Falling Into the Cracks of Identity

by Ruthanna Emrys on March 13, 2017

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.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }


nastywoman 03.13.17 at 2:49 pm

“Which Hive Are You?” –
The ‘No Hive’ Hive.
“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?“
Yeah! Where does it come from?
“If you wrote a poem titled ‘The Source,’ what would be its subject?“
‘Mutts like me’ by Obama.
“Then there’s the silent affiliation hidden behind all the hives: religion.“
Or “Mutts like me“ by Obama.
“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?“
Yeah – being a “Mutt“.
“Is it possible, then, to avoid a constraining system of core identities at all?“
Yeah – being a “Mutt“.
“There is value in shared identity“
Yeah – in the value of the ‘No Hive’ Hive.


Ernie Bornheimer 03.13.17 at 4:33 pm

What are “Brillist numbers”?


JimV 03.13.17 at 5:52 pm

The Hives were supposed to be a solution to nation-states. The usual s-f extrapolations are 1) one world government; 2) a diaspora of like-minded people to separate planets, using contra-physics technology; 3) corporation-states; 4) collapse back into local feudalism, or worse (; 5) …).

Hives are, to me, a somewhat original notion, but probably an unstable system. Any large mutation is apt to be a failure – but failures can be learned from. As the post says, maybe the sequels will present another system.

Meanwhile, quibbles: there are Utopian hospitals as well as Cousins hospitals, and Cato Weeksbooth is a Humanist scientist.


William Berry 03.13.17 at 5:59 pm

@nastywoman: “The ‘No Hive’ Hive.”

Absolutely. It might not be wholly attainable but it is something we rootless cosmopolitans can strive toward.


Stephen 03.13.17 at 7:55 pm

OP: “toxic masculinity.”

Query whether there is or could be such a thing as toxic femininity (as opposed to toxic feminism), queerness, or whatever?

If not, why not?


Theophylact 03.13.17 at 8:19 pm

Ernie Bornheimer @ #2:

What are “Brillist numbers”?

Waaay too complicated to explain briefly; you’re going to have to read Too Like the Lightning to find out.


Neville Morley 03.13.17 at 8:53 pm

It is worryingly reminiscent of the four houses in Harry Potter, likewise defined in terms of the characters, emotional attitudes and values of their members, who have a degree of choice in their affiliation, rather than this being imposed by birth.


heresiarch 03.14.17 at 12:14 am

It just occurred to me, but the world of Terra Ignota almost entirely ignores the existence of political structures at any scale between the Hive and the bash’. There are clubs and associations, but as described they are purely social. What about any association with actual power? For example, if someone in Cielo de Pajaros wants to add a floor to their house, thereby disturbing their neighbors sightlines, who adjudicates? Or if some Humanist wants to turn the birds green as an art project–who would stop them? It doesn’t make much sense for it to be a Hive–people from all sorts of different Hives live in the city, it’s precisely the wrong-shaped thing. (Nevermind that goodness but isn’t that hunting a mosquito with a bazooka.) Where are neighborhood associations, trade associations?

And what about nation-strats? As portrayed, they’re language clubs. I know the argument is that they have withered away, but we see the Greek patriotism of Mycroft and Papa–surely that makes the strats politically meaningful at some level. There’s no leader of the Greek strat, throwing their influence behind the King of Spain or Perry in the EU elections?

Then the biggest omission: where is class? If Mitsubishi is allocating votes based on acquired holdings, and people are paying rent to them, then this isn’t a propertyless, cashless utopia: some have more than others. And it matters. So who are the proles? Where are the communists?

There’s a strong tendency to reduce models of society down to just two scales: individual and state, the smallest and the largest. The idea that any other scales of belonging–locality, class, race, gender, religion–might ever be more salient than the first two must be fought for case by case. It appears that Terra Ignota replicates this tendency, only with Hive playing the role of nation.


Moz of Yarramulla 03.14.17 at 1:47 am

“Which Hive Are You?”

I am All Of The Above.
And I am Those Below,
I am The East, The West, The Middle,
I am Right, Left and In-Between.
I am The Wrong, The Right, The Alt-Right, The Correct and The Deeply Mistaken.
I am Me.


JimV 03.14.17 at 3:59 am

“the world of Terra Ignota almost entirely ignores the existence of political structures at any scale between the Hive and the bash’.”

The novel does; the world may or may not. There would be no reason for the narrator, Mycroft, to discuss such details unless they played an important role in the story.


