Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota tetralogy has me gripped. I read the first two in a month at the beginning of this year and took a bit of a pause before I started this third book: I needed a bit of air – these books are dense.
To recap: I absolutely loved Too Like the Lightning – I don’t think I’ve read a better debut ever. It’s not for everybody, but do yourself a favor: read my review to check out if it could be something for you. I also liked Seven Surrenders a lot – even though I had some remarks about what Palmer tried to do philosophically: about the metaphysics of the book, its ethics & its apparent gender essentialism. I wrote a 8,600 word analysis of all that and more, if you’re interested in such a thing.
This review won’t be as long, but still a hefty 6,400 words. The conceptual questions I voiced in my analysis of Seven Surrenders are not resolved in The Will to Battle, and there isn’t that much new information on these matters to analyze. Still, there’s enough to build upon what I wrote.
In my analysis, I will limit myself to two things. First a further discussion of the epistemic nature of the text and its relation to the metaphysics of Palmer’s future world. I’ve also changed my opinion a bit on the science fantasy matter, mainly because of an essay Palmer wrote online.
The second thing I’ll look at more closely is J.E.D.D.’s motivation for his involvement in the coming war: it is linked to utilitarianism and the trolley problem – things I wrote about in my text on 7S as well. J.E.D.D.’s motivations are problematic to say the least – not wholly out of character.
Before I’ll get to the analytic part, I’ll do a quick assessment of the novel without spoilers – that could be of interest to those that have read none or one or two of the first books.
Just to be clear: I liked The Will to Battle a lot, probably a bit more even than Seven Surrenders. It was a bit less exuberant, less cartoonish, and it dwelled less on the problematic sides of 7S.
Book 4, Perhaps the Stars, has 608 pages of small print and slim margins – quite a difference with the 350 pages of normal print in The Will to Battle. I tend to avoid door stoppers, but the fact that I’m very eager to read it nonetheless attests for Palmer’s narrative powers. I’ll read one or two short books as palet cleansers, but I hope to post a review/analysis of Perhaps the Stars before the end of August. Stay tuned.
GENERAL APPRAISAL – spoiler free
I think it’s safe to say The Will to Battle is a transitional book, getting us from the more or less finished story of the first half to the series’ finale: a big battle, as in so much traditional speculative series.
Palmer reveals a bit more about her world and the political intrigue, but there are no big new things. The focus is squarely on the political machinations in preparation of the coming war in the next book. She also sketches the legal side of the world a bit more, in a filibustering manner that again shows her narrative brilliance.
I have to stress again that this is very, very well crafted. While this book isn’t really about the new, Palmer continues to surprise her readers, and part of that is her original and daring command of the formal aspects of storytelling. Her excellent, insightful text on these matters on the Tor site is well worth reading for anybody interested in how fiction is written.
What struck me most is that this third book has much less of the absurd and insane anime influence that Seven Surrenders had: sex and gender as themes are practically absent. A good thing, as I thought that particular aspect of the world building was the weakest in terms of suspension of disbelief.
This is also not the tight crime mystery Lightning turned out to be at the end. Maybe the most subdued of the three so far, the world and the characters that Palmer has created remain fascinating: I want to get to the battle yes, but seeing Palmer set up the pieces was very rewarding – the main power of this book might be its confident promise of more.
Even though I haven’t read the final book, I’m sure it will be different again. One could see these four books as one big novel, a bit like The Lord of the Rings or The Book of the New Sun. But while this is indeed a series with one continuing story and a similar narrative voice – even if the ending of book 3 obliges me to mention a caveat about Perhaps the Stars‘ voice – much, much less than Tolkien’s or Wolfe’s, it isn’t four times the same book at all. These are 4 distinct works, formally, narratively, emotionally. Again: pretty amazing what Palmer has achieved in terms of structure & narrative goals she set for herself.
Other reviewers have highlighted narrator Mycroft Canner’s use of both an imaginary reader and an imaginary Thomas Hobbes as narrative devices – some saying it is a bit overdone. I didn’t feel that way. It didn’t dominate the flow of the story, and the insertion of 18th century mannerism and philosophy feels less heavy-handed than in the previous two books. Diderot and De Sade don’t even get mentioned here, and Voltaire only in passing.
