June 5th, 2018

The Will to Battle

I lately visited the Riverside county library, and one of the books I brought home was the third volume of Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota series. As with the earlier volumes, I'm finding it intellectually interesting, but I'm ambivalent about other aspects of it.

At a very basic level, I find it hard to be involved with the characters. I don't think this is a matter of either the characters or the setting being alien; I've been deeply moved, for example, by scenes in Donald M. Kingsbury's Courtship Rite, which portrays a far more alien society, or in Michael Flynn's The Wreck of The River of Stars, set in a nearer future but with characters very different from me. But in this case, my mind can't latch onto anything the characters care about or are motivated by in a way that gives me the slightest investment in their gaining or keeping it; I see them struggling but I'm not involved in their struggle. It's almost impossible for me even to remember who is on which side.

In some measure this may reflect a secondary aspect, the ideas Palmer is exploring. There's a scene in this novel where one of the characters says that their society is the wealthiest, happiest, and freest humanity has ever known. And I don't see that "freest" at all. This volume, like the previous one, opens up with formal statements of permission and restriction by the official censors of the seven Hives that govern most of the world; so it doesn't have freedom of speech or the press. It's established in the first volume that it's a criminal offense for more than two people to discuss religion; once again, no freedom of speech, or of assembly, or of religion. This book establishes that there are Reservations for people who insist on adhering to religious observance, which made me think of the savage reservations in Brave New World. Palmer does tell us that there are "Hiveless" people who live by Graylaw, which mainly protects life, liberty, property, and contracts (though it may be as authoritarian as the European Union in doing so), or even by Blacklaw, which grants no rights except what you can defend for yourself by force, and allows you to do so. But an early chapter lists the eight prohibitions that apply even under Blacklaw, and under the first of these, spreading religion outside a Reservation is an "intolerable crime" that justifies forcible restraint even of people who are licensed to murder and torture one another. That's not my idea of freedom, even though I myself have nothing that most people would call religion, and don't even understand why anyone would feel a need for it. I suppose Palmer may mean those statements about "freedom" ironically, but I can't tell—and if I take all these people ironically, it severely limits my emotional investment in any of them.

So I think this is intellectually stimulating enough so I'll finish it, and read the final volume when it appears. But I don't feel the emotional bonding to it that would make me ever think of rereading it.