Notes Ignota: Notes the First

Notes on Ignota
A collection of notes and queries on ‘Too Like the Lightning’ compiled by CAMESTROS FELAPTON, at the Request of Certain Parties.

Page numbers and text are from the 2016 Tor US hardback edition. Errors and typos are mine except where indicated. The notes are not authorised by the author or editorialised by the editor. I’m speculating people! Latin translations are my best guess from Google translate and I don’t really know much Latin – corrections welcome.

Notes are given in the order that I spotted something in a book. In some cases, a reference is later explained in the actual text of the book. In other cases, I’m guessing. I’ve not gone back to look for new things but in some cases, I have added further comments to an observation based on later information from the book. At this point, I haven’t finished the book (or even bought the sequel) so further revelations may come.

Character and author intent. Most of the book is narrated by Mycroft Canner, who is very obsessed with Voltaire and the Enlightenment. To what extent are his references the intent of the character or that of the author? Obviously it is both, but in general, I’ll assume that it is Mycroft trying to say something if the reference is Mycroft and Palmer is trying to say something when it is a reference outside of Mycroft’s control (e.g. his own name or that of sensayer Carlyle). Likewise, with possible errors, I’ll assume these come from Mycroft as a character.

Title Page
The book begins after its own 20th century front matter with an additional title page that implies that what follows is a book from the future by Mycroft Canner.

•    ‘A narrative of the events of the year 2454’
•    The year 2454 CE would be exactly one thousand years after 1454, which, un-coincidentally is the year that we start getting printed books with dates on their title pages. The Gutenberg Bible was printed in 1454-1455 and while not the first thing that Gutenberg printed, it wasn’t until 1454 that he started dating what he printed. Moveable type was not first invented in Europe but a combination of factors including a fairly standard & small alphabet across Western Europe, meant that print would have a profound effect on the flow of ideas in Western Europe.
•    1453 on the other hand, a thousand-and-one years before the events of Too Like the Lightning marked the Fall of Constantinople (which definitely coincidentally is where other 2017 Hugo Award nominee ‘Deaths End’ starts). The fall of Constantinople marked the start of the Ottoman Empire but also marked the final, final end of the Roman Empire. The Byzantine Empire was the heir of Eastern Roman Empire which kept going long after the Western Roman Empire had given up on that whole business.
•    A few decades later European powers are busy ‘discovering’ bits of the rest of the world and the whole idea of it being ‘The Middle Ages’ is just no longer tenable.
•    Speaking of the Roman Empire, the year 454 CE is a time of the death throes of the Western Roman Empire. The good news is that Attila the Hun died the year before and the bad news is the Emperor (now based in Ravenna because Rome itself is a mess) is busy stabbing generals. The generally accepted end of what was a messy collapse is 476 CE.
•    454/3 BCE is a time when Athenian hegemony is growing under Pericles. Euripides is writing plays and Greek philosophers are philosophising but you still have to wait a few decades for Socrates.

•    ‘…of all FREE and UNFREE Living Persons…’ – it is a future novel but some people are not classed as ‘free’.

•    ‘Qui vertiate desiderate, ipse hoc legat. Nihil obstat’ – He that wants truth should read. Nothing stands in the way. (I think – if it is a quote then I don’t know what from) [ETA] ‘Nihil obstat’ was used by the Catholic Church to indicate that book was OK to be printed, after which a Bishop would add ‘Imprimatur’ to give the go ahead. [h/t Andrew M]

•    ‘Gordian Exposure Commission Content Ratings’ – an in-universe trigger warning

Opening quote
•    ‘Ah my poor Jacques! You are a philosopher. But don’t worry: I’ll protect you. – Diderot, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master’ Denis Diderot 1713-1784 A key figure in The Encyclopaedia – the Wikipedia of the Enlightenment. Jacques the Fatalist is one of his most famous works of fiction and the title is self-explanatory. It is about a servant called Jacques who is a fatalist and is travelling with his master.
•    Masters and servants is a theme in literature of many times but in the revolutionary times of the late 18th century, it would make on new significance e.g. Beaumarchais’s Figaro in the Barber of Seville and the Marriage of Figaro. Notably, Mycroft Canner is placed in a social role akin to these kinds of fictional clever servants – technically at the beck and call of anybody and of a distinct lower social class but also an advisor to the most powerful and to the effective celebrity-aristocracy of 2454.

Page 13 Chapter the First: A Prayer to the Reader
•    The Enlightenment – a period of no real fixed dates but which refers to a culture of philosophical enquiry and emphasis on political liberty and humanist ideals centred around 18th century Europe. It is both a break from and a re-assertion of previous philosophical movements in Western Europe. Often radical and progressive despite itself. In its wake comes the 19th century and before it came 17th century thinkers like Descartes. Too big a subject to write about in a single note. Here read this Wikipedia page: and think on how much the Enlightenment greats would have loved and abhorred Wikipedia.
•    ‘Mycroft Canner’ – I should have noted this on the title page but I saved it for here. ‘Mycroft’ is not a made up name but it is a made up FIRST name. The name itself is a surname from the Peak District area of England. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle picked it up (possibly from the names of some cricketers) and used it as the name of Sherlock Holmes’s smarter older brother. [Edit]‘Sherlock’ appears coined as a first name by Conan Doyle (possibly again by joining cricket player’s names together or by co-opting a surname). A tiny bit of genius by Conan-Doyle in that both names look and sound so obviously English and yet would have been odd and unfamiliar to his audience. Names both foreign and inherently English have made them both powerful labels. ‘Sherlock’ always references Holmes and ‘Mycroft’ nearly as much (unless you are 19th century fan of Derbyshire County Cricket Club I guess). So ‘Mycroft’ as a name can’t help evoke somebody smart and somebody who advises the powerful. In Conan Doyle’s stories, Mycroft is emblematic of what we would now call ‘the Deep State’ – pragmatic, clever and tied to a kind of cynical utilitarianism.
•    ‘Canner’ – somebody who makes cans, a surname from the Midlands according to Wikipedia

No, we haven’t started the story yet.



  1. Andrew M

    Best Related Work 2018?

    Your translation of ‘Qui veritatem desiderat… is fine, but I think it’s worth mentioning that ‘Nihil Obstat’ is a formula traditionally used in the Catholic church when giving permission to print something. (More precisely, the censor, i.e. the expert, writes ‘Nihil Obstat’, and then the person with actual authority, normally a bishop, writes ‘Imprimatur’, i.e. ‘Let it be printed’.)

    And, though this is a side issue, I must question your claim that ‘Sherlock’ is a made up name. Real bearers of it include Bishop Thomas Sherlock, author of ‘Trial of the Witnesses to the Resurrection’.


      • Peter J

        That would be Mordecai Sherwin and Frank Shacklock, both of whom played first-class cricket in the 1880s (i.e. just before Holmes first appeared) for Nottinghamshire. Years ago I read an article (may still have it somewhere in my piling system) which pointed out that something like three-quarters of the characters in the Sherlock Holmes stories share their names with prominent cricketers of the time.

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