Palmer doesn’t really problematize things – gender, the trolley problem – in this part as she did explicitely in the previous two installments. Palmer does expose the question of utilitarianism as central to the series, but at the same time seems to resolve it in this book too. It will be interesting to see if Perhaps the Stars will add any nuance or new problems on that front.
One remark before I’ll get to the analysis. While Frank Herbert seems to be absent from the numerous authors Palmer thanks in the acknowledgements of the 4 books, there’s a curious parallel between something central to the Dune series and Apollo Mojave & Mycroft Canner: the motivations for their actions resemble those of Leto’s Golden Path. It’s all the more remarkable that Mycroft even admits to be more on the Utopian side than J.E.D.D.’s, when push would come to shove. It’s also of note that the Golden Path itself is also the result of utilitarian calculus.
THE METAPHYSICS OF PALMER’S FUTURE TERRA & THE EPISTEMICS OF TERRA IGNOTA
I’ve already written at length about the nature of Palmer’s text in my analysis of Seven Surrenders, and I’ll substantially add to what I wrote – I can even report a change in my outlook on the matter.
For starters, let me quote David Auerbach, from his 2007 review of The Book of the New Sun on his blog, Waggish.
But where the book most seriously fails in its ambitions is on a more fundamental level, which is that in the stability of the text itself. (…) two facts cause the book to be underdetermined with regard to Severian’s motives and to the purpose of the text itself. (…) This is not a matter of obscurity; rather, it is an intentional choice that indicates a serious failure on the part of Wolfe to push his book past the realm of entertainment. Without our being able to grasp the deeper sense of Severian’s words other than as a maybe-true story, he reduces the book to decontextualized apocrypha (…).
The question now is whether Auerbach’s critique of Gene Wolfe – which I don’t fully subscribe to, but for more on that read my own analysis of BotNS – can also be used to say something about Terra Ignota? Is it something else than mere entertainment? What is the full reality in and of the text Palmer presents? Is Bridger real? Is J.E.D.D. a god? How unreliable is Mycroft? Who is 9A? What about Achilles’ nature?
Or maybe these questions aren’t that important after all… In the end both Wolfe’s text and Palmer’s are stories, and why should they have to make sense?
Maybe because they try to communicate? Palmer has said she tries to add to the conversation and ask questions about Providence and the nature of the maker of our universe. In my review of 7S I already tried to explain that these books cannot say anything about God or gods or the metaphysical nature of our reality: the only thing they can do is speculate about fictional speculation.
Be that as it may, posing questions about gods is not all Palmer tried to do, not by a long shot – her books are much more ambitious. So does her text has to make sense metaphysically for these other goals too?
To settle the matter of the general metaphysical nature of her future world, consider this long excerpt from a text she wrote in 2016 for The Page 69 Test. It talks about the occurrence of magic in her scifi world, and the historical roots of the “science vs. religion/magic” dichotomy.
So people are often puzzled, and sometimes distressed, when, at the very beginning, I introduce a boy who can inexplicably bring toys to life with a touch. Some people have said it turned them off, that they wanted science fiction, not something “unrealistic.” But a big part of the book is about that very conflict, and about trying to show extremely intelligent, scientifically-minded people in a technologically sophisticated world and how they would react to something supernatural. The characters who are dealing with Bridger’s “power” on page 69 aren’t deep in action, not having a high-speed chase scene trying to seize this power or prevent it from being seized by others. They’re calmly debating, thinking through social implications, “moral calculus” as one calls it in the last paragraph. Carlyle is in fact a theologian, technically trained exactly for this situation, how to think about the “miraculous” in a scientific world, and the only conspiracy to hide the “power” that results is in service of trying to figure out the most socially useful and efficient way to eventually reveal it, to the benefit of all.
