Review: Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

This review meanders somewhat and assumes you’ve read the book and also maybe all those notes I wrote. So, no it isn’t really a very useful review of a book! So I’ll start with: yes, I got a lot of enjoyment out of these books 🙂

I’ve split things into sections so you can skip bits. Spoilers etc below the fold.

Utopia or dystopia?
Is Mycroft Loki?
What’s going on with Frankenstein?
And the gender thing?
Figure and Ground?
Is it a philosophical book?
So what do I think now?

Utopia or dystopia?
Friedrich Hayek’s book ‘The Road to Serfdom’ is much loved by libertarians, but it contains a claim that of all political standpoints it is liberalism that is least prone to degenerating into a dictatorship. Whether he was right or not or meant ‘classical liberalism’ or some other viewpoint is a different question. I mention Hayek’s observation because it is hard to imagine a liberal dystopia that wouldn’t be inherently comical. Beyond the political centre, we might see government, economics and society deeply connected by some principle or fundamental mechanism and as a consequence utopias or dystopias extrapolated from such views are all encompassing and can’t occur piecemeal.

The society in the two Terra Ignota books is a piecemeal dystopia. It isn’t a terribly terrible one, it is largely not monstrous nor does it rest on some single secret like the city of Omelas. Instead, it is built on compromises and accommodations. People can choose to live in a tyranny but such a tyranny is moderated by the fact that a citizen can leave the rule of the tyrant at any time. People have freedom of religion but to gain this freedom organised religion has been outlawed. People have total freedom of movement but this is given by a commercial monopoly and near constant tracking of movement. Gender differences have been suppressed. The fractured utopia has embraced social reform as a checklist: religion was divisive, gender was divisive and so on. However, systemic issues remain and as the novels progress the theme is repeated that this is a society that has treated the symptoms social conflict rather than root causes.

The society is a dark reflection of the moon society in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Whereas Le Guin presents a dysfunctional, ramshackle utopia, Palmer present a clean, liberal-friendly dystopia.

Is Mycroft Loki?
When I reviewed Too Like the Lightning I started with a joke that the book was really an SF version of the Norse Myths. At that point, I wasn’t aware that Palmer was part of an acapella group that had performed its own version of the conflict between Odin and Loki and that Palmer herself had performed the part of Loki. My joke rested on a single out-of-place reference to Heimdall and on how inappropriate it would be to score a drama about 18th Century Enlightenment France with Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

In the light of better information, the question becomes deeper. Mycroft as much in common with Loki, his relationship with Cornel Mason who is a somewhat Odin-like character (a lawmaker, a keeper of secrets, a holder of oaths etc), his adoptive nature, his role as somebody who moves among the great-and-the-good but separate from them, his powers to change himself, even the scars on his lips. However, Mycroft’s story arc runs backwards from Loki’s. In the myth, Loki starts somewhat accepted by the denizens of Valhalla – a helpful trickster. While his pranks and mischief increasingly alienate him from the gods, his behaviour escalates leading to his murder by proxy of the beloved god Baldur and Loki’s systematic insulting of each of the gods. Loki is then bound for eternity.

Mycroft’s unforgivable crime happens off-screen and in the past. His brutal murders of the Mardi ‘bash caused outrage and fear in society at large but it his killing of Apollo Mojave – a widely beloved Utopia – that is the crime Mycroft cannot forgive himself for. Like Loki, Mycroft is also bound but then rehabilitated and turned into a kind of servant, so that when we meet Mycroft he is closer to Loki’s position at the start of Loki’s story than Mycroft is near the end of his.

What’s going on with Frankenstein?
Norse Loki and Greek Prometheus themselves have much in common, both adopted gods with ambiguous relationships with the big sky-dad (Zeus and Odin). Loki, though, is less connected to the origin of humanity and Prometheus is more in keeping with the 18th-century aesthetics and culture of the Enlightenment milieu as well as Mycroft self-identification as Greek.

