Re-reading the Terra Ignota series was a good idea. A really good idea. This is such a richly detailed world, with new ideas on every page and politics that are so damn complicated. Which is good, as it makes this crazy world feel more plausible, and makes a book that consists mostly of people talking much more exciting. I now know though that if I had gone into Perhaps the Stars without a refresher I would have struggled.
On my first read of this series, The Will to Battle was my favourite. After a re-read though, I think the reason I loved it so much more was because it fleshed out this world that the first two books had already made me fall in love with. The second time around, already knowing this information, there wasn’t really the same exciting sense of discovery. Still, re-reading The Will to Battle was very rewarding. Re-living the emergency senate session, and seeing Hobstown and Antarctica’s Esperanza City again were amongst some of the highlights. As was that ending. Most importantly though, I re-read scenes I’d forgotten about, and I was able to pick up details and implications I had missed before., which makes me appreciate these books so much more.
Last time, I promised to touch more on the theology, and the fourth wall breaking of this series. First though, one important question:
“Would you destroy this world to save a better one?”
This question came up in the first two books, and towards the end of Seven Surrenders we realise that Mycroft committed his crimes partly because his victims were planning to start a war. Their reasoning being that wars are worse the longer the peace between them, and after 300 years of peace it would be better to get the war out of the way now rather than wait 200 years until the inevitable war over a fully terraformed Mars. I mentioned in part one that seven days after the theft of a seven-ten list everything was on fire. I should have been more literal; at the end of those seven days, the longest peace was over and the world was on the brink of war. In fact, we find out that war has actually been inevitable for a long time now, and only a series of secret murders have been keeping this peaceful utopia running. In The Will to Battle, the world now knows the bloody price of their peace, and dozens of other tensions and feuds are ready to blow up. This third book chronicles the months between the end of Seven Surrenders and the start of the war. It is a tense time where everyone is angry, everyone is scared, and riots are breaking out world-wide over a range of different things.
This portrayal of the lead-up to a war was really interesting. Nearly everyone we encounter doesn’t want a war, and for a lot of the book no-one really knows what this war will even be about or what sides the different world leaders (who are mostly all friends) will be on. Yet war is inevitable due to a myriad of social and economic reasons. There will be war, yet no-one knows what it will be about. All the characters can do is decide what shape it will take and make preparations to minimize the destruction and suffering. Which is an interesting way to portray war; a lot of other stories would have a war started by a single incident. It’s also interesting because I don’t actually know what side I would be on if I was living in this world, rather than being an omnipotent reader. There is an obvious ‘good’ side, cast that way because Mycroft is our narrator and is totally dedicated to JEDD Mason, yet both sides have rational arguments and seek to minimize needless death and destruction.
I think a big part about where my loyalties would lie if I was a character in this universe, would depend on a) if I saw the Utopian Great Project as worth destroying the world over, and b) if I believed in the miracle that occurred at the end of Seven Surrenders. This means that I need to start talking about the theology in this series, and I’m going to need to talk about spoilers for the first two books; especially the climax of Seven Surrenders. If you haven’t read Too Like the Lightning or Seven Surrenders yet, this would be a good place to stop. Or to skim over carefully.
I mentioned in part 1 that Bridger is a miracle, but because of this society’s reluctance to publicly discuss spirituality and the supernatural, people don’t really know what to make of him. There is actually a much better example at the end of Seven Surrenders of this happening. A character is assassinated before a large crowd on live TV. Billions watch as their brains are blown out and their blood goes everywhere. Then the billions watch as Bridger shows up with his invisibility cloak and Hermes sandals, and miracles the dead person back to life with a resurrection potion.
At the start of The Will to Battle, everyone in the world wants to talk about what they saw, yet the biggest most important law in this world forbids three or more people discussing religion together. Everyone has an opinion about the resurrection, and because of who was shot and who did the shooting, these opinions will factor in to how people view the sides in the war. Even by the end of the book, the general public cannot safely talk about the implications of someone rising from the dead. There are many arguments debunking the resurrection (this is a world with realistic robots called u-beasts and griffin cloth that can create illusions) and many scientific reports confirming it, along with other magical things Bridger has made. As a sceptic, this scenario is fascinating. If our world was interrupted by such a public miracle, what would it take for me to be convinced it happened, and how would that just change absolutely everything about our world? This isn’t just a question for sceptics and atheists. In universe, before the assassination and resurrection, Carlyle Foster has to admit that a God that would show them a miracle while denying others the chance to see such proof is not the benevolent fair God that they have been worshipping. How would such dramatic, public, empirical proof of the supernatural change anyone’s beliefs?
