PERHAPS THE STARS – Ada Palmer (2021)

Perhaps The Stars Ada Palmer UK hardcoverThere are benefits to blogging: being part of a conversation, just as Ada Palmer with her writing wants to be part of the conversation. When I was on the brink of finishing Perhaps The Stars, Agnus Burke – from the excellent Utopia in the Works, a blog focused on rereading Kim Stanley Robinson – commented on my review of The Will to Battle, the previous book in Palmer’s Terra Ignota series. That comment helped me tremendously in pinpointing exactly what I wanted to say in this final review.

Before I get to that, a short recap for those of you who haven’t read the previous reviews. Perhaps the Stars is the fourth and final book of Terra Ignota, a series that started with Too Like the Lightening, a book that blew me away and that I rank among the best books I’ve read – in my review I try to explain why.

Book 2 and 3 were excellent as well, but not fully on the level of Palmer’s debut. And so I wrote lengthy analyses, trying to spell out my feelings. 8,600 words on Seven Surrenders, most notably on the series’ metaphysics – tied with Mycroft’s status as a narrator, its seemingly essentialist outlook, the case study of utilitarian ethics, the nature of J.E.D.D. and the books’ politics, intrigues and world building. And 6,400 words on The Will to Battle, on the epistemic nature of the text & its relation to the metaphysics of Palmer’s future world, and about J.E.D.D.’s problematic motivation for his involvement in the coming war – linked to utilitarianism and the trolley problem.

These reviews are a testimony of an ongoing reading process, and I wouldn’t have written certain parts with what I know in hindsight. I don’t think that’s a problem, as they serve as a mapping of sorts to the problems Palmer presents her readers – she has been vocal about one of her goals: getting people to think and engage with these books. So I won’t alter these reviews retroactively, that would defy their pondering, searching nature – except that I will add one remark to my review of Seven Surrenders, out of intellectual fairness.

Now that I’ve finished the full series, this final review – 5,500 words – will also serve as my thoughts on the full series, and for those thoughts I’ll start with Burke’s comment. I’ll also discuss some other stuff that wasn’t fully to my taste this time, and I’ll end with a few short discussions: on free will, on J.E.D.D’s. nature & the fallacy of fiction being a real world guide, on J.E.D.D.’s trolley problem motivation, on the trolley problem itself & on a few of the series’ gender aspects.

In short, I think Palmer did an amazing job – an insane amount of work – crafting her narrative construction, providing tons of great ideas and sets and characters and twists and genuine moments of awe – but, and this may seem paradoxical for a novel full of really insightful stuff, I think the main philosophical foundation of the four Terra Ignota books is uninteresting and unproductive. How’s that for a cliffhanger?


Burke pointed me to the Rereading Gene Wolfe podcast, which has an episode that’s a long interview with Palmer, mainly about The Book of the New Sun – for those interested, I wrote 5,500 words on my reread of that as well, focusing on the narrative trap Wolfe set, and my theory that his literary sleight of hand serves a religious/mystical goal, much more than it is the supposed puzzle for the reader to unravel.

But Palmer – in August 2021, just before the release of PtS – also talks a bit about Terra Ignota. It was well worth transcribing a few parts – starting 1 hour and 5 minutes in:

…the mix of science fiction and religiosity and ethics – that triad being closely linked to each other. And questions of can we have a universe in which there is deep engagement with providence and in fact the narrator at least believes that there is providence and we are coming to understand providence through the narrator and this is a providence that is involved with religiosity and even perhaps with divine intervention and yet is still radical a science fictional world in which physics is physics and aliens are aliens and this is all happening within a space of – the fact that there is religiosity doesn’t mean there isn’t science.

So far, so good, this partly echoes the 2016 essay Palmer wrote for The Page 69 test, and which I quoted at length in my review of The Will to Battle. That essay settled the metaphysical and most epistemic questions I had while I read the first three books.

Palmer talked about Providence before in interviews, but it is only here that it became fully clear to me that her focus is religious rather than speculative. A few minutes later in the interview, she also says she likes science fictional books and series that engage with providence & religiosity – like Battlestar Galactica & TBotNS – like it was done in Enlightenment literature too.

She then discloses something crucial – not only for the Terra Ignota books, but also about her own motivations to become a history professor. It is this disclosure that puts a stark light upon what my ultimate trouble with Terra Ignota is.

