Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer (Terra Incognita #1 and 2)

This is a review of the first two books of the Terra Incognita series. I suspect they might have even been one book originally, given the title of the first does not make sense until the conclusion of the second.

Forget Sci-Fi. While taking place in a utopian future, amidst self-driving flying cars, smartphones embedded in people’s’ ears, and innovative forms of government, this series only dimly feels like it occurs in the 2400s. It feels unstuck in time. Most of the characters are immersed in Enlightenment philosophy. Several even dress like they’re from the 18th century, speak like it!

The story, written from the first person perspective and in the reader-aware style of the eighteenth century, follows Mycroft Canner, a convict. In the future, convicts must travel the land providing service (“Servicer” Mycroft) in exchange for food. Like many aspects of Palmer’s future wherein liberalism has spun out of control, it sounds nice and humane at first but is gradually revealed as borderline slavery. Anyway, Mycroft narrates the story, told over a few days. There’s various hi and lo-tech tricks that allow us to see the points of view of other characters, but Mycroft is our primary point of contact. It makes the eventual reveal of why he is spending the rest of his life in servitude all the more chilling and impactful.

Too Like the Lightning, by necessity, must spend a good deal of words setting up the universe, with its combination of future tech, Enlightenment worship, extensive social and economic cause-and-effect chains, etcetera etcetera. This new government-nation evokes ancient Rome and its notions of citizenship and rule.  Europe is run by a Parliament… but also the King of Spain. Here’s five other world governments too.  P.S. since the planet has been geographically decentralized (flying cars at impossible speeds), nobody is tied to their birthplace anymore but can choose whom they owe allegiance too.  

While fascinating, it does make for rather slow reading. Characters are developed and the plot put in motion in between lengthy segments of world building (and philosophy). While I liked it from the start, book 1 became dramatically better once I understood the basic tenets of the world and the last quarter of the text rockets forward, the dominoes falling rather than being stacked up.

What is stunning about book 2, Seven Surrenders, is that despite being action-packed, there’s very little action at all. The pacing is driven by conversation, by political upheaval, by personal vendettas between powerful people and their world-spanning fallout. Dialogue-as-action spouted by characters 400 years in the future dressed as characters 200 years in the past! It’s weird! And really good.

Ada Palmer, as she notes in the afterward, is interested in continuing the great Conversation, as started by Voltaire. The events and characters of Terra Incognita are set up so that questions asked are either timeless: what level of sacrifice or violence is acceptable to preserve the safety of the whole? What freedoms and forms of expression ought to be given up to prevent violence and division?

Other questions point more directly at our current moment. Gender is crucial to both the understanding of the world and the plot itself. Gender is a topic of high-interest in science fiction currently. We’ve seen a mass revival of the themes from Ursula’s LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, wherein a people (or all peoples) of the future have only one gender. It’s typically interesting but feels highly reactionary to the present moment of history wherein hard-right institutions, both legitimate and not, are on the rise. Don’t get me wrong, this is far from a bad thing. But it can also feel overly simplistic, too desperate to demonstrate how wonderful a gender-less future would be that it doesn’t feel genuine. I noted this when I read Anne Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, which left me wondering if everyone in the future is bisexual.

Terra Incognita seems like this at first. Everyone is a ‘they’. If not outlawed, overt genderism is seen as unethical or at least highly distasteful by the population at large. It slowly becomes apparent, however, that by acting like gender does not exist the people of the future just buried the problems of the past rather than truly unpacking and understanding them. This isn’t shoved in your face (at first) but gradually unrolled, like most of the series’ best points.

If it wasn’t clear yet, I thought these books were excellent. The best series I’ve begun in a very long time. I never rush out to get the next book but I did here, eager to find what happened next in this weird utopia on the brink. It was innovative and original and I wish every science fiction novel I picked up was such an opportunity to journey somewhere new.

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

the mirror empireLet me explain.

The players

We have…

The incestuous tribal peace-lovers. Otherwise known as Dhai. The majority of the main characters are Dhai, though much of the story happens elsewhere. The have big, polyamorous family structures, their wizards are sworn to pacifism, and they seem to be enslaved anywhere else not-Dhai. While seeming egalitarian, they practice hereditary rule and draconian rule enforcement.

The militaristic kill all men fascists. Otherwise known as Dorinah. Martial woman who fight and enslave for kicks and who happen to kill all the men they don’t need for breed/status-marriages, invoking their own version of Darwinism/(u)natural selection by killing off all but the smaller, pretty ones. I’m not sure what their wizards do. Act as deus ex machina maybe.

