Palmer’s series suggests [that] science fiction should not be viewed as just another literary genre, but as the genre where Enlightenment—the hopes for radical human self-improvement, the dream that we might collectively control our own fate as a species, the determination to transcend our own limitations — takes refuge in an anti-Utopian age that seems determined to deflate any such ambitions...

Its ambitions and achievements far surpass... the limited imagination of fictions that confine themselves to representing everyday life. More than philosophy or political theory, science fiction is the genre through which our age joins the Great Conversation.
Lee Konstantinou

Regarding “Terra Ignota”, a series of novels by Ada Palmer:

The series is a lot of things. It is the most sustained fictional portrait of Archipelago and polystates, one of the few utopias I would maybe like to live in. Palmer starts in an Enlightenment utopia (post-war, post-nationalism, post-scarcity, post-gender, post-theocracy, post-fideism, post-meat, post-capital-punishment, post-nuclear-family, general justice via universal voluntary surveillance) and then shows what the tensions will do to any system that has to handle humans as we are.

The worldview diversity is probably the greatest thing about it. I’ve read twenty-author anthologies with less variance in values than this. Speaker’s Corner and SSC comments have nothing on Palmer. You think I’m being bien-pensant right now, praising diversity - but there are fascists in it! Sex-murder teens! The Worst Fan In The World! Rapist priestesses! All

About half of readers find the prose unbearably clotted and affected. (If you’ve read books from more than two hundred years ago you’ll have some immunity.) I loved the many didactic discursions - e.g. de Sade’s Christian name being a plot point, the untranslated Latin - but I think most readers will not love them. You’ll have to be fine with long fourth-wall violations, long passages in speculative macaronic Latin 9, hallucinated C17th philosophers reacting to 25th Century scenes by expositing their extrapolated view of the 25th Century, allusions that yell ‘REMEMBER ME??’ in your face (‘Hobbestown’, the anarchist commune). I found the narrator’s madness engaging but it does divert every chapter a bit.

(Meme: “in the grim darkness of the C25th, mankind has divided into its elemental archetypes: jock, fash, hufflepuff, freud, stemlord, landlord, libertarian, person with a country of origin instead of a personality, and ‘meh’”. 7)

The books depict superpowers, even if we ignore the 2 or 3 purportedly supernatural beings. The Mardis, the Censors, and the set-sets have ridiculous amounts of predictive power using Weird Data Science, predicting the timing of world events 20 or 30 years out. The Brillists have this power, plus mind reading, and bizarro mind control, and arbitrary hacking power. These are so much more powerful than the tame AIs and giant mechas of the Utopians. But the plot is unchanged by them until the last book, at which point they are easily subverted for confusing reasons.

“Worldbuilding” is often a red flag. It predicts an author who cares more about their lore than their characters or plot, who is going to fail to make you care that the legal system or the conlang or the magic system is consistent. Palmer is the queen of worldbuilding, and yet she gets over it: her characters somehow nevertheless rule the series. It is quite obvious that large amounts of her notes did not make it into the 2000 pages of this series.

I could see you, across the sky, the crowded sea, a thousand black and winged shapes for every tardy, well-meant [dove]. But humans began digging a canal across the Gulf of Corinth more than three thousand years ago and finished it in 1893. It’s worth trying things again. Apollo Guardian of Strangers knows that it’s worth trying things again. Especially for [peace].

Book 1: Too Like the Lightning

I choked a little at the constant coincidences, and at the enslaved protagonist meeting literally every elite in the world in the space of two days. (“Providence” innit.)


  • Utopia, the strict scientific min-discount consequentialists, are the smallest hive in the books, certainly less than 1% of the population (and this strikes me as accurate: almost no-one lives their life with this kind of devoted rational focus). But 30% of Palmer's (ultra-nerdy) readers identify with them the most! This, then, is a confirmation of her names for individual Utopians - Bester, Seldon, Micromégas...

