realism: another important factor could be Bridger – maybe he was right, and him reading Apollo’s Iliad and his magical powers indeed made Terra Ignota’s society more bellicose. If that truly is the case, it’s a legitimate choice of the author, even an original, daring, creative one. And I don’t have a problem with it, but it would make the social underpinnings of the novels a bit less interesting, as it would sidestep reality.

There’s another thing to be remarked in this particular context. Reading the book one often gets the impression that lots of characters think war is inevitable not because of something in society, but because of some inborn, unchangeable human nature – again, Man as a Beast, as hinted in the first section of this review. I don’t buy such essentialist thoughts, and it is unclear how Palmer herself thinks about it.

“They [Mardi bash] thought war was inevitable,” I answered, “locked in by human nature, that there will always be another war, now or two hundred years from now, sometime. (…)”

Regardless of the cause for war, two of the question Palmer asks – how would war look like in a post-nation-state, borderless society, and what would the effect of 3 centuries of peace be on a subsequent war – are indeed interesting.

The two questions are tied to the political organization at the heart of the books: the Hive system and its details is probably the biggest, most original idea Palmer has to offer. A brilliant idea really. I would like to learn more about its genealogy – maybe there are authors who have thought something similar, or devised precursors to such a system? If you know of any, don’t hesitate to comment.

Palmer talks about the benefits of the system in that same interview:

The other is the enormous degree of trust they have in their governments. Because this is a world where a citizen who’s dissatisfied with their government can leave within 24 hours, and be a citizen of a different nation. And so in a sense it’s a buyer’s market rather than a seller’s market of citizenship. Because if your government does something you disagree with, you leave in an instant and have a different government. The governments are held to a high degree of accountability to their people. And if their people don’t like what they’re doing, boom! Gone! Which makes people feel their government is working for them.

ESSENTIALISM pt. 3; Or, GENDER & DISBELIEF in the First Half of Terra Ignota

As I already said in my review of Too Like the Lightning, I really like what Palmer does with how Mycroft uses pronouns. But Palmer does much more with gender. I also like her idea of examining what it would mean if we would suppress expressions of gender too soon – even though I think it is highly, highly unlikely such a thing would happen in the wake of religious wars a few centuries from now, so unlikely that I don’t buy that part of the books’ premise. But that’s not a big problem, as it provides for entertaining drama. I don’t buy giant sandworms either, and we all know we need to give speculative authors some slack from time to time.

In the review for the first book, I also mentioned I don’t buy neutered sex. I agree that there’s a big cultural component to what we find sexually attractive, but what would neutered sex mean? That we would be able to shape desire in such a way that the social norm becomes bisexual attraction? That because of a changed culture people would somehow stop caring about the gendered appearance of bodies? That reeks of the opposite of gay conversion therapy. Admittedly, Palmer is a bit vague on this matter, but it is the impression I got in both books.

I also want to talk about another point Palmer raises, and which reeks of gender essentialism. Philosopher Ethan Mills talks about this in his review of Seven Surrenders on his excellent blog Examined Worlds:

With only a mild spoiler, dear reader, I can say that some of the characters consider the wisdom of the outright ban on old-fashioned gender associations (along with bans on religion, of course). The idea is this: while gender certainly creates a lot of trouble for us, it does serve social and cognitive functions of organizing human experience. Gender gives us a way to make sense of “masculine” traits like aggression, competition, etc. and “feminine” traits like nurturing, cooperation, etc. This is a far more subtle point than it appears. The point is NOT gender essentialism. The characters aren’t saying that all men are essentially masculine and all women feminine. The point is that simply banning all gender associations that have developed over thousands of years without replacing them with something else leaves humans with impoverished resources for making sense of their experience.

I’m not sure what gender associations would be replaced with. Nobody in the book does, either. Maybe that’s the point. We have to think of something new.

I found this to be a pretty deep point, but I’m not sure what I think about it.

I do not agree with Mills, however, nor with Palmer if she has the same ideas about this as some of her characters. I do think this particular thing boils down to gender essentialism – not the kind that says that all women or all men are alike or share some common essentials, but the other way around: the idea that one could distill an essence from all women and one from all men.

Lets see how Palmer phrases is via Heloïse, the nun:

“(…) How many fewer people might have died if the Cousins had felt free to say overtly why they were really upset? That their motherly feelings judged it inhumane to do such things to children. Without that vocabulary, the real cause of the conflict couldn’t even be discussed! (…)”

I really don’t get what’s such a big deal. Isn’t the answer easy? Palmer, in the same scene, uses the phrase “all the voices of nurturing”. Isn’t that enough? Wouldn’t that be apt vocabulary? The words are right there: aggression, competition, nurturing, cooperation. Why the need to cluster them around gender? Just use them. And use them without disenfranchising aggressive females, cooperative males and competitive non-binairy people – all of which would still exist in Palmer’s future utopia.

This thought seems a bit misguided, it would just derail the future gender movement in the wrong direction, back to clustering people and feelings around average characteristics. It might be true that generally, on average, women are less aggressive then men. That knowledge wouldn’t be lost if we would start using neutered pronouns or start dressing without gender markers. I agree with Palmer that stopping the conversation about gender too soon would be harmful to society, just as I think repressing it would be harmful as well. But there’s a pretty large gap between repression of all things gender, and using more specific words like ‘nurturing’ instead of ‘feminine’.

A character goes as far as suggesting the Set-Set riots would have been much less severe if the Cousins would have had more apt vocabulary. That’s not believable, not in the real world, and not in the context of the fictive world Palmer created.

update August 2022: It has become fully clear to me Palmer herself surely is not a gender essentialist. Palmer wrote a really interesting guest post on Nine Bookish Lives in November 2021. The post is very thoughtful and nuanced, and well worth your time, clarifying a few issues in Terra Ignota some more. If there’s any critique to give here, it’s that some of the books’ themes need these extra sources via interviews, and in a way that’s a shame.

