The Dystopian Question and Minorities of One

by Ada Palmer on April 11, 2017

The Dystopian Question: Is There a Place For Me?

a response to

Ruthanna Emrys “Falling Through the Cracks of Identity

I was delighted to see Ruthanna touch on a number of the tensions within the Hive system that I crafted intentionally, and am setting up for further resolution in the second half of Terra Ignota. The Utopian’s isolationism, the pressure of those caught between Hives as personified by Cato Weeksbooth, and the particular awkwardness of the Cousins having what feels like a forced politico-cultural monopoly on caregiving and such huge slices of our society, and our curiosity about the Hiveless.

I was interested to see the characterization of Hiveless as “second-class citizens” and the assumption that they don’t participate in government, or inform the laws that govern them. Such guesses do indeed follow reasonably from what’s in the first two books, particularly since Mycroft makes so much of Hive power, so I’m very excited to see how Ruthanna and other readers expand their impressions of the three Hiveless groups on Book 3, when we see a lot more, both of them and of how they’re integrated into the politics of Romanova. In the first books we hear hints in that we know J.E.D.D. Mason is, among other things, a “Graylaw Hiveless Tribune” but we don’t know yet precisely what that entails, or just how powerful the Hiveless Tribunes are within the Alliance.

I’ve also been interested to see many, not just Ruthanna, thinking of the Hives in terms of a personality quiz, since we are so used to sorting algorithms. Since long before the books came out friends who had read the manuscripts joked about wanting to make a personality quiz, even offered to make one, but I never felt like it. To me the only thing that makes sense is a poll, like this one, asking readers which of the ten political systems they would choose to join. Because the defining characteristic of the Hive system is choice—an element which is extremely rare, both in fictional categorizations, and in real life.

Harry Potter is not in Slytherin because he chose not to be, unlike 99.9% of people in his world who were assigned to the defining identities of their world by another being, without any choice. It’s part of what makes Harry special. In Terra Ignota everyone chooses. There are, it is true, only ten choices, and for some (like Cato Weeksbooth) the choice is less free than we would wish. If the criterion “I want a label that’s an ideal fit for my personality” it won’t be there for everyone—in fact it won’t be there for most people, and choosing a Hive is an easy choice for most readers who sit down to ask themselves what to pick. But in reality, in our real lives as we actually live every day, instead of ten imperfect choices, we have no choice. Our political systems are assigned by something much more arbitrary than the sorting hat: the chance of birth. Yes, you can change citizenship, but it takes years of paperwork, many thousands of dollars, and requires a total uprooting of yourself and all your work/family/friend connections. It’s a herculean labor even for those for whom it goes smoothly, and the hard experiences of so many immigrants demonstrates how exercising that choice rarely generates a smooth passage thereafter. So we live caught between that rock and the hard place of living under a government that may have nothing to do with how we want to live or be governed.

Instead, minors in the Terra Ignota world taking the Adulthood Competency Exam have ten different options of what kind of government they want to be ruled by. To get contemporary for a moment, let’s imagine of, in the recent US presidential election, each individual voter was choosing whether to be governed by a government led by Hillary Clinton, or one led by Donald Trump, or sticking with an older and less dynamic set of laws unlikely to undergo radical change soon (i.e. Hivelessness). There would still have been tons of frustration on the part of people who didn’t find either top candidate a good reflection of their own ideals, and maybe we would have had a big surge of Hivelessness in this year’s polling, but it would have meant many more people could have laws somewhat closer to what they wanted, whether that meant left, right, or center.

The options in Terra Ignota’s Alliance don’t offer a perfect government for everyone. Of course they don’t, not with only ten options—humanity is too resplendently diverse for that. (And this is part of why it was so neat having Too Like the Lightning come out so close to Malka Older’s Infomocracy, which has at once larger and smaller non-geographically-contiguous voluntary governments.) But it does offer a range of choice to everyone, and I think that the fact that the ten options feel limited and constraining in some sense is because we’re so used to having no choice that we don’t let ourselves think about how limited and constraining that is. When there’s only one kind of banana you eat it; when you discover there are many kinds of bananas, you complain if your local grocery store carries only two. So as intentionally imperfect as my imagined Hives are, and as much as I intend the reader to see problems in the Cousins, in Utopia, in the painful choices faced by some like Cato Weeksbooth, I feel that comparing the system to the Sorting Hat misses most of the point, the vast increase of that rare resource, true individual political self-determination. True choice.