[first talking about Voltaire’s Candide:] …through which the nature of providence is gradually and intentionally on the part of providence revealed to this character [Candide] so that in the end we have an understanding to what degree humans are capable of knowing the purposes of suffering. And that is something that is explored a ton in Enlightenment literature and very little in 20th century literature in which providence is not something we think and talk about all that much. (…) But there isn’t very much active discussion of providence and why is there suffering, why is there evil? It’s not a big theme in our literature. But it is an amazing and important question and a central theme in the literature of the 18th century. (…) Why is there evil? The question of theodicy. (…) Which is a really powerful and interesting question. And which, it’s a delight to be, to see explored. This is a big part of why I became an historian. I love this. I loved it in Gene Wolfe, I loved it in other places, where can I find more, but oh it turns out most of it stopped several hundred years ago, well I guess I’m gonna be a historian.”

I think there is a reason theodicy isn’t explored all that much anymore today. Because it asks a question with a problematic premises.

In its most basic form, the question is why a good God permits the manifestation of evil? Who says that God is good? And who says there is a God to begin with? It’s all good and well to explore these issues if you adhere to one of the monotheistic religions – in that case, the question probably has occupied your mind, because, well, there are oceans of human suffering indeed. Generally the standard answer is something among the lines of: yes, God is good, but we cannot understand God’s bigger plan as the finite cannot grasp the infinite, so we have to trust God and accept Earthly suffering. It’s basically the only possible line of defense if you want to keep on believing God is good.

But for other people – atheists, people who believe God isn’t inherently good, people who don’t think of God as having personhood or consciousness or agency – the question might be of much lesser interest. And for agnostics, there’s isn’t any possibility for an answer either.

It is clear that the fact that existence is something unexplained, a mystery, a wonder – a Mystery, a Wonder, a Miracle even, if you are so inclined. So I’m not saying questions about how our reality came to be are not interesting. But I’m with my boy Wittgenstein too: “Was sich überhaupt sagen lässt, lässt sich klar sagen; und wovon man nicht reden kann, darüber muss man schweigen.” I don’t think that’s a cop-out on my part: Palmer herself embraces the liminal too, as I explained in my review of The Will to Battle.

In the books, Palmer talks about the “Nature of Providence” and the “nature of our Maker” a lot – to the extent that one sometimes could read these phrases as “Nature” or “reality”, and opt for an animistic or areligious reading of the books. Taken that way, the question of evil turns into an ‘how’ rather than a ‘why’ question, and one can give a pretty straightforward physical, biological, sociological and evolutionary account of the reasons for human suffering, and the suffering of animals in general. But alas, such an answer doesn’t seem to suffice: it is clear most of Palmer’s characters believe in a god, and also in that podcasts Palmer is explicit about her intentions.

So when Palmer has J.E.D.D. ask questions like in the next quote, to me it feels as if Palmer begs the question. So far, we haven’t been able to step outside the Matrix or escape Plato’s cave – it might very well be impossible – and as long as we can’t, all speculation is kinda futile and pointless. We simply don’t have enough data to draw any meaningful conclusion on the matter.

“If the made things reflects the maker’s ethics-innerness, then Death, Time, Distance, if I Hate-which-is-not-Love-these things, My Peer’s creations, do I then Hate-which-is-not-Love the ethical Being That Is My Peer? Who makes small authors and then crushes them, Who conceived Death and Distance, yet Who Wants to be called ‘Friend’ so much, They bent Their very Making to ensure I could still call Them such – do I Hate My Friend?”

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with speculating, but I think for most highly educated 21st century readers from the Western hemisphere – Palmer’s audience – the theodicy question has become trivial, frivolous and – dare I say it – generally obvious, especially in a highly secular Europe.

The first answer would be that a conscious God, with a Plan and a Personality, doesn’t exist. But if pressed, and there is such a god, then most people would simply say this: if God were truly good & almighty, there would not be as much suffering as there is now. And so, because there is so much suffering, God is not good or not almighty. And even if he considers himself as good, with a bigger plan we don’t understand and that allows or even created suffering, we don’t want that, we don’t want some paternalistic plan we can’t understand and that makes us suffer now. We didn’t ask to be created in the first place. If God’s not good, they’re an asshole, and we don’t want anything to do with an asshole, and if he’s not almighty, he’s not Providence. Case closed.

Even if the theodicy part underlies the full series, it isn’t central to most of the narrative events and it really surfaces only in this final book. While I think it would have been more intellectually stimulating if Palmer had chosen a different foundation for Terra Ignota, on a basic plot level the series remains a scifi treat, and she raises enough other interesting social questions throughout to engage the kind of reader I am.