COMPLEXITY; Or, WORLD BUILDING & INTRIGUE in the First Half of Terra Ignota

Lots of reviewers have talked about these books’ complexity. Let me start with Palmer on world building in that Fantasy-Faction interview:

Tons! Five years of world building, then six months of outlining the entire series, all four books, before I sat down to write chapter one of book one. And the world building consists not only of coming up with stuff but writing elaborate timelines. I have a huge timeline of the history of the world from now to 2454, and I have spreadsheets of people’s relationships and ages and names and dates, and I have terminology, and the distribution of different voting blocks and different political groups and the history of art collecting, and fashion and a giant map with notes on every city with a population of 10 million or more, and what the political history and ratio of Hives is in that city. There’s a giant customised google map with millions of pins all over it. Dozens and dozens of them. Lots and lots of planning to make the fabric all the way through. But again as I said, I want to be able to interrogate this the way a historian does. And if I come to it with a historian’s question and there isn’t an answer here then the world isn’t mature yet. Which is what makes the world feel so thick and real and like it goes all the way down.

Hats off, as simple as that. The amount of dedication to her project payed off. Aside from an economical side that’s a bit underdeveloped, and my remarks about the casus belli, this is one of the most detailed world building I have come across.

Not only the world building, also the plot has a similar complexity. Some reviewers even feel that it is too much: it does require a lot of energy to keep everything in mind. At times it felt like I lost grip on certain plotlines indeed, especially in this book, with revelation after revelation, conspiracy after conspiracy, unmasking after unmasking. But this is nitpicking, it’s not even criticism: I loved it – Seven Surrenders was a total blast in that respect, all that intrigue made for an outrageous experience.

It is incredible how Palmer manages to tie everything up coherently in the final chapters, again offering revelations to the very end, revelations that were surprising, creative, daring.

Having said that, I can understand reviewers like Liz Bourke who think that there’s just too much going, which makes it hard to pay attention to every strand, so that by the end of a particular strand it doesn’t feel the strand has paid off because experiencing it was diluted by all the other strands.

There’s truth in that observation, but I still prefer the way Palmer handled it: the wild ride needs it. The only ways to fix this would be to either add page time – and that would have clogged up the ride – or to cut certain strands, and that would have made it less wild. The problem comes with the territory.

I want to end this part with another fragment from that Palmer interview – it really is a blessing to have an author so vocal about work that is as complex as it is. There were spoilers in the article before, but I want to repeat the warning. What follows might be the biggest spoiler in this entire review: a massive one for Too Like the Lightning, so if you haven’t read that book yet but plan to, do not read this.

The strange structure of the first two books, really, in as much as this is a whodunnit, the entire first book is learning what the ‘it’ is that someone has done. You don’t understand until the last page of book one exactly what has just happened. And so it’s a two part whodunnit in which the ‘whodun’ doesn’t begin until book two, because the entire first book is ‘it’. If you think of the structure of murder mysteries, usually that’s been gotten over with in the first chapter, and the rest is the ‘who’, but this is just the ‘it’, before you understand, because you can’t start to investigate who before you know, the full reach of ‘it’. The world is that interconnected, both our real world and this imagined future world. And so that is the way I found that I could bring people into this world and trace through knot after knot after knot so that everyone would see exactly how interrelated everything was. By the time you understand ‘it’ you also understand the entire political structure of this future.

I hadn’t thought about it that way before I read this, but the achievement at the end of Too Like the Lightning indeed is superb – I’ve never had an experience like it.


Lots of my remarks above deal with possible intellectual disagreements, but I want to stress that Palmer generally doesn’t seem to take firmly entrenched positions. From what I can gather, she mostly wants to throw up questions, and make the reader think about certain issues. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I have the impression Palmer sometimes avoids taking a clear stance, and maybe that’s a missed opportunity. Maybe The Will to Battle and Perhaps the Stars will offer more than questions.

At the same time, paradoxically, certain parts of Seven Surrenders reads as MESSAGE literature. It’s not always easy to parse how characters’ opinions differ from Palmer’s – especially as in certain interviews Palmer echoes things she has put in the mouths of her characters almost verbatim.

Long time readers of this blog know that my tastes veer more to less overtly preachy literature, and especially on gender I have the impression Palmer does want to make a few points.

If I need to summarize my thoughts so far, I’d say this: the first half of Terra Ignota is brilliant as a story, a construction, as a display of creativity. As a philosophical book I felt it a bit lacking at times, maybe even dated on certain issues. This might also be the result of Palmer choosing such an extreme, hyperbolic, baroque form of theater.

It’s really wonderful how Palmer balances the soapy pulp side of a story that’s pompous, at times even contrived, with something that is also serious and intellectually intricate – I’d nearly say it boarders on the incredible, it really is a tour de force.

This balancing act provides what is probably the books’ biggest challenge: readers should never forget that this isn’t meant to be a naturalist, realist account, even though it is ‘serious’. The text acknowledges its own absurdity, multiple times, and the perverted, mad humor of the books hasn’t been fully acknowledged in most reviews, including my own. When I learned Bridger nursed himself via his thumbs I nearly lost it, and it is a good example of a clever joke that’s at the same time a deadpan, serious element that perfectly fits the plot.

Palmer asks questions, generally about the human condition at large. It might not have been her focus, but it I think it is a missed opportunity there are so few recognizable real human emotions to be found in the book. This is not necessarily the result of choosing a theatrical form: I’ve been brought to tears by pompous theater multiple times throughout my life.

One more question: is there a substrate of conservatism in these books? I am not talking about the Emperor that said “Too much change is dangerous. A happy world wanted progress to stop.” That is simply true. Besides, one can be progressive and still warn against too much change too quickly.