There are people for whom the ten options of Terra Ignota aren’t just imperfect fits, but tyrannical ones. Ruthanna touched only very briefly on religious identity in her piece, but I know I’ve discussed it with her more in person, and its a big part of the world and of the books, so I want to make some of those tensions more overt here. Nowhere in the “Universal Free Alliance” (as the Romanovan Hive/Hiveless system boldly calls itself) is there room for public practice of religion. Nowhere. Any kind of public expression of religion is forbidden, both by the “First Law” the most inviolable law in Romanova’s code, and by ferocious cultural taboos and worldwide fear. Personal religious feeling is nurtured and respected by the sensayer program (I’m sure return to this in discussing Max’s piece) but any kind of religious gathering, religious symbol or clothing, even religious conversation, is both illegal and taboo.

And this is one of the things that (as I intended) splits the reader’s experience. Some people have read this book and felt like it was a religious dream come true: no more religion in politics, no more parents shoving religion down children’s throats, no more pundits, bigots, religious far rights, no more religious violence, but at the same time the nurturing and fostering of all religious beliefs and unbeliefs with coequal love and respect. A lot of people read this and think: Perfect! Others have read this exact same book book and felt like it was a religious nightmare: no community, no heritage, no parents passing on tradition, no shared ceremonies for coming of age, births, funerals, the simple wearing of a religious hat or pendant criminalized, absolute silence imposed even between grandparent and grandchild. A lot of people read this and think: there is no place for me. For us—for the important religiously-united community which is my most important ‘us’. And there isn’t, not within the Romanovan system. We hear rumors from the narrator of the “Reservations” where religious peoples dwell still in their nation-states (and we will see more in coming books), and we know these reservations include Mennonites in Pennsylvania, the Vatican, Tibet, and the as-yet unexplained “Great African Reservation,” but the word ‘reservation’ raises alarm bells, both from history and from Huxley. For a reader to whom being part of a community with a religious identity is indispensably precious, Mycroft Canner’s world, the world of Hives and Romanova, still ‘has no place for me,’ and the Reservations are an unexplored and intentionally alarming alternative.

“Is this a utopia or a dystopia?” is a question many, many people have asked about these books, and the banning of religious discourse is one of the arenas which most often pushes readers to give one answer or the other. For one reader it’s a religious utopia, for another it’s a religious dystopia, and the tension between those two equally valid reading experiences points at a large split in our own contemporary society’s ideas about religion, religious discourse, and what kind of visibility religion should have in society and government. Discovering that you have one set of feelings about this question, and a close friend has very different ones, is chilling, and informative, and is one of the kinds of discourse I hoped to stimulate when writing these books. And other issues in the book (gender, family units, ethnic identity, ethics & forgiveness) were also engineered to cause similar splits between readers for whom this world, and book experience, feel utopian, dystopian, or something in between.

Thus, in a larger sense, if there is a personality sorting in Terra Ignota, I’d say it doesn’t lie in the Hives, which are about choice and compromise, having ten choices instead of none (to paraphrase Churchill “The [Humanists] are the worst form of government except for all the others”). It lies the conversation you have with friends when you sit down afterward and discuss which parts of this world felt utopian and which felt dystopian, which felt wonderful and which felt uncomfortable. Religion is only one of many aspects of this world which strike some people as great and others as chilling. The second half of Terra Ignota will present more development of how this particular imagined world copes with many issues, including Bridger and J.E.D.D. Mason and how they disrupt religion’s place within society, but if you’re already thinking about these questions, and discussing them with friends, and learning more about yourself and each other as a result of asking these questions, that was the more important goal.

And on that note…

Minorities of One

(a response to Max Gladstone “The Old Dragon But Slept: Terra Ignota, the Sensayer System, and Faith”)

Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Max’s essay is an exquisite unpacking of this thread in the books, and brings in precisely the kinds of technical vocabulary that I couldn’t fit into the book without the risk of tipping it over the edge into too much theology lecture. And I hadn’t myself before thought of calling the world of these books “Ignotan” society but it’s perfect too, invoking “unknown,” and “unknowing,” and also “ignorance” both in the passive sense of a world that does not know itself or what it happening to it, and in the sense of the German ignoranz, willful ignore-ance, a world that chooses to be blind to many flaws we see, much as our current society contains many pressures and strategies that try to hide inequalities, poverties, hypocrisies, oppressions, unfreedoms, and artificialities that we must labor hard to expose to ourselves, but that an outsider seeing a history of us as we see Mycroft Canner’s history of his world would see instantly.

