Heroes and Aliens

by John Holbo on March 17, 2017

“I am like a being thrown from another planet on this dark terrestrial ball, an alien, a pilgrim among its possessors.” – Thomas Carlyle [the real one, from an 1820 letter]

“So there I was, thinking: is this a space alien? Is this kid insane?” – Too Like The Lightning

‘¿How is the world weird lately?’
< you wouldn’t understand. > – Seven Surrenders

“You know I’m sincere, Caesar, in my way. I love the Eighteenth Century. I fell in love reading about it at the Senseminary, that great moment when humanity realized experiments didn’t just have to be done with the sciences, they could be done with morals and religion, too. I wanted to do that, run an experiment like the American experiment, or greater. I couldn’t resist the chance to finish what my heroes started, not just the humanitarians like the Patriarch and the Romantics like Jean Jacques, but the underbelly, La Mettrie, Diderot, De Sade. The Enlightenment tried to remake society in Reason’s image: rational laws, rational religion; but the ones who really thought it through realized morality itself was just as artificial as the artistocracy and theocracies they were sweeping away. Diderot theorized that a new Enlightened Man could be raised with Reason in place of conscience, a cold calculator who would find nothing good or bad beyond what his own analysis decided. They had no way to achieve one back then, but I did it. I raised an Alien.” – Seven Surrenders

This post will be something like a Thomas Carlyle style sampler – (un)commonplace book – for potential readers of Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota novels. (You’ve never read Carlyle? That’s quite normal! We shall remedy the defect, slightly.) The Palmer-related point will be something like this. These novels are great! But very weird. She writes like she thinks she’s … Thomas Carlyle or something. That, or I don’t know what. (She doesn’t mention Carlyle by name in her “Author’s Note and Acknowledgement”, but she keeps naming characters after him.)

I don’t propose this as some secret key to the novels. I am sure there is no one Code at the root of it, waiting to be named ‘Carlyle’ (or anything else). But I am only one voice around the table here, so I hope a spot of overemphasis shall not be taken amiss. (Seldom have I read sf novels with so much philosophy packed in, which I’m not inclined to describe as having a philosophy, or being attempted thought-experiments. I mean that in the nicest way.)

I myself have a bit of a Carlyle bug in the ear — sf related one, even. When I teach “Philosophy and Science Fiction” I talk about H.G. Wells, The Time-Machine. (By the by, I must mention that Adam Roberts has been tearing it up, Wells-wise.) I talk about why there’s a sphinx. I talk about Oedipus and the Riddle. I have a bit to say about how maybe Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present — that chapter, “The Sphinx” — is of interest to students of the history of science fiction. Cosmic vision of looming, long-term Truth behind curtain of present life!

“How true … is that other old Fable of the Sphinx, who sat by the wayside, propounding her riddle to the passengers, which if they could not answer she destroyed them! Such a Sphinx is this Life of ours, to all men and societies of men … Nature, Universe, Destiny, Existence, howsoever we name this grand unnameable Fact in the midst of which we live and struggle, is as a heavenly bride and conquest to the wise and brave, to them who can discern her behests and do them; a destroying fiend to them who cannot. Answer her riddle, it is well with thee. Answer it not, pass on regarding it not, it will answer itself; the solution for thee is a thing of teeth and claws … With Nations it is as with individuals: Can they rede the riddle of Destiny? This English Nation, will it get to know the meaning of its strange new Today? Is there sense enough extant, discoverable anywhere or anyhow, in our united twenty-seven million heads to discern the same; valour enough in our twenty-seven million hearts to dare and do the bidding thereof? It will be seen!—”

We have Nietzschean science fiction, of course; Hegelian science fiction — Olaf Stapledon oughta hold you. Why not Carlyle-style sf?

Let’s start with my epigraphs, above.

You might think that last, long one is a bit of spoiler. It turns out it’s all some Romantic dream that the sleep of Monsters shall breed Reason! We are far into the second volume, so maybe this is the final reveal? But is she to be believed, this speaker? Even if she is sincere — it is doubtful such a creature is fully capable — is she in a position to know? (I will not tell you her name, reader. You should, instead, read the novels.)