I ask the question because of the nature of both the Emperor and the King of Spain. They are uncorruptible, prime specimens of the human race – basically the only upright people in the entire cast. The Emperor is selected via a ruthless procedure that ensures his character, and the King seems to be that way because he was born Noble. Is this a form of Great Man elitism? We’ll see how things play out in the two final books.

I’ll probably read 15 or more books before I’ll start The Will to Battle. My head is still full of this first half, and while I’ve written a lot here, it will take some time to process everything. To properly taste the next installment, I need a fully cleared palate, and that’ll take time.

What a remarkable, provocative series.

If you have thoughts of your own on something I’ve written, please do not hesitate to comment. I might have missed things, some of my interpretations might not hold. Debate is very welcome, but please, no spoilers for book 3 and 4 in the comments. 

If you like this kind of analysis, I’ve made a separate index of my lengthy in-depth reviews.

Ada Palmer Florence

“I do not ask you to forgive them all, just to have reasons beyond rash grudges or affections when you choose to fight and kill for one side, or the other.”

Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists. Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book review.


41 responses to “SEVEN SURRENDERS – Ada Palmer (2017)

  1. The most obvious precursor to the Hive system I can think of would be the citizenship setup in Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, appreciated! Indeed, now that you mention it. It has been a long time since I read the Diamond Age, and as far as I recall it isn´t so crucial for the plot, but I could be mistaken.

      A quick look on wikipedia however indeed shows there are important similarities between the Hives and the phyles, and Stephenson also has equivalents for the Hiveless.


  2. Great analysis Bart! I read the whole thing. I’m pretty proud of my own reviews of these novels, but you always submerge yourself a few layers deeper.

    It’s interesting. from reviews I have read I get the impression that people either vastly prefer book 2 and feel that book 2 is the lesser, or the other way around. I thought that book 1 was not as great a reading experience as book 2. Mainly because of the final parts of book 2, about those extraordinary scenes and how it all comes together. I also do not fully buy this future world that Palmer has created, but it is the pyrotechnical storytelling that won me over, and that might be stronger in book 2.

    I do not agree with some reviewers who think that there is too much going on. It makes for a great rereading experience – as I have just seen with my reread of The Will to Battle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, appreciated. I’m really curious what you’ll think of Perhaps the Stars.

      I thought 1 was a bitter better, because it holds more promise, in a way. But Seven Surrenders indeed read more smoothly because you already know the world, and I also agree 7S is even more “pyrotechnical” – good word to describe it with.

      I don’t think it’s too much either, it’s part of the charm. And I can see myself rereading this indeed, that will depend a bit on my experience with book 3 & 4, but even if it will never happen, I’m sure these books benefit from a reread, I’m sure Palmer put in lots of hidden stuff and easter eggs etc for the rereader.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My average post tends to be just over 750 words. So if you write three of these monsters a month, you’ll be at my level!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Please excuse me for commenting on a review of a book that I have not read and perhaps never will.

    I read your review through because I’ve enjoyed reading your words in the past. I am almost certainly not going to read these books, not because they are not “worthy” of such, but simply because I’ve considerably narrowed my field of interests over the last 2 decades. With regard to SF, I almost never read anything published after the 1980s these days, mostly because I am still trying to understand what SF *is* in its high period (1940-1980), not to mention its relationship to society and history more broadly conceived.

    Perhaps that’s why I am slightly irritated when I come across such a cavalier remark on the part of the author, that you quote: “Because those questions have not been asked of a sophisticated science fiction world before”. Truly? I hesitate to say that she is absolutely wrong, in the sense that most SF, like most literature, is sadly lacking in complex ideas and argument. But it is far from clear to me that Ada Palmer is the first author to pose these questions science fictionally.

    Nonetheless, the discussion of the *artificiality* of morality and social relations more generally, I found fascinating. There is little I disagree with regarding her discussion of Diderot and de Sade, and the significance that such still holds.

    Finally, I find the idea that “there hardly has been any progress in ethics and philosophy between 2017 and 2454” less troubling than you. My own fraught experience with academic philosophy has led my to believe that there have been few significant developments since Aristotle, and perhaps not even since Empedocles! The question of the significance of Hegel and Marx I bracket from this opinion (with maybe a spoonful of Nietzsche) simply because of the significance of understanding history itself as an object of critique and praxis—a significant development, which in the case of Marx owes some debt to Diderot (he was a great fan of Rameau’s Nephew). But other than that, I find the “progress” of philosophy over the last two centuries somewhat overblown, and perhaps even non-existent! Harsh words that are probably better suited to a drunken conversation of hyperbole and wild opinions…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have no idea if it would be possible to come up with an essence of what SF *is*. It sure is interesting to ponder though. But I think the field is too diverse and too broad to fully grasp. That was already the case in 1980, and it has only sprawled since then.

      That cavalier remark you point at rubbed me the wrong way too – I’m not sure why I didn’t say that in my review. I think because I hesitate too: these specific questions might not have been posed before in SF, could be. And as I also talked a bit about pretentiousness in the other review, and the same might apply, I’ve let is slide.

      Your remark about progress in ethics and philosophy is very welcome, and I guess you are right. I’ll have to reformulate my beef then: my bigger problem is the fact that scientific developments in the realm of psychology, biology, etc. don’t seem to have a big influence on the questions asked in the book. This may be exemplary for some of the philosophy departments around the world, and it sure is for most introductionary courses in philosophy that are taught: one is generally lucky if one gets past Wittgenstein and get one more lesson at the end of the term on thinkers from the second half of the 20th century. And the same is true for academics whose primary background is not philosophy, but, like Palmer’s, history or so. Much of philosophy is stuck in the same old rut, like Richard Rorty said, writing books & articles about books that are about books. Nothing wrong with that, but if you want to understand and judge human behavior, other sources have sprung into existence since De Sade and Nietzsche.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Silverberg once noted that he came up with a definition of what SF is that excluded his best SF novel (which I presume is Dying Inside, though he didn’t mention this in the article in question—just the mysterious “best”). I think there is a point to trying to define or at least understand the nature/essence of SF. However, once posed it has more often than not revealed itself as vaguer and more porous than some of the more dogmatic fans would like—sort of like the veritable pile that never becomes a pile (see the Sorites paradox).