Max observes that Mycroft Canner:

“apologizes for exposing the reader to another’s metaphysics far more directly than he apologizes for exposing the reader to his own visceral memories of the Mardi murders… The metaphysics to which religion has collapsed in Terra Ignota are fundamentally private—throughout Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders, people respond to their metaphysical convictions being exposed, or even named, with the same violent embarrassment the average 21st century Westerner would feel having their clothes ripped off in public.”

Precisely, because the walls of “public” and “private” are at once wholly artificial and immensely powerful. When I show students a slide of a Minoan statuette, of a woman wearing a dress which covers everything except her breasts, I don’t try to stop or criticize the inevitable snicker, because that cultural wall is real, and is in a different place for us from that Minoan sculptor, and that’s an important thing to talk about. And whether religion falls in public or private is, touching back on the themes raised by Ruthanna’s piece, an arena wherein our own society has great variance in where we draw the line. Some members of our community wear clothing, jewelry or other insignia which proclaims their religious identities to every stranger on the street, while others feel uncomfortable discussing it with anyone, and would be incredibly upset to have their religions outed in a public sphere. When I lived and worked in Texas, people I’d never met before would ask, in small talk at a neighborhood meet-up, “What Church do you go to?” whereas friends I’d known in Boston would never dream of asking something like that, even after years of friendship, unless I myself chose to open up to them about that personal space.

This touches on another one of the ways the books act as a Sorting Hat. As a friend who’s been watching a lot of web forum discussions of Terra Ignota observed, one kind of reader reads about the sensayer system and think it’s a neat idea, while another large slice of the readership latches onto the sensayer concept with an overwhelming, desperate enthusiasm, as if it were the long-sought granting of a lifelong wish: ‘I want that and have always wanted that!’ There is a kind of person who viscerally feels that religious and metaphysical questions fall in the private sphere, and desperately hungers for a safe space and a safe interlocutor, personalized and neutral, to help that person develop, enrich, and affirm private belief. I confess that I was surprised by how powerful some of the positive reactions have been. I also confess that myself would love to have a sensayer, and if I lived in the world of Terra Ignota I would almost certainly be a sensayer. That kind of powerfully personalized, respectful, deep discourse, with no sides, no proselytizing secondary motives, only dialog and growth, a lot of people would find that exquisitely precious. Our society doesn’t offer us that. Ignotan society offers only that.

“The sensayer’s insistence on privacy leads to an atomized religiosity, depriving individuals of all resource save their own conviction—individuals in Terra Ignota cannot be certain that anyone, even their own sensayer, shares their beliefs, let alone their perspective on the universe.”

Which is at the same time liberating, exhilarating, tranquil, lonely, atomizing, and terrifying.

“Religion, for [many people now] is a community of conviction and practice and faith, rather than a fundamentally solitary endeavor of propositional belief. When inconsistencies or points of doctrinal confusion arise, religious adherents rely on community. A member of a religious group who has decided to kill, will kill—especially if she believes the murder justified—despite even a strict doctrinal prohibition against violence. Doctrine and metaphysics are not the sole source of religious truth. Indeed, the communal world-ordering religion offers is available in need even to those who deny all religious authority.”

Hence the Ignotan society’s terror of any kind of organized religion in the wake of their “Church War,” and hence also the sense of readers of the books that the sensayer system does not provide (and the laws of Romanova explicitly ban) half or more of what religion/philosophy and religious/philosophical discourse do for our society, and every past human society we know of. A bi-weekly appointment with a professional Socrates to have a dialog on the nature of the Highest Good offers an examined life, intellectual exercise, and amazing humanistic enrichment of the self, but it does not offer community, a way of life, or any affirmation beyond Carlyle Foster’s kindly smile, or Julia Doria-Pamphili’s cruel one.

