In the genres of science fiction and fantasy, when a book is written in an unusual mode, it’s usually either a gimmick or window-dressing. Window-dressing is when for instance a Victorian feeling book has a faux Victorian style as part of that feel. An example of this would be Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where Heinlein doesn’t have to tell us that the English spoken on the moon is heavily influenced by Australian and Russian, he gives us a first person narrative devoid of articles and peppered with Russian borrowings and Australian slang. It’s great, but really it’s just scenery, everything else would be the same if he’d chosen to write the book in third with just the dialogue like that. It’s quite unusual to read something where the mode is absolutely integral to what the book is doing. In Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence, the decaying grammar and vocabulary of the first person narrator, Lola, mirrors the disintegration of society around her, and we the reader slowly move from a near future with a near normal text to a complete understanding of sentences that would have been incomprehensible on page one, in a world that has also changed that much.
In Palmer’s Terra Ignota, after a page of (amazingly clever) permissions that locate us solidly in a future world with both censorship and trigger warnings (though we may not yet be aware we should take those trigger warnings very seriously) we meet not a normal Twenty-First century “1” or even “Chapter 1” but an Eighteenth Century style “Chapter the First: A Prayer to the Reader.” Then we are addressed directly:
You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you come to me for an explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described.
That’s one sentence, explaining why we’re going to be reading a book written in the Twenty-Fifth century in the style of the Eighteenth, and the first word in the narrator’s voice is “you”. Straight out of the gate we’re being offered optimism, ambition, opinion and sentiment, long before we know who’s offering it to us.
This isn’t just scenery. From the first we are being set up. There are a whole bunch of things going on, and as we accept into something we’re expecting to be there for flavour, we find ourselves drafted into the Project of the books. We, the real readers, are being subsumed into the Reader, who is a character. “You will criticize me, reader…” We’re not only being invoked, we’re being second guessed. At this point, I was very far from the imagined Reader. I didn’t want to criticize at all, I wanted to clap.
In this piece, I’m going to capitalise the Reader who is a character and a creation within the text, to distinguish them from the external and objective readers, who are us, who are, technically at least, outside the text. But what Palmer is really doing here is breaking the fourth wall in a very interesting and unusual way by deliberately blurring that line. The Reader is a character. Our first person narrator Mycroft doesn’t just address the Reader, Mycroft persuades, cajoles, and argues with the Reader — and the Reader argues back, interupts, makes demands, engages in dialogue, more and more as the books go on. Mycroft, who is so deferential that it becomes a new way of dominating, addresses the Reader as “you”, but the Reader addresses him in return with Eighteenth Century familiarity as “thou”. (The next line, positively overflowing with worldbuilding, is “You must forgive me my thees and thous and hes and shes”.) Mycroft pleads with the Reader, explains and clarifies things to them, thanks them for continuing to read, and along the way the line between the imaginary Reader and the real reader gets fuzzy.
We’re immediately asked to take it on faith that this is the only way we can understand the story. We don’t need to know anything about the Eighteenth Century or the Enlightenment ahead of time to read Terra Ignota, Mycroft is always at our elbow, helpful and ready to tell us everything we need as we go along. But we the real readers are also learning, right away, that the story isn’t being told to us, Twenty-First century readers who are in the story’s distant past, but to the imaginary future Reader, who is either somebody of Mycroft’s immediate future, or somebody of his further future looking back at his period as one of historical significance. Mycroft is quite deliberately shaping his document for that purpose, in a way that recalls Graves’s Claudius writing for the far future, for us, and not for his contemporaries. Mycroft is consciously addressing the Reader of near and far future, while Palmer is of course completely aware that it will be read by us here and now, and using the space of this disjunct to shape our real interactions with the text. In many ways it gives her the best of both worlds — because Mycroft can turn aside to explain things directly to us, but always within the bounds of what he believes the Reader already knows.
When people read fiction, the text causes us to open questions in our minds, which we then hold there unanswered until we either work out the answers or they are given to us. One of the skills of reading science fiction is to hold open questions of the universe in the same way that a reader of mimetic fiction holds questions of character and event. We all have reading skills of determining what is important, what we want answered, what we care about. Within SF, we know that sometimes we will be given answers directly and other times we will put them together from separate pieces of information.
Some of the information here is being conveyed by the very way the story is being told, and some of the questions that raises don’t get answered for a long time, but the answers when they come and the process of answering them is so satisfying that it’s a solid part of my enjoyment of the books. The mode here is utterly integral.