So while this theodicy fundament doesn’t kill the series for me, it does demote its intellectual importance. It became clear that Terra Ignota isn’t really science fiction with some fantasy flavoring, but religious fantasy set in a speculative hightech future world.

For the same reasons it’s not a philosophical story in the way the word ‘philosophy’ is generally used this day and age: contemporary ethics has moved way beyond religion. I’d call the specific parts of the novel that deal with these issues theological rather than philosophical.

Pondering these religious questions might be fun and entertaining, but to me they are a distraction from real, practical questions about how we should act best in the real world – questions that are best debated using science, the only common ground religious and non-religious people have. I think many of us are indeed heirs to Ludwig Wittgenstein, and we don’t see much use in asking questions that are unanswerable: “About what one can not speak, one must remain silent.” Either way, not viable enough to spend pages and pages of Homeric verse on.


Which brings me to the second problem of Perhaps the Stars: overkill.

Here’s Palmer, in a 2021 interview on Track of Words:

I’m also particularly proud of what I achieved with Homeric language in the last volume. It’s no exaggeration to say that there are only two chapters in the entire 4th book which weren’t in some craftsmanship sense harder to write than even the hardest chapter of the first 3 books – this is where everything is coming together and the structure and what I’m aiming at in each chapter is just much more complicated, in ways you can see as you read. There is a lot in there I could never have accomplished at the craftsmanship level I was at when I started book 1. But it’s the Homeric language I’m probably most proud of. All the way through the series there are tiny touches of Homeric language, mostly similes comparing things to parts of nature in the style Homer does – comparing things to rivers, floods, the sea, horses – and at first it’s just occasional, a couple times in a chapter at the most, but as the tension of the series ramps up and the crisis approaches it becomes very slowly more frequent, in ways most readers aren’t aware of.

For example, in book 2, when the sun rises on the day-of-no-return day of Mycroft’s history, that’s the first time that I use the full-on Homeric image of rosy-fingered dawn, one of the little tipping points as we realize the Iliad is coming. It ramps up slowly, but in book 4 that means it gets to climax, and there are scenes in there which are very intensely Homeric and very epic, both in the epic events climax of a piece of fiction way, and in the sense of classic epic i.e. using formal epic imagery, and meter. A lot of the prose is in fact secretly in iambic pentameter just with the line breaks taken out, and while the reader isn’t conscious of it you do perceive it unconsciously, and I make the meter be more perfect the more intense and Homeric I want the scene to feel, so I intentionally break the meter a few times in a paragraph in most sections, so that when I get to the ones that are fully perfect meter, the rhythm of it draws you in and feels like epic.

That was very hard, and there are a lot of places where I spent an entire day on one paragraph or even on one sentence to get it right. But it worked, and I’m very proud of that because it was a very challenging thing to try!

Make no mistake about it: I admire Palmer’s audacity, her vision and her craftsmanship. But taste is what it is, and somewhere near the halfway mark both the prose and the details became too overwhelming for me. I felt drag and lost a bit of interest. The final chapters did grab me again, and luckily left me with a satisfied feeling, but I can’t say I’ve enjoyed Perhaps the Stars as much as I did the first 3 books – not at all.

Palmer indulges in the details of her own world building and her iambic powers. I don’t think the details were such an issue for me, it was mainly the increasingly Homeric prose that made it hard to keep myself focused in the second half. Honesty compels me to stress there are great lines and similes throughout the book, and there are also a few chapters in which Palmer displays her command of formal diversity.

The word count of Perhaps the Stars is twice that of the very first book, and Palmer herself says she “needed every word”, but I beg to differ. I guess the publishers didn’t feel the need to convince her to cut 1/4th from the book: there’s a good chance fans that get to book 4 might like this kind of stuff, and big books seem to sell these days. There’s a market for tomes people can get lost in – and who can blame escapists?

Again, I need to stress that there is tons of cool & insightful stuff in this book: the fractal civil world war and how it plays out, the further glimpses of world building we get, Palmer’s ideas to mitigate future violence in wars, Palmer’s ideas on how to reform the political system of her future world,… All these things are great and some even of interest to our own, present day world.

Having said that, a few other things started to bug me: the impossible Brillist mind reading, the different languages schtick, the total infatuation J.E.D.D. gets from basically everybody – I mean, he even starts to believe it himself: “I Am the gentlest Being you are likely ever to encounter”. I also have questions about both Gordian and Utopian motivations – but let’s not go there.