For the rest of this post I’m going to try to keep the spoilers to a minimum—except in a Carlylean sense. Per this passage from The French Revolution, A History:

“Transcendent things of all sorts, as in the general outburst of multitudinous Passion, are huddled together; the ludicrous, nay the ridiculous, with the horrible. Far over the billowy sea of heads, may be seen Rascality, caprioling on horses from the Royal Stud. The Spoilers these; for Patriotism is always infected so, with a proportion of mere thieves and scoundrels.”

Palmers’ novels are full of Spoilers. How can my post fail to be, in their honest pursuit, patient reader?

But a more obvious and exalted line of Carlylean connection runs through “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, And The Heroic In History”:

“We cannot look, however imperfectly, upon a great man, without gaining something by him. He is the living light-fountain, which it is good and pleasant to be near. The light which enlightens, which has enlightened the darkness of the world; and this not as a kindled lamp only, but rather as a natural luminary shining by the gift of Heaven; a flowing light-fountain, as I say, of native original insight, of manhood and heroic nobleness;—in whose radiance all souls feel that it is well with them.”

Too like the lightning – beaming being! –or just enough? Blinding, enlightening? And/or incendiary? Reading on in Carlyle:

“But I liken common languid Times, with their unbelief, distress, perplexity, with their languid doubting characters and embarrassed circumstances, impotently crumbling down into ever worse distress towards final ruin;—all this I liken to dry dead fuel, waiting for the lightning out of Heaven that shall kindle it. The great man, with his free force direct out of God’s own hand, is the lightning. His word is the wise healing word which all can believe in. All blazes round him now, when he has once struck on it, into fire like his own. The dry mouldering sticks are thought to have called him forth. They did want him greatly; but as to calling him forth—! Those are critics of small vision, I think, who cry: “See, is it not the sticks that made the fire?” No sadder proof can be given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men. There is no sadder symptom of a generation than such general blindness to the spiritual lightning, with faith only in the heap of barren dead fuel. It is the last consummation of unbelief. In all epochs of the world’s history, we shall find the Great Man to have been the indispensable savior of his epoch;—the lightning, without which the fuel never would have burnt. The History of the World, I said already, was the Biography of Great Men.”

And that’s one of the issues in the novel. Is the world to burn, since nothing has for too long? Must it be Great Men who strike the spark?

Speaking of the world, I assume some other participant in this book event is going to be brave enough to try to summarize Palmer’s efforts as world-builder. Good luck to you, fellow participant! She puts the ‘sf’ in sfumato when it comes to rendering detail. You think you see it, but when you try to focus on the periphery, your eye chases it away, like smoke. (It’s a device of realism, like Mona Lisa’s elusive smile.)

Infodump as impasto, to shift painting metaphors. Palmer lays it on thick while keeping it broad-brush. So many foreground elements fail to resolve for so long. If they ever do. Am I missing something? Weird things—weird people, events, connections—partially explained, yes … albeit sometimes only 400 pages later. Are they ever fully explained?

Hives and ‘bashes. These sequels to nations and families. Brilliant sociological imagining, or scarcely more imaginable than Hogwarts, its houses and dorms? (The Humanists, Gryffindor; Brillists and Utopians, Ravenclaw; Masons and Cousins, Hufflepuff. And Slytherin? … you’ll know them when you meet them, reader. Admittedly this leaves out Mitsubishi.)

Do we understand how in the world—even this one—Mycroft can be part-time dogsbody to everyone-who’s-anyone. And full-time god-botherer, behind the scenes? And works in the sewers in off-hours, as community servicer?

I’m honestly not sure it adds up. Is this narrator still hiding something from me, reader? From himself?

