Tag Archives: Ada Palmer

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.

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TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING – Ada Palmer (2016)

Too like the lighteningEver since its first book came out in 2016, I’ve been reluctant to start Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series – even though it was met with a lot of buzz and praise. Something about it seemed try-hard, and even pretentious. A science fiction novel set in 2454 with 18th century mannerisms made me put up my guard.

Not only those supposed mannerisms made me wary, but also the influence of 18th century thinkers. I don’t know why, but I’ve never been big on Voltaire, Diderot or Rousseau. Not that I want to dismiss the French Enlightenment out of hand, not at all, but I’ve never been drawn to the thinking & writing of that age and place.

It not only seemed pretentious, there really was a certain intellectual huff and puff surrounding this 4-part series. In a 2016 interview on The Qwillery Ada Palmer – history professor by day – voiced a part of her ambition:

Terra Ignota is most directly based on 18th century philosophical novels by figures like Voltaire and Diderot. They wrote speculative fiction too, of a sort, exploring imagined political systems, metaphysics, even aliens in Voltaire’s Micromegas. We’re used to using classic science fiction futures to ask questions about things like technology, heroism, or transhumanism, but I wanted to write one that would ask the kinds of questions 18th century authors asked, about cultural relativism, hierarchy, equality, and whether we can reconcile Justice and Providence.

And in the author’s notes and acknowledgments at the back of the book, she takes it up more than a few notches – an issue I’ll get back to at the end of my review.

I wanted it so much. So much sometimes it felt like I couldn’t breathe. Sometimes I would cry, not because I was sad, but because it hurt, physical pain from the intensity of wanting something so much. I’m a good student of philosophy, I know my Stoics, Cynics, their advice, that, when a desire is so intense it hurts you, the healthy path is to detach, unwant it, let it go. (…) But there are a lot of reasons one can want to be an author: acclaim, wealth, self-respect, finding a community, the finite immortality of name in print, so many more. But I wanted it to add my voice to the Great Conversation, to reply to Diderot, Voltaire, Osamu Tezuka, and Alfred Bester, so people would read my books and think new things, and make new things from those thoughts, my little contribution to the path which flows from Gilgamesh and Homer to the stars. And that isn’t just for me. It’s for your. Which means it was the right choice to hang on to the desire, even when it hurt so much.

Well, that’s pretentious indeed. So much even, it kinda hurt my eyes. As I read it before I started the book itself, I entered with extreme caution.

Guess what, dear reader. About 25 pages in, the quality of this book already shone through crystal clear – like when you put on a brilliant record and you know it’s going to be brilliant for the remainder, halfway the first song.

While the jury is still out on whether Palmer made me think truly new things – I’ll reserve that judgement for when I finish the full series – the rest of her sentiments seem merited. Too Like the Lightning is one of the best books I have ever read, regardless of genre. Extremely ambitious, yes, but as a work of imagination, so far – again, this is just the first book – it is up there with the greats: Anathem, The Book of The New Sun, Dune.

A whole lot of readers won’t be convinced of that: this is a tough cookie. No beach read, no space opera romp. And even readers that do like chewy might not click with this: taste is taste. I don’t do the novel justice by reducing it to ‘intellectual’ by the way: it is a thrilling, at times wondrous story.

I’ll try to elaborate on my sentiments after the jump, and while doing so also say a few words about Palmer’s philosophical project.

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