  • The most dramatic social change here isn't the tabooing of gender or social religion: it's the unprecedented level of intellectualism in the masses. Everyone flocking to a philosophical therapist every week???

  • Filled with "competence porn" - i.e. the elites are manipulative, egotistical, and yet still acting in (what they think are) the best interests of the world.

  • I'm less impressed with TLTL's religious infrastructure on a second read. The idea that people, when totally forbidden from having any social component to their religious life, would opt in any numbers for the established religions, is too absurd. I suppose this is because I've become convinced that most of our religions are essentially social, phatic, nonepistemic, nonontic. You'd expect a massive majority for vague views like deism, over the ultra-ultra specific infrastructures of e.g. Catholicism

  • The Masons are shown as heroic, vast in numbers, and yet they seem most of the way to fascism. With one bad MASON, they could ruin everything. Their superiority complex, retributive deontology, lack of individualism, and willing lack of freedom, are in far more severe contradiction to the Hive Alliance than the conflicts Palmer chooses to emphasise. Cornel is a liberal tyrant and a longtermist, and so they do good despite their terrible potential. (It’s not just their power - Utopia is powerful too. It’s the sheer lack of checks.) I wish I could say I find it unrealistic for a billion people to larp full-time as a Roman pleb or Mussolinian. This is the depth of Palmer's ability to pass intellectual Turing tests: she manages to steelman fascism, to make half-fascists wholesome characters! 4

  • The office of Anonymous doesn’t make sense. Has there ever been a writer who successfully spoke for humanity? Is solving epistemic logic puzzles really the only qualification you want for such a person?

  • Palmer as the silent, misery-sowing creator: "I, Mycroft Canner, so improbably alive, was the first human to stumble on this miracle. I am sure of only one thing, reader: there is Providence. There is a Plan at work behind this world, and a Mind behind that plan"

  • One of Palmer's most common relationships is the Innocent + Monster dyad. Bridger and Thisbe, Bridger and Mycroft, JEDD and Dominic, JEDD and Chagatai, Mycroft and Saladin, Heloïse and Madame, Spain and Madame, Carlyle and Julia, Carlyle and Dominic, Carlyle and Thisbe. Every Thug needs a lady.

  • Taleb interpretation! O.S. are "fragilistas"; the Mardi conspiracy is weaponised Taleb.

Book 2: Seven Surrenders

The sunny, war-free Hive system gets subverted multiple times. The Cousin democracy is fake. The Masons get exposed. But every Hive is governed at the whim of Madame and her captive orgy. Missed the first time: The Madame conspiracy are as bad as you’d expect, silently squeezing the pluralism and democracy out of the world

Perry has been a midlevel member of this establishment for six years now. No one could advance so far in politics without some help from here.

Book 3: The Will to Battle

Many riches. There are constantly five or so subplots on the go, and when one ends it spawns two others. Best are its careful sketches of deep divides: Tradition vs progress, act vs rule, order vs freedom, safety vs optimum return.

Some of the oppositions fall flat because I don’t have the requisite respect for the other side. For instance Damnatio memoriae - the official expurgation of someone from history - is presented as an ultimate horror (the pain and execution preceding it is overwhelmingly more important).

[the damned person is] neither slim nor mighty, stooped nor noble, just a shape... Somewhere in a dusty archive a baptismal registry records some Hildebrand, and, when that dry page molders... I can't look, I can't! Behind the shades, the broad gray plain, that sea of shapeless gloom extending on and on... all forgotten souls, minds empty of memory, smeared one into another... to this absolute dissolution Caesar damns his enemies... Not me! I will never let you take me! I will carve my memory into history, by work, by force, by guile, in swathes of blood and ashes if I must!

I can admire Palmer’s rendition of the old bad legacy code (it has driven quite a lot of history) but I give no part of a real morality. The dead are past caring.