The New Prometheus is the subtitle of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, itself a Romantic-movement critique of the arrogance of the Enlightenment rationalism. The Frankenstein references are overt (unlike the Loki references) from an actual cosplay by Sniper, to Cato overtly adopting the mad-scientist trope as a way of coping with his life.Meanwhile, the Utopians build their culture on the canon of science fiction to the extent that the foundations of the genre are repeatedly referred to – this provides a way back to Voltaire via his story ‘Micromegas’ but also points back to Mary Shelley’s protean book.

But what’s this Promethean/Frankenstein theme doing? So many things are called monsters (Mycroft obviously but also the suppression of religion) but also we meet other created beings, in particular, JEDD Mason and Bridger. Bridger is also reminiscent of the other character from the Prometheus myth. Zeus punishes Prometheus for his theft of fire by chaining him to a rock and having birds eat his liver but humanity gets punished too for being gifted fire. Pandora is sent with her box of gifts which amount to all the woes of humanity. But Bridger is also a being of inherent creativity – and it is this capacity (more so than fire) that Plato claimed was the actual theft/gift of Prometheus from the gods to humanity.

Either way, whether Ragnarok of the opening of Pandora’s box, the end of a Golden Age is coming.

But also…there is a theme of human experimentation going on. It has been running through both books, in particular, experimentation on children to shape what they become: the set-sets, JEDD but maybe Mycroft and maybe Bridger. And what are the Brillists doing and in Ingoldstadt of all places…

And the gender thing?
In a previous post, I looked at different criticisms of Too Like the Lightning in terms of its portrayal of gender and the intentional misgendering of characters. In Seven Surrenders the gender theories of Madame, the hidden figure manipulating the most powerful people in the future society, are explained more overtly. Madame is just one character in the book and hence her views of how society works do not necessarily describe how the future society Palmer has invented actually works. However, that Madame’s tactics and strategy have apparently succeeded at multiple levels does imply that Madame’s critique of gender and Palmer’s have some commonality (not to imply Palmer shares any of Madame’s other views obviously).

The notion is this: gender was such a divisive element in society that in the wake of a series of religious conflicts, recognition of gender differences was suppressed – people could still express themselves how they wished but in general society was to treat these as expressions of individuality. However, the net result (in the story) is that society has simply become naive about gender and hence has failed to recognise the extent to which masculinity (and people who identify with it to some extent) still dominates positions of power. Madame and her followers see this as a kind of loss of immunity and have revivified what they see as means of manipulating people using gender and sexuality and sex. One positive reading of this fits well with the liberal-dystopia perspective: i.e. it is a critique of the post-gender society that is one liberal response to questions on transgender.

The other element is that the book at times to be using misgendering of characters casually but as it progresses it becomes clearer that the idea of misgendering as a form of assault is a key element to what is going on. This accompanies the notion of religion and the use of religious ideas as a kind of cognitive weapon that can be deployed against people. JEDD does so scarily but somewhat benevolently, Dominic and Julia do so more aggressively.

Does all that work? Does it all make sense? I’m not convinced. I found some passages required suspension of disbelief to maintain the sense of threat but in other cases, the use of words as weapons was more effective. The net effect is that the two books are more violent than they appear. Mycroft violence occurs off-screen but throughout the verbal violence is playing out, along with other less obvious forms of assault such as Thisbe’s use of airborne drugs. I appreciate that people may see “verbal violence” as an oxymoron but firstly any violence in a book is obviously words and secondly *within* the book attacks on core ideas of an individual impact on those individuals in ways that cause them harm. The net effect is to create a sense of threat that is unsettling.

Figure and Ground?
I made a distinction in my review of Too Like the Lightning between what Palmer points us to and what is apparent by its absence. Seven Surrenders fills in more of the negative space: we get more of a sense of the Romantic movement critique of Enlightenment’s scientism, more nineteenth-century thinkers & writers are name-checked, the background history becomes less Franco-centric (still very Western European though).

So who is missing? David Hume and specifically the section “Of Miracles” from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Hume’s argument against believing an account of a miracle is not perfect, in part because he lacked some of the theory of probability to needed. Also, it is arguably circular in so far as it requires a miracle to be of a particular nature – a kind of unrepeated or irregular event rather than simply an inexplicable event. However, the broad brush strokes of the argument remain compelling.