More crucially I think the book could have been a lot more focused if Palmer would have dropped most of the Homer/Illiad things in the plot – but that’s a matter of killing your darlings, and I have to admit that the fact that she made the Greek stuff cohere with all the rest is more than a tour de force.

Given the scope and the magnitude of Terra Ignota, it would be a miracle if there wouldn’t be something to whine about in a review like this. Just to be clear: overall I do wholeheartedly recommend the series, with all the caveats above about Perhaps the Stars.


That just leaves me some wrapping up – just like Perhaps The Stars had a whole lot of wrapping up to do. They fall a bit outside the scope of this particular review, but since I raised these issues in the previous reviews, I’ll end with a few short discussions: on free will, on J.E.D.D’s. nature & the fallacy of fiction being a real world guide, on J.E.D.D.’s trolley problem motivation, on J.E.D.D. & Palmer’s theodicy cop-out, on the trolley problem itself & on what I have called gender essentialism in my review of 7S.

In my review of Too Like the Lightning, I wrote the following:

Other philosophical themes tied with ethics include representation, free will, reductionism and the validity of determinism. There is an undercurrent examining nihilism too – linking D.A.F. De Sade to where ratio could take us. I will return to these themes in my future reviews of the remaining 3 books, hopefully at length – I don’t doubt that Palmer’s intentions in this regard will become more clear. (And even if they don’t, in that case there should be enough text on these matters to properly try and deconstruct it.)

Free will doesn’t really become a central theme in the novels, but ultimately lots of the world building reeks of determinism: the war as result of numbers, and chapter four of PtS provides an example of Hari Seldonish deterministic math. Yes, characters try to act ethically and make choices, but a lack of free will isn’t about not being able to make choices: it is about not being able to make a different choice than you did. And that’s very much the case: characters are driven by their own passions and pathos and ideological systems – not being able to act otherwise. This is the case for Cornel MASON and J.E.D.D. and Mycroft and every other character – set-set or not.

Perhaps the Stars continues to acknowledge the special nature of J.E.D.D.

Utopian scientist Huxley Mojave has this to say on the matter of J.E.D.D.: “I’m no neurographer. Our adepts say the brains that Micromegas uses as Its interface did not grow as known brains grow, is not structured as known brains are structured, and that there are jumps in the neural signals, easiest to track when Mike does complex math, which defy our current understandings of neural pathways, electricity, computation, possibly even time. (…)”

It becomes clear that the Utopians see J.E.D.D. as an Alien visiting us through human flesh, and they explain his talk about being a god as the result of a language barrier, J.E.D.D. self-identifying with the word “god” as the concept nearest to what he experiences as an alien from another universe.

The narrator says this as well:

[J.E.D.D.’s] brain scans, signals, math, experts can see it, but our doubting imaginations can always conceive a way it could be fake, U-beasts, deception, Brillists in the laboratories, honest mistakes, lies. So, evidence was never why Huxley or Carlyle or I believed. He Who Visits in the ship of flesh we call Jehova Mason said, “I am a God,” and we believed him.

I like how Palmer manages to set the record straight: belief is not a rational thing, and maybe shouldn’t even try to be. At the same time she leaves the narrative/fictional possibilities wide open, and doesn’t limit herself or her reader to one interpretation. The liminal indeed.

In a reddit Ask Me Anything, Palmer has written this on the matter:

In the books you’re supposed to end not fully certain whether Mycroft’s interpretation of the metaphysics is true, and to think hard about the evidence and wonder each way. Mostly the momentum makes one feel it is true but all the proofs can be explained away in various ways except it gets more and more implausible as it goes, or you have to depend more and more on “Mycroft is insane” so it becomes hard. But, of course, if we think about it in the terms Huxley does, i.e. of JEDDM being an Alien making contact with us from a reality as unknown to us as starlight to the creatures of the sea, then nothing needs to be supernatural in the contrary-to-science sense, it is simply, as Hobbes says of rainbows, things which are possible and make sense within the laws of the universe that we don’t yet fully understand and must research.

The problem is – and here I do follow David Auerbach’s reasoning on The Book of the New Sun, which I talked about in my review of The Will to Battle – as a reader of Terra Ignota it is impossible to “think hard about the evidence and wonder” because the text indeed is inherently unstable, also on an epistemic level. There’s no rational exploration of the evidence, since all that evidence comes to us only via sources we can’t be sure of and – as Palmer admits – were never intended to give clarity to begin with, even on the metafictional level. So in a way, Palmer wants her readers to have her cake and eat it. Very liminal!