When fiction is written in first person, there’s an expectation within the text that the story is being told at a particular time and place and to a particular audience. Traditional texts often explain the circumstances in which a story is told, sometimes with a frame story. You know the kind of thing, people in a club telling stories, or papers discovered in a desk. Within genre I’ve played with this myself, and recently Rothfuss has been having a lot of fun with it. Brust in the Vlad books reveals in one book the circumstances in which a different book was told. Zelazny throws in a line, several books into the Amber series, which has been unexamined first person all along, “as I stand here in the Courts of Chaos telling you…” which grounds the narrative in a time that is future to everything we have been told, giving us anticipation and context. I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited by the promise of any single line. The later Amber books disappointed me, but nothing can beat the sheer narrative thrill to teenage me of being promised narrative context that involved the narrator being Sheherazade in jeopardy, in what had already been revealed to be the reality beyond ultimate reality.
Now that first person is a conventional narrative mode, many writers use it without bothering to answer these kinds of questions — leaving the reader forever puzzling over where and when and to whom the narrator would tell this story, and most especially why.
Palmer tells us on the permissions page that Mycroft is recording the Terra Ignota books “at the request of certain parties” and Mycroft explains to us early and earnestly that it is for very specific reasons — to try to have a record out there of what happened, with plausible deniability (his insanity), and to prevent war. He is to some extent an unreliable narrator — he tells us he’s “easy to call mad”, and we know his text is being edited by the mysterious footnote adding “9A”, who translates for us the dialogue Mycroft wants to leave in Latin. We also have occasional chapters in Martin Guildbreaker’s voice, and in Seven Surrenders a chapter with extra censorship warnings. Besides all this, we know Mycroft would go to great lengths, and maybe lie to prevent war, but while we really can doubt his sanity, it’s hard to doubt his desperate passionate sincerity. He wants us to know what happened — the Reader is Posterity, and Mycroft cares about Posterity so very much.
One of the difficult things in describing Terra Ignota to people is explaining that is is warm. Most books this complex and clever, this intellectually challenging and this dedicated to making you think, are cold, distanced, and ironic. Ironic distancing is one of the signifiers our culture currently uses for seriousness in fiction. Things are either cool and serious or warm and squishy, a book is either supposed to make you think or make you cry, not both. Terra Ignota is very definitely both. This is also, culturally, weirdly gendered, where the masculine comes over as ironic, cool, universal and to be taken seriously, while the feminine is viewed as passionate, warm, parochial and easily dismissed. This isn’t always the case with the work of specific writers, because a lot of female writers are desperately embracing the ironic in order to be taken seriously, and some male writers are in fact interested in giving readers emotionally valid experiences. The intellectual weight of the Terra Ignota books is never in doubt — on those grounds, they can be compared to the best the field has ever produced. But they are warm. With cool writers like China Mieville, Jeff Vandermeer, Adam Roberts, if ever I do get engaged in the story, something always happens to make me feel the writer is pulling away, saying “Ha ha, made you care.” You can see this in practically every case of unreliable narration or metafiction, from Nabokov’s Pale Fire to Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. But here, though Mycroft is patently unreliable to the point of insanity, it’s not like that. He’s also vulnerable. And he’s not just vulnerable within the fiction, he’s vulnerable on the fuzzy line I’ve been talking about, vulnerable to the Reader, to Posterity, and therefore to us as the Reader’s alter ego. Instead of pushing us away, we are in drawn closer and closer.
I believe that Mycroft gets this from Diderot, and specifically from Diderot’s warm playful but metafictive Jacques The Fatalist And His Master. More on Diderot later.
From now on, this piece is going right into huge spoiler territory, the kind of spoilers that genuinely spoil things, and I strongly recommend not reading on any further unless you have read all of both books. I believe that there are some joys of revelation that it is worth coming to slowly, and I really don’t want to spoil the pleasure of discovery that coming to these things in the right order will give somebody, even somebody who thinks they feel they don’t care about spoilers. Really. Go and read both books. The rest of this piece will still be here, and if you’re not going to read the books anyway, the rest of this piece won’t be very interesting. I’m not kidding. Go read the books and come back. They’re great. I love them. Go on. You’ll thank me!
Right at the beginning of Too Like the Lightning, Mycroft tells us that the answers we seek — before we’ve even started to formulate very many questions — lie in the Eighteenth Century, and that we are more fluent in the language of the past than we think we are. This raises huge questions, and the answers to them — Madame and her Eighteenth Century brothel which really controls the world, the underground gendered sexuality there (and therefore the aboveground demigendered norms), Casimir Perry and his Count of Monte Cristo plot that’s quietly going on in the background of what Mycroft is foregrounding for us as important — are hugely important, and we couldn’t understand anything without them. But we have to take it on trust and keep the question open, because we don’t get any hint of these answers for a long time.
Another set of questions embodied in the form of the narrative concerns Mycroft himself.