Does it make sense that so many celebrities, politicians, powers-that-be, secret agents—some who just happen to be housemates; collectively few, compared to the world population—keep crossing and recrossing, intricately and consequentially? As if Balzac wrote novels about mutants. La Comédie Surhumaine. Also, many of these characters have different names, nick-names, titles—as many as poly-pseudonymous Voltaire himself! It’s hard to keep track. The scorecards may have been tampered with. It reminds me of the opening to the first volume of Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution—the volume he recomposed, substantially from memory, after John Stuart Mill’s housemaid accidentally used the original as fire-starter, mistaking it for wastepaper … But I digress, reader.

How can I be sure what style(s) of “Chance, Providence, Fate, or the Whimsy of Pool Ball Atoms” is/are operational in Palmer’s novels? What is grand conspiracy? What is Great Man History genre convention? Shall I think of this as a world in which, thanks to information technology, the calculated collision of a few human billiards can explode the world—or prevent its explosion? And/or is it a plain old vast conspiracy? And/or a world in which a Hari Seldon-style psychohistorian makes careful calculations that are, hilariously, way off, because it turns out not one but a dozen Mules are in the brothel around the corner? Is it that Ada Palmer wants to write a Dumas novel, as sf? Because she loves Bester best. Or has she merely written a novel in which a woman wants to rewrite her future world as a Dumas novel, because this woman in the novel loves the past best?

There are a few beings who matter, apparently. They derive veritable super-powers from a kind of metaphysical attunement. Or is that just Humanist thinking, plus the secret of the Saneer-Weeksbooth ‘bash, sort of standing Carlyle on his head? Plus Bridger?

Have you never read Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution, reader? (Dickens did, and made A Tale of Two Cities of it.) Here’s a sample, chosen almost at random, but representative. He rolls on like this for pages and pages. However can he manage it? (Never mind if you can’t understand what’s happening in this weird world. You don’t know these actors. Let it be so. Submit to style and sentiment!)

“For the rest, that our busy Brissots, rigorous Rolands, men who once had authority and now have less and less; men who love law, and will have even an Explosion explode itself, as far as possible, according to rule, do find this state of matters most unofficial unsatisfactory,—is not to be denied. Complaints are made; attempts are made: but without effect. The attempts even recoil; and must be desisted from, for fear of worse: the sceptre is departed from this Legislative once and always. A poor Legislative, so hard was fate, had let itself be hand-gyved, nailed to the rock like an Andromeda, and could only wail there to the Earth and Heavens; miraculously a winged Perseus (or Improvised Commune) has dawned out of the void Blue, and cut her loose: but whether now is it she, with her softness and musical speech, or is it he, with his hardness and sharp falchion and aegis, that shall have casting vote? Melodious agreement of vote; this were the rule! But if otherwise, and votes diverge, then surely Andromeda’s part is to weep,—if possible, tears of gratitude alone.

Be content, O France, with this Improvised Commune, such as it is! It has the implements, and has the hands: the time is not long. On Sunday the twenty-sixth of August, our Primary Assemblies shall meet, begin electing of Electors; on Sunday the second of September (may the day prove lucky!) the Electors shall begin electing Deputies; and so an all-healing National Convention will come together. No marc d’argent, or distinction of Active and Passive, now insults the French Patriot: but there is universal suffrage, unlimited liberty to choose. Old-constituents, Present-Legislators, all France is eligible. Nay, it may be said, the flower of all the Universe (de l’Univers) is eligible; for in these very days we, by act of Assembly, ‘naturalise’ the chief Foreign Friends of humanity: Priestley, burnt out for us in Birmingham; Klopstock, a genius of all countries; Jeremy Bentham, useful Jurisconsult; distinguished Paine, the rebellious Needleman;—some of whom may be chosen. As is most fit; for a Convention of this kind. In a word, Seven Hundred and Forty-five unshackled sovereigns, admired of the universe, shall replace this hapless impotency of a Legislative,—out of which, it is likely, the best members, and the Mountain in mass, may be re-elected. Roland is getting ready the Salles des Cent Suisses, as preliminary rendezvous for them; in that void Palace of the Tuileries, now void and National, and not a Palace, but a Caravanserai.”

