Complicity and the Reader

by Jo Walton on March 7, 2017

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.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }


Neville Morley 03.07.17 at 4:48 pm

You trust Mycroft an awful lot more than I do… I don’t find him always there ready to tell me what I need to know, and not just because I lack lots of information that the Reader, whether 25th-Century or still more distant, can be assumed to possess; on the contrary, he seems to be to be secretive and evasive, withholding things until he has no choice but to divulge them. The truth, but never the whole truth, and he’s very happy for us to draw wrong conclusions. Sincerity? Maybe, but also a performance of sincerity; likewise contrition. It would not amaze me if the ‘real’ reason for his actions, revealed in SS, turns out to be another partial truth. He manipulates the Reader, and us; he is a master of rhetoric. Within the first fifty pages of TLtL I was thinking of the figure of the cunning slave in ancient comedy – and of course that’s something he hints at, in discussing his own status in relation to classical precedents…


S 03.07.17 at 5:21 pm

Is the last part of the last block quote really meant to be its own (non-quoted) paragraph? [ED – ALREADY FIXED BUT THANKS]


JimV 03.07.17 at 7:02 pm

“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.”

Well said. I think that’s true and that science-fiction is particularly suited to raising such questions, of a larger kind than whodunit.

I had to stop reading this post at the spoiler alert because I just got the second book today and haven’t had a chance to devour it yet, but look forward to finishing the post in a few days.


Jo Walton 03.07.17 at 10:28 pm

JimV — thank you for listening! It will be worth it.


Jo Walton 03.07.17 at 10:30 pm

Neville — that’s a very interesting reading!


Chris Carpenter 03.07.17 at 11:08 pm

As a long-time lover of Diderot, you can imagine how much these two books sang to me. The passage you quoted about Diderot, was perhaps the most moving tribute to any philosopher I have ever read. I nearly cried when I read it.
But what surprised me about these books was how interesting they made metaphysics. As an atheist, I had always been very dismissive of that entire branch of philosophy. But although Dr. Palmer’s books did not change my mind about my atheism (I don’t think that was her goal anyways) they did open me up to how interesting that conversation can be.


Luis 03.08.17 at 5:38 pm

I like Mycroft, but I am with Neville: I’m still not sure I trust Mycroft after SS. And indeed by mid-SS Mycroft is practically begging us not to trust him; he’s told us his reasoning but then immediately told us his reasoning was (literally) fatally flawed. What else is his judgment skewed or simply wrong/incomplete about? That list would be another interesting one to write out; it isn’t short, despite his seemingly near-omniscience.

That said, I trust his *rationality*. So it was interesting to be reminded (here and in SS) that his “madness” supposedly makes him an unreliable witness. Perhaps this is the attorney in me, but he seems no more unreliable in that sense than the average witness. And I do have to wonder if Palmer is setting that up deliberately, reminding us of his madness when at times he seems the only sane person in the room.

Anyway, thanks for writing this – it deepened my appreciation for the craft involved here!


Andrew Watson 03.09.17 at 2:53 pm

Complicity is a fascinating entry point to discussion of these books. There is complicity between at least four agents: Palmer, Canner, the Reader, and the reader (following Jo’s useful distinction between Reader and reader).

As I anticipated SS, I was thinking about an aspect of complicity between Palmer (or, more generally, author) and reader. How should they comply to make the sequel work for the reader, who may have read the earlier book some time ago? This is a particularly sharp question when the books are as “big” as these.

I prepared for SS in a few ways. First, I trusted Palmer, based on TLtL and on some of her other writing.

Second, I hoped that SS would include a list of characters. The front matter does indeed include “Persons Appearing in this History”.

Third, I looked back over (but did not re-read) TLtL to construct a timeline, which I posted. I noted that Canner “sees no need to tell his reader about anything that happened in the centuries between the Enlightenment and 2073″…


Maria 03.09.17 at 4:59 pm

I agree absolutely about Mycroft’s creepy complicity (or the creepiness of my, as Reader’s, assumed complicity with him), especially around the Major and death. A couple of times, Mycroft speaks in a quietly admiring way of the Major’s experience of death and war, and how it deepens his understanding of life and almost gives a deeper timbre to his voice.

First time round, I read Mycroft’s observation as being just in that way some men have of admiring or even wanting to associate themselves with what they perceive as the alpha-maleness of soldiers. Also, I fancied the Major and wanted to agree with Mycroft, even though in real life I know lots of soldiers, many are not alpha males, and politically I find the whole soldier-worship thing quite creepy.

