Ada Palmer – Perhaps the Stars (2021) review


Also in this series:

After the first three books of the Terra Ignota series got published in quick succession in 2016 and 2017, fans had to wait a couple of agonising years for the conclusion. Palmer eventually delivered a hefty novel, large in events and word count. How does it conclude the tapestry of a dozen interweaving plot threads? What will be its final words on the sociological, philosophical and theological questions that the series engaged with? Palmer unavoidably had to make choices; had to narrow down the possibilities that the first books raised towards an emerging shape of the future. One thing is certain: there will be a lot of crying.

The first thing to notice about Perhaps the Stars is that the first quarter of the novel is different in tone and almost works as a bridging novella between the third and fourth novels. This first chunk of the book may feel restricting. Due to war circumstances it doesn’t have the globe-trotting flitting from palace to forum to conclave as Mycroft was doing, and because of Palmer’s choice to severely restrict her point-of-views we are stuck with the current narrator and whatever they can cobble together from messages of events around the world. Palmer eases back on the references to philosophers and on the slippery games with narrators. And for a while there are no more interruptions by Thomas Hobbes and others, no more psychotic episodes warping reality, and less musings on gender. Instead, Palmer dives into the chaos and complexity of this future world that is trying to control a “world civil war”. Into the nitty-gritty. The stritty greets

The lack of those Mycroftian tangents feels like a loss at first – a loss of charm. The story feels more journalistic, more anchored to its specific reality. That doesn’t mean that the story has becoming boring, but it means that the excitement for this story now rests even more heavily on Palmer’s world-building. And this is one complex war! Not just for the readers, but for the participants as well it is a journey of fragmentations and shifting allegiances, and one of the stranger and most unique conflicts I have read in science fiction. Still, restricting and business-like, I wanted the story to open up more! I didn’t have to wait long. The story moves to higher gear after the the first quarter, with some great chapters and a more familiar style. Now we have two narrators taking turns to tell the same story, each with their own style. And here too Palmer’s writing delights. 

Here is a great confusion that occupied me during long parts of this series: what is its objective? For Palmer, is it to use a science fictional story of war to explore sociological, theological and philosophical questions? Or: is it to use philosophy as an excuse to geek out over the years of world-building that were put into this? Because the first three books gave me the impression that it is the first objective, but Perhaps the Stars at first. Don’t get me wrong, this series’ unique, compelling and complex world-building make it a stunning piece of writing. That’s not the issue. My question is answered by this book’s title: Perhaps the Stars. The objectives of the Utopians is to colonise Mars; and perhaps the stars. What occupies the books are the answers to the following questions: What were the motivations of Mycroft for his atrocities; and Apollo Mojave’s? What were the MASON’s motivations to nurture the Utopian Hive? What position do the Utopians inhabit during this war? Palmer leans hard into that optimistic sense of human progress and the Utopian Great Project, and it is the honest wish for the chance for a future that includes such Projects that shapes the conflict at the heart of the series. The rest – the world-building, the philosophies – are the tools with which Palmer created a future of competing visions of utopia and progress, and of sociological inertia that puts the honest Utopian passion for reaching the stars in stark contrast with countervailing forces. 

And here is something that makes the Terra Ignota series unique amongst science fiction. Yes, it has cities on the Moon and terraforming of Mars and space elevators, but it is not blasé about it. This is a series where characters fall to their knees weeping over the glory and hardships of these accomplishments. It directly empathises with readers who feel that same wish and yearning. Palmer goes even further: she has J.E.D.D. Mason ask Mycroft: Why do you want that? It is choosing a road of suffering! And like Mycroft we find it hard to put the Why into words. 

And Palmer has a lot of revelations up her sleeves, and wheels the theological and philosophical questions back in through Bridger’s miracles. Bridger might have been a Message from The God of This Universe, but Bridger was also a young boy, influenced by the ‘bash that took him in. He met Mycroft, Sniper, Cato and others, and read Apollo Mojave’s science fiction Iliad, and all that influenced his miracles. These are miracles granted, but shaped by our own occupations, like our mythologies. In the war for Utopia’s future, and by extension Humanity’s future, these miracles play their roles. And once you see the conflict as happening between Peer Gods, everything that happens could be a Message between Them, open to interpretation, if you as reader feel like diving into that. And it helps to recognise that there are in-universe explanations for Mycroft’s mental occupations. Or you can believe his own words that he is insane and think no more of it. 