If this is how you like your power struggles, you may enjoy Ada Palmer’s novels. She does not lay it on so thick. But the dilemma remains: are her Terra Ignota books world-building-as-Cartesian-cartography — or Romantic caricature?

And I have yet only hinted at the fact that there’s an honest-to-gosh god, Bridger, living in the flower trench behind the ‘bash, unbeknownst to most—but not all—of the movers-and-shakers therein! While everyone else is trying to solve a stubborn whodunnit about a top-10 listicle gone astray and planted in this aforementioned dwelling.

The lost list is, of course, supposed to be mere tip of an iceberg of conspiracy. Snowball that threatens to cascade into avalanche (to mix metaphors once again.) Still, the disproportionate preoccupation with the list theft, across two volumes, reminds me of something Carlyle says in “On Heroes”:

“I find Grand Lamaism itself to have a kind of truth in it. Read the candid, clear-sighted, rather sceptical Mr. Turner’s Account of his Embassy to that country, and see. They have their belief, these poor Thibet people, that Providence sends down always an Incarnation of Himself into every generation. At bottom some belief in a kind of Pope! At bottom still better, belief that there is a Greatest Man; that he is discoverable; that, once discovered, we ought to treat him with an obedience which knows no bounds! This is the truth of Grand Lamaism; the “discoverability” is the only error here. The Thibet priests have methods of their own of discovering what Man is Greatest, fit to be supreme over them. Bad methods: but are they so much worse than our methods,—of understanding him to be always the eldest-born of a certain genealogy? Alas, it is a difficult thing to find good methods for!—We shall begin to have a chance of understanding Paganism, when we first admit that to its followers it was, at one time, earnestly true. Let us consider it very certain that men did believe in Paganism; men with open eyes, sound senses, men made altogether like ourselves; that we, had we been there, should have believed in it. Ask now, What Paganism could have been?”

The Seven-Ten list ritual, disrupted by the theft, is Grand Lamaism for the pagan world of this story. And the concerns about unreliable methodology apply in full force—what with actual gods walking in the midst of so much celebrity, their divinity unnoticed or at least under-remarked. Quoting again from Carlyle’s history:

“For ours is a most fictile world; and man is the most fingent plastic of creatures. A world not fixable; not fathomable! An unfathomable Somewhat, which is Not we; which we can work with, and live amidst,—and model, miraculously in our miraculous Being, and name World.—But if the very Rocks and Rivers (as Metaphysic teaches) are, in strict language, made by those outward Senses of ours, how much more, by the Inward Sense, are all Phenomena of the spiritual kind: Dignities, Authorities, Holies, Unholies! Which inward sense, moreover is not permanent like the outward ones, but forever growing and changing. Does not the Black African take of Sticks and Old Clothes (say, exported Monmouth-Street cast-clothes) what will suffice, and of these, cunningly combining them, fabricate for himself an Eidolon (Idol, or Thing Seen), and name it Mumbo-Jumbo; which he can thenceforth pray to, with upturned awestruck eye, not without hope? The white European mocks; but ought rather to consider; and see whether he, at home, could not do the like a little more wisely.”

Imagine if, instead of mere Sticks and Old Clothes, you have the means to engineer the likes of Danaë and Ganymede, our golden twins? (You’ll meet them, reader.) And Sniper, the living doll …

Yet who is God if not a natural-born animator of mere dolls?

