The hive system invites casual games of identity. The common meme of the multiple choice internet quiz: “Which Hive Are You?” Do you value loyalty, science, personal excellence, or obedience? Would you rather paint a masterpiece, or write science fiction? Do you approve of the death penalty? Where does power come from? If you wrote a poem titled ‘The Source,’ what would be its subject?
The questions quickly grow deep. Yet just as with the blandest quiz about Star Trek captains, some people will fit their assigned answer better than others—and all must be made to fit somewhere. Such quizzes shape our real lives, too. What’s Your MBTI Category (early and untrustworthy ancestor to the Brillist numbers)? What Political Party Do You Belong To? What’s Your Gender?
Two choices or sixty-two, the full range of human variation is never represented, and some people suffer for it. And as Palmer points out, unspoken categories—class in modern America, for example—can shape and constrain as much as those shouted from the rooftops. Our oldest and sharpest divisions, defended by pseudo-invisibility, deserve more open examination.
Palmer’s world has buried the gender binary and offered in its place a new septary, very nearly as constraining. When Heloise announces that it’s impossible to articulate the values of caregiving, hospitality, affection, and nurture, without modifying them with the feminine association, she revives a half-truth that fosters toxic masculinity in our own time. Yet even without the binding cords of gender role, the hive system does the same thing. The Cousins claim caregiving and parental affection—and run all the hospitals. What place is there for someone drawn to the medical profession, yet desperate for the sort of strong ruler that only the Masons provide? For a Brillist who wants to use their psychological training to heal rather than merely understand?
Similarly, we learn from Cato that those drawn to (non-psychological) science inevitably join the Utopians. Want to research astronomy while looking at the stars with unshielded eyes? Not on the table. But act too much the Utopian and the pressure is high to join them in truth.
The hive system has one advantage over the gender binary: there are societally-approved ways of opting out. Yet even these harbor grave limits. If you want both a government’s protection and the right to participate in that government, you must choose. Hiveless are second-class non-citizens: whitelaws sworn to obey rules they can’t inform, graylaws limited to a narrow band of both rule and protection, blacklaws stuck in a libertarian dystopia that can please only a bloodthirsty few.
Is it possible to come up with a system of shared core identities that does not, ultimately, imprison those who fall outside its neat categories? Terra Ignota tries to avoid this through dozens of sartorial signals of affiliation, seeking the “death of majority.” It fails. Tea drinkers and knitters may revel in recognizing their own on the street, but those identities have little impact on their daily existence. Hive affects everything. Worse, hive loyalty is communicated by reducing those other signals. Someone who wears only their hive uniform proves deep affiliation, high rank, or both.
And the Utopians never offer such lesser signals. They flaunt their disconnect with—even rejection of—everyone else. Wouldn’t the cultures of science and science fiction fandom be made poorer by rejecting their Venn with mystery readers, knitters, and other beloved avocations? Vision, isolated from that interfertility, loses something vital.
Then there’s the silent affiliation hidden behind all the hives: religion. In trying to break religious affiliation, this world reduces it to theological belief alone. There’s no place for people who gain strength and comfort from worshipping communally. Tribes like Jews and Hindus, that have held themselves together across millennia of attempts at obliteration, are relegated to the Reservations. There, presumably, they lack even a blacklaw’s protections and freedoms.
Is it possible, then, to avoid a constraining system of core identities at all? More than war, such identities may be central to human psychology. (Making no claims about the transhumans of Utopia, the Brillist Institute, and Madame’s.) We stereotype others; we change ourselves for the potent reward of fitting an in-group—and the nearly as potent reward of gazing dismissively on outgroups. If not offered rigid categories, or offered ones we can’t bear, we make our own.
There is value in shared identity—indeed, it’s hard to take collective *positive *action without it. The solution to this trade-off isn’t offered by Terra Ignota, and hasn’t been solved anywhere in humanity’s long history of struggle. Perhaps the first step is to admit what we pay for our empowering categories, and resist the urge to cast out those who cannot abide them. Perhaps the first step is simply to name our bonds.
Second step? Maybe that’s in the sequel.