Elsewhere, the Aura (metaphysical identity) of art is used to devalue perfect replicas of the nuked Coliseum and Forum (which seems like magical thinking to me):

All false. Our race cannot afford such losses again... On the Acropolis the tears we shed are still tears of connection: where I stand Socrates stood. In the [replica] Roman Forum, by the [replica] Coliseum or the [replica] Patheon, they are regret tears. Replicas cannot touch. That is what we all want, to touch what someone touched, a special someone... whose story reached forward through history...

Speak for yourself; a perfect simulacrum is enough, though it screams depth to say otherwise. (I’m not actually salty: I love the breadth of ideologies on show here. No doubt someone else will grumble about how thin and unconvincing the utilitarian views presented here are. By writing so many good characters in disagreement, Palmer has passed about 10 Intellectual Turing Tests. )

  • On the other hand, I feel the horror of true deontology quite keenly:
Dominic would happily watch the world burn if he could defile the blasphemer's corpse amid the coals.
  • Much as I like Jedd Mason, his rise to the top of every state - the expressionless, motionless, Spectrumy king of the world - is implausible, even given his mother’s scheming; it only makes sense with Intervention. Which is fine, because Palmer is committed to that, but it would still have been nice to have a natural path.


  • Achilles is an actual hero here - where in the Iliad he is merely impressively violent. Actually as any fool knows, the ancient heroes are mostly morally small, beneath even us. ("Hero" meant "Big Man", not "saviour".) This is good news, that Achilles (and say Jahweh) are not paragons any more.

  • Miracles happen; Bridger is magical through and through, not even needing a virgin birth. So there was no need for JEDD to be born of woman and Spain. Except that this allows him to be a stark example of Hegelian becoming, which here is the way that God speaks. (And what filth he says.)

  • Next time you complain about how undemocratic your country is, consider: The Mitsubishi here are not only a planned plutocracy, they also have 4 orders of delegated authority: the voters elect representatives who elect representatives who elect representatives who elect the executive.

  • Oh Mycroft. I spent the first book and a half wondering exactly why he is so indispensable, hounded, beloved. This mostly answers it: it's a mixture of macaronic language, dog charisma, and weird athleticism.

  • Nice, surprising bit of anarchism: Hobbestown, the anarchist syndicate, is the 'safest' place in the world. OK, its because of the deterrent of capital punishment but still.

  • A decent portrayal of the burgeoning far-future-focussed ethics, in the otherworldly, post-political, arch-instrumentalist scientists, Utopia. Palmer clearly sympathises with them. One contradiction in her portrayal, though: the Utopians are monomanaical consequentialists, who'll do anything to prevent human extinction or stasis. But they're shown throwing massive resources at trivial uneconomic projects (trivial compared to WMD destruction, space colonization, and terraforming): an underwater city, a city on Antarctica, robots in the shape of mythical beasts. I suppose it's possible this is a PR thing, either to charm or recruit.

  • Their oath actually inspired moral guilt in me, which is hard to do:
    I hereby renounce the right to complacency, and vow lifelong to take only what minimum of leisure is necessary to my productivity... I will commit the full produce of my labors to our collective effort to redirect the path of human life away from death and toward the stars.
  • Palmer knows about a lot of things: Hobbes, evolutionary history, the way a small boat makes waves. Her using this knowledge never felt contrived to me - but again I suspect this is a niche I happen to fall in.
    The fittest survived, but with the conquered within them, as conquered bacteria became the mitochondria which feed the cells that crawl through volvox, trilobite, and coelacanth toward Mars.

  • It suits me that the psychoanalyst bioconservative Hive choose to be the enemies of the future:
    "War?" Utopia offered.
    [the Head Analyst] Felix Faust... accepted the handshake. "War."

  • It's written with a future (C27th?) reader in mind - but then Mycroft explains too much; nothing is taken for granted, and this is obviously on our account, tainting the conceit.