Huxley also claims Bridger was “another of its Species” as well, but Palmer never further explores this avenue, nor elaborates on it. The only thing that sheds a bit of light on Bridger is the fact that the relics become science, in the vein of the quotes I already provided above & in the previous review. “They’re observable, replicable.” says Cato H.E.L.E.N. Weeksbooth of the miracles the relics provide, in line with what Palmer has Hobbes say: “A Miracle or Wonder is merely a thing whose Natural Cause is yet unknown, and thus makes witnesses marvel and esteem it.”

But this isn’t really that interesting metaphysical writing of Palmer’s part, as the so-called science she describes is just handwavium: the plot only provides magical science inspired by magic. It’s a fallacy to think that narrative things like that shed additional light on the real-world phenomenon that humanity couldn’t explain rainbows either back in the days. It’s the other way around: it’s the real world that inspired Palmer to include the miracles-becoming-science in her fiction.

Luckily, J.E.D.D. comes to his senses in Perhaps the Stars – at least, he admits to a certain amount of guilt in the war, and so more or less acknowledges his actions are questionable too.

“(…) I find Myself guilty of causing deaths, of failing to urge My parents to arm their soldiers nonlethally as Aunt Kosala did, and of assenting to this war, though I did not bear arms in it. I Am guilty. (…)”

 But his surrounding servants & fans don’t see it that way:

⸢”«My Will [launched/launches] the path of war and suffering.»“⸥

The narrator then says:

⸢”«No, ῎Avαξ, Your Peer launched all this, and continues it. You only made it kinder.»“⸥

And Palmer shows she sees J.E.D.D.’s trolley paradox too, as she set up a conversation between J.E.D.D. and Lesley Sniper. Sniper asks him: “How much of humanity are you willing to wipe out and still claim it’s for the best? A billion? A tenth of the population to give you the rest? A third? Half?”

His fans however, see even more mitigating circumstances:

“The Prince can’t trolley-problem. It’ll be . . . it might be hours.”

Then the narrator gives some set theory about infinity, claiming that since every life is infinite for J.E.D.D., killing one person for him is the same as killing 5, as 1 times infinite is the same as 5 times infinite. This obviously is some sophist math bullshit. According to this logic, why would J.E.D.D. even try to remake the world more kindly? Because the reverse of the position would hold too: if the infinity thing were a valid argument, one more death or 10,000 more deaths or a billion more deaths wouldn’t matter either – infinity is infinity, so why try to avoid surplus death in the first place if you can’t distinguish between two kinds of infinity?

On page 500 J.E.D.D. makes a volte-face: all of a sudden he accepts the concept of separation, supposedly because it is a reflection, a path of God – again, the data set on which he bases this conclusion is totally incomplete. That’s no problem of course, as Palmer wrote: it’s belief, not rational science! And rationality doesn’t seem to be that important for The Ultimate Truth Lover J.E.D.D. Anyway, because of this newfound insight, J.E.D.D. doesn’t judge his so-called Peer anymore, and even loves of Him. Again we are back at theodicy, because why would you love an Entity that includes separation and suffering in His creation – even causes human suffering? Instead of offering an interesting new insight on theodicy, J.E.D.D. takes the cop-out, and simply says he still doesn’t love nor understand Death. By doing so, Palmer seems to shelf the entire theodicy question. I thought the books were meant to discuss it? On page 507 it turns out J.E.D.D. does love god, but doesn’t really trust him fully yet. Who would – given all the evidence of human misery in the history of our planet? J.E.D.D. then repeats the cop-out, and admits the pain/suffering question remains “complex”.

Not only infinity is used to poke at the trolley problem, Palmer raises a bit of doubt using another method too: denial. Again, Palmer probably doesn’t hold this position herself, and merely wants to raise some questions – “ruminating”.