Second time reading the book, knowing what I then knew about Mycroft, was slightly unnerving. The Major was still pretty cool because he’s seen stuff the people in the future haven’t, but is still very honourable etc. But realising I’d been indulging in the same kind of reflexive hero-worship as a mass-murderer. Ugh! Damn you, Mycroft, for exposing all sorts of complicities I’d personally rather not look at too closely.


Yarrow 03.09.17 at 7:06 pm

I’m a reader who seriously considered stopping Too Like the Lightning after Chapter Twenty. Of course, I imagine the Reader would have had to decide whether or not to start, since they knew what Mycroft had done.


Henry 03.09.17 at 7:37 pm

Neville — that’s a very interesting reading!

In favor of Neville’s reading – Sniper’s statement that he believes that there’s a ‘real’ Canner that occasionally is visible behind the servility. In favor of Jo’s reading – that she’s read the third book, unlike the rest of us …

The one bit that I do disagree with is Jo’s statement about ‘cool’ writers. Not that I have any problem with the _de gustibus_ – if those writers don’t appeal to you, they don’t, and there are plenty of writers whom I have problems enjoying too, even if I can intellectually understand why others like them. But I don’t get the sense that they’re out to trick you into caring that Jo does. E.g. I believe that Wolfe (and here I think John Clute etc are completely wrong) is entirely sincere – the sense of religious wonder that Severian feels is what drives Wolfe too. And Mieville too wants the reader to care – especially in _Iron Council_, but also elsewhere too. Again, not that one has to like them, but I don’t get the sense that Jo does (I see why she calls them ‘cool’, but I find them also to be vast and sympathetic).


Neville Morley 03.09.17 at 11:40 pm

In favour… well, not sure which way this goes, but Sniper is *definitely* not a reliable witness, but *how* not reliable? Okay, risk that I’m falling into my never-gonna-get-written SF novel, but I would half expect cacophony of contradictory voices not occasional alternative voice.


Z 03.10.17 at 8:28 am

Am I the only one who did not particularly feel this complicity? Mycroft Canner is just too talented, too powerful, too well-connected, apparently supremely intelligent, perhaps supernaturally so etc… for me to really connect with him. In fact, I felt the same about just all the characters of TlTl (like the rest of the Muggle world, I haven’t read Seven Surrenders): they are all too fabulous and/or extreme for me to really care about them on an emotional level. Not that I don’t enjoyed the book, but I just occasionally missed ordinary people.


Donald 03.10.17 at 2:45 pm

I read most of the first book and put it aside, because I didn’t care what happened to anyone. I was a little curious about what the point of it was, and will probably read a Wikipedia article on the series when it’s finished. The Big Ideas might be interesting, but for me the story and the characters weren’t.

I wonder if I would have loved it if the story had some hobbits. This was more like the Silmarillion.


JimV 03.10.17 at 11:07 pm

Someone, I think it was Hemingway, said that it is impossible to write an autobiography without lying. That was the sense or illusion I had of MC – that he was trying to be truthful most of the time but couldn’t always do it.

(“Mycroft” of course reminds us of Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” and Heinlein’s “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”.)

I have many times started a novel and like a previous commenter put it down because I didn’t identify with any of the characters and/or thought they were made out of cardboard (e.g., the Agatha Cristie mystery starring “Tommy and Tuppence”). That was not the case this time. However, Bridger bothered me. It was like you took, say, “War and Peace” and put a DC comics character in it (e.g., Superboy). I was hoping against hope that he would turn out to be less comic-y in the second book, but that wasn’t the author’s choice or design.

As a result, I didn’t feel like re-reading the books immediately after finishing them, as has occurred a few times in my reading history, but I will re-read them eventually. Aside from the plot quibble, the writing is fantastic.


David Goldfarb 03.11.17 at 6:43 am

I just finished Seven Surrenders, and re-read Too Like the Lightning beforehand. (And boy was I glad I did that latter.)