        For me the “essence” of SF has meaning only insofar as we think of it as a moving essence—i.e., as an historical ensemble. I’m interested in further delimiting my area of study to what I call “Anglo-American SF” between 1926 to 1990. Which is not to say that I am uninterested in the “before” or “after” of this period, or, for that matter, what lies outside the narrowly defined anglosphere. Most importantly, I’m not making a moral claim for its superiority, but rather trying to reckon with the patent influence that such SF has had in establishing what we now understand as “SF”, for better or worse.

        More controversially, perhaps, is my belief that this SF ended sometime in the 1970s or 80s. Which is to say, very briefly, that even though there is continuity across this period and our present, the SF that was founded in the 1920s, 30s and 40s is no more, and that there is a relatively clear break—albeit somewhat confusing precisely because of the “continuity” across the break.

        The break for me is characterised by the exhaustion that is met with in the explosion of New Wave experimentation in the 60s and 70s, the collapse of this experimentation alongside of the collapse of the broader post-1968 radicalisation (entailed), and the re-composition of the SF commercial markets in the 1970s and 80s. Some of this is congruent with what Joanna Russ and Barry Malzberg have called the “decadence” of SF. Cyberpunk then can be conceived of a type of last gasp of New Wave experimentation (or maybe better, “high decadence”), that has one foot in the “old” New Wave, and another in the commercial sensibilities of the recomposed SF markets of the 1980s (consider, for example, Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy). Even though I use 1990 as a marker for the end, maybe Gibson’s story “The Gernsback Continuum” would be a more suitable marker of “high decadence.”

        This is most definitely a working hypothesis. By no means do I claim any originality to this claim, except maybe the sense of an “end” to SF. But even this has been proposed by John Clute for example—at least in terms of the 80s being an “end” of a period of SF. So maybe no originality at all!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Interesting, thank you. A few questions:
          Why start in 1926? Was that the start of a specific publication or?
          What do you think caused the break after the 70-80s you describe? Am I right in saying you perceive the *essence* that changes before 1980 and after has to do with experimentation?

          I think similar trends are discernible in literature at large. As for poetry, basically all formal possibilities to experiment with, within the confines of what could be considered a “poem”, had been done by the end of the 60ies, finally fully appropriating and incorporating the lessons of Duchamp and its consequences. In a way, the same goes for visual art and music (Cage basically just applies Duchamp).

          I’ve always had the feeling SF as a genre (as far as formal development goes) comes a bit behind, as I’ve seen people praise certain formal experimentation in SF as ‘new’ or whatever, while these methods had been done already 10 or 20 years earlier in regular literature, and even earlier in visual arts.

          Anyhow, as for the recomposition of the SF markets, I can think of a few things that influenced a shift in how we think of SF on top of diminishing experimentation: maybe most importantly, the influence of screens: film & TV. It probably took some time for 1960ies Star Trek and 1970ies Star Wars to percolate into the larger culture, but screens and the reactions of a larger audience undoubtedly started a feedback loop into written SF. Maybe the same can be said about the influences of comics like Marvel (already started in 1939). I think overall the genre became less pure, just as so many cultural forms of expression did – the postmodern mixing of genres, high and low, etc.

          Another factor might be computers. While technological innovation obviously was happening in the 1960 and before too (Apollo 11), I think widespread use of personal computing also fundamentally changed the nature of our imagination about the future. Maybe the same can be said for a few 20th century scientific discoveries like DNA, the quantum realm, etc.

          Anyhow, I’m not a scholar on the history of SF at all, and I have hardly read secondary literature on SF, except for reviews, so these are just some random thoughts off the top of my head.

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          • 1926 is the year Hugo Gernsback launched Amazing Stories as the flagship of what he then called “scientifiction”. He soon after changed this to “science fiction”. So, there is a fair amount of contingency regarding this date, but the advantage of it is that you have a much more focused identification with “science fiction” and the emergence of an explicit science fiction fandom from around this time.

            Regarding “similar trends […] discernible in literature at large”—absolutely. Indeed, I’ve long been fascinated with the broader European literary avant-garde in the 19th century and first half of the 20th. I self-consciously draw upon this in trying to work out the trajectory of “decadence” and decline in SF. Guy Debord called such movement in the European avant-gardes the movement of “decomposition” or the “decomposition of culture”. What I want to understand better is the appearance of an almost identical movement in SF. Is this simple the copying or imitation of the artistic avant-garde, or does it have something to do with the structural nature of the arts given particular conditions? This is certainly closer to Debord’s claims (consider, for instance, the movement toward experimental “decomposition” in Jazz and SF, and at almost the same time—1950s and 60s). I’ve made an exceedingly brief sketch of this in a blog post here:

            As I’ve mentioned, the chief source for my argument regarding “cultural decomposition” is Guy Debord, the situationist. In part, he outlines it in a document that I translated last year, here: But you can find his argument in other assorted articles published in the situationist journal, and, indeed, in the eighth chapter of his 1967 work, The Society of the Spectacle.

            I also agree with your comments about the development of TV and blockbuster film SF in the 1960s and 70s as markers of change, particularly regarding the pressures that led to the explosion of multi-volume SF and Fantasy in the 70s and 80s. Your comments about computing are similarly fascinating, and something I’ve barely touched upon to be honest. I’m not sure how they would fit with my thesis, insofar as I am primarily concerned with literary SF. I’ll definitely need to cogitate upon some of these thoughts some more.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I will have to read up more on Debord.