Carlyle released another essay that day too: “O.S. Our Self-Fulfilling Trolley Problem,” ruminating that we’ve debated the trolley problem so long, we convinced ourselves it’s real. When the first automated cars, Mukta’s still-ground-based ancestors, were prototypes, everybody, the engineers, the passengers, the investors, the public, was so certain that the trolley problem must be real, they spilled oceans of ink and words debating how to program out the fatal choice: the passenger’s life or the bystander’s? But (…) in the real tests, millions on millions of scenarios never yielded one, not one real instance in which hitting any bystander would save the passenger, car striking 6 kilograms of human flesh as dangerous to riders as the strike of car on deer or car on tree. The trolley problem does not describe our reality. Physics is cruel in many, many ways, but not that way. Yet because we all debate it, normalize it, know it, we live psychologically inside the trolley problem, expecting it to be the default ethics of our world. Yes, there are corollaries – deadly missions, quarantines – but if we had admitted our kinder reality, that Nature rarely burdens us with such a choice (…) might the Saneer-Weeksbooth founders, who saw they could save 50,000 lives by taking one, have asked themselves: Is there a better way to use this data than to kill? Did we poison our ethics with the trolley problem? Is it bad for us, our minds, our souls, to dive, even in thought experiment into a universe so artificially unkind?

It’s interesting indeed – I was always under the impression that O.S. didn’t have any other viable options than the murders they did, as it seemed like they – and their political overlords – always acted rationally, and that implies that other options were considered but found to be impossible. But maybe that was indeed a kind of rationalist bias from my part – I should reread Too Like the Lightning to check what kind of justifications and mechanisms are given to explain the O.S.-system. (If you have read that book and remember, don’t hesitate to comment.)

Be that as it may, the trolley problem is much larger than deadly missions and quarantines. In its essence, the trolley problem is just a metaphor for utilitarian calculus, and that happens all the time on all levels of policy. It’s unavoidable. If a government or a company or an institute decides to spend part of the budget on A, the result is B doesn’t get that money. People lose or gain jobs because of policy decisions, people’s access to medical aid is altered by policy decisions, people’s real income is changed by policy decisions, the physical nature of people’s dwellings is changed by policy decisions, and so one, and so forth – I’m not even talking about real world political decisions about war and peace. All these big and small decisions are variants of “we will do A in order to achieve X, but as a result we can’t do B and Y will or will not happen”. Policy decisions lead to changes, changes that – for better or for worse – might affect people’s physical and mental health, and so their longevity. Decisions about life and death indeed: the trolley problem. There’s nothing artificial about it.

I won’t write much about gender – such a crucial part of the first two books – except that it has become clear to me Palmer herself surely is not a gender essentialist – that was a question I still had after reading Seven Surrenders. It’s also the only addition to that earlier review I’ll make.

It became clear to me via a really interesting guest post from Palmer on Nine Bookish Lives in November 2021. There she again shows the depth and gravitas she brings to her world building. It is in line with what she wrote earlier on Terra Ignota’s intentions viz. gender, namely showing what could happen if we stopped the conversation about it to soon. The post is thoughtful and nuanced, and well worth your time. 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.

One more thing: that post – thoughtful as it may be – still didn’t make me buy the neutered sexual intercourse, because gender isn’t just a social construct: there clearly is a biological side to it as well. (If gender would be purely a social construct, everybody would be cisgendered and heterosexual, as everybody would just follow the dominant socialization process.)

I’ve long accepted that the matter of suspension of disbelief isn’t the right tool to judge this series with, but I still think the premises of neutered sex does the gender theme and Palmer’s obvious nuanced & complex thoughts on the matter a disservice. It might work as manga theatrics – especially the bordello reaction – but I feel it slightly hinders the other things the books try to do.

And that’s a wrap!

Ultimately, warts and all, Terra Ignota is a triumph. A love song, a celebration of the human mind – as Felix Faust says: “It’s huge inside.”

Philippa Bosanquet Foot

If you have thoughts of your own on something I’ve written, please do not hesitate to comment. I might have missed things, and some of my interpretations or criticisms might not hold. Debate is more than welcome.

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17 responses to “PERHAPS THE STARS – Ada Palmer (2021)

  1. You’ve read the whole thing! Very interesting review, Bart, thanks. I thought that the ultimate explanation that Jedd reaches about why distance and separation exists was quite a unique take that I haven’t seen before. And I love science fiction that grapples with religious ideas. I also thought that this book was a little long and not everything was wrapped up perfectly, but this series as a whole was just very special. I really wonder what Palmer is going to write next. This series almost feels like the work of a lifetime already.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed, the distance/separation thing is kinda cool, and but at the same time I don’t really care for it as Palmer all grounds it in a theism with a God that has personhood.

      The other thing that might be of influence in my ultimate appreciation might be ‘Aurora’ by KSR, which has firmly convinced me that we, as a species, will never leave this solar system on a permanent basis. So I’m not that emotionally invested in us moving out to the stars or not. In that sense, the entire conflict of the final book isn’t that interesting to me either.