So: in these novels, are we approaching armageddon, peak paganism … or merely peak persliflage? As Carlyle writes (we’re back in On Heroes now):

“The unbelieving French believe in their Voltaire; and burst out round him into very curious Hero-worship, in that last act of his life when they “stifle him under roses.” It has always seemed to me extremely curious this of Voltaire. Truly, if Christianity be the highest instance of Hero-worship, then we may find here in Voltaireism one of the lowest! He whose life was that of a kind of Antichrist, does again on this side exhibit a curious contrast. No people ever were so little prone to admire at all as those French of Voltaire. Persiflage was the character of their whole mind; adoration had nowhere a place in it. Yet see! The old man of Ferney comes up to Paris; an old, tottering, infirm man of eighty-four years. They feel that he too is a kind of Hero; that he has spent his life in opposing error and injustice, delivering Calases, unmasking hypocrites in high places;—in short that he too, though in a strange way, has fought like a valiant man. They feel withal that, if persiflage be the great thing, there never was such a persifleur. He is the realized ideal of every one of them; the thing they are all wanting to be; of all Frenchmen the most French. He is properly their god,—such god as they are fit for. Accordingly all persons, from the Queen Antoinette to the Douanier at the Porte St. Denis, do they not worship him? People of quality disguise themselves as tavern-waiters. The Maitre de Poste, with a broad oath, orders his Postilion, “Va bon train; thou art driving M. de Voltaire.” At Paris his carriage is “the nucleus of a comet, whose train fills whole streets.” The ladies pluck a hair or two from his fur, to keep it as a sacred relic. There was nothing highest, beautifulest, noblest in all France, that did not feel this man to be higher, beautifuler, nobler. Yes, from Norse Odin to English Samuel Johnson, from the divine Founder of Christianity to the withered Pontiff of Encyclopedism, in all times and places, the Hero has been worshipped. It will ever be so.”

To repeat: how ironic that everyone is trying to figure out who stole and planted the Black Sakura Seven-Ten list—how, and why—while, meanwhile: Bridger exists.

And Thomas Carlyle was here first, once again:

“But perhaps the notablest god we hear tell of is one of whom Grimm the German Etymologist finds trace: the God Wunsch, or Wish. The God Wish; who could give us all that we wished! Is not this the sincerest and yet rudest voice of the spirit of man? The rudest ideal that man ever formed; which still shows itself in the latest forms of our spiritual culture. Higher considerations have to teach us that the God Wish is not the true God.”

How could Wish not be the truest God? How can anything matter besides Bridger? (Who is, as I mentioned, living in a flower trench behind the house.)

Last but not least, the figure of the Carlylean Hero—and its proper worship. That is, what it worships and the worship of it. Strange synthesis of theism and Realpolitik. Napoleon:

“The Atheistic logic runs off from him like water; the great Fact stares him in the face: “Who made all that?” So too in Practice: he, as every man that can be great, or have victory in this world, sees, through all entanglements, the practical heart of the matter; drives straight towards that.”

Divinity and delusion:

“His notions of the world, as he expresses them there at St. Helena, are almost tragical to consider. He seems to feel the most unaffected surprise that it has all gone so; that he is flung out on the rock here, and the World is still moving on its axis. France is great, and all-great: and at bottom, he is France. England itself, he says, is by Nature only an appendage of France; “another Isle of Oleron to France.” So it was by Nature, by Napoleon-Nature; and yet look how in fact—HERE AM I! He cannot understand it: inconceivable that the reality has not corresponded to his program of it; that France was not all-great, that he was not France. “Strong delusion,” that he should believe the thing to be which is not! The compact, clear-seeing, decisive Italian nature of him, strong, genuine, which he once had, has enveloped itself, half-dissolved itself, in a turbid atmosphere of French fanfaronade. The world was not disposed to be trodden down underfoot; to be bound into masses, and built together, as he liked, for a pedestal to France and him: the world had quite other purposes in view! Napoleon’s astonishment is extreme. But alas, what help now? He had gone that way of his; and Nature also had gone her way. Having once parted with Reality, he tumbles helpless in Vacuity; no rescue for him. He had to sink there, mournfully as man seldom did; and break his great heart, and die,—this poor Napoleon: a great implement too soon wasted, till it was useless: our last Great Man!”