              The notion of decomposition is interesting, but I’m not sure if it isn’t *just* a logical outcome of many artists’ need to be original and renew. In jazz it was pretty much a given that the tendencies for improvisation inherent in the genre would be strengthened. I guess Sorites also applies there as well: when does jazz become truly *free*? Obviously you could identify a clean break if a certain piece or performance does not include preconceived composition anymore, but it’s not as easy as that may sound. For one, it has been in vogue by practitioners of European Free Improvisation to speak of ‘instant composition’ rather than ‘improvisation’. On top of that, lots of – if not all – improvisers tend to fall back at times on existing patterns, muscle memory, fragments, habit, etc. These are also the result of ‘composition’ in the broad sense. It’s also of note that all kinds of structures to stimulate freedom (graphic scores, game setups, scores including chance, etc.) have been developed, indicating that total freedom isn’t that easy to navigate as a musician. So the larger question is: what is decomposition? And then I return to my remark at the beginning: the result of the artist wanting to break the mold.

              (And, as to be expected, because of that, completely free improvisation in jazz and other forms of avant garde music seems to be on its return. Who are the new, young Fred Van Hoves or Cecil Taylors? I don’t follow the scene as closely as I used to 15 years ago, but from what I can gather, regular free music has had its heyday. Not that I think it is just a matter of a pendulum swinging back, as EFI and free jazz lessons seem to be incorporated rather than abandoned.)

              As for experimentation in SF, it struck me when I was driving my bike to work earlier today, that in SF, more than in other literary genres (and maybe even art forms), there is an inherent experimental dimension in the content, rather than the form. Regular fiction deals with the known (love, life, war, lust, death, money, boredom) and as such, if you want to break the mold as a writer, you have to turn to formalities (of narrative, language,…), whereas in scifi, you can do so with the content: and invent a new planet, a new future, new technology, etc. It is only when these things become formulaic in the overall genre (yet another first contact story), that the need for formal experimentation arises.

              I also have the impression – but I could be wrong – that overall SF authors have long written outside the regular “artistic” realm, and as such might have been less interested in SF as an art form, including its formalities.

              Both of these things might explain why ‘decomposition’ happened later in SF than in regular literature.

              Liked by 1 person

              • My response to you has blown out into a short essay. I need to take a break right now and get some sleep, so I will look over it again tomorrow before sending it on–hopefully clarifying some of my wilder claims…

                Liked by 1 person

              • I have just seen this now. Coincidentally, I posted a reaction to that 1959 situationist text you linked to in one of your own blog posts. I’d say: disregard that for your reply here 🙂

                Liked by 1 person

  5. Re “Psychopaths”

    The most vital urgent and DEEP understanding everyone needs to gain is that a mafia network of manipulating PSYCHOPATHS are governing big businesses (eg official medicine), nations and the world (the evidence is irrefutable as is most obvious with the Covid Scamdemic — see “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room –The Holocaustal Covid-19 Coronavirus Madness: A Sociological Perspective & Historical Assessment Of The Covid “Phenomenon”” at ).

    And psychopaths are typically NOT how Hollywood propaganda movies have showcased them. And therefore one better RE-learns what a psychopath REALLY is (see cited source above).

    But rulership by psychopaths is only ONE part of the equation that makes up the destructive human condition as the article explains.

    It is NOT just a matter of “draining the swamp” at the top and we’re back to our former (sick) “normal.”

    The true, WHOLE, but “politically inconvenient” and “culturally forbidden” reality is more encompassing because “the swamp that needs draining” on a psychological and behavioral level is over 90% of people anywhere (see cited source above).

    Without a proper understanding, and full acknowledgment, of the true WHOLE problem and reality, no real constructive LASTING change is possible for humanity.

    One of the ways psychopaths show their hate for the public is by rubbing the public’s stupidity in their own faces. Eg with the letters of “omicron” an alleged Covid variant you can spell “moronic”… And indeed most of the public NEVER recognizes their own stupidity as the believe, trust, and follow any explanation or demand of the psychopaths-in-power..

    And further speaking of stupid herd people not getting the glaringly obvious truth/ie not getting the constant onslaught of BIG lies of the official authorities……

    “2 weeks to flatten the curve has turned into…3 shots to feed your family!” — Unknown


    • While I agree that 1) a significant amount of political leaders and business leaders don’t have humanity’s best interest at heart, 2) there is a higher prevalence of psychopathy in positions of leadership, 3) lots of people at times blatantly lie, including politicians, business leaders and even scientists, 4) the media is not well adapted to report on the complexities of the world, so I’m sure lots of publications have made mistakes on the matter, some even willingly; I don’t think the current pandemic is a scam.

      As for stupidity and herd mentality: each and all of us are stupid in the light of the mystery and complexity of existence. As globalization, science, technology and changing social relationships have only added to the complexity, it’s obvious that with an average IQ of only 100, lots of people aren’t adapted to the complexity of 21st century life and our current epistemic environment. I don’t think anybody really is, no matter how intelligent or well-informed you are. R.S. Bakker has called this the ongoing semantic apocalypse. Most articles on his blog are well worth reading:

      Liked by 1 person

  6. ‘Except for the miracle of creation’?? Hah! If you believe the universe was created, then why exclude the possibility of magic? A conjuring trick is a conjuring trick.

    I’d be broadly in agreement with your other points – I’m not sure Palmer is telling us anything new here (which doesn’t discount the possibility that she’s telling it in an entertaining way) good people have done terrible things for what they deem to be the right reasons, we live in a deterministic universe but are still accountable for our actions, and no, I don’t think a Utopia can be created from a blueprint (look at how that worked out for Russia) but is something that would evolve incrementally.