      The motivation of Gordians I hinted at in my review ties in with that: if they try to digitize our consciousness and move everything unto servers, ultimately, they’ll need to construct serves that can float in space, and escape our own star’s demise. In that sense, they are ambition isn’t that conflicted with that of the Utopians.

      But I basically agree with you: great, great series – and I wouldn’t have started it if not for your reviews.

      I guess whatever Palmer writes next will be basically a blind buy, very curious. I’ve read she’s working on a viking epic. If so, the religious/mythological stuff might work much, much better there.


  2. Glad you enjoyed hte book and series as a whole.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ok, that was wicked weird. I was just notified that you had liked my comment and replied, but now there’s nothing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My bad, sorry. I realized I hadn’t answered Jeroen and another comment on another post, and as it was too late I decided to answer everybody in the morning. My sleepy brain made me remove my reaction to your post as a result. That reaction was very short though – just a “Thank you!” – so in a way this is better, a bit of a longer interaction 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks for explaining.
          With how WP has been acting lately (I now get emails at random when people reply to me on other wordpress sites, for one thing), I cannot take anything for granted.

          Do you have any other big book projects lined up yet? Or are you just hanging at the moment?

          Liked by 1 person

          • As for WP, the new editor has finally managed to annoy me. As you know, I’m fully fine with the classic editor mode, but as of this post, it won’t accept the “read more” function anymore, so I need to now make 3 blocks, instead of 1. First a classic block for the intro, than a separator/read more block, and then the block with the rest of the post. Slightly more work, but it took me some time and headache to figure it out. Good that I saved the full post as well somewhere else, because why I inserted the read more like I used to, it went bananas. Anyhow, all that just to say I’m starting to feel your frustration.

            As for big book projects: no, not really. There’s the final volume of Mantell’s Wolf Hall that’s been on my TBR for ages, and which I’m reluctant to start because of the page count. I’ve been reading Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories on and off now for nearly 4 years, I guess I should try and finish it before year’s end.

            As for longer running projects: I’m still in the process of reading all KSR novels – I think I’m going to speed that up instead of the current pace of 2 books a year. Another project is rereads of favorites in order to review them, and Anathem by Stephenson is a big book for sure. Other candidates are the first 5 Foundation novels, Frankenstein and a bit of Banks. We’ll see when and if I ever finish that project, but now that I finished my rereads of the Dune series, I should at least try to start on one of the titles mentioned before the end of the year too. Two other projects are for books in Dutch: read & review the full oeuvre of JMH Berckmans (some of those will be rereads too), and read more of LP Boon. The problem there is that I don’t want to read too much of those because I want to keep the blog English focused – the Dutch reviews hardly get 100 views after 1 or 2 years.

            Then finally there are some art books and some non-fiction – for some reason I can’t really fathom my habbit of reading art books on the side has simply stopped, but there are a few spread throughout the living room that have been ogling me with spite out of neglect.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m agnostic, and the question of theodicy will never really be relevant to my life. For that reason, though, I enjoyed Palmer’s exploration of the questions surrounding it even more. Why precisely it struck me so much (in terms of writing decisions, mechanics, etc) I cannot say without a great deal more of rumination, but the result was that I was delighted that I was able to buy into the debates of these characters so different from me. I view being encouraged to take intellectual journey (even if it is to many of us an “archaic” one) as an exercise in empathy, and that is something both fascinating and valuable to how I conduct my life.

    All this is to say, I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion to assert that many readers (nonreligious or otherwise) cannot find things of interest in how Palmer approaches theodicy. Thanks for spurring me to unpack my thoughts about this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective, much appreciated. You are totally right that I formulated that conclusion too definite indeed, I’ll alter the wording in the review.

      Like you, I think it’s interesting to learn about how others think, and in that respect I’m surely interested in theodicy debates as well, and Palmer did offer new things to the theodicy debating table as for the motivations of God/Providence, but as they clearly are fictional I didn’t really feel I could make the transfer from J.E.D.D. or Mycroft to real world people.

      Having said that, I can sympathize 100% with readers (nonreligious or not, indeed) that do find joy in this aspect of the books – in the end, it’s all a matter of taste. Part of my line of reasoning in the review was also about the absence of theodicy in current literature at large, and here I think my argument about it being a bit of a dated question stands.