There were chapters in this novel where I was glued to the pages, reading with feverish intensity, and sat down speechless afterwards. The interplay of science fiction, mythology, high terrible emotion, and the future of humanity at stake reach peak drama. Palmer surrenders her revelations in slivers, in chapters full of tension over giant battles. Here, some anime influences come in as well, just to reach ever greater heights of intense drama. Now add in plenty of references to the Iliad and echoes of Homer and we have a proper Epic on our hands. It is a story of constant surprises, ever unpredictable. 

If there is one thing that I am not happy about is how the plot thread ended of Joyce Faust and her gender-subversion plan. Some spoilers follow. Throughout the series, she was the hidden power. So powerful, so influential. It all seemed to amount to nothing more than a sideshow and afterthought, with Palmer adding a political Girls-Get-It-Done scene that (1) posited a motivation for Madame that didn’t even seem to connect to the previous books, or at least I wasn’t thinking in those terms at all, and (2) seems to dive into the same kind of battle of the sexes that this future tried to overcome in the first place.

But this is a minor bump in the road in what is otherwise a dazzling story. The whole series is quite silly on many occasions, but it is gloriously silly. And the way that threads come together, in each chapter anew, and every chapter being a work of art, those are qualities that cannot be overlooked. The war story has fantastic set-pieces, and every action is tied to highly emotional developments. And on top of that we have Palmer’s narrative puzzles, about who is narrating what bits, and why they make the observations that they do. All this combined makes for incredibly rich storytelling. And we do get answers about J.E.D.D. Mason’s great conversation with his Peer God, and the role of life, the universe and everything. The answer isn’t 42 this time, but it is… elegant. Although it always remains formulated through the narration of others, so you are free to think about it what you want, but it is a fascinating plot-thread with interesting ideas to weave through a science fiction series.

I bow to you, Prof. Palmer, for writing the most audacious, thought-provoking and beautiful science fiction epic of the 21st century so far.

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10 Responses to Ada Palmer – Perhaps the Stars (2021) review

  1. bormgans says:

    Great to read this, glad you enjoyed it. Nothing you write makes me suspicious. It seems a logical continuation of the first books, just even more intense. I’m also looking forward to the war itself, should be great reading.
    I hope to read the second half of the series before the end of the year.

    That half star, is that because of the spoiler stuff I didn’t read?

    Liked by 1 person

    • My score of a 9.5 is closer to a 9 than a 10. I had to debate myself for a while. What finally pushed it towards a 9.5 were some amazing set-pieces, some great chapters and elegant ideas. It is also a huge and dense novel and took me a long time to get through. Maybe if I were to reread this again a decade from now and love it as much, then it might become a 10. For now it is simply very good, and comparable to the rest of the series. And compared to other books by other authors, it is unique.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. bormgans says:

    Can you say what’s the main thing holding you back from giving it a 10? (7 surrenders wasn’t a 10 for me either btw, mainly because the philosophy didn’t always convince.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I save 10s for personal lifelong favorites. It’s too early for this series for me to know this. Also, the structure of the novel was a bit uneven and Palmer is awfully fond of speeches. But the positives far outweigh the creaky parts.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Bookstooge says:

    Thank you for writing this review. Between you and Bormgans, I was intrigued but finally realized this author wasn’t for me. Details that you both have talked about made that clear and I would have probably dnf’d things at some point and ranted away. I’m tired of that, so thanks for helping me keep my calm 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I have been intrigued by this series since I first saw it reviewed by fellow bloggers, and wanted to start it, only to be distracted by other titles – as it all too often happens to me. But the enthusiasm with which you speak of these books, and the awareness that the series is completed and can be enjoyed without long hiatuses between books is a further incentive to take the plunge 🙂
    Thanks for sharing!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ola G says:

    All right! I’m going to read this series after such a gushing review for the final book! You, sir, are now officially guilty of putting another several thousand pages on my TBR! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hahahaha. I’m sorry. I hope you will enjoy them! They have a very distinct style that doesn’t work for everyone, but if it works for you, then they are amazing. These books are also very candid and ambitious and heartfelt.

      Liked by 1 person

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