Stephen 03.14.17 at 5:31 am

We’ve got some clues that nation-strats are politically meaningful units within the EU still. Towards the end of Seven Surrenders, there’s a few mentions of the nation-strats in connection with the EU parliment. There’s also this from the piece Tor ran today on the Hives:

The European Union is the favorite Hive of people who care deeply about their national or ethnic heritages and identities, and want those identities (I am French, I am Ukranian, I am Filippino/a) to have a voice in their government. This future EU is still run by a parliament of representatives from all its member nations, which has expanded to include a huge range of groups and identities, from Canada to Madagascar.

We’ve also seen that a least a few nation-strats are politically meaninful in Mitsubishi, with hints of political manuvering within those strats that affects but doesn’t quite bubble up to the hive level. I don’t think there’s evidence of nation-strats as politically meaningful in the other five.


nastywoman 03.14.17 at 7:09 am

‘It just occurred to me, but the world of Terra Ignota…’

– is as Palmer once said herself ‘very classic science fiction, almost golden age, with flying cars, glittering future cities, and field trips to the Moon, precisely the kind of optimistic, “World of Tomorrow” kind of future that we rarely write about anymore.’ – and ‘we’ probably don’t write about it anymore as it didn’t happen – and it probably never will happen – as the more realistic optimistic, “World of Tomorrow” kind of future might be – glittering cities where every building from the Renaissance is lovingly restored and field trips are taken to the Italian countryside of similar perfectly restored Hilltowns accompanied by Ada Palmers compositions of folk and Renaissance-tinged a capella music, most of which she performs with the group Sassafrass?


Z 03.14.17 at 9:57 am

There are clubs and associations, but as described they are purely social. What about any association with actual power? […] And what about nation-strats? […] There’s no leader of the Greek strat, throwing their influence behind the King of Spain or Perry in the EU elections? Then the biggest omission: where is class? […] So who are the proles? Where are the communists?

A reading of TlTl not incompatible with the text as far as I can tell is that all these still exist but are vastly less powerful than the über-powerful and über-famous people we actually follow in the book, so that their influence is negligible. I have no clue if that reading is compatible with the sequels and if it was the intended one on the part of the author. Whether they actually disappeared or just dwindled completely in influence, I took their absence as being part of the radical social transformation of society: just like a contemporary of Montaigne or even Voltaire reading a history of the beginning of the 21st century would probably wonder where the Aristocracy went and could probably not imagine that it disappeared for all intent or purpose, perhaps we are made to wonder where such seemingly indispensable parts of society went.


Anon 03.14.17 at 10:51 pm

Too Like the Lightning was an excellent read.

I can’t wait to enjoy Seven Surrenders.


Luis 03.15.17 at 6:13 am

Yes, I found the Hive idea entertaining but somewhat difficult to swallow too. In particular, the perceived stability of the system, and the idea that all the billions on the planet would end up settling into only a few large groups, instead of being more splintered, seems odd to me. If you can choose your own law, and that system works reasonably well, then surely there will be lots of splintering – looking more like subreddits than anything else? But perhaps there are other benefits, besides the systems of law? If I join Mitsubishi, clearly I gain some ability to become a landlord, but what ability is it? Power? Capital? Skill? And how do I gain it? That is left unspecified, and perhaps will become more clear with time, but I doubt it (given the ending of SS).


Stephen 03.17.17 at 9:37 pm

I think there’s two factors at play in the stability of the hive system. First, we learned that Hive mergers need to be approved by Romanova, so presumably a hive split or creation would be similarly regulated. We see the system of elite control that permeates this world, how resistant they are to “the Outsider” Perry, I can’t imagine the power structure of the existing hives are or ever were friendly to the idea of lots of new hives, let alone a split – Look at how Spain is unfriendly to Scottish independence today for concern about what it means for their own independence-minded regions.

Second, we see in SS that the hive system *is* naturally unstable. O.S. is the artificial stabilizing force without which everything would have fallen apart ages ago.


André 03.26.17 at 12:05 pm

I think another possibility to consider is that class, gender (and race!) are important to this world, but not as important to Mycroft as an explanation to the (hi)story he’s telling as the movings and machinations of the great people he sees himself surrounded with; he’s a narrator that hints of discontent, of hidden currents that drive the ten billion people he rarely refers to as anything but a number (he even has these realities thrown in his face a few times), but if there is to be a war (or a revolution), surely Madame, that charming Cagliostro, is to blame for that! Mycroft tries to place himself into a Enlightment/Classical hybrid frame, but as a storyteller (IMHO) he owes a lot to Dumas and his tropes, albeit painted in darker tones, never acknowledged except in the Count of Monte Cristo cameo – seriously, as I read Perry unmasking themselves I could feel not Mycroft, but Ada, winking at us the readers. I’ve just finished both TLTL and SS, and I think it can be read as a chronicle of a nobility at least as out of touch with the people they’re supposed to rule over as the last Bourbons, but that its narrator is at least partially locked into the same frame of references as their subjects are; I got confused sometimes by the fact Mycroft speaks of the Enlightment, of those civilized times, but never of their conclusion; even when he speaks of war, soldiers and guns, he dare not speak of terror, jacobines and guillotines.