Science and the supernatural aren’t in tension in these character’s minds, they’re perfectly compatible, and the appearance of a “miracle” doesn’t mean they throw science out the window, it means they add this new discovery to their knowledge pool, another piece of data. In a sense, the conversation in this scene is opposing the binary of science versus magic, just as it’s opposing the binary of science versus religion. My inspiration here is reading eighteenth century Enlightenment books, the works of Voltaire and Diderot. Currently many people think the “religion vs. science” conversation, which is so heated right now, is an ancient binary, but (speaking in my historian hat for a moment) it’s actually very recent. There are a few vague threads in the Middle Ages that, but it remains extremely marginal even in the 19th century, and doesn’t become hot topic until recent decades. In the Enlightenment in particular, most people assumed that learning more about science would strengthen religion by revealing the nature of the Creator from looking at the Creation. I love eighteenth century fiction, and how Eighteenth century scientists, philosophers and authors mixed things we usually think of as opposing genres, not just mixing fantasy and science fiction (though Voltaire mixed those plenty) but also mixing the scientific treatise and the theological treatise, producing works that really are both scientific and theological, without the authors seeing any contradiction. We don’t look at that kind of mindset much in science fiction, so I thought it would be fun to explore. I wanted to do a story where I explore the supernatural rationally, the way we do when we sit down and debate what you should really do to help the world if you had the powers of a telepath, or Superman, or Doctor Strange. There’s plenty of action in the book too, a mystery, conspiracies, but page 69 shows you what may be the most surprising part of all, a calm, open-minded science fiction investigation of the scientific implications of something we usually banish to the far side of the double yellow line between SF and Fantasy.
Problem solved, I’d say – simple as that. Terra Ignota doesn’t try to be a series that is metaphysically in line with our current Western secular sensibilities, and so we shouldn’t judge it by that metric. Even the Utopians talk about “scrying technniques” and “counterspells” in this book.
And Palmer – through Achilles – gives another hint too: a narrative and our real world are different things, operate differently, make sense in a different way. This probably is the most important quote I’ve presented thus far – and that’s including the quotes in the reviews of the two previous books:
“Oh, I [Senator Aesop Quarriman] believe the genetics they published, and the bone development and diet tests, you’re an ancient Greek, medically speaking, it’s just the part about how you came into existence that makes no sense.” “In most senses I agree,” Achilles granted. “Though my return here makes narrative sense, and narrative is a powerful force in the world, at least for me.”
So with the metaphysics of Palmer’s invented future world out of the way, only another logical puzzle remains: Auerbach’s issue, the epistemics of the text itself, its stability, its internal truth system.
The previous two books are fully approved by J.E.D.D. and the others – or so that is said in this book. There are also the fictional seals of approval at the beginning of the first two books, and a ‘classified’ notice at the onset of this book. So unless all these things are fabrication or forgery, we have to take what was presented in the first two books as something J.ED.D. and the leaders of the Hives want released for public consumption. Yet that doesn’t make it all true.
Here’s Mycroft on the matter:
My great merit as an historian is that I am known to be insane. No court or council can trust my testimony, and each reader may pick and choose what to believe, dismissing anything too unsettling as lunacy. I gave the public what it wanted of the truth, no more, leaving the pundits and propagandists free to shape opinion into faction, and faction into sides and enemies. This chronicle [The Will to Battle] is different. My first history [the first two books] was written to be shared and used, now, by my masters. This chronicle cannot be shared, not while these secrets are still War Secrets. The powers that bid me record their doings week by week will not even let each other read the transcript. (…) There lies my chief regret, reader. Since you cannot trust a madman’s word, I cannot persuade you of the one fact which is true comfort to me, even as I grieve. He was real: Bridger. (…) and through him the God Who Conceived This Universe, Who usually sits back invisible, revealed Himself. I wish you could believe me.
Mycroft also says this:
Surely you have discovered that emotions let you sometimes tell yourself the possible is real, even without proof.
And here is 9A – the mysterious editor:
You know my voice because I have been Mycroft’s editor, in the last books and this. I patched together their fragments, made bearable what was too passionate, and in the history I used to edit out the signs of Mycroft’s madness, though I’ve decided to leave them in this more recent chronicle.
So what exactly can we trust of these books? 9A apparently has made much more changes to the text of books 1 & 2 than we were led to believe. Especially as 9A admits that he likes solving logical puzzles. Has 9A – or Palmer – created one for us to solve?