    And yeah, ‘I am no longer comfortable’. The values of a 1950’s American liberal would be seen as largely conservative in the context of the culture wars of today. So it goes.

    And speaking of wars. I don’t think they’re as inevitable as the tides. Like you say, they’re the product of economic factors (specifically resources and territory) and most animals/insects/fish fight over the same things. Nor am I sure if the citizens of a Utopia would be capable of conducting a war, being the end result of a series of societal changes that would mitigate any tendency to violence on their part.

    The gender thing is interesting, because the obvious corollory would be with racism, but in the case of racism you’re trying to stop people categorising others in an offensive way; by using gender-neutral terms you’re trying to stop people defining how they see themselves. I might want to identify as male/female. A language which refuses to acknowledge those differences is refusing me that right.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree magic and miracles might be possible, it is just that so far science hasn’t observed any – aside from creation itself then. I just wanted to point at a different worldview underlying a book that allows for a character like Bridger who turns toys alive, and a rationalist/scientific worldview Palmer hints at in that interview.

      Also in agreement on entertainment trumping other concerns. It’s no big deal Palmer doesn’t always tell us new stuff, it’s just that the her tone in the afterwords & interviews at times comes across as a bit self-congratulatory on these matters. (But see my comment to antyphayes and my remarks in the ‘Lightning’ review).

      Good point on a true utopia probably being immune to war. Also very perceptive on racism & gender, I hadn’t thought about it that way.

      It’s unclear what Palmer herself prefers as an end-status of the whole gender thing in a real life future. The books clearly warn against suppressing it too soon (or as she says it “stop the conversation too soon”), but at the same time in a 2016 interview about ‘Lightning’ she said: “I don’t think it’s impossible to get rid of gender, but it’s incredibly socially difficult, and a society that wants to believe it has done it is very likely to be wrong.” I’m not so sure it’s not impossible.

      I just saw this in that same interview: “This is a book designed to push in a lot of directions that are new, surprising and in some ways uncomfortable—and my ideal is for people to go talk about that, to go ask these questions in their living room.” It’s exactly that kind of talk that I meant when I said self-congratulatory above. I don’t think there are “a lot of directions that are new” in the books. A few maybe, but not a lot, as I tried to explain in the review.


    • Btw, I don’t know if the universe was created, I should have used another term for ‘creation’: the miracle of existence. But also in that case your remark applies, as the mere fact of existence seems to me to be miraculous whatever way you look at it.


      • That interview seems to suggest that Palmer’s Utopia is a solution to a very American set of problems (the rise of the religious right, the culture wars etc) which is interesting. I wonder what Utopia – as envisioned by a European SF author and as a flawed solution to a very European set of problems – would be like?

        And yeah, I think ‘creation’ automatically implies a creator, so miraculous works for me!

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        • Interesting question. On the other hand, for me a utopia should be global to be a real utopia, so even if a European would write it, it would have to deal with American stuff too.

          I also feel the culture wars are slowly but steadily also creeping into European discourse, and the pandemic, rising energy prices, etc. will not help to lower future tensions among those who feel disenfranchised by mainstream political culture. The way I see it, the culture wars are a symptom, and we’ve seen similar stuff happen in UK (Brexit), Hungary, Poland, the French Gillet Jaunes, and, admittedly on smaller scale, in lots of other European countries too – just think about the very heated debates surrounding Black Pete in The Netherlands.

          As for the religious right: do you real feel that’s an important problem, by which I mean distinct from the rise of the Trumpian/contemporary Republican right?


          • It’s definitely become more pervasive, I think America has a couple of things working against it, though. (1) The binary nature of American culture & (2) the belief in freedom of speech as absolutely sacrosanct.

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            • Yes absolutely. The entire political design of politics on a national level is starting to work against it, and that Supreme Court ruling that said that businesses donating money to political campains is a form of free speech hasn´t helped one bit.


  7. The theory about psychopaths reminds me of a popular book from the Seventies (or was it the Eighties?) written after it emerged that single men generally had higher sex drives than their married, parenting counterparts. The book argued that there were two types of males; alpha males – who ran around impregnating women – and carer males who (unbeknownst to them) took care of the offspring in question. It subsequently turned out that one of the characteristics of becoming a parent was a drop in libido, perhaps to ensure the father didn’t stray? Anyhow, the current theory is that power turns people into psychopaths rather than attracting psychopaths – that people become less and less empathic the more power and money they gain. Chickens, eggs etc….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, that reminds me of an article in the International Herald Tribune I once read that women with unattractive but loving partners feel the need to stray only around ovulation. And males in a steady relationship rate other women as less attractive when they ovulate – probably to protect them from straying. There was more detail in the article, but that’s about all I can remember.

      Interesting remark on the psychopaths, sounds more than plausible. And both theories don’t really counteract each other, they could both be true.


  8. I did post a lengthy comment to your original article, but it seems to have got lost in the ether. Just to re-iterate (and apologies if I’m repeating myself):

    ‘Except for the miracle of creation’?? Hah! If you believe the universe was created, then why exclude the possibility of magic? A conjuring trick is a conjuring trick.

    I’d be broadly in agreement with your other points – I’m not sure Palmer is telling us anything new here (which doesn’t discount the possibility that she’s telling it in an entertaining way) good people have done terrible things for what they deem to be the right reasons, we live in a deterministic universe but are still accountable for our actions, and no, I don’t think a Utopia can be created from a blueprint (look at how that worked out for Russia) but is something that would evolve incrementally.

    And yeah, ‘I am no longer comfortable’. The values of a 1950’s American liberal would be seen as largely conservative in the context of the culture wars of today. So it goes.