  • Its gender dynamics don't constitute a polemic; instead the Hives' failing utopia shows what most feminist / Critical / international relations theory misses. 'Xenofeminism' (tech-positive, bioprogressive feminism) is a more complete answer to gender harms. But, hearteningly, even mainstream figures like Nussbaum seem to be on board with similar projects:
    this calls for the gradual formation of a world in which all species will enjoy cooperative and supportive relations with one another. Nature is not that way and has never been. So it calls for the gradual supplanting of the natural by the just.

  • A man may leap into the fray in the name of Liberty, Homeland, Human Rights, Justice, but never Economics.
    (more's the pity)

  • If my Saladin is childhood's fear, the unknowable evil in the closet's depths, I have become adulthood's fear, fear of power, law, illustrious contacts, police resources, covert agencies, and sweet judicial murder.

  • Mycroft's 'death' is immediately subverted by a footnote from him. But then the chapter plays out as if we hadn't seen that footnote, and so it loses most of its emotional charge. This is weird but obviously totally intentional. Twists the twist before the twist can begin. Not sure what's going on - maybe Palmer had tired of doing ordinary twists. (There are a lot of them.)

Book 4: Perhaps the Stars

Of the war between Myopia and Utopia.

Hold on until page 125. That wait would be fatal in a first book, but everyone who makes it here, to book four, has proven hardier.

Not a lot of war in this war novel before then. Instead, a Hufflepuff hum - faint in previous books, risen in this one. I don’t mean to be mean: the philosophical principle that nice things are important, philosophically rich is one of mine. But 9A, the narrator, is too much the overgrown child. They say “snugglier”. They emphasise snacking. Someone cries in every chapter I think. Like Odysseus. They also rave against free speech (though Palmer is a historian of censorship and should not be identified with 9A).

Neotene domesticity is all very well for Becky Chambers, but it doesn’t gel with the other gigantic aesthetic banners of this work (the Enlightenment consummated and their language appropriated; a society transformed, deluding itself to be peaceful; the ideological roots of conflict, the inexorability of war’s logic, thus this realistic war between lovers and friends). It is simultaneously too twee and too pretentious 2.

The achievement of this book - besides the truly baroque prose, the truly insane narration - is that it nearly succeeds in making every faction reasonable. Uncertainty justifies terrible things, the most terrible: distrust, surveillance, subterfuge, war. 1. I can’t remember this being done so well. Maybe in Hugo or Dumas.

I am a big fan, but, so I dislike a lot about this book. I find the central conflict arbitrary, and the central psychological claim wrong. Actually maybe I just dislike the Ninth Anonymous, puppy Odysseus.

The main gripe

The Gordian / Utopian split - the heart of the whole series - is not at all crisp.

What is the real war about? “Earth vs Space”. “In vs Out”. “Unity vs fragmentation”. Variety vs far greater variety. Life extension vs space exploration.

Here’s a solution: Just let the ones who want to stay stay!

People often pose life extension and space exploration as opposites, but they just aren’t, and so they are an unsuitable pair to base thousands of pages of conflict upon. I can’t take Faust seriously when he arbitrarily prefers current people to all of the thousands of worlds’ worth of people that space exploration would bring. He misses the great daily loss of entire galaxies, lost forever. He says he wants ems, which could pack the earth denser with minds. Well consider the greater packing of galaxies full of ems! The only way it makes sense is if they’re selfish, scrabbling to keep themselves alive. His war, his terrorism, is thus rooted in repeated errors, and the books are rooted in his war. I cannot love this.

How to have them clash deeply

Make Utopia pro-death!

"Science advances by funerals! Out of the way, uncle!"

Make Gordian paternalist authoritarians!

"Utopia is drawing from the Urn and will get us all killed!"

Also nearly all the main characters are Utopian fellow travellers, take one side, which belies Palmer’s normal preternatural sympathy for all. (Am I supposed to like Im-Jin?)