I was a bit confused by what Palmer said in an August 2017 interview with Fantasy-Faction, only a few months before The Will to Battle was published in December that year:
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.
Palmer seems to disregard 9A’s confession about redacting – or maybe she implies that 9A’s redaction indeed was limited to merely filtering out Mycroft’s madness, and that what remains indeed is what Mycroft believes to be true. It also seems to imply that the text as it is presented to us – including the approvals on the first page – isn’t a fabrication or a forgery, and that – at least – the first two books are indeed Mycroft’s honest words that J.ED.D. and the leaders of the Hives want released for public consumption in Palmer’s future world.
If 9A tells the truth as well, 9A seems to believe the magic of their world as well, and so Achilles is indeed the real deal, and J.E.D.D. was indeed resurrected. Here’s 9A again:
Achilles is something from another world. One glimpse of them in motion is enough to convince anyone, not that Mycroft’s tales of Bridger are true, but that there is less difference between the brawniest weightlifter and the sleekest diver than there is between everyone on Earth and this Greek stranger. The doctors who examined Achilles made excited noises about bones which had not grown on our diet, muscles and lungs which had not trained on our air, but seeing is believing.
There was plenty of proof that one Griffincloth suit jacket had no power to trick many cameras from many angles, or to produce the stains science had verified as Their cerebral-spinal fluid on the stones, but people wanted to doubt, so they seized this thread and ran.
But note the use of the world “tales” in that first quote: does that suggest 9A thinks that Bridger’s powers were merely that: tales, untrue? If so, how did Achilles came into existence? Achilles himself had something to offer about this particular puzzle, much earlier in the book – another key quote, I think:
Spain paused. “Do you think your existence proves your gods are the real ones” “No.” The veteran [Achilles] let himself sigh. “I’ve thought hard about that, and, with all I’ve seen, I wouldn’t put it past Fate’s whimsy to make me real but leave my gods a pack of empty superstition.”
And here’s an imaginary Apollo Mojave speaking to Mycroft – in a sense a conversation Mycroft has with himself:
“You’re willing to hurt the Alien by telling the whole world that they think they are a God, but you’re not willing to tell the truth about me?”
Does this imply that Mycroft (unconsciously) admits to himself J.E.D.D. is no God? Yet elsewhere he says this:
Whenever anyone suggested that it might be true, what I said of Apollo or the Mardi bash’, someone cited my ravings about Bridger’s miracles, proof positive again that I was mad. Each Hive even managed to read my history as proof that Jehova was still theirs: still the Mitsubishi’s trusted Tenth Director, still the loyal Porphyrogene, still a Brillist at heat, still as noble as His royal line, still sensitive and kind and Cousinly, still brave and bold and human; all Hives saw in Him what they wanted, never a God, or a madman who thought himself a God. Oh, some believed the truth about Him – What He Is – a few thousand perhaps among the billions, but those who believe a madman are easy to call mad.
The Utopians on the other hand seem to consider J.E.D.D. an alien, call him Micromegas – after the alien in the 1752 novella by Voltaire – and Voltaire Seldon says he is not “a human thing”.
9A also acknowledges J.E.D.D.’s peculiar nature:
My introduction to Plato said they thought disembodies souls were like flying eyeballs that could see 360 degrees, but got trapped in bodies that could only see 120, so were always unhappy, like you have one eye taped shut. That never hit home for me until the first time I saw how desperately the Prince uses the crutches of Their senses.
Even though I think my reading of J.E.D.D. in my analysis of 7S can remain valid – that he’s just an extreme neurodiverse human – the more I read of these books, the more I think Palmer simply makes it impossible for the reader to fully crack the code – not dissimilar to how the Nolan brothers deliberately inserted conflicting shots in Memento. She also seems to signal, via that quote of Achilles above, and via interviews, that it might not even matter: just go with the flow of the narrative, enjoy the confusion, embrace the liminal.
We’ll see how things turn out in Perhaps the Stars, as even the text itself seems to have gained magical properties: Mycroft inexplicably inserting a paragraph in 9A’s last chapter.