I thought that the ethical dilemma posed by O.S. was artificially made a little sharper than it should have been: why did O.S. never use any lesser means than murder? In Asimov’s The End of Eternity they were able to prevent wars by, say, misplacing somebody’s car keys. O.S.’s set-sets were able to work out that killing someone would have various indirect effects. (Induce one person to commit suicide; at two removes this makes a reporter retire.) So why can’t they work out similar indirect effects from, perhaps, misrouting someone’s car rather than crashing it? There are tons of ways to manipulate the world that are less drastic than murder. Yet we have no evidence that O.S. even tried to use any of them.

On another topic, I was a little disappointed that we never get an explanation of the mysterious 9A. In my re-read, it did occur to me that “Ada Palmer” starts with an A and has 9 letters.

Which in turn leads me to the observation that I always find discussions of fate, Providence, free will, or even good luck to be problematic in the context of fictional narrative, because of course characters in a fictional narrative are known to lack free will, and to have a creator. Yes, in Terra Ignota there exists Providence. But that Providence bears no relation to any Providence that may exist in the real world, and the discussion forcibly reminds me that I’m reading fiction.


JimV 03.11.17 at 3:09 pm

David Goldfarb makes an excellent point about the brute-force nature of O.S.’s manipulations. I think Cosma Shaliz’s great “In Soviet Union, Optimization Solves You” might provide a partial answer. CS shows that computer analysis and regulation of all market variables for a large country is impractical forever unless Moore’s Law proceeds unabated for centuries, which physics forbids (or something like that). Prediction of all future events is a much larger task. One which in fact is still impossible with the magic of “set-sets”, since nobody predicted Casimir Perry’s machinations. So one might say that the O.S. are grasping at whatever possible solutions appear to be in their coarse simulation.

I agree however that at least some of those solutions should involve, say, early retirement of key individuals rather than death – but perhaps those did occur but were not as noticeable and not discovered.


Christopher Carpenter 03.11.17 at 9:21 pm

David Goldfarb: The assertion you made, “But that Providence bears no relation to any Providence that may exist in the real world” is a metaphysical opinion, not a statement a fact. I happen to believe that there is no providence of any kind in the real world, but I can only assert it as a logical high likelihood not a fact. Nietzsche once (perhaps sarcastically) suggested that Mycroft’s version of Providence is likely when he said something along the lines of “it is easier to prove the existence of a malevolent god than a benevolent one.” I think that part of what Dr. Palmer may be trying to do is suggest we consider different kinds of providences.


Abigail Nussbaum 04.13.17 at 3:25 pm

Rather late to this comment thread, but I’ve spent the day reading the essays in this project, hoping for some insight that might help me explain what I missed in Too Like the Lightning, which I bounced off of with alarming strength. So first of all, thank you to all the contributors for their hard work, and second: no joy, I’m afraid. TLTL’s allure remains as opaque to me as it was when I finished it (and the odds of my picking up SS are, I’m afraid, rather slim), and the appeal it had for so many of the writers in this project escapes me completely.

Case in point: it is genuinely baffling to me to suggest that we are meant to find Mycroft appealing, sympathetic, or even pitiable. I thought that it was one of Palmer’s undeniable (if, to me, unsatisfying) accomplishments to have created a narrator so profoundly unpleasant, so unbearably vain and self-absorbed, and so obviously limited in his worldview that the entire experience of reading the novel became an exercise in trying to look past his crippling tunnel-vision. Spending time with Mycroft felt to me like being stuck with one of those blowhards you meet on the internet (or, if you’re particularly unlucky, in real life), who are so convinced that they’ve unlocked the secrets of the universe that they can allow no new data, and certainly no possibility of their own limitations, to enter into consideration. The Great Man fetishism, the relentless name-dropping, the creepy fetishizing of the bodies of women and POCs, these are all traits that Mycroft shares with such people, and they make him, not only an uncomfortable guide through the book’s world, but profoundly boring. These sorts of people rarely have anything new to tell you, and though Mycroft has a slight leg up in that he’s our point of view character to the book’s interesting world, that doesn’t make the experience of spending time with him more appealing.

Such was my frustration with Mycroft that I can’t really say that I was surprised when we learned the details of his crime. I mean, obviously I was surprised, because the sheer overheated, over-the-top gruesomeness of his crimes can’t help but surprise you. (“Overheated”, in fact, strikes me as a much better word with which to describe TLTL than “warm”; though I agree that the book certainly isn’t cold.) But at the same time, I couldn’t help being aware of the inevitability of the revelation spelled out in this essay, that there would turn out to be a reason for Mycroft’s actions that served the greater good (because this is, quite frankly, that sort of book). Far from feeling complicit, it’s moments like this that made me feel just how hard TLTL was trying to manipulate me and my reactions, and how juvenile those efforts ended up seeming.