    And speaking of wars. I don’t think they’re as inevitable as the tides. Like you say, they’re the product of economic factors (specifically resources and territory) and most animals/insects/fish fight over the same things. Nor am I convinced the citizens of a Utopia would be capable of war, being the end product of a series of societal changes that would mitigate against any violent tendencies.

    The issue of gender is interesting. The obvious corollary would be with racism. But there’s an important difference. Racism tries to identify others in ways that are offensive; gender neutral terms – if applied unilaterally – would circumvent how people identify themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Believe it or not, this is a shortened version of the initial response I wrote to you. I’ve also posted a slightly expurgated version of it to your comments on my blog.

    Debord’s idea of “decomposition” can seem counter-intuitive from the perspective of being pro-art or pro-creativity. To be clear, it’s not a rejection of artistic creativity so much as it is the criticism of the peculiar ghettoization of creative production under conditions of capitalist modernity. I don’t believe it is pessimistic in the way you seem to feel. But I can understand why you would think that. Indeed, without a sense of Debord’s goal in making this criticism it is hard to understand the point of declaring that art moves towards its “decomposition”.

    I wouldn’t argue that decomposition is just the result of “artists’ need to be original and renew”. Rather, I would pose that such “freedom of expression” (“freedom of the word” in the case of poetry and prose), cannot be understood without reference to its historical conditions. For instance, the idea of the artist expressing their inner self and “their world” is bound up with the emergence of Romanticism and post-Romanticism (and its precursors in the Renaissance) rather than simply an unalloyed fact of human being. And so, we need to further consider the idea and practice of the “individual” that gives rise to such “freedom of expression”, and the relation of this individual to the broader project of bourgeois modernity.

    To that end, “decomposition” is a result of both the “freedoms” unleashed by bourgeois modernity, particularly where it pertains to individual artistic expression, and the limits to this freedom—material, formal and pecuniary (perhaps especially the latter, considering the often-marginal nature of much “experimental” artistic production, as you’ve noted). For Debord, such “decomposition” only manifests clearly, as a project, within the broader movement of bourgeois modernity. What are the results of reaching this impasse? Mallarmé’s onward rush to blessed silence. Malevich’s White Square on White. George Grosz and John Heartfield’s “Art is Dead. Long live the new machine art.”. And, etc.

    What you need to hold onto when reading Debord’s critique of modern art as “dissolution”, “decomposition”, “decline” or even “decay”, is what it is not: it is not a moral judgment on the intrinsic worth of a particular art-object. Rather, Debord is trying to understand the tendency of various arts to not only reach the limits of expression, but to express these limits. He believes that this movement toward the negation of the art-object and art itself, nonetheless, contains a positive project that is bound up with the more general critique of alienated practice in capitalist society.

    His point is rather simple. Once the avant-gardes of art pose such an impasse in an artistic fashion, “up to and including the destruction of expression itself” (as he wrote in “The Sense of Decay in Art”), where does it go? The two options that he highlighted from 1959, either the reactionary retreat into tradition, or the “progressive” celebration of such negation (by the likes of contemporaries like Beckett and Ionesco, for example), doesn’t “solve” the problem—if, indeed, there is a problem to solve. But then that’s Debord’s wager.

    I certainly don’t deny your description of the ongoing developments of art beyond their purported “decay”. But I would question whether the extensive nature of such production, including the flourishing of hobbyists, fans and DIY art, is a sign of movement in Debord’s sense of the term. I believe that the last 50 years confirms Debord’s thesis rather than refutes it, insofar as we have seen a vast extension of cultural production that is simultaneously lacking in the formal dynamism of the avant-gardes up to the middle of the 20th century. Again, this is not a moral judgement, rather it is an observation: we have chiselled away at the formal discoveries of the avant-gardes for more than half a century, and the question remains: is there a “beyond” to the destruction of expression?

    None of this is to deny the “beauty, harshness, a certain truth, what have you, the whole shebang” of art over the last 50 years, even if it implies that aesthetic criteria are perhaps not the best way to understand what Debord is driving at in terms of “decomposition”. Indeed, Debord believed that it was the turn *against* aesthetics embodied in the negativity of the most extreme examples of avant-garde experimentation that revealed a *positive* project beyond the merely artistic expression of the limits of aesthetics. The positive project he proposed, initially, under the idea of a “hypothesis of constructed situations”, exerted a profound influence upon the conceptual arts and architectural experimentation of the 1960s and 70s. But none of these Debord considered fruitful developments of his hypothesis, insofar as they tended to remain at the level of the merely artistic elaboration of anti-aesthetics.

    My current use of his idea of “decomposition” is much more modest than his own. Even though I have a long interest in the speculations and practice of the Situationist International, for now I am mostly concerned with using his idea to criticise the development of SF—something I’m not sure he would be that interested in frankly. For instance, I’m using “decomposition” to understand what I’ve occasionally called—after Russ and Malzberg—the High “Decadence” of SF in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. This is the crucial period that unlocks not only the movement that SF underwent leading up to this (particularly for Anglo-American SF from the 1920s), but also its trajectory beyond the “High Decadence” and “decomposition” of the 1960s and 70s. Whether or not this will prove fruitful for me is yet to be demonstrated. But I’m persisting for the time being, until I reach my own impasse.

    Your thought that in “SF, more than in other literary genres (and maybe even art forms), there is an inherent experimental dimension in the content, rather than the form”, is well made. It is something I too have pondered. It’s one of the oddities of SF to my mind, that its “freedom” is expressed initially in terms of content, and only later form. That’s not totally at odds with the other arts, and one can see such content-full experimentation in poetry alongside of the first murmuring of a more full bloodied formal experimentation (Coleridge’s sort-of-SF-like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” comes to mind). Perhaps it is the tension between this freedom and the constraint of the “science” that has provided so much of the dynamism of SF, at least in its ascendency (and “decline” …) between 1930 and 1980. It is here that we search out its strengths and limits.