UNKNOWN MORAL TERRITORY: THE TROLLEY PROBLEM & J.E.D.D.’s PROBLEMATIC CASUS BELLI
The trolley problem actually isn’t that hard for governments. Whereas in the thought experiment individuals need to decide in a split second, in the real world – and in Palmer’s fictional one – governments have time to do the utilitarian calculus. More so: they are kinda expected to do so.
He answered that each of the sixty-six lives he had personally taken had, he believed, saved millions; if there were a vaccine that would save tens of millions of lives, but sixty-six people would die from allergic complications, then Romanova, any Hive, any power that had authority to say yes would say yes.
Similarly, it’s even an overlooked moral justification of self-defense.
If a Hive had not the right to defend the world by taking lives, then doctors had no right to quarantine a plague, nor did the guards of the Olmek Virus Lab or Sanctum Sanctorum have the right to defend their wards with deadly force.
So I was relieved to see Palmer had the judges picking the obvious answer in the case against Ockham Saneer. All and all, the auctorial voice – Mycroft Canner, Ada Palmer, what have you – didn’t seem to make as much of fuss on the matter as in Seven Surrenders.
The only ones making a problem out of it are J.E.D.D. Mason and his supporters. I can understand his supporters: some of them have lost hive members, and I get it they are whipped up by tribal reasoning enforced by J.E.D.D.’s rhetoric.
But I don’t really get J.E.D.D., beacon of Truth and sharp, insightful thinking – so in what follows I want to look at his motivation for opposing O.S.
For starters, J.E.D.D. claims to be in a dialogue with our universe’s creator. But I can’t really wrap my head around the chronology:
“(…) I show also, or rather I will and do and have show showed Him works of Mine equally alien to Him as His to Me. He made makes and will make you and all His creatures be what you are because He is, always has been, and always will be responding to what you are because He is, always has been, and always will be responding to what He Knows of Me. If the human is by nature a social creature, then We Two – My Peer and I – though We Are Creators not creatures, Are social with Each Other.”
I know J.E.D.D. says there is no ‘time’ in his own universe, but since he has been incarnated on Earth, he has learned of the concept. Does he imply here that God has been in dialogue with J.E.D.D. even before creation? But according to the next quote, this dialogue only seems to have started very recently, via his incarnation:
“(…) Your own Creator, the Maker of this universe, is My Peer. He made this flesh so that I might visit His universe and here perceive His works. It is a dialogue between Us. During My visit I have experienced some forms of human suffering, so I sympathize with what you endure for Our dialectic, but I know no other way for Us to communicate.”
I will not examine all this any further – I don’t want to examine J.E.D.D.’s nature in this section, partly because of what I wrote in the previous section – I raise the issue partly to show cracks in J.E.D.D.’s discourse, but also because this dialogue with “His Peer” is part of his motivation.
“(…) My Peer wants Me to change His Plan or else He would not invite Me. (…) Thinkest thou that My Peer knows how terrible harm feels to His creations? Or is His experience too removed from theirs for empathy? And if the latter, is it so for Me? If I make My creatures suffer, as He makes His suffer, would I realize it?”
He partly answers the question he raised himself, as God became human too via Jesus Christ.
“Increasingly since My resurrection I think on the concept of My Peer’s Incarnation experiment! If it is true qu’ He tested Incarnation on Himself before He used it on Me, then perhaps when He scripts His Providence He understands, as His human creations do, pain, time, distance, limit, hope, failer, et being loved! I like this concept! Such a Peer I can respect! And I fear less what He does to His thinking creations!”
A possible problem here is that he at least seems to respect that suffering is part of His Peer’s creation. But J.E.D.D. is fickle:
“You prove to Me that I am not what humans are, thus that this is not a race of deluded Gods who think they are not Gods. It is some relief to know humans are not all mad. But if the are not Gods, then there truly exists such a thing as a finite – perhaps even mortal – thinking thing. That deepens My concerns about the character of their Creator. Your Creator. My Peer. (…) Show Me your Creator. This I want from all beings, but expect most from you.”
Does this indicate that his problem is not so much with human suffering, but the mortality and death of thinking things?