“So, while Sensayers call those with whom they consult “parishioners,” they are parishioners without a parish”

I struggled so long and hard to find a good word for a sensayer’s… client? partner? councilee? pupil? patient? auditor? interlocutor? EVERYTHING WAS WRONG! Until I thought about it historo-linguistically, since Mertice McKay and the founders of this system would have struggled equally to name this new relationship. Parishioner is appropriately inappropriate, geographic in a world disassembling geography, but clear when you hear it, invoking a population assigned to a specific spiritual councilor. And I like that it clearly demonstrates that whoever chose the English version of the term at least had Christianity in mind as her/his dominant model of a religion, while the synonyms created in other languages might draw on roots which made them feel more Buddhist, more Hindu, more Muslim, more Jewish, more secular, etc.

“Though, of course, Carlyle has never experienced this coexistence outside herself: she has not lived among priests who sin and repent, among drunken and wrathful men of god, among religious couples struggling through the aftermath of infidelity, among birth control-using Catholics—nor even among queer evangelicals who belong to churches that preach against homosexuality. For Carlyle, sin and hypocrisy and contradiction are evidence of wounds of faith, rather than social realities that people of faith manage within their communities.”

Precisely so. Terra Ignota is a world that celebrates minorities, especially the minority of one—appropriating and valorizing the Orwellian term, which had served under Big Brother’s iron boot to redefine the sane man’s resistance to totalitarianism as identical to lunacy. But if Mertice McKay’s sensayer system has successfully created as many religions as there are human beings, all these minorities of one have none of the social structures of religion, and must decide alone not only what to believe, but how to turn that into a way of life, create a moral code, judge themselves by that code, and move on or improve if they commit the worst kind of failure, self-failure. In today’s society one sometimes encounters a self-described “atheist Jew” who treasures and practices all the traditions and rituals of Jewish culture without believing in the existence of any God; such a person has community practice without belief, while Terra Ignota in contrast has (outside Madame’s and Reservations) only the opposite, belief without community or practice.

Max’s comments about how a religious community can guide someone to kill while using a sacred text that says “Thou shalt not kill,” touches on the question of praxis, of the way in which something is put into practice. When we try to articulate the differences between the Christianity of 1095 that produced the First Crusade, and the Christianity of 1620 with which Francis Bacon justified the Scientific Method, the differences lie largely in praxis, since the central texts remain the same. As my own Ph.D. mentor James Hankins observed, every major world belief system that we know of—even Buddhism—has at some point produced a kind of “toxic praxis” which served to justify extreme violence, whether Crusades, or samurai codes of violence and honor, or current Islamic extremism; similarly, at different points in time and space, these same belief systems have all produced pacifist praxes, from Quakers to the Suwarian tradition in Islam. The minority of one in Terra Ignota must create a praxis as well as arriving at beliefs, and developing praxis—especially alone—is in many ways more difficult than developing belief (or unbelief). Praxis has to fulfill social functions, work every day, yield ethical results compatible with daily practicalities. Martin Luther’s horror when his peasant followers, delighted by his overthrow of hierarchy in Christian doctrine tried to overthrow the social hierarchy as well, is one vivid example of how much easier it is to develop new religious beliefs and concepts than new praxis capable of coexisting within a pre-extant society.

All this is to say that, yes, Max has perfectly unpacked a big part of why Madame’s clients, Thisbe, Carlyle, the Mitsubishi officers, are so much more vulnerable to religion—to J.E.D.D. Mason, to Madame—than many of us would be. Atomized in the name of absolute religious liberty, minorities of one have no social tools to battle the social pull of community practice, and do not expect so unthinkable an assault as one upon the most private of spaces.

As Max says, here in 2017 the Old Dragon is awake, and we guard against it every day, as villagers in Homer’s day watched out for lions when Greece’s lions had not yet been wiped out. In 2454—for good and ill—people have long-since set their spears aside, thinking there are no predators. Madame has chosen to become a predator, and breeder of more predators. J.E.D.D. Mason is… well, in terms of praxis, or lack thereof, J.E.D.D. Mason may well be the most dangerous—but also the most vulnerable—of all.



Dave Maier 04.11.17 at 8:31 pm

Hi Professor P! Thanks for the post. I look forward to reading it once I finish Seven Surrenders, which I am halfway through at the moment. I just read the bit where [*redacted*]. Oh, okay, the bit where Casimir Perry [*redacted*] Caryle Foster [*redacted*]! Didn’t see *that* coming!


shoebill 04.12.17 at 3:18 pm

Have we met a Whitelaw in the books?

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