Ruthanna Emrys 04.02.17 at 3:37 pm

A whole other post could be written on Mycroft’s obsession with the Great Man theory of history, and whether that’s a Mycroft thing or whether the whole series is built around taking that theory to its natural extreme.

What are Brillist numbers? The Brillists are a school of psychological theory who run the 2nd-smallest hive. The core of their work seems to be calculating a string of numbers to describe personalities in detail. Given the actual findings of modern psychological researchers, versus the degree to which you can get companies to organize themselves around the results of iffy personality tests, I’m convinced that the Brillists are scam artists (possibly self-scamming artists) who are extremely good at cold reading.


Standback 04.06.17 at 4:43 pm

That’s interesting. I may be misunderstanding you, but your reading feels diametrically opposite to what I got from the story.

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?

…this makes TLTL sound almost of a piece with Divergent. “But what if I have two personality traits?” :P

Part of what I loved about TLTL is that I feel like the Seven Hives have tried to answer the problem of identity. Free choice for all, they say. Fragment into as many bash’es and hives and locations on the Earth as you like, they say. And, for those differences of identity where we have not managed to overcome bias and confict —

Those, we hide.

We cannot live with them, and we cannot eliminate them. So, we will simply all agree to keep them a secret. Everyone gets maximum personal identity; as much as we can possibly grant, without leading to bias, oppression, and chaos.

I don’t feel like Palmer’s saying that people’s identities are being curtailed by the Hive system. The Blacklaws have ample space for both Dominic’s bloodthirstiness, and Chagatai’s fierce loyalty. The Masons have room enough for patrician Cornell MASON, and for Martin Guildbreaker, who would learn from any man who will converse with him.

Indeed, what we see most of, is how, granted their freedom of choice, so many characters have such love and loyalty to their Hive, and whatever organizations they belong to. The Black Sakura journalists have ink for blood. The set-sets revel in their hybrid nature. The story is full of “vocateurs,” those who have found their calling and seized upon it in delight. The Humanists have the Saneer-Weeksbooths’ utter loyalty (and Sniper instigates war to preserve his Hive). The sheer joy of so many people serving the causes they love, is a lot of what makes TLTL so very powerful.

Even Cato Weeksbooth is not a victim of the Hive System — he’s a victim of O.S., of the conspiracy to maintain a secret method of influence, that doesn’t let him quit or escape. He’s not torn between the Humanists and the Utopians — I think J.E.D.D. Mason’s questioning makes that very clear. His heart is with Utopia; he is only with the Humanists out of sheer necessity, and attempting to deny that is a lot of what’s left him so broken.

And then, if the Hives are so great and accommodating, where does the system fail?

It fails in many ways.

It fails because reality applies inexorable pressure — to band together to gain an advantage; to consolidate against a common threat. The idea that so many people can pursue so many different goals, all on the same small planet, is a pleasant illusion — sooner or later, war will come.

It fails because its success is not what it seems. The Seven Hives aren’t successful by sheer luck and goodwill; they’re successful because their leaders are incestuously conspiring to keep it so; and because their protectors are killing people to keep things stable.

And it fails because some things cannot be hidden. Gender and faith both — wouldn’t it be nice not to have worry about them, for them not to be an influence. (“Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too…”)
It’s a well-meaning attempt to permit diversity — endless diversity, utter acceptance, you can be anything you want! — you just can’t tell anybody.

In your conclusion, though, I agree with you. When you understand how fragile the system is, how dark its underbelly is, you ache for humanity’s divisions to be healed in some possible, plausible way. J.E.D.D. Mason understands exactly how precarious we are, and it is the cause of divine suffering for him. The only ray of light, the only possibility to fix things is Bridger — so absolutely, out-of-this-world impossible, that he is a lovely dream, but scant comfort, for those of us reading along at home.


VR 09.04.17 at 12:24 pm

The narrator, Mycroft did a great job in stretching the outlines and not the “important” details. Love the read, it gives me a warm feeling.

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