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May 1, 2017 | by  | in Books |
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Deus ex flying car: Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota

Gods in fantasy novels are as unexceptional and versatile as chocolate. Characters whose gifts alter the rules are commoner yet to both fantasy and science fiction — witch, superhero, telepath, choose your flavour and let the consequences roll. I like all those flavours. But when, in chapter one of Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning, a child demonstrates the ability to bring toys and other depictions to life, something is different. This is not a superpower, it is a miracle.

The miracle child, Bridger, is not ensconced in a world where divine interference has agreed-upon precedent, and the characters who must react to Bridger do so not only at the genre-conventional level of awe and speculation — “Who are you? Where did that come from? How can we make use of you?” — but at the real world one, including alongside those other concerns: “In terms of all human thinking and wondering about the divine, what does this mean and how must our thoughts be changed?” So many science fiction novels have atheism in their DNA. This one opens, not with old answers, but with old questions.

They are not the only questions at play, either. Too Like The Lightning is the first half of a two-volume story, which is itself the first half of a projected four-volume science fiction series, Terra Ignota. I was fascinated by it from the start. Until recently I could not trust it. Ada Palmer, a historian, presents a future of historical complexity, rooted in more cultures than one and in more times than now. Unlike much speculative fiction which, for the sake of convenience, give a planet the cultural complexity of a city, or allows five hundred years to produce one great war and one great poet, Terra Ignota interposes between our 2017 and Palmer’s constructed 2450 not a single alteration and its consequences, nor two, nor three, but a twining complexity in which everything changes but no change is complete. Gender presentation has been culturally set to neuter, but the concepts “female” and “male” retain an unacknowledged power. Organised religion is forbidden, but private religion is mandated. Nations are non-geographic, but those who think of themselves as Spanish may still bow to a King of Spain.

The complexity of the world-building, and its inseparability from the complexity of the plot, come across gradually, via the deliciously mannered narration of Mycroft Canner, a convict whose crime and sentence lack close modern parallels. Until midway through Too Like the Lightning I was, while enjoying that narration, still looking in puzzlement at the components it was showing me, unsure if their individual gleams would come together into more than a dazzling heap. But the more I read, the less the book’s complexity resembled chaos. Through to the end of Too Like the Lightning and into its sequel, Seven Surrenders, the pleasures of reading chapter after chapter became the pleasures of realising how every turning cog would serve the clock, how each cuckoo would spring its hour.

Likewise, until midway through Seven Surrenders, I was still nervous that the exceptional weight being given to ontological questions might crash down, supported only by a genre-conventional answer which, while lively on its own terms, did not match the implied promise. I will have to do more thinking before I know how much I like the answers Seven Surrenders has — I could point to the chapter where my “this is delightful!” turned into “this may delight me when I’ve reread it, so much to process!” — but it does conclude on the terms it promised.

There are good reasons why many novels don’t attempt Terra Ignota’s level of complexity: it’s difficult, if poorly handled it burns up a story’s oxygen, and it requires a deep knowledge base. But Palmer has been planning these books for years; they’re her learned contribution to several genre conversations, they’ll make you think new thoughts, and they’re damn good fun.

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