What would I have as the war’s great theme? The one from the last book is fantastic and underemphasised here: faith in a benevolent dictator vs pragmatic, aggressive scepticism. The second? Past-regarders and future-regarders. Long reflection vs Builders. Noble lie vs radical honesty. Bioconservatism vs transhumanism (represented already, a little). Theory vs praxis. Academia vs autodidacts. Stamp collecting vs engineering. All better than the chosen “inwards vs out”.

Ugh to 9A

For two whole books, it is pretty mysterious why Mycroft is so important. Later, you realise it's because he's the only person who can speak to Jedd in his mongrel language, a world-class data scientist, and physically monstrous to boot. There is no such explanation for 9A.
Free Speech, that old tool of plutocracy, the intoxicating, rosy blossom under whose petals parasite lies can breed and multiply until they devour all the garden. None of us wants that. I hope none of us wants that, but there are still Free Speech zealots in this day and age, and they’re just the type to have communications tech, to build a radio or study Morse code, and volunteer to join our network as a link and pass on... death. I’m panicking, I know it. Everyone understands why we need censorship... I do believe it was a pretty thing once, Free Speech, such a lofty notion, but we outgrew it with our communications revolution, as with our machine guns we outgrew pretty chivalry.
Odium! Also odious:
our true beliefs are visible in what pokes above the psyche’s surface in those moments when the overflowing heart sings out in gratitude, and then we learn what name it calls: Nature, Humanity, Reason, God, Gaea, Fate, subtle Prometheus, or Providence that takes so much but gives this.

(i.e. every worldview a religion - I spit. Some less so than others!)

Ugh to Jedd

There was for two and a half books the question mark above Jedd - someone raised by a mother famously good at contorting human desires, with no scruples about instrumental harm. Sure, he thinks he's an infinite Creator from a nearby universe. But at least in the surface text this question mark disappears, for Mycroft and Outis and whoever anyway. (Palmer is clever enough that we can revive the question mark without doing damage to the text, but it does take effort.)

The fundamental problem, then: Jedd is not actually morally superior, which is why I don't like people kneeling to him. 3 Absolute caring is not actually the perfect morality. He beats the monsters and Kosala and beautiful primitive Mason, but not Huxley. This is stupid for instance:
Some occupations, mainly medical, may be judged too essential to subtract from, but for the rest, even the most important projects in the world” — tremble, Utopia and Gordian — “we must give up a portion of what would have been our life’s works to restore what we can of the devastated life’s works of the dead

Postponing a death from heart attack is essential, but preventing deaths from aging isn't?? A debt to the past is lexicographically above all present and future people?? He is good at cutting knots, removing the bizarre theory-blind fatalism of the Censor, Gordian, the Mardis, and even Utopia. Nothing like the stupidity of a group with an overfit predictive model.
What about Jedd’s philosophy? Like Yahweh, he has serious problems with respecting boundaries. That his subsumption and illiberal eternal hugging is taken so seriously is annoying. His lack of socialisation is half stupidity (demanding unconditional surrender at the cost of millions of lives), half defamiliar genius (why do people die, father?). That he is a particularist, favouring his family to the point where this has a serious chance of outweighing every other being and the course of history he chooses, belies his being particularly alien or godlike. Kin favourites is classic mammal. A common bit of silliness:
“…languages are precious enough to be worth people dying for. A human life has infinite value, infinite consequences over the universe of space-time, but apparently They think a language is another order of infinity.”
Piety. I can’t think of any language worth anyone dying for, as long as we have one.
The peacefall is a very weak ending to the series, just as the Romanova section is a very weak beginning to book 4. Even with the dominant hugginess of the last book, I keep looking for dark Straussian things in between.

Ugh to Brillism

Naive infinite ethics is the root of the conflict. Gordian says each human mind is infinite and so infinitely valuable; Utopia says "uhhh but the light cone is larger". Jedd in the middle goes "hmmm yeah can't see anything wrong with treating each person as equally valuable with a universe full of people, what a moral puzzle".