The gist of the argument is this: given an account of a highly improbable event, an event so beyond experience that we should call it a miracle, should we believe the account? No, because other explanations will always be more likely – the person who has given the account may be lying, deluded, or mistaken. Even if a witness to a miracle is the most honest person ever to have lived we should still rationally consider whether it is more likely that this person lied (or was mistaken etc) than that this apparently impossible or miraculous event occurred.

Put another way: Bridger cannot be as miraculous as Mycroft says he is. That Carlyle and Thisbe and Dominic and others also encounter Bridger’s miracles is neither here nor there even putting aside that we only know they did because Mycroft told us they did. I’m not critiquing the book here, I’m not saying that Bridger’s powers are silly or implausible but rather that the characters we meet Mycroft, Dominic and Carlyle in particular talk around Hume when it comes to Bridger. We meet thinkers who preceded Hume, we meet contemporaries of Hume (include people like Rousseau with whom he corresponded) and we meet people who came after Hume but we don’t encounter the most significant sceptic and anti-metaphysician of the 18th century and I don’t imagine that is accidental.

The closest Mycroft comes to acknowledging Hume’s argument is when he expresses an earlier argument from John Locke that runs in the opposite direction (with an assist from Ockham’s razor):
“Were Locke with us today, he would no doubt turn Ockham’s razor upon your disbelief too, and make you answer which is more plausible, that, as all of us who saw firsthand insist, God worked a miracle? Or that all Earth’s leaders are willing to be called insane because they can find no less embarrassing lie to conceal the fact that the Utopians are hiding some amazing technological healing serum which, despite their vendetta against Death, they refuse to share with anyone besides J.E.D.D. Mason?” Mycroft is referring to John Locke’s A Discourse on Miracles from 1695

Where miracles are most confronting are not to Hume’s atheist tinged scepticism but to Carlyle’s clockmaker-god Deism. The Utopian canon no doubt holds Douglas Adams in high esteem and hence they would probably offer the Babel fish argument from Hitchhiker’s Guide as the paradigmatic example of this issue:
“Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that something so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
“The argument goes something like this: ‘I refuse to prove that I exist,’ says God, ‘for proof denies faith, and without faith, I am nothing.’ ‘But, says Man, the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.’ ‘Oh dear,’ says God, ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ and vanishes in a puff of logic. ‘Oh, that was easy,’ says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.
“Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys, but that didn’t stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the theme of his best-selling book, Well That About Wraps It Up For God.
“Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

Contemporary philosophers (e.g. Christine Overall ) have seriously argued that miracles would count as evidence against the existence of god (or at least some conception of god).  A god without miracles or a theology that discounts them may seem like part of an intellectual retreat from faith, but this shift is also reflected in how thinkers during the 17th and 18th century were changing their views on political power. In particular, the concept of the rule of law became increasingly important in conceptions of political power. Diderot distinguished between a just monarch and a tyrant in this distinction between a ruler who themselves follows the law (even if those laws are their own creation) and those who wield arbitrary power, without regard to order or consistency. A god of miracles would be a god of chaos and each miracle would undermine the order of their own creation. This conundrum in which an all-powerful god is constrained by their own role as the lawmaker of the cosmos is central to Wagner’s version of Wotan (Odin) in the Ring Cycle. Odin has divine power but he cannot unravel the crisis his decisions have created by acting directly because this, in turn, will engender the crisis he wishes to avoid – consequently he intervenes indirectly via mortals with free will to act in their own way.

Miracles, therefore, pertain not just to the question of the existence of god but to the character of god and the motives of god. Mycroft himself raises with this with his version of a question from Achilles to Athena: why after ten years of the Trojan wars is Athena acting now? Miracles imply strange things about god, that specific times and places are more important than others.