Or more like Cromwell:

“[Napoleon’s] enormous victories which reached over all Europe, while Cromwell abode mainly in our little England, are but as the high stilts on which the man is seen standing; the stature of the man is not altered thereby. I find in him no such sincerity as in Cromwell; only a far inferior sort. No silent walking, through long years, with the Awful Unnamable of this Universe; “walking with God,” as he called it; and faith and strength in that alone: latent thought and valor, content to lie latent, then burst out as in blaze of Heaven’s lightning!”

Now, on to volume 3. Will the world veritably explode? Or will it be as Carlyle says it was, after Napoleon: “A flash as of gunpowder wide-spread; a blazing-up as of dry heath. For an hour the whole Universe seems wrapt in smoke and flame; but only for an hour. It goes out: the Universe with its old mountains and streams, its stars above and kind soil beneath, is still there.”

Once again, I am not sending you a secret message, reader, which you are failing to receive. I’m just saying reading Ada Palmer and Thomas Carlyle, side by side, is most beguiling. I find it to be so.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }


bob mcmanus 03.17.17 at 8:26 pm

I may have glanced at the French Revolution, but the only Carlyle I remember reading is, predictably, Sartor Resartus.

“Some comfort it would have been, could I, like a Faust, have fancied myself tempted and tormented of the Devil; for a Hell, as I imagine, without Life, though only Diabolic Life, were more frightful: but in our age of Downpulling and Disbelief, the very Devil has been pulled down, you cannot so much as believe in a Devil. To me the Universe was all void of Life, of Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility: it was one huge, dead, immeasurable Steam-engine, rolling on, in its dead indifference, to grind me limb from limb.” ― Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus

The Romantics in their cleansing reaction to the madness of the Enlightenment, not only celebrated the Heroic but feared the Demonic (oh, Manfred), not only envisioned Utopia but also Pandemonium, not just the Crystal Palace but the infernal engines of Manchester. Were I to encounter Palmer’s magical urchin, I might shave her head looking for the Mark of the Beast.


John Holbo 03.18.17 at 6:30 am

Thanks, Bob! (Quiet around here.) Who’s afraid of Thomas Carlyle? Not me, and not you, too. (If you know what’s good for you.)


Andrew Conway 03.20.17 at 1:57 pm

Even without reading the dustjacket blurb I think one could guess that the Author of this universe is a historian of ideas (rather than, say, cliometrics); the ideas feel solid, the socio-economic background is sketchy. But I don’t put this down to carelessness. It’s a challenge to the reader to think about what really matters for imaginative engagement with a fictional world. Is it more important to know that Mycroft has curly hair, or that Mycroft is a fideist?

I’ll admit the sketchiness bothers me at times. In particular, I don’t have any clear sense of what citizenship amounts to in this society. What is the extent of political participation? How do people express themselves politically (other than by writing to the Cousins’ Feedback Bureau)? How many people actually care about the Seven-Ten lists?

But I think there’s a reason for this sketchiness. If we can’t answer these questions, it’s because the characters in the novels can’t answer them either. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that our informants are all products of elite education, groomed from birth for power and high office. Cocooned in their bash’es, how much do they actually know about their own world? Indeed, when they talk about ‘the world’, it’s not always clear whether they mean the world in a global sense or ‘le monde’ in its eighteenth-century sense of polite society. Even Tully Mardi, would-be demagogue, seems to be unable to conceive of crowd politics except in terms of an undifferentiated mob.

Ultimately I’m with Mycroft: I don’t know how things are going to turn out, I’m not expecting a happy ending, but I do believe that the Author of this world has a plan and knows what They are doing.


Robj 03.25.17 at 9:53 pm

Supposedly, John Stuart Mill’s maid burned the manuscript of The French Revolution–so Carlyle rewrote it! I would have slit a vein, I suspect.


FS 11.26.17 at 6:20 am

Carlyle’s French Revolution is a lot of fun, even if you disagree with his political slant. His evisceration of the Parlement of Paris, in particular, is memorable.


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Sergio Lopez-Luna 01.18.18 at 6:59 pm


Are you planning a discussion of “A Will to Battle?”

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