In fact almost no part of Brillism makes sense. They hate set-sets for reducing natural personality and cognitive variety. But every set character we see is different from the others - and different from all natural characters! Sets are strictly increasing the variety of humanity. There’s nothing wrong with depicting bad philosophy, but it’s presented as a serious dilemma and I don’t think Palmer thinks Brillism is mistaken, just ruined by extremism and instrumental harm.

There's no retribution in the aftermath of the war - the trendy hugginess wins - but there's not even any proportionality. Utopia suffers more than Gordian!
No repercussions, then, for Gordian’s deceit? They get it all, even their collaboration, Bridger’s relics shared, thy Jehovah’s great wealth shared with the twin projects? That does not feel like justice. It does not feel like goddess Nemesis, reader, who ravages the guilty, paying pain with pain. It feels like something better.
This is an unreasonable level of trust in Faust; if someone commits mass murder and mind rape once, you should expect them to do it again. By all means let them work on great projects for the world they defiled. But defang them first, and watch them. Again, they have maximally unjust and dangerous powers - mind control, social control. Theirs are by far the worst crimes in the series. But they get away with it. Out of respect for Palmer I will reach: this makes sense if Faust has manipulated Jedd's judgment of Gordian. Their defeat is a secret final victory. The open-sourcing of Brillism will serve them, will pay off later against Utopia.

Ugh to universal quietism

One last deep disagreement: the war is said to be needed (by Utopia) because humans are growing too comfortable to go to deep space. 6 But this seems completely backwards to me. Just as a small minority of people in the richest parts of the world strain unprecedentedly without needing to - marathons, free soloing, biohacking, psychonautics, workaholism, and yes, space - I expect greater wealth and tech to inspire a similar proportion of contrarian strivers. And it only takes a few hundred offworld to seed all else.

This is Utopia’s bizarre error / overconfidence, or Palmer’s error which makes itself true for them. Gordian have no blame in it for once - it’s enough for Utopia to believe it.


  • I like the Renaissance conceit of calling god The Great Author, and Jedd's conceit of calling the Utopians "small authors", small gods. Later, this is expanded into a huggy thing where all humans are small authors - in the afterword Palmer implies more: that we're all obeying the Utopian oath by working so much as 40 hours a week.

    I honour this thought - for instance a cleaner is in fact doing something of moral significance when they work, is in fact imperceptibly pulling on the rope that leads to the future. But it's a piety to say that all stories are equal-sized, that all pull the same.

    Many have described to me the journey from feeling they could never maintain such a high standard to realizing that we already are.
    No. There is more to do.

  • So many hundreds of details, like the Brillist / Gordian double name (ideology and instantiation). Recalls GNU / Linux. The verisimilitude of mess.

  • The stable stagnation following the exponential age seems pretty implausible. Then there's the laughable smallness of the AI threat - one serial killer(!). (I suppose Utopia solved AI alignment. But then set-sets would have to be obsolete, unless the other Hives hated U-beasts, which they don't seem to.)

  • There’s a moving sequence about chronic fatigue, also one of Palmer’s personal crosses. Wheelchair as throne.

  • Cato as Hephaestus, the divine inventor, yields a funny insight: all of this could have been avoided with sufficient technological progress. Can everyone have what they want, with sufficient technological progress? No, but it gets you pretty close.
  • The book takes a slightly absurd view of the wisdom and effectiveness and moral stature of the UN. Maybe they get better over 400 years of irrelevance.

  • The plot is excessive, and I think it's intentionally difficult to track all the threads. Fine, but one bit goes too far for me: Achilles' dying speech implies alternate timelines and him as a multiverse hopper. And this in turn makes Palmer’s god less stupid, if he is the multiverse maximiser, the only theodicy I find even vaguely satisfying. Palmer's mainline theodicy is different: the universe is the offering of a blind mute god who wants to talk to a solipsist god. It's pretty cool.