Mycroft informs us in that same first chapter that a lot of people hate him, and that the text will give us cause enough to hate him ourselves. But we don’t hate him — at least, I don’t. I love him and want to shelter and protect him and make sure he’s eating. Palmer constantly makes us worry about whether and how much he is eating, largely by having him given food and then not telling us whether he eats it. I don’t think this urge to feed Mycroft is unique to me. I know some readers don’t like him, but I find him very sympathetic.
Part of this is because we first see him taking care of a magical kid, which is inherently sympathetic. Then we see him working very hard while being subservient to everyone, including us. Then there’s the way he cares passionately about some things. It’s interesting to examine the things he really cares about. An attempt at a list: His world, Bridger, civilization, that creepy JEDD Mason, Apollo Mojave, the significance of Bridger and JEDD Mason to metaphysics, and metaphysics in general. (The metaphysics here is amazing, I’d never previously come across the concept of multiple universes each with an omnipotent monotheistic God, never mind the idea of a dialogue between those Gods. Fascinating.) He loves Greece, and the Iliad, and the Enlightenment, and languages, and while he clearly enjoys telling us the story, with all the asides and things we need to know, he’s not as passionate about any of these things the way he’s passionate about the things on my first list.
Mycroft is our friend, our guide, and, especially, he builds up a special relationship with the Reader He listens to the Reader’s objections and engages with them, at least attempting to comply with them. Sometimes those are our objections and sometimes they aren’t. For instance when the Reader demands that Mycroft stop calling Thisbe a witch, I was impatient with them — I didn’t mind him calling her a witch, I just wanted to get on with the story. At that point, the Reader is an actual character in the text quite separate from me, with their own obsessions and demands. But when the Reader is standing for me, which is most of the time, then the line between the real reader and the Reader on the page gets increasingly fuzzy.
There is one moment in Seven Surrenders where Mycroft says he owes the world seventeen lifetimes of work and therefore he shouldn’t rest. Reading this, I thought “Eighteen, your own life too.” In the next line, the Reader made the exact same objection. At that moment, there was no distinction between me, the real reader, and the imagined character Reader, the Reader voiced my objection, and Mycroft answered it. My engagement with the text and that moment and my integration with the Reader was a hundred percent. There wasn’t a fourth wall. The way the story is written had led to me being actually inside the text. And in book 3, The Will to Battle, the line gets fuzzier again, and what Palmer’s doing with this becomes even more integral and fascinating.
From the first moment, Mycroft confides in us, or rather in the Reader. The way he does this encourages us to like and trust him, and again, this is like Graves’s Claudius, and also reminiscent of two great villains: Shakespeare’s Richard III, and Francis Urquart in the original UK House of Cards. The stage direction “aside to the audience” makes the audience complicit. Only we see into their true motivations, only we know what they want, and what they’re doing. Mycroft’s asides confidences to the Reader have the same kind of effect of drawing us closer, letting us into the secrets. I never realised that Urquart was lovable until I saw the US version of House of Cards, where the Underwood character is a jerk, which made the whole thing pointless. Urquart is just as despicable in what he does (the same things!), but because he stops and addresses us, because he tells us the truth while lying to everyone else, because of his little smile aside, we are seduced into being much more on his side than we should be. Part of us secretly wants him to get away with it, because of the way that charm and sincerity is directed at us. It’s just the same with Mycroft.
In Chapter the First, Mycroft begs the Reader to trust him for a little while, and we do, and by the time we find out what his crimes are — and they’re so much worse than we could have imagined — we feel betrayed. We also feel complicit — we’ve been trusting you, Mycroft! How could you have been a rapist and a torturer all this time? Mycroft’s attitude to his crimes, the weird pride he has and contempt for his victims, is very difficult to accept, especially before you know why he did it. And this is withheld for a long time — it’s well on into Seven Surrenders before you find out that he had a really good reason for killing the Mardis.
It shows you what a great world this is where an atrocity where somebody tortured seventeen people to death is the worst thing that had happened for centuries. But that doesn’t help us in our personal complicity with Mycroft, who has been telling us things he doesn’t tell anyone, who has been drawing us closer and closer, who has been our companion and our friend and our constant guide through this strange world. The chapter after the revelation of his crimes starts by thanking us for keeping on reading, and I think for some real readers that’s a real question. This is quite an achievement in itself.
Generally, genre SF and fantasy has a very high body count, and a very high level of atrocities committed by protagonists. Nobody bats an eyelid at Brust’s Taltos being an assassin, for instance. That’s just fun. And torture — generally done for the best of reasons — isn’t unusual. We’ll happily read things with wars that destroy entire planets, or close up battles with enemy deaths in the tens of thousands. Seventeen deaths can’t really compare. The difference here is the level of realism and the fact that is is not okay. It isn’t fun, it isn’t cool, it isn’t happening at a level of reality where we can in any way enjoy it. Beyond that, Mycroft’s reaction to what he has done is incredibly disturbing — he’s proud of his craftsmanship, he’s proud of his relationship with Papadelias, and when he talks about specifics it’s stomach-churning. It’s very uncomfortable to read him caring about not being called a mass murderer — he’s not, he tells us indignantly, he murdered them all individually!
