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williamjm

Ada Palmer's "Terra Ignota" series

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Posted (edited)

There seems to have been quite a lot of discussion of the first book, Too Like The Lightning, in the "What Are You Reading" and Hugo Voting threads. It does seem to have divided opinion quite a bit with some suggestions it is a work of genius whilst others have struggled to get through it, so I thought it could be a good subject for its own thread.

I found that I had quite mixed feelings about it, there were definitely things I liked in it but I also felt there were significant flaws. I think I'd say I'd never read anything quite like it (which I generally think is a good thing in fiction), many of the ideas had been used elsewhere but not necessarily together - in some ways the plot and setting felt quite reminiscent of some of Iain M. Banks' work, while this might not be a Space Opera setting I feel most of the characters in this book would have felt quite at home in The Culture (Mycroft could definitely get a job working for Special Circumstances), and a bit like the Culture series it does explore how living in what is ostensibly a Utopia might still have its own problems.

It's quite a dense book in terms of ideas and subplots, but I felt it moved at a good pace despite that and Mycroft's narration did manage to deliver a lot of exposition without hurting the pace too much. The slow revelation of the plot and Mycroft's backstory worked fairly well (the revelation of the details of his past crimes was another moment that was a bit reminiscent of a Banks book). However, there were a few occasions when the narration got a bit tangled up in minutiae, such as many of the characters apparently having half a dozen different names used for them depending on who was referring to them, or Mycroft debating which gender pronoun to use for different characters (I think I can see what Palmer was going for here, but I thought Anne Leckie's approach managed to make a similar point while being less obtrusive).

I had some issues with the characterisation, some of their characters and their interactions didn't seem entirely believable. I think partly this may be deliberate, I think many of the characters are meant to be archetypes, and it's probably part of the point that a character like J.E.D.D Mason doesn't act like a normal human being. The way that everyone of significance in the world seems to be a couple of dozen people who all know each other (and are all apparently frequently in contact with Mycroft) is presumably also meant to be a significant plot point but it did leave the world feeling a bit empty.

I thought it was definitely worth reading, but it's not necessarily a book I'd rank among the best of the year, I don't think it's an unreasonable Hugo nominee but I wouldn't put it at the top of the list. I'm sure I'll read The Seven Surrenders at some point.

What did other people think about it?

Edited by williamjm

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5 hours ago, williamjm said:

The way that everyone of significance in the world seems to be a couple of dozen people who all know each other (and are all apparently frequently in contact with Mycroft) is presumably also meant to be a significant plot point but it did leave the world feeling a bit empty.

This gets expanded on in Seven Surrenders, in particular why the Hive leaders are all so interconnected

It's mostly due to Madame's plotting

Also, the multiple name things only really seems to happen with JEDD Mason, who as you have noted is not a normal person. The others seem to be just a case of someone with a formal name and a nickname, such as Sniper's bash calling him Cardie in private.

I agree with you that Mycroft would fit well in Special Circumstances (I wonder if he ever made a chair?).

The pronouns were a bit offputting at times, especially in cases where it was clearly stated that the character's physical gender was the opposite of Mycroft's choice (e.g. Dominic's first appearance explicitly saying that he's biologically female). Again, some in-world issues caused by forcing the use of gender-neutral pronouns on everyone get expanded on in Seven Surrenders.

I also ended up really wanting one of those cool Utopian coats.

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I'd like to leave this here with my wonderful nerds while I continue to gather my thoughts.  I would like to add to this author's take on gender presentation that the sexualization was ONLY ever applied to anyone female, with one memorable exception from the narrator.

https://intellectusspeculativus.wordpress.com/2017/04/26/the-problematic-presentation-of-gender-in-ada-palmers-too-like-the-lightning/

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8 hours ago, Lily Valley said:

I'd like to leave this here with my wonderful nerds while I continue to gather my thoughts.  I would like to add to this author's take on gender presentation that the sexualization was ONLY ever applied to anyone female, with one memorable exception from the narrator.

https://intellectusspeculativus.wordpress.com/2017/04/26/the-problematic-presentation-of-gender-in-ada-palmers-too-like-the-lightning/

It was a bit difficult to distinguish between what Palmer might have been trying to convey and what might be the eccentricities of Mycroft's narration, so it's interesting that the essay points out that parts of the book which aren't narrated by Mycroft have similarities.

Another thing I noticed when reading it was there seemed to be a lot of threats or mentions of rape for a world that seems to be portrayed as being largely free of serious violence - although this may have been an attempt to show that the world isn't necessarily as utopian as the people who live in it seem to like to believe it is.

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I liked these books a lot, but I can definitely see that they're not for everyone.  (Though I thought one of the other people who liked it would have posted by now...)

On 7/30/2017 at 9:09 PM, Maltaran said:

I agree with you that Mycroft would fit well in Special Circumstances

While I agree Mycroft is somewhat similar to Zakalwe, I'd imagine his politics would put him on pretty much the opposite side of the Culture...  The Banksian character Mycroft most reminded me of was actually (spoilers for an early Iain Banks book):

Spoiler

...Frank from The Wasp Factory -- though that might be because I spent some part of Too Like The Lightning assuming that Mycroft would turn out to be biologically female.  ("Because that's the sort of thing that happens in books like this", as I read somebody who didn't like the book put it somewhere.)  I'm pretty sure this is actually explicitly contradicted by the text early on though.

On 8/1/2017 at 8:53 PM, williamjm said:

Another thing I noticed when reading it was there seemed to be a lot of threats or mentions of rape for a world that seems to be portrayed as being largely free of serious violence - although this may have been an attempt to show that the world isn't necessarily as utopian as the people who live in it seem to like to believe it is.

Well, I think the books are definitely not set in any sort of utopia.  I don't think this is even meant to be that ambiguous: within a few chapters of the first book we learn that the world has:

  • a large class of people who have been sentenced to forced-labour for life (under threat of starvation),
  • a police force answering to an unelected government who routinely track people's location and biometric data, 
  • very restrictive laws / cultural norms limiting freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.  .

And that's before we learn about...

Spoiler

...the secret society who want to go back to (their idea of) the 18th century.  Who are unsurprisingly (and I think intentionally on the part of the author) awful, in most of the ways anybody in our time who was obsessed with going back to the way they assume society worked six hundred years ago would be.

I saw Yoon Ha Lee, in one of the pieces linked to at the end of the essay LV posted above, refer to the future of Terra Ignota as 'a dystopia telling itself it was a utopia' and I think I'd agree with that.  Though I have a feeling that Palmer didn't intend to make it quite as unambiguously a dystopia as I thought it was.  But I could be wrong about that: I've tried to avoid reading too much authorial comment on it before I've read the third/fourth books.

(As for the essay itself, I don't really have much to say other than that I agree with Yoon Ha Lee's indirect response.)

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Posted (edited)

Depiction does not equal endorsement. That's all I have to say at this point. That and, you know, the narrator is a giant sociapath and an ass.

 

Edit: That's me saying the article linked above is complete and utter bullshit, BTW.

Edited by Darth Richard II

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