    This is certainly where Silverberg, for example, encounters the limits of SF in the early 1970s. As you probably can tell I am fascinated by his work at the moment, because he doesn’t simply manifest the movement of decomposition in SF at its high point, he is also aware of it to some extent, and ultimately rejects it in favour of more market friendly literature.
    Silverberg is a bit like the Beatles of SF. He starts conventionally, becomes a master of his craft, and then—turned on by the New Wave—experiments in the weird and wacky reaches of the scene, before exhausting himself and calling into question the worth of the SF project. Unlike the Beatles, his return to the uncomplicated production of commercial SF is more successful as he was and is a solo act—as a writer at least.

    Very briefly on Jazz: I am more of a lover than a practitioner, even if I’ve tootled around on the edges of musical performance and experiment. I find Cecil Taylor an acquired taste I have mostly acquired. I prefer Andrew Hill, for example, as perhaps a less hard-core exponent of Free Jazz, who is also more connected to the even less Free musos like Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter, who are, nonetheless, deeply affect by Free Jazz. I am less confident about talking about Jazz, but am still nonetheless struck by the analogies with poetry, and the other arts, when it comes to decomposition.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I´ll reply with some thoughts, hopefully tomorrow.

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    • Thanks, that clarifies things a lot.

      I do think art has arrived at a certain end station, in the sense that its limits are well understood and researched by now, by which I mean that true formal/conceptual renewal seems to have become impossible, because, indeed, expression has been destroyed over and over again. That is not to say creativity & originality is not possible anymore – on the contrary: the doors are wide open to do about anything in art, because of this destruction.

      In that sense, there is no problem to solve anymore – which is not to say there are no broader social problems anymore.

      This doesn’t mean that the avant garde is dead – on the contrary, there will probably always be an artistic practice that is not (yet) accepted by the mainstream, but I do not think these contemporary avant gardes posses the same formal dynamism of the ones up to the middle of the 20th century. Not that formal changes don’t happen anymore (they do, often tied to new technologies, but not solely because of that), I’m rather talking about the conceptual breaking points the historic avant garde brought about. In that sense I think there is no “beyond”, but that doesn’t matter, as conceptually art has finally claimed (and achieved) full freedom in an endless mise en abyme & recombination of formal possibilities, opening up to endless (new) possibilities.

      And all that is indeed (partly?) the result of the abandonment of aesthetics and aesthetic rules.

      (If I find the time, I’ll try to give some examples from contemporary music later this week.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • One more thing: literature, or at least the novel, inherently has less tools for formal experiments/decomposition to its disposal: visual arts and music are much less defined than the novel, in which words and story are practically inescapable – visual arts and music are therefor easier to play with. The worldless graphic novel maybe is the exception, but that’s bordering semantics: where does literature stop? Sorites again? And is all storytelling literature? (I would say yes to that final question, but again: where does storytelling end? Are these comments storytelling? Is photojournalism storytelling? Was Debord telling a story?)


  10. I think maybe the visual arts and the SF genre suffer from the same problem of dwindling relevance, but for different reasons? A lot of the visual arts was about documenting stuff – people, possessions, landscapes – a role which was largely supplanted by photography. This was liberating initially (expressionism et al) but meant that painting has never enjoyed the same primacy since. The appeal of the SF genre was that some of it (colonising the galaxy, encountering alien species etc) just might come true. Now we know otherwise. The last big innovator was Gibson, imo. So what you have today is mostly pastiche – although, ironically, SF has never been more popular, maybe in part due to the continuing popularity of story-telling itself.

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    • Yes, very interesting point. I do think there is a formal distinction to make because in painting the goal changed because of photography: representation became unnecessary. For SF the goal didn’t really change, but our understanding of what it portrayed did – but, like with painting, also because of changing science/technology. Or, to put it differently: SF never stopped telling stories, and painting did.

      But either way, your point is well made: it might also explain why ‘science fantasy’ is on the rise (at least, that’s the impression I have, I could be mistaken).

      And even with transhumanist novels like those of Greg Egan, while their foundation is rational/scientific, you get basically magic that will never be attainable. But then again, Egan and consorts do serve a philosophical goal in the vain of earlier (lets call it naive) SF: explore what certain scientific ideas could mean to humanity – even if the human is reduced to a 3 milllimeter long clone that is beamed across the galaxy as information over a laser beam. It might not be attainable, it does broaden the scope of our understanding.


  11. It might also explain why ‘science fantasy’ is on the rise.

    Exactly! Some people will argue that the two were always interchangeable. I’d disagree, but it’s hard to make a counter argument, because SF is such a broad church. For example, you could say that Dune depicts an essentially medieval society with SF trappings – that it is, in essence, a fantasy. But Dune was a comment on certain political realities that gave it a contemporary vibe. Could you say the same about – say – Steampunk? And sure Kim Stanley Robinson is an SF author who’s trying to address the issues of the day, but he’s also an author who established himself back in the Eighties, as did Greg Egan. Both belong to the old guard. Who are their younger equivalents?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very hard to argue indeed. I think Dune isn’t science fantasy because it does try to extrapolate in a serious manner from our own current society to a far future. I’m not sure if commenting on contemporary politics is a deciding factor: I can easily imagine fantasy or steampunk doing that as well.

      As for younger equivalents to KSR or Egan, I can easily see Ada Palmer rising to their status in a few decades.


  12. She well might!

    I only cited Steampunk because – although it could be used as a vehicle for social commentary etc – it usually isn’t, nor does that ever seem to have been the intention of the authors in the genre. It’s basically Victoriana with a bit of sf(?) window dressing.

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  13. Pingback: CHAPTERHOUSE: DUNE – Frank Herbert (1985) | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

  14. Pingback: Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning (2016) – Re-enchantment Of The World

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