He’s also not sure that the purpose of our universe’s creator is good:
“There is no luck, nor Fortune, only Providence. (…) There is a Purpose; that is not the same as Good.”
A more fundamental question is why J.E.D.D. would even believe, seemingly a priori, in a god – seemingly the Christian god – if he has never seen him? If he can only communicate with him via us humans? This again shows cracks in a mind for who Truth seems to be the most important thing.
“I can respect a universe where it is you who kills Me, but not one where I am murdered by a lie.”
Either way, J.E.D.D. wants to decrease evil – but we never learn his definition of the concept, except partly in the next quote:
“To decrease evil. (…) Separation and confusion cause pain, a form of evil, and prevent the joy and creativity which are the fruits of human contact. I do not wish you pain, nor to decrease the sum of human happiness and achievement.”
So J.E.D.D wants to decrease pain, increase joy, creativity.
“I am thus far omnibenevolent.”
So why does he take the helm of the Remakers?
“I expect that,” Jehova began, “that this crisis will not end until either Sniper’s death or Mine, and also that, if Sniper is victor, then Earth will continue to depend on that . . . cowardly and addictive evil named O.S. Therefore it seems I must seek Sniper’s death. Yet I believe, in all deeds, knowledge should be as complete as possible, especially in homicide for death is irreparable. The torture of regretting having killd is atrocissima . . . too cruel. Therefore I will not have any kill for Me who does not know as much Truth as it is in My power to share, nor will I have Sniper die, though Sniper is My enemy, without the dignity of understanding. I therefore command all whom I have the power to command, and request of those I do not, that no one slay Sniper until the history I am currently having prepared is done. (…)”
“(…) No one should doubt what has been proved: that, for three hundred years, this civilization’s unprecedented peace has been enabled by assassinations. The current system cannot function without O.S. I believe that I am intended to replace it with a system that can. I believe that is My purpose on this Earth (…). I shall destroy and remake whatever I must to create a conscionable world. (…) whatever world I remake this world into will not include O.S. or the kind of moral compromise that birthed it. Humanity must outgrow such compromise. If you desire this change, My unknown new order, support Me. If you prefer the current bloodstained partial-paradise, support Sniper.”
His problems with O.S.’s solution to the trolley problem is that it is cowardly, addictively evil, unconscionable, a moral compromise, bloodstained.
It goes without saying that starting a war in which innocent people will die to prevent future deaths is simply a variant of what O.S. was doing. It’s even worse, as the coming war might jeopardize the planet as a biosphere. Aside from being ironic, it shows J.E.D.D.’s reasoning seems to stem more from absolutist moral thinking, and not from practical considerations. How many deaths in the coming Civil World War are justifiable to save how many future O.S. victims exactly?
He also introduces a partial false contradiction, as the Hiveguards also want to better the system and desire change, but not via a violent tabula rasa. In the deadline he sets, he makes the mistake of equating the possible actions of one human (that would murder Sniper before the end of the Olympics) with humanity as a whole. As such J.E.D.D.’s shows a bad case of essentialist thinking and faulty generalization.
Moreover, killing Sniper isn’t the same as removing the O.S. system. There is no moral justification for killing Sniper, except for revenge. Stopping or removing O.S. could be achieved by imprisoning Sniper and his ilk as well. If your concern is the mortality of thinking things, why call for the death of one?
Careful readers with a good memory will say that J.E.D.D. later admits that he is “reconciled now to killing.” Indeed, he said so. But the problem for J.E.D.D.’s moral compass is that the moment he reconciles with killing (for a reason, out of necessity, etc.) he starts following the logic of utilitarian calculus – in other words, the same logic O.S. subscribes too. The pot calling the kettle black. Moral superiority based on a giant moral blind spot. Not my idea of Truth. Unconscionable.