  • The main characters spend lots of their most critical resources on documentation, history monging. Sniper’s chapter is bought at extreme expense, Mycroft’s whole shtick… This is sorta realistic - militaries have war artists and official bookworms. But it’s not usually the commanders and chief strategists scribbling for posterity as the death squads stalk their corridors. Palmer uses epistolary devices to great effect, but I find myself wishing they’d focus on the war for a sec.

  • I like the Mitsubishi a lot more in this one 5. Palmer makes me notice that the rich are a minority. Less vulnerable than the others, but there's a high floor to the vulnerability of any small group.

  • The novel could do without religion. Jedd could be a vast noble alien, and we would have no need for This World’s Creator or even Bridger. The relics are Faust’s stated casus belli but others are easy to imagine. The narrators’ abjection before Jedd makes their tweeness worse. If there’s a god, you should wrestle him, not kneel. I could do without the extended Iliad plot mirroring too.

  • This book will age better than most, but parts of it ring trendy, sarky, Whedony. Like the UN / African Union coming out of nowhere to save the day. The bold, unclichéd treatment of gender of past books - as gravity, as a seductive force that can be covered up but not ignored, dimorphism as transgression, feminine arts as mind control, pronouns as a spicy personality marker:

    Their comportment invites it, that toxic artificial helplessness that coded feminine in olden days, and makes us all fall over ourselves wanting to do things for Heloïse, so much so that we stifle when they try to do things for themself.
    Here it gives way to a soppy constructionism, gender as conspiracy:

    Madame toiled fifty years—fifty!—to revive patriarchy, narrowing the gates and cramming all high offices she could with the prey this mantis matriarch found easiest, all masculine in mind and genitalia… The Big Three leading this World War: matron Danaë, nursing Lesley, me, and not a dick among us. Where are they now, Madame? The artificial creatures, stiff and male and defined by their penises, you said would rise once war dispelled our supposedly fake equality?
    Well, you did contrive two dozen of your own male characters to coincidentally fall, to yield this panel. (She returns to the interesting moderate view in the great denouement.)

So I only have deep invalidating problems with the main narrator, the God, the main antagonist, and the whole point of the main conflict (half of all events in book 2, 3, and 4). That I still esteem these books should tell you something. Palmer gets it:

I hope the ideas, the fragile and imperfect Hives of 2454, and the battered but changing-for-the-better Hives of 2456, will help you rise with strength tomorrow morning as you lift your oar, or pack, or first aid kit, whatever task at hand, they’re all the oar so long as you still carry in your breast the ancient spark, contagious, shared from breast to breast, that has died out a thousand times, but never yet in every breast at once. We will.

I am so glad. There is nothing like it in C21st literature. I am only able to attack its philosophy (philosophies) because it’s so clearly and sympathetically drawn, because so intellectually ambitious. I am certain there are readers out there who view Utopia as trivially wrong (though it’s hard to imagine anyone loving terrorist Gordian. They’re from Ingolstad!)

Characters routinely do the reasonable thing, including positive-sum trades with their mortal enemies, including instrumental harm for enormous stakes. It is one of the few works which sees the full stakes so clearly, which sees the world-historical significance of nerds, science fiction, and technical tat, both beneath and beyond the average novelist.

Over-the-top, wrong, and great.

Against Mycroft and the fans

So the surface text is deeply flawed. But it’s by a Renaissance scholar, who knows all about the misattribution of deeds in favour of elites, the deep pre-emptive self-censorship, and the sheer confabulations. So we save it by noting that Mycroft and 9A are more than half unreliable. The unreliable narrator is ignorable in most novels, changes some stuff around the edges to make themselves look good. Here the narrators instead misreport: the nature of reality, key figures, and the main plot.

Excessive coincidence. Mycroft admits to lying sometimes, but many other events are too coincidental. (Mycroft just happens upon his archnemesis Tully Mardi while he’s out and about on normal business?) He’s probably a more active conspirator than he lets on.