(Also: is it, in fact, surprising that Mycroft turns out to be a rapist? A torturer and a murderer, yes, but a rapist? Is this not the same character who, in the book’s first chapter, describes rape as a crime that impinges on its victims’ “virtue”? Does he not depict Dominic’s near-sexual-assault of Lesley as an act of seduction? Is he not weirdly obsessed with genitalia and reductive gender roles, specifically associating masculinity with power and domination? To bring us back to the blowhard type that Mycroft so strongly reminds me of, they are exactly the sort of people about whom, you are inevitably unsurprised to learn, women have been warning each other for years, and have learned to steer clear of, or only go near in groups.)

(Also also: I am aware that TLTL does not specify Mycroft’s gender, and that he may end up being revealed as biologically female/self-identifying as female. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this is the case, because once again this is that sort of book. That honestly doesn’t change my reading of the character. If Palmer chose to write a female character who is the most extreme version of the convention sexual harrasser, and then spring the revelation of their gender on the reader, it doesn’t make my experience of reading that character, or the associations they arouse, any more palatable.)


Dylan Thurston 03.25.19 at 10:43 pm

Very late to the party here! I was just re-reading TLtL in order to better understand The Will to Battle, which further deepened the conversation, and answered some of the doubts. (I’ll omit spoilers here.)

With regards to the discussion of Providence, I was quite struck by JEDD Mason’s line, “Observe, Chagatai, the protagonist of every work of fiction is Humanity, and the antagonist is God”. This serves many roles beyond its effect on Chagatai in the work. For instance, a little earlier in the work there was a long discussion with the Reader on whether or not Bridger was the protagonist of the work. In the novel (at least in Mycroft’s belief), Bridger is a human instrument of God, and so indeed makes a suitable protagonist. It also addresses Providence as authorial intent, with the author taking the role of God.


Logicoma 07.15.24 at 3:07 pm

@David Goldfarb

On another topic, I was a little disappointed that we never get an explanation of the mysterious 9A. In my re-read, it did occur to me that “Ada Palmer” starts with an A and has 9 letters.

It is explained that Anonymous adds translations from Latin into English.
So 9A is probably the ninth Anonymous.


steven t johnson 07.15.24 at 5:35 pm

This popped up on recent comments list. The OP was never noticed by me before. I had two problems in approaching the novel at all.

First, I could never accept that flying cars would abolish nations. Yes, being able to fly anywhere means something…but the parking problem! That could only be solved by the abolition of nations. Getting it backwards didn’t help.

Second, I realized the novel was the college equivalent of Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, where the world beccame a projection of high school social groups/cliques. (Well, at least the movie versions, maybe the literal books were different.) The affinity groups reduced in my reading consciousness (or unconsciousness, if you insist) as various faculty departments.

Thus, I was never entered enough into the story to even remember it clearly, much less feel complicit.

There is a vague impression the novel depended upon the equation of secularism with religion to portray this future as somehow spiritually oppressive in the same way as a conformity enforcing state church, which strikes me as fundamentally wrongheaded but I can’t remember why I felt that.

The hints that some character actually had supernatural powers, or at least absurdist paranormal ones. Critiquing atheism by fantasy with this technique is no critique at all, if that’s where the series meant to go. If instead it were a mode of critiquing religion that relies on divine rewards for believers, I can only observe the best method SF or any other genre has, is to stick closer to the real world. But that would be “hard” SF, not this kind of stuff. If your philosophy of science forbids you to say, there is no magic, so much the worse for your philosophy.

In that it fails like Dune. Frank Herbert’s intended blast against messianism (aside from the dubiousness of such concoctions as the Zensunni or the Orange Catholic Bible!) fails because it incorporates a “real” messiah. The recent movie tries to fix that by having Zendaya (not a close approximation to “Chani” by the way, not so far as I can see, even if Zendaya is more interesting) bitch at the messiah. Aside from giving up her supposedly resolute struggle against Harkonnen tyranny in get a boy friend, the ones she needed to convince were other Fremen. They just made the character look like a fool. Guess that’s why they needed to cast Zendaya, to force endorsement of the character by star power/sexiness?

This superficially irrelevant detour is an example of why I never troubled to read by Too Late the Lightning.

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