It is not that J.E.D.D. doesn’t ponder these things:
«But now I ask Myself: Am I good?» He continued. (…) «If, as Plato and Aquinas hold, Good Is One with My Peer, then Being Not-My-Peer, I Am Evil. But if, as Ockham and Mycroft hold, there is no absolute Good, and good is instead a human construct, a kindly and anthropomorophic perfection which resembles, not My Peer, but what His creations think they wish He were, then in such a sense I may be good, for I am kind, and want all thinking beings to be happy. But can I be called good if I merely desire their happiness, but do not attempt to achieve it? Achieving it would require Me to endeavor to twist My Peer’s Plan toward kind and human things, toward compromise, away from war, yet He has laid out war before Me, and such rich questions to be tested by it, meat for Our Conversation. I am invited here by Him, not them, and am a poor Guest if I shun My Host’s table to aid the garden ants.»
But he seems to see himself as a victim: God “has laid out war before Me” – does he not believe in free will? Does he hide his own moral responsibility behind notions of hospitality? His reasoning aligns with what Mycroft wrote in Seven Surrenders:
“(…) 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. (…)”
If God/Providence planned this war, doesn’t that morally absolve O.S. as well?
Also Madame, J.E.D.D.’s mother, absolves her Sweet in her reply to him: it’s not J.E.D.D.’s deeds that are the cause of future suffering. It’s also of note that Madame says that J.E.D.D. gave God advice against giving humans the capacity of suffering. Again: the chronology?
«I hate suffering. (…) I do not want to be an Author of it, even as co-Author of the Great Conversation.» «It’s not Your deeds which make the suffering exist, my Sweet, it is the capacity for suffering which He planted in His creations, against Your good advice.»
And also Voltaire Seldon, the Utopian that has known J.E.D.D. from his childhood, offers an opinion on J.E.D.D.’s moral compass:
“But you care. You care the way humans care, more. You are not yourself the Author of earthquakes. You know sorrow, and ignorance, and woe, and hope. You want to guard the garden we have worked so hard to cultivate. You even wat to cultivate it more Yourself. (…)”
J.E.D.D.’s broken moral compass and his faulty reasoning seems to contradict with how Madame describes her son in Seven Surrenders:
“(…) 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.”
It also doesn’t align with what Andō Mitsubishi says in 7S:
“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.”
Obviously Madame, Andō, Voltaire and Mycroft are not objective sources – but the quotes I just gave are consistent with the overall image that the other characters painted of J.E.D.D. throughout the first three books of Terra Ignota: someone rigorous, with an absolute morality about Truth and suffering. But a careful examination of his reasoning in The Will to Battle shows him to be inconsequent, and subscribing to just another version of utilitarianism, as I tried to explain above.
That leaves an open question: what are Palmer’s own feelings towards J.E.D.D.’s motives and thinking? Does Palmer believe O.S. was a form of moral cowardice? To answer that, I’ll have to read Perhaps the Stars, because so far it isn’t easy to tell. I hope she has said something about it in interviews, because I have a hunch that it might be impossible to tell from the books alone. Author’s perogrative obviously, and it could well be that Palmer is conflicted herself. An embrace of the liminal? Or intellectual fear?
At this moment my guess is that J.E.D.D. serves as a warning against the trope of the deluded moral absolutist Tyrant, and that Palmer deliberately inserted all these conflicting things in The Will to Battle to show that his line of thinking is problematic too.
Either way, I can’t imagine Palmer hasn’t thought long and hard about these matters. Not only to write the books themselves, but also while studying the history of progress as an academic. She works “very hard on building a better future”, as she told Adam Morgan in Chicago magazine in 2018, so she must have thought about how she would feel about a real world O.S. too – not unlike Kim Stanley Robinson debated his wife while writing The Ministry for the Future.
My own thesis about J.E.D.D. Mason remains what it was: he’s intelligent but emotionally damaged, probably on the autism spectrum and probably batshit insane. Ultimately, what he is doing boils down to sacrificing the present to save the future – the opposite of what Apollo Mojave tried to do.
No final thoughts or summary to end this long piece. We’ll see what Perhaps the Stars brings.
In the meantime, the first three books in this series are wholeheartedly recommended: unique, powerful, unlike anything I’ve ever read.
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 the final book.
If you like this kind of analysis, I’ve made a separate index of my lengthy in-depth reviews.
Consult the author index for all my other reviews, or my favorite lists.
Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews.
Great review! As the British say, I’m chuffed that you’re still enjoying this series. I also think that Perhaps the Stars will deliver a lot of answers to many of the questions you ask. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on that one.