Is it a philosophical book?
I expressed some dissent on this question when it came to Too Like the Lightning. The story had philosophers in it but not much actual philosophising (the discussion about the Epicureans being the exception). Seven Surrenders resolves that tension as the thinkers introduced in Too Like the Lightning move from name checks to reflections of the issues in the book (see the issue of miracles above). In particular, the French Enlightenment emphasis shifts from Voltaire to Rousseau. The question about what is the natural state of humans comes more to the fore and Rousseau’s reflections on this (or perceptions of Rousseau’s reflections on this) are overtly discussed and constructed with Hobbes.

The major philosophical theme of the book that drives events is made clear: is war fundamental to the human condition? Mycroft answers this question when he is 17 by murdering and torturing the Mardi ‘bash and Apollo Mojave because they believed that war is inevitable and that therefore should be precipitated prophylactically to limit the harm of it. Palmer doesn’t answer this question in the book but instead pictures it as a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy: violence can be a political tool (especially, as is revealed, assassination) and hence the fear of war can lead to war. Whether ‘fear of war’ is a necessary part of the human condition is unanswerable.

So what do I think now?
I still think that dividing the story into two books was a disservice to the novel. Seven Surrenders and Too Like the Lightning are a single novel. There is a definite first act and second act structure but as it stands Too Like the Lightning is like a joke without a punch line. It isn’t clear what to make of Too Like the Lightning at the point it ends or even answer important questions about how it handles gender or faith. The reveal that Mycroft is a truly appalling person looks like a cruel trick on the reader without the further elements in Seven Surrenders. The mess of confusing elements in Too Like the Lightning really SHOULD be as they are – combined with Seven Surrenders the story structure is sound and well crafted – BUT at that rough halfway point that ends the first book, the reader is left in a position of not even really being sure what they are reading. This prevents the ending even feeling like a cliffhanger. The divide of the two books also divides the introduction of Palmer’s historical references from characters explaining their relevance to the story at hand. For many readers, the sensible way to read Too Like the Lightning is to just let the roll call of names float by if they are unfamiliar because their relevance is usually picked up later in the story (often in Seven Surrenders)

However, taken as a whole I think these first two volumes of Terra Ignota really delivers on its promise. The plethora of 18th-century background material isn’t as gratuitous as it first appears. By casting this story in the future and with people fundamentally different than our costume drama perspective on the 18th century, we get a sense of what it might have been like to look out through Enlightenment eyes and see the world that looked marvellous (if you lived among the aristocracy) but which was falling apart under its own contradictions.

It has its flaws though. Casting a future in terms of the philosophical debates of 18th century Europe and in terms of classical Greek and Roman myth makes the story deeply Euro-centric. Yes, Japanese culture is depicted but only in part. Africa is invisible in both books (I may have missed a back story element there). Part of this is, I think, deliberate if we see this as a kind of liberal-dystopia where ‘liberal’ is specifically a middle-class white American/European conception. Part arises out of the self-imposed structure of the novel. However, the feeling of absence of cultures beyond Europe detracts from the plausibility of Palmer’s world.

There is also the issue of three characters who are portrayed as highly gendered (by the standards of the society in the novels) as women who use their sexuality to manipulate others – specifically powerful men – in a way that is shown as sinister and possibly villainous. I don’t think Palmer expects readers to see Mycroft as the hero and Madame, Julia and Danae as the villains but rather to see everybody concerned as compromised and flawed but still, we end up with Mycroft as our narrator and companion and the story unfolds with us learning that the hidden forces manipulating events are (partly) feminine wiles that men have forgotten to protect themselves against.

But it seems churlish to raise criticism given what Palmer has created. It is a/they are big complex dense book(s) with a richly imagined and original world and a fascinating plot and deep characters.

5 thoughts on “Review: Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

  1. Your comments on miracles brought to mind Brian Stableford’s “Lydyard” trilogy (comprising “The Werewolves of London”, “The Angel of Pain” and “The Carnival of Destruction”) – the central issue of which is the existential problem of living in a world which can be arbitrarily reshaped by spontaneous “Acts of Creation” at any moment, and where things like scientific method and causality, therefore, exist only on sufferance and can’t be relied on. This trilogy seems to be a bit hard to find