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Living Enlightenment Legacies in a Globalized Twenty-Fifth Century: Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota Series


Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series performs a literary thought experiment of particular relevance to our conference and session themes.[i] Canada is currently decolonizing the heritage of the Indian Act to negotiate new treaties where none were in existence before and to renegotiate understandings of the treaties currently in place to establish equal, respectful, and modern relations. To meet the challenge of imagining hybrid democracies within layered governance systems will require imagination and openness to difference and a willingness to accommodate diversity in previously unthought ways.  Globally, we live in a time of transition away from the internationalist system of the Washington Consensus. How can democratic practices be rethought beyond the exclusive sovereignty of the nation-state? The Terra Ignota title of Palmer’s series names exactly that challenge—the challenge of adapting legal systems to evolving, multi-layered modes of governance.

My focus today falls on some of the ways in which Palmer shows Enlightenment legacies continuing to play out through attention to how local and global democratic participation is managed in this speculative future world. Palmer’s series expresses more faith in humans’ ability to meet Anthropocene challenges through technological inventiveness than it does in our ability to achieve women’s equality, respect for the values of others, or peace. She sees the long view of human history, going back centuries, as providing justification for these views. Her future society takes a non place-based approach to democracy, privileging choice and free movement over inherited identities and geographic location while enabling people to mix and match these as they please with two major exceptions: organized religion is marginalized and gendered distinctions are banned.

Futurist fictions often rehearse the debates of their time and place of composition, addressing the anxieties of their present. Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series is especially exciting because of the way it combines several elements not usually addressed together with such sophistication. She brings a trained historian’s eye to her future world and combines her historical awareness with an interest in political organization, spiritual debate, and feminist concerns. Specifically, Palmer uses speculative fiction to revisit the legacies of the European Enlightenment through a defamilliarized lens. I argue that her series also reveals the Jamesonian “political unconscious” of her home nation, the United States, in current times. The series reflects a current crisis of the nation-based global system under the receding management of the United States: a crisis of imagination that demands unprecedented forms of inventiveness beyond current frames. A fragile balance holding anarchist, capitalist, liberal humanist, neoliberal, and posthumanist imaginaries in productive tension is revealed when the series opens to be on the verge of collapse, with a 300 year-old peace in danger of exploding.

The first two novels, Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders, are presented as officially sanctioned accounts of the seven days that precipitated this 25th century crisis, told by the multilingual participant-observer and murderer, Mycroft Canner, an openly unreliable narrator. Approved by multiple censors, these histories of the present—our future– are designed to inform the public in the hope of calming rising unrest. The third volume, The Will to Battle, is supposedly an unofficial record of subsequent events leading this world to the brink of world war. Mycroft is writing this record as it happens for posterity.

The Terra Ignota series depicts a future global society that has banished war, gender distinctions, and formal religion to maintain a precarious transplanetary peace. Spirituality is privatized; transgressive sexual desire has been driven underground; citizenship has been rearranged—all in the service of maintaining a form of global peace that embraces diversity and enables individual choice within these clearly established limits.  With nation-states abolished, although surviving in residual form called nation-strats, society is organized around a diverse array of resolutely secular and rationalist loyalties and solidarities organized into “Hives,” each coordinated through a different rules-based system. Persons belong to a family, called a bash, which incorporates both biologically-linked members and those who have opted to join it, through friendship or marriage, for greater or shorter periods of time. Through family, they may still consider themselves part of a nation-strat, but these strats are now spread across all the Hives and form no basis for political action. The Hives provide the key basis for solidarity and governance. The organizing principle for the whole system is individual choice. Accidents of birth and coercion are minimized as much as possible.