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Good to read Perhaps The Stars will bring at least some closure. I can’t wait, very, very curious. And very curious how it will alter my judgement of the entire series.
I’ve just started book 4 btw, but it will take me some time – this review also took me some time to write. I finished that LP Boon novel in the meantime, and I’ll first have to write something about that one.
I’ve also never heard of the expression ‘to be chuffed’. Live and learn, that’s what it’s all about!
You are certainly doing a hard sell on this series. I may put it on the ‘To read’ list, but I still need to make progress on ‘Book of the New Sun’
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If you like that, there’s a good change you’ll like this too – both tough cookies, even though they are mightily different.
I haven’t read any of Palmer’s books yet, but I do wonder if her version of theology isn’t closer to gnosticism than regular Christianity – you have ostensibly two equal powers, Peers, who are not of this world but in this world, in a form of relationship that might be conflict or cooperation. And a lot of the quotes you give give me the impression of revolving about the nature of reality and truth, and illusion. Just a thought!
I’ll read it at some point, I’m sure. Sounds like a very unique read.
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Yes, I think I’ve overstretched a bit with that Christianity remark. The fact that it seemed the Christian god to me probably has to do with her 18th century sources, and my own bias.
But that said, while she heavily uses Greek mythology in the 4th book, most characters seem to regard Providence/God as a kind of monotheistic, conscious maker.
I’m not well versed in gnosticism, but there is no real evil-good dichotomy in the books on the supernatural level. There might be another Power, but it is from a different universe than the universe our god has created, and that power isn’t evil or adverserial.
The books is partly about the nature of reality (or better, a possible reason for reality), sure, but illusion isn’t really a theme: it is not really Matrix or Plato like in its approach.
(Sorry for my late reply.)
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Since Palmer is so much into manga, maybe she envisioned these godlike characters as something similar to kami in Japanese tradition, then. I guess I’ll need to see for myself! 😀
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Kami – yet another thing I´ll have to read up on. Either way: very curious about what your thoughts on the series would be.
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Given much of what you’ve written in this review, I am extremely curious what your thoughts of Perhaps the Stars are going to be. I have many things to say in response to what you’ve written here, but most of them would give some presentiment for the next novel. Reading through this review makes me recall just how much work Perhaps the Stars does to shift the reader’s perspective on the story. I will be interested to see whether you find it a convincing conclusion or not (whether good or bad).
There is an interview with Ada Palmer on the “ReReading Wolfe” podcast, titled “Bonus: Ada Palmer talks about Gene Wolfe, his legacy, and The Book of the New Sun”, published a few months before the release of Perhaps the Stars, which I found illuminating on where I felt Palmer was going with topics like JEDD’s divinity, providence in general, and the nature of Bridger. Before that interview I thought likely what we were seeing was a world which having hidden away the divine behind laws couldn’t quite grasp significant scientific finds without retreating back to those old narratives, but afterward I think the tetralogy is meant more as a direct message to the science fiction (and scientific) community about the absurdity of creating worlds which feature fantasies like faster than light travel, self-aware artificial intelligence, transhuman technologies, and alien life while rejecting the very possibility of the supernatural as fantasy only.
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I have 40 pages left of PtS, just the final chapter and I’m done. I can’t say that much about what I think of the ending, as I have the feeling there will be some reveals left.
I don’t want to say that much, often my thoughts change while writing the review, but I can say that atm I think PtS is the weakest book of the 4.
Thanks about that podcast tip, I’ll listen to it for sure. Curious how it will expand on the long interview part I quoted in this review.
Your last sentence is very interesting – I’m all for not discarding the mystery that is creation. Whether to do so via the conceptions of Gods & Providence Palmer displays in this book, is an entirely different matter. Atm I even think it is the weakest part of the entire novel. But more on all that in a few weeks, I still hope to finish my review before the end of August. Thanks for the comment – I’m sure it will be useful writing the review.
I’ve just posted the review. Thanks for the pointer to the podcast, it proved crucial. While reading I had made lots of notes about the matter beforehand, but I hadn’t realized theodicy was so crucial to Palmer.