The empire that lives in the cold and acts like assholes for no clear reason (maybe they’re cold). Otherwise known as Saiduan. They’re very stern and cold (in demeanor!) and harsh, just like… the wintry land they inhabit. Their wizards are assassins.

Unlike the final version, the advance copy of this book is missing a map. For most of the novel, I was picturing these three countries as amorphous island blobs floating near each other. Turns out, this is not the case.

 

The game

The good peoples above are busy being their own nationalistic-defined selves when Saiduan (cold-assholes) are invaded by mysterious enemies dropping out of rifts in the sky. Said enemies happen to look just like the Dhai (tribal-incest). Turns out there are other worlds, and in one world in particular, a few decisions made differently were all it took for the pacifism-loving Dhai to become terrible imperialistic conquerors.

Other worlds. Mirror worlds. Mirror Empires. The gates between worlds have rules associated with them; you cannot cross over to a world if your other-world-self still lives, and they are difficult to open. Indeed, they can snap shut and slice you right in half and this will not be the only instance you are reminded of The Wheel of Time series, even if you got bored halfway through it. Like 10 years ago.

 

The good

This book moves quickly. It’s well paced. Every chapter is a contained moment of action that moves the plot along and sets up the next piece. While not essential in all works (I do love a slow burn), this is essential for The Mirror Empire, for reasons mentioned below in ‘The bad’. Much is communicated with few words and the tell-tale sluggishness and over description of most epic fantasy is absent. It’s almost baffling when a room or scene is described in detail — I’d scrutinize the wall texture for plot significance.

These traits are encapsulated in The Mirror Empire’s standout character, a Dorinah (KAM-fascists) general named Zezili. Zezili, in addition to being a spousal abuser and all-around curmudgeonly asshole, spends much of the book committing genocide on slave camps scattered across her country. Yet, you can’t help but want her to succeed.

(at halting the villains, not genocide)

She can get away with mass murder, because in The Mirror Empire, life is cheap. Murder, genocide, slavery are casually mentioned, rarely described. A character having mud and blood on her boots is an expository tell that a whole lot of people just died. While the numbers of people in any given scene are small, the amount that casually get offed is out-of-scale enormous. History is laden with genocide. There’s a disproportionate amount of slaves. Sometimes people are mentioned as dying offhand, and I’m not even sure what was around to kill them. It may be that this was supposed to point out the cheapness of life in the real world, the commonplace of genocide, how rote killing becomes when it’s all you know. But it doesn’t. Instead, it feels more like a Franz Kafka short where no one reacts as you’d expect them to. Murder is just totally fine in Mirrorempireland. Normal, even.

It works.

 
The bad

The genericism.

Despite the walking trees and killer plant life that suffuse the world, despite the mirror worlds and wacky magic, despite the avoidance of traditional-patriarchal-conservative structures, this still feels like just another fantasy world. Dhai has five genders but I have no idea what any of them mean — they seem pretty average fantasy-tribal-religious society. The cultures and people just don’t feel solid, or believable. They’re groups of traits.

This extends to the characters and language. You have reluctant man with small concerns and tragic past thrust into Leader of the People. Youth searching for a lost parent and coming of age (+superpowers). There’s a bunch of generic martial badasses. And while I’m utterly opposed to the thesis of Ursula LeGuin’s essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie — that fantasy requires some sort of mythic-grandiose language — it actually kind of applies here. The language, and especially the dialogue of The Mirror Empire is incredibly modern. Why are the people of this killer-tree, super magic, casual murder, pre-industrial, multivalent gender planet speaking like Americans in 2014?

 
P.S. Fiction and blog writers alike, I hate when you overuse the word ‘Well’ to start a sentence.

 
The wizards (and a refusal to adhere to a Serge Leone ascribed trichotomy)

In this world, some kind of moon-like satellite things rise and fall every few years. These satellites give the magic-users of the world their powers. It’s a pretty cool concept. Someone with their satellite in power in their early-mid teens may be a more confident youth and this will alter their life beyond just mastering powerful magic. And no doubt have a second effect once their power begins to wane. One place fantasy often fails is when you ask the question, ‘why don’t wizards rule the world?’ This books fails here too. The magic users are super powerful; they can heal almost anything, blow shit up en masse, etc. It’s not a major flaw but it’s there.

The actual magic system is weaving patterns and speaking litanies and the biggest conjuror of Wheel of Time memories. You have to grasp the magic source, maintain concentration etc. This wasn’t a negative. It made me nostalgic. I felt this often during The Mirror Empire and it is not merely because I’ve started reading more fantasy again after abstaining for years. Hurley conceived of this originally as a teenager and it feels like that. There are some magic assassins that have swords attached to their arms that glow and literally eat souls. Been there, wrote that, killed that World of Warcraft boss. In fact, I felt like I was in a video game often. Mass Effect in particular.

