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Disruptive Outsiders and Alien Gods in Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota Series


Today I want to share with you my excitement about this extraordinary futurist fiction by US historian Ada Palmer. Three of a planned four volumes have now been published: Too Like the Lightning (2016), Seven Surrenders (2017), and The Will to Battle (2017). What can this speculative fiction tell us about the world today and our heritage from the past? These novels offer insight into contemporary crises of democracy, the rise of plutocracy, the limits of secularism, embodied and gendered dynamics, the power of pronouns, the appeal of war,  the writing of history, the reading of texts, and political systems of the future, and they do so in an entertaining and thought-provoking way. The mix of anachronism and futurist world-building, learned allusion, multilingual interactions, jarring shifts in the use of gendered and gender-neutral pronouns, and the driving force of multiple mysteries to be solved disrupt expectation in pleasing ways. I will speak more about some of these elements in a longer paper at the Alternate Histories conference on March 8.

Palmer herself has identified the difficulty of untangling utopia from dystopia and the question of whether the ends can ever justify the means as among her central interests, especially in relation to two contemporary issues: how to achieve gender equality and how to negotiate  religious disputes. Today I draw attention to the ways these themes are addressed through the novel’s narratorial style and one element of its surprising plot.

When you open the first book, the entire first page is dedicated to permissions and censors’ content ratings as if it were an authentic eighteenth-century text. On the next page is the epigraph from Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and His Master: “Ah, my poor Jacques! You are a philosopher. But don’t worry: I’ll protect you.”  “A Prayer to the Reader” follows: “You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe,” before adding that “since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolutions, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described.”  “It will be hard at first” but “you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are” (13). This narrator is Mycroft Canner, a psychologically unstable mass murderer who has been transformed by his encounters with an alien god and a magical boy. Because most people initially believe he has been executed by the state, he has become the ultimate insider: one granted access to elite secrets and trusted with sensitive assignments, including translating for his god who understands most languages but prefers to speak in Latin.

This god, whom Mycroft compares to Voltaire’s first space traveler, Micromegas, and the boy Bridger, through their uncanny powers, reveal the fragile underpinnings of a global peace based upon forbidden religious proselytizing and forbidden acknowledgements of sexual difference. Mycroft writes of his relation to Bridger: “I am the window through which you watch the coming storm. He is the lightning” (212, TLL chapter 17). Karen Barad calls lightning a “reaching toward, an arcing dis/juncture, a striking response to charged yearnings” (387). This is the boy for Mycroft. The Micromegas-like god has seven names deriving from his relations to each of the elite groups who run this world, but for convenience is often named J.E.D,D. Mason. He claims to be an alien god born into a human body to a Madame who runs an exclusive and officially non-existent brothel, inspired in part by the Marquis de Sade. Described as dressing all in black like Robespierre, this alien and forbidding figure functions as an increasingly polarizing force for attracting or repelling opposing factions: those who believe his death alone can save the peace and those who believe his leadership alone can enable the emergence of a new order.

Mycroft believes in Him, and so uses the capitalized, masculine pronoun when describing Him. In Book Three, Mycroft insists, “There are two Gods, reader, at least, He Who Conceived This Universe, and He Who Visits from Another, just as Infinite and just as Real. We humans are the letters of a message our Creator wrote to make first contact with His Divine Peer.” Humans, Mycroft concludes are “the alphabet” through which the letter of this Universe’s God was written, and the alien God is the designated reader of our human story. In such a way, Mycroft continues the kind of discussions about Providence that characterize the Diderot text from which he takes his epigraph.

Two further supposedly eighteenth-century features mark Mycroft’s style and each becomes increasingly more complex as the stories unfold. Gendered pronouns are forbidden in his time. Use of the plural pronoun ‘they’ to refer to all individuals is both customary and enforced. But Mycroft insists on using the obsolete ‘he’, ‘she’ and even ‘it’ to refer to individuals and he does so according to his own idiosyncratic ideas of their behavior at the time and not according to any notion of a stable bodily correspondence. Since the same character may be “he” or “she” at various times in the text, readers are forced to consider their own assumptions as Mycroft shifts. However, he is not always consistent. Some characters appear to have more stable gendered identities, at least in Mycroft’s eyes. Furthermore, when recording dialogue, he remains true to the speech of his time, in which all pronoun references are to “they.” Confusing at first, this strategy gradually accustoms one to see the use of “they” for individuals as the norm, and to see Mycroft’s use of gendered pronouns as further evidence of his supposedly principled noncomformity, or at least his defiance of societal norms.  The second narratorial device is the inclusion of direct addresses to the reader, whom Mycroft addresses as Thee and Thou at first, but which gradually become more personal and more frequent, so that Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan, and Apollo Mojave, the mentor he murdered, increasingly intrude as imagined interlocutors, along with other unnamed Readers from the future.

The series title, terra ignota, refers to the unknown territory of ignorance where different legal systems clash and have not yet been accounted for. Since governance is no longer tethered to a geopolitical state, each collective operates according to its own laws, but within a world in which multiple collectivities co-exist and interact within an asymmetrical and still evolving federal system. Because few precedents exist for how to settle such non-geographically and non-state-based cross-border disputes, Mycroft writes: “Arm thyself well for this trial, young polylaw; here, at the law’s wild borders, there be dragons” (TWtB, ch 2). These wild borders, unmapped, untested, and shifting, vastly complicate our contemporary understandings of our conference theme: outsiders and aliens.

Works Cited and Consulted

Barad, Karen. “Transmaterialities: Trans*/Matter/Realities and Queer Political Imaginings.” GLQ 21. 2-3 (2015): 387-422.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1081


Image Luthar Pokrant Shaman, Jack O’Hearts and My Lady 1977 detail from the collection of St. John’s College

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