      Again, thanks for the comment!


  4. I found myself not caring much about the middle action in Perhaps The Stars because of the issue you specifically call out with regards to JEDD’s nature

    > The problem is – and here I do follow David Auerbach’s reasoning on The Book of the New Sun, which I talked about in my review of The Will to Battle – as a reader of Terra Ignota it is impossible to “think hard about the evidence and wonder” because the text indeed is inherently unstable, also on an epistemic level.

    Events maybe happened as described, and maybe characters took actions as described, and maybe they didn’t! There’s no way to know through those passages when the perspective character, who starts out psychotic and delusional, has his account actively redacted and edited in-universe.

    A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream does explicit “oh if you don’t like it just pretend it wasn’t like this”, too, but Shakespeare isn’t trying to discuss the nature of reality and develop the ethics of the only ever known moral actors in the universe (to wit: human people). AMND has a narrative about parents and children that has true essence whether or not faeries and fauns are granted to be involved. Terra Ignota totally doesn’t, it’s just (highly engaging) word vomit if its wildly intricate frame doesn’t hold together.

    Terra Ignota is on a whole ‘nother level than the worst of “theme without substance” speculative fiction – I was recently tricked into watching Raised By Wolves on streaming, do not recommend – but as much as I loved Dr. Palmer’s books I have a sneaking feeling that the difference is one of quality not kind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fully agreed. I think Palmer does have interesting things to say about society and political organisation, but the books lack substance about true, human essence. Maybe some of the gender stuff qualifies, but like I said, it’s hard to derive from the books only, you need interviews for that – the books themselves often project an essentialist reading, and seem to underestimate biology as an essential gender factor, so on second thought the gender stuff doesn’t qualify: Palmer presents us some questions, but fundamentally they seem to be a bit misguided. The true test of that is to actually preform the thought experiment she presents us, and imo, it’s is totally & utterly unbelievable that our society would evolve on the front of gender in the way it is describe. What does that say about Palmer’s questions then? Its frame doesn’t hold together indeed. And the same goes for Palmer’s future society’s attitude towards religion.

      Viz: Raised By Wolves – I watched about half the first season and jumped ship. It started quite promising, but turned really bad really fast. Interesting parallel you draw.

      Thanks for your comment, much appreciated!


  5. I guess forewarned is forearmed, eh? I still intend to read this series at some stage, but I remember hearing about books (especially in the early days of self-publishing) that were marketed as thrillers or romances and in which the characters all found God around halfway through. Not that I think Palmer is trying to proselytise. The issue is reader expectations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s funny, hadn’t heard books like that exist. But it’s to be expected, now that I think of it, even though I wonder about their effectiveness.

      Palmer’s goal isn’t proselytising for sure – I’m still not sure if she is religious herself, or if she’s merely interested in the question in a theoretical manner. If I had to guess, she might have a vague conception of God as some kind of creating entity, without adhering to a specific dogmatic subset of one of the monotheistic religions.

      All 4 books play with reader expectations, all 4 turned out somewhat different than I expected when I started the first pages. That’s a good thing btw, but only in this final book it didn’t fully work for me. I doubt it had worked if I had know upfront, so I don’t think the issue I had with PtS is reader expecations only.


  6. I’m not sure if those books ever really existed. I never came across any!

    I always reckoned Fantasy had a fantastic explanation for its wonders, whereas Science Fiction had a scientific explanation (although the science could be pretty patchy). That’s all I meant by reader expectations. I appreciate the line can get pretty blurred, though; plus it sounds more as if Palmer was writing a philosophic work than a work of science fiction?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Years ago I came across a distinction Chomsky made between mysteries & problems:

      “That is what I thought I forty years ago in proposing a distinction between problems, which fall within our cognitive capacities, and mysteries, which do not.”

      I think it’s possible to see the SF/Fantasy divide in those terms: science fiction is mainly about problems, fantasy about mysteries.

      The genesis of Terra Ignota is not fully clear to me. According to Palmer it began with reading a Shakespeare quote (“It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden, Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
      Ere one can say, “It lightens.””) about something special being over very quickly, and it seems like that was the birth of the Bridger character. It seems like the political/utopian/dystopian world building came next, and in that sense she tried to write a (sociological) scifi book for sure, but as per the podcast quote in this review about theodicy, that idea must have been with her as well from the onset. So I think she tried to do both.


  7. Yup, not reading that series anymore 😉 I enjoyed your review, though!

    Liked by 1 person

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