 
This review is all over the place. Sorry. Suffice to say: I liked it. I’ll read the next.

I requested this book from Netgalley as I’m a fan of Kameron Hurley’s blog. Then I failed to download it in the required time. The publisher hooked me up anyway. Thanks Angry Robot!

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPThe disembodied, nearly always feminine voice of ‘Ship’ or ‘Computer’ providing a foil and guidance to the hero is a common sci-fi trope. She’s a talking prop that that rarely has a story of her own, though sometimes she has a hackneyed plot where it turns out she has real feelings after all. But there is almost always a motherly or sexbot bent to the exchange. Heinlein sort of spells this out literally (and earnestly) in Starship Troopers, where all the ship captains are women because it’s important for the male soldiers to hear a woman’s voice prior to battle. The adventure game Broken Age straight up makes the ship’s computer the hero’s mom. Ancillary Justice takes the woman-ship, gives her her own voice, blows up the ship part and strands her in a lone human body and sets her on a quest for revenge to take down the guy that blew her up*.

I liked the first eighty percent or so of this book. I was invested in the main character, Breq, and the thousand bodied nemesis she was hunting. The space operatic setting was slightly generic (there’s a threat of EMPIRE) but the book rarely devolved into world building porn. The problem is the pacing and character motivation goes to hell in the final chapter of the book. In part because prior to this point, there is a split narrative with every other chapter telling the story of the past (which is frankly more interesting). The point where the flaws of the novel, which my goodwill benignly passed over as minor shortcomings, became noticeable and annoying was when the past story caught up with the present one.

The superhuman hero and her antagonist, a divine emperor with an incalculable number of bodies that may be at war with itself, are fun and interesting. But nearly all the human characters are bland and unconvincing. This culminates when the terribly annoying and supremely arrogant sidekick that Breq inexplicably drags along suddenly and rapidly turns a redemptive corner into a caring and humble person. The rest of the humans are cardboard. They exist to move Breq along the plot or as window-setting-dressing to explain the politics of the world. The plot drags at the end because Breq’s laser-focus on her mission dulls and she just kind of… wanders around until events happen. This is not the type of a book for a passive protagonist.

Ancillary Justice is concerned with current events. Gender, class, colonialism. Much has been made of the novel’s lack of gendered pronouns. The society where Breq is from has no ‘him’ or ‘he’ or ‘son’ — everyone is a ‘her’ or ‘she’ or ‘daughter’. This makes for an interesting take on reading, since I generally ignored the pronoun and looked for tells to show if a character was a man or a woman. The idea that pronouns do not have to be gendered is convincing, as is rules of dress and makeup etc that mark people one way or another in most societies on Earth. Where the book fails is that Breq cannot distinguish between genders, same as the society she comes from. Even when seeing a naked person laying in the snow. There’s some handwaving about artificial wombs that tries to explain away any reproductive concerns, but it is unconvincing. It left me wondering — is everyone bisexual in the future? Has sexual dimorphism in humans gone away somehow? I wanted to know! But it seemed like Leckie was satisfied with challenging the reader via pronouns instead of, in my opinion, far more interesting questions. On top of this, she betrays her own conceit. Despite the removal of gender, there’s a clear tell early on that Breq is a woman; a jerk from a gender-conscious culture derides her as ‘little girl’. Any ambiguity is extinguished.

Regardless of its depth, the gender bits do fit the universe. At the very least, they make for good conversation. Conversely, the class-war plot is incredibly distracting. One cardboard character complains to another that poor people wouldn’t be poor if they worked harder. Breq’s dumb sidekick has a thing for purity of blood. People in the real world say and think dumb shit like that all the time. But it’s incredibly hard to pull off in a novel without a firm grasp on nuance, tone, etc. I am reading Toni Morrison’s Paradise currently which is transparently a book about violence against women. But where Leckie’s ‘poor people’ scene takes me out of the narrative, thinking oh I guess we’re talking about politics now, Morrison has me generally angry and terrified for the safety of the main characters. It may seem unfair to compare a debut sci-fi author to a Nobel prize winner (and one of the greatest American writers ever) but Ancillary Justice did win most of the big sci-fi awards and is nominated for the rest — if sci-fi is to be taken seriously, it does need serious consideration.

I’m absolutely going to read the next book in the series. The fall at the end did not dissuade me. I am still invested in Breq and want to see where this story is going. But I can’t help be disappointed that the book could not maintain the highs it occasionally rose to.

*Don’t get the wrong impression here. She’s still a caretaker of humans, a strange juxtaposition of mother-character with cold-killer that mostly works. But she has agency of her own.