Another theological speculation this book makes is God in Human form. Not the way Christianity presents the idea though. At the end of Too Like the Lightning, Carlyle Foster realises that there is another in this world that is just as important as Bridger. Meaning someone as important as a miracle from God. By the end of Seven Surrenders, Carlyle encounters an all powerful, all knowing, monotheistic creator God. But not our all powerful, all knowing, monotheistic creator God. They are the creator of a different universe, and have been incarnated as a human in our universe by our God, who then does what our God does best; hides and acts in mysterious way. With this reveal out of the way, The Will to Battle is able to fully explore this concept. Mycroft finally explains to us what it is like being around such a being, and helps us get into the head of a God who has made some different creative choices in their universe. This other universe doesn’t do time, distance, separation from God, and suffering seems to be an optional character-building activity for its sentient beings. Seeing the visiting God reflect on our universe and try to understand their peer – their equal! – whilst also seeing them struggle with the human limitations that being incarnated forces on them is really cool.
Though of course, when discussing anything divine or magical in this world, we must remember that Mycroft is an unreliable narrator. This is part of the in-universe reason why they are writing these books; they know what happened, but since they are ‘legally insane’, nothing they write can be used in court and readers have an excuse for anything they refuse to believe. This made the world leaders view Mycroft as the perfect person to explain events to the world. The Will to Battle however is different. The Will to Battle is not intended for public release, but is Mycroft writing for future readers after the war. Which remember, that’s kinda you.
Throughout the first two books, we encountered footnotes from an editor who signed their edits ‘9A’. Here, we hear directly from 9A, who explains how they came to edit these books and who they are to Mycroft. They also admit that they cut a lot of Mycroft’s more incoherent ramblings out of the first two books, but left them in here because it isn’t meant to be publicly released. Which explains why the first time we see Mycroft in this book, he is talking about the invisible ‘prison wraiths’ that are trying to get him. Commentary from the Reader is also more frequent, and Reader has a new friend to talk with; 17th Century English philosopher Thomas Hobbs.
Yes, this is as crazy as it sounds. Reader and Thomas Hobbs have a lot to say about events and themes of the story, and have conversations together. At one point in the story, Mycroft is is in mortal peril. The normal ‘protagonist-in-danger’ tension raises and we start to worry about Mycroft. Then he reminds us that he has to survive to finish writing Too Like the Lightning, and he talks about the chapter he was in the middle of writing, which is the scene where Dominic first comes to the Saneer-Weeksbooth ‘Bach and meets Leslie. (There are a lot of times where we see Mycroft working on the first two books here, which is really cool in itself.) Mycroft imagines how the Reader would react if that chapter wasn’t finished, which causes Reader from the first book to say something. This in turn results in a discussion between Reader, Thomas Hobbs, and the Reader’s Past Self.
Yes, it all sounds like a mess, but Ada Palmer makes it work beautifully. Mycroft’s narration, and all the in universe meta layers to this story are really special. The way this story is told is part of the characterization of Mycroft, 9A, and everyone else that gets to contribute to the history. It is also a brilliant way to immerse us into the worldbuilding and all the exposition that goes into it. For some people, this may be too strange, or the prose too dense. If you did enjoy the first two books though, you are ready for everything to ramp up in The Will to Battle.
In conclusion, this series so far has been a masterwork. I think the cleverest thing Palmer has done here is use speculative fiction to explore theology and philosophy in a way that is universally accessible. Especially by raising questions that are similar to the Problem of Evil. Mycroft constantly evokes Providence, insisting that there is a Plan but that our maker cannot be benevolent. The Visiting God is dismayed by how much suffering our creator subjects us to, and the question is mirrored in a secular sense. “Would you destroy this world to save a better one?” Is suffering and destruction worth it if it makes things better? Is destroying the most peaceful and fair utopia humanity has ever built worth it to secure a future amongst the stars? This is a question that is relevant in our world too. A lot of bad things have happened throughout history that in retrospect may have made the world a better place. Does that make using evil means right? Does this mean bad things can be good?
Terra Ignota isn’t your average SF story. There are so many ideas explored, and everything feels completely unique. And I probably am ranting and reading a bit much into some things, but re-reading these books has had a huge impact on me. I havebeen absorbed into this world once again, and am hungry for more. I am so excited to finish off 2021 by diving into Perhaps the Stars and seeing how war plays out in this world.