Mary Sue elites. Some of the ludicrously high competence of the main characters is explicitly just assigning them credit for things which were done by someone who was Damnatio’d. The elites are responsible for most events here, and this isn’t at all plausible.

Inconsistencies. See this headfuck.

The series thus simulates the experience of reading first-person Renaissance sources - while Palmer really likes her characters and makes them exceptional on purpose, (some of) the patent flaws in the text are a way to hint at their vast frame control, image management, self-deceit, and deceit.

Thus: yes, JEDD kind of sucks, 9A kind of sucks, the climactic theme kind of sucks, and the audience are allowed to notice that, despite the text 8. Also yes, Gordian are probably deeply in control of the narrative and twist destiny and hobble their Utopian nemeses - and this is why they mostly escape the consequences. Madame was probably much less vicious and self-serving than we see.

This doesn’t mean that the flaws are justified and doesn’t fully redeem the last book. But it gives hope for those of us who would still like to like Palmer’s world and who flee from the applause lights and crap Crowning Awesome trope stuff.


  • Naturalist reading which explains away Bridger and JEDD.
  • Deep reading which gets through the censorship and Whig history and deification. The book without Mycroft’s filters, essentially. This is how you make the Peacefall and Gordian make sense.

See also

  1. Palmer slips a few times.

    Kosala freaking out and blowing up the Almagest ex ante doesn’t change anything; Utopia-Mason already have the Alexander (space weapons).

    Moreover, her killing MASON is completely obviously going to kill many more people and prolong the war, and early peace is her only goal.

    I cover the great emptiness of Brillist anti-exploration below.
  2. The book is saturated with Odyssey and Iliad, and I fucking hate the Odyssey and am probably gonna hate the Iliad.
  3. He's no more morally superior than Mike Valentine Smith, one of his thirty namesakes.
  4. Palmer knows all this and nerfs them in the denouement.
  5. disregarding their purported sadism in Mycroft’s literally hallucinated odyssey.
  6. Why not both, Mycroft?
    A week ago, I could not have answered you, reader, but now I think I can. The light is almost out. Space is too terrible, and Earth too good, not only space too hard but Earth too good, the gifts of Nature, more, for we have spent this hundred thousand years not only building boats and braving seas but tilling fields and planting cities, cultivating Earth’s great human garden... our ancestors worked hard to make a better future for their children, and it worked. Life now is good. Not just for most, for all of us, such health, such plenty...

    Gordian has its own infinity which will not make us brave an airless sea, or weep upon a rock alone. Ever. They bypass grim Poseidon, leave the god who rings the Earth to stand mote-keeper of his black kingdom alone, and chance not to his mercy. Their branch is warm and easy, happy, without aspera, their frontier the Institute’s own motto Profundum et Fundamentum, the boundless deep and foundation: the mind. As progress husbanded by Gordian’s genius makes Earth yet happier...
  7. This doesn't have to be a critique of Palmer when we remember that all such groupings will arise through partially random historical contingencies: the resulting categories don’t need to make sense and probably won’t.
  8. A friend: "9A is less impressive than the 8th or 7th anonymous, but I'm pretty sure that 8A was just worried about a succession crisis, and dropped enough clues to 9A to ensure there would be a succession at all."

    A less elevated explanation for 9A being so twee and tonally jarring is that she is Palmer's self-insert. This is both a respectable literary device and the worst thing about book 4.
  9. I was incredibly impressed with what she did with the Latin. Masons speak simple classroom Latin. Easy to follow - "cute". But when JEDD Mason speaks it's in golden age Ciceronian Latin. I was deeply impressed.
    - my classicist friend


Stephen commented on 06 June 2023 :

‘Mycroft and Saladin’ « which one is the innocent in the innocent+monster pairing?!?!?!!

    Gavin: Post-Bridger, Mycroft the dog is! It’s all relative baby

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Tags: fiction, meaning, longtermism


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