Re-reading, this is even more disturbing, because right at the beginning when he talks about the death of the plastic army man Pointer and how it differs from normal death, when he says “Have you ever seen death, reader?” and goes on to clinically analyse how hard it is to recognise the instant of death “in slow cases, like blood loss.” It doesn’t seem as if he’s saying this in a creepy way, but he is, he’s speaking out of his personal experience of having killed seventeen people in horrible ways, and he’s speaking as if we, the reader, are likely to share this experience. In fact, I think I’m fairly unusual in that I have seen human death, though only in hospital settings. I can confirm that you can’t always tell the moment of the last breath. I was therefore nodding along with Mycroft there… which doesn’t help!
So we real readers have done what Mycroft asked and trusted him for a few chapters, and found out that he is a monster at the same time Carlyle finds out, and freaked out along with Carlyle.
It’s not for a long time that we discover that we were in fact correct to feel he can’t be the monster everyone thinks him. When we find out that he killed the Mardis to prevent war, that he killed them like that to shock the world and therefore prevent war, and when we’ve already seen the way the OS system is killing individuals to keep the world stable — we’re then in a whole new context of Utilitarian ethics. The question becomes whether we would do the same thing. And the further question, whether we’d destroy this world to save a better one, or a better world to save this one. I think we ask ourselves these questions in a different way because of the pace at which we have experienced having our questions answered.
This brings me back to Diderot. Heloise quotes Diderot in Madame’s, and Carlyle recognises the quote, and then what we are told about Diderot is:
“Denis Diderot was a great philosopher, the leader of the Encyclopaedia project!”
I wish now, reader, that I had myself introduced you to _le Philosophe_ in some lighter hour. Grant me, if you will, a moment for his noble side, before you associate him forever with this house. Once upon a time there was a bright young atheist called Denis Diderot. In his Eighteenth Century, atheism was just blossoming, and keen libertine minds hungered for a firebrand to stir and lead them. He could have made himself the Pope of Atheists, but he refused, for Diderot, while denying any afterlife, dreamed of worldly immortality, not for himself but for the dead, the dreams and achievements of ages past, and for his world. His Philosopher’s Stone would be a book. The second half contained technical plates illustrating all the technologies humanity had achieved, weaving silk stockings, annealing metal, baking bricks, so with a single copy even the lowest peasant could reconstruct all of civilization. The first half was the same for thought. Thus, if a new dark age should fall upon the Earth, but a single copy of this book survived, every achievement of the human race — from bronze to Liberty — could be restored. Diderot named this talisman of immortality _Encyclopedie_ and fearing that his personal beliefs might bring the wrath of the authorities upon the project, he voluntarily suppressed his own work, publishing nothing of the revolutionary atheism which like-minded doubters of his age so hungered for. The public who named Voltaire _Le Patriarch_ dubbed Diderot _le Philosophe_, _the_ Philosopher, guardian and caretaker of all thinkers and all thought. The grand title of “Arch-Heretic,” which he deserved, he left to others, to Machiavelli, Hobbes, misunderstood Spinoza, or de Sade. Can you imagine a nobler act, reader? Sacrificing his voice to humanity’s Great Conversation to safeguard the Conversation itself?
Now this is not exactly what you’ll find if you look up Diderot in Wikipedia, or even if you read serious books about Diderot. It’s not our Diderot, it’s the Twenty-Fifth Century’s imagination of Diderot, Mycroft’s Diderot. But the Reader is directly addressed there, “can you imagine a nobler act?” It’s an act familiar to us from science fiction — from Miller’s Canticle For Leibovitz through Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye, Asimov’s Foundation and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the idea of deliberately safeguarding civilization through a dark age. It’s not something anyone did before the fall of Rome, it’s an Enlightenment imagination of deliberately preparing for a new Renaissance. But it’s an idea that’s familiar to us as SF readers, and which we thrill to, and it makes us feel very positive about Diderot because he did it in the real world. In reading this, we are being recruited or seduced into this project of saving civilization — can you imagine a nobler act, reader?
Beyond that, we’re being informed there’s a Great Conversation, and in hearing that Diderot suppressed his participation, implicitly invited to participate ourselves. Do you want to save the world, reader? Do you want to participate in the Great Conversation of humanity, living and dead, across all of time? Of course we do.
The questions Terra Ignota raises are huge and reach outside the book in all kinds of directions. We’d think about them anyway. But because we’re drawn so close to the text and so directly addressed, we come to them with a different level of intensity, complexity, participation and complicity. Mycroft’s trying to draft the Reader into his war. Does he succeed? That’s another very interesting question.