In this more fully globalized world, geographical distances have been dramatically shortened; inhospitable landscapes, such as Antarctica and the Moon, have been colonized; and the international governance system has been completely rearranged into a complexly layered system of inherited and chosen forms of belonging. The global challenge of providing a shared basis in law while simultaneously respecting the values of numerous civil society and formerly nation-based systems has been negotiated by setting up a type of federated system in which jurisdictions apply both to their individual members and then, through negotiated laws that arise when two systems clash or overlap. There are seven Hives: Humanists  (governed in Spanish by a flexible constitutional democracy); Cousins (governed in English by a Board of Trustees and a suggestion box); the Masonic Empire (an absolute monarchy functioning in Latin); Gordian, working in German through a think tank called “Brain Bash”; the European Union, now with a global National Parliamentary Democracy working in French; Mitsubishi, a shareholder democracy with many Asian components working in English; and Utopia, a Constellation working in English and U-speak. These groups come together into an elected Senatorial Alliance: the Romanova Seven-Hive Council, with its headquarters built upon the original capital of the old Roman Empire. It also cares for the Hiveless, those who choose to live outside the Hive system, for whom there are three sets of laws: a moderate Gray Law, a more restrictive White Law, and a minimal Black Law for those who wish to live free of the law in self-selected anarchist territories. Those who wish to maintain a commitment to a formal religion are consigned to Reservations that exist outside the Hive system. Those who break the laws of any Hive are relegated to the status of Servicers, condemned to work for whomever requests their services and to be fed by the charity of their temporary employers.

Each Hive is distinguished by its own governance, legal and citizenship regimes, and boasts its own distinctive regalia. Membership is voluntary, and exit to join a different Hive is always possible. Members of various Hives and Hiveless may cohabit in bashes. When children feel ready, they may choose to remain where they were born or form their own bash and they may always choose their own Hive affiliation. None of these groups is confined to a specific territory, although some members may choose to cluster. Each Hive works within a favoured language but the system as a whole is multilingual. The smooth running of this global system is ensured through the Romanova Universal Free Alliance, which includes the Senate, a Censor, a Five-Hive coordinated global transportation system, and a “Thought Leader” (Drezner) called the Anonymous, whose pronouncements affect public opinion. Spiritual questions are managed by publicly appointed Sensayers, who deal one on one with spiritual dilemmas. Group meetings to discuss religious or spiritual questions are forbidden.  These choices have been made in reaction against the devastation wrought by the Church Wars three hundred years earlier. That is, religion-based wars that loom in our 22nd century future.

All of this information emerges gradually, and is subordinated to the drama and action of the plot[ii]. The series title, Terra Ignota. is not explained until Book Three, The Will to Battle. Because this is a complex and still evolving system, the series title describes the complex legal space that arises when jurisdictions conflict or confront an unanticipated action. Mycroft explains: “The geographic nations had 3,934 years from Hammurabi to the Great Renunciation to map out the kingdoms of their law, while our Hive laws were breech-born in the hasty wilderness of war” (TWtB). The Great Renunciation refers to the abandonment of the nation-state system in the 22nd century at the conclusion of the devastating Church Wars. With the exception of the Europeans and the Masons, the other Hives “have patchwork law codes, stitched in haste from those of corporations, clubs, families, custom, fiction, and yes, relics of the geographic nations, too.” The question then arises: “What can our young law do when two Hives’ members break a third’s law in a fourth’s house?” (TWtB).

Yet what leads this future society to the brink of war is not the difficulty of balancing diverse legal systems but rather the decisions of certain political leaders to pre-empt problems by manipulating information and banishing dissent rather than enabling full public debate to flourish. Spiritual needs, sexual inequality, and deeply entrenched gendered assumptions have been driven underground along with humanitarian concerns about the development of posthuman cyborgs, called Set-Sets. Corporate greed and surreptitious land grabs go unaddressed. Elected leaders lose touch with the people. As long as these Hives could co-exist within a multipolar system in which population size and the ownership of land were relatively equal, the balance of power could be maintained. The series records the moment when the fragility of this system is exposed by a series of revelations, which bring to light the corruption of the elite, the previously hidden power struggles, the full dimensions of this surveillance society, and the targeted assassinations that have enabled the democratic and egalitarian façade to continue operating.

These novels highlight their indebtedness to the philosophical debates of the European eighteenth century and earlier antecedents, most notably Hobbes. Mycroft argues 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” (13). This claim explains the deliberately anachronistic formatting and language of the book, immediately drawing attention to a scale of time measured in centuries, as a balancing context for the account of only seven days of crisis which marks the span of the first two books.

The United States no longer exists in this world, yet t it is arguably the strongest presence. Seen as the inspiration for the founding of this new global federation, the 1776 US Declaration of Independence is echoed in the 2131 speech launching the new order. There is one key difference between the opening words of the two speeches. Whereas the original refers to the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” the Renunciation speech omits reference to “Nature’s God.” Both the nation-state and its origin in a divinely ordained sovereignty are thereby renounced. Mycroft explains: “What you see here is the beginning of the silence.” Referring to 2131, Mycroft notes: “As the first bombs of the Church War rain down, those who consider themselves neutral are now afraid to mention the divinity” (Chapter 8). The speech, futurist to us, historical to Mycroft, renounces the US state and its basis in God, giving up patriotism for an expanded cosmopolitanism. Addressing his fellow citizens, the Founder Carlyle claims: “Americans, America is no longer your nation. Your nation is the friends who live and work with you, in Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, all of the Americas, and all the other corners of this Earth.” This cosmopolitan vision invokes a world in which citizenship is self-chosen according to vocation and earned by the passing of a Maturity Exam, the terms of which are set by each Hive individually. Although this may seem hopelessly idealistic today, it is presented as the logical culmination of one strand of Enlightenment thinking.

Other dimensions of US ideology shape this flawed utopia. The political power and volatility of religious feeling, the fascination with the example of the Roman Empire, the Romanovan “city on the hill”—cited twice by George W. Bush in recent years, the barely suppressed underlying violence, the regressive mix of puritanism and sexual indulgence, the long, false peace, and the willingness to engage in covert, pre-emptive action—all recall the contemporary U.S. and the increasing sense that globally the centre cannot hold.  The resonances are striking. So too are the omissions. Although gender pronouns are officially banned, other forms of sexual inequality proliferate and assumptions about gendered value and appropriate behaviour are shown to be deeply entrenched. The novels focus almost exclusively on life among the elites, yet it is clear that some people, the majority of people, are deemed expendable for the common good. Not all lives are grievable. Privilege is also deeply entrenched and assumed to be natural. Inequality and precarity have not been abolished.  These are all issues the series takes seriously. Climate change and its attendant challenges, on the other hand, are simply assumed to have been solved by this time through technological ingenuity.  The series thus balances its continuing faith in scientific and technological progress—even its awe at what human ingenuity can do– against awareness that any forms of progress, perhaps especially in the social realm, may be reversed.  What leads to the impending destruction of this transworld federation is not an excess of diversity, but rather a failure to take its implementation far enough.

Instead of working through problems, contentious issues were avoided. Polarization built up. The irrational erupted, in all its old forms, and a formerly peaceful society found itself on the brink of war.

Works Cited

Drezner, Daniel W. The Ideas Industry. New York: OUP, 2017.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Palmer, Ada. Too Like the Lightning. Terra Ignota, Book 1. New York: TOR. 2016.

—. Seven Surrenders. Terra Ignota. Book 2. New York: TOR, 2017.

—. The Will to Battle. Terra Ignota. Book 3. New York: TOR, 2017.

—. Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014.


[i] The research for this paper was conducted, in part, with support from the Canada Research Chairs Program. I am grateful as well for the research support provided by my doctoral research assistant, Melanie Dennis Unrau.

[ii] It is also summarized in an article on Palmer’s website, “Writing a Future in Which You Choose Your Own Nation.” Mon. Mar 13, 2017.

Image Hilma af Klint (1862–1944), Swedish artist and mystic whose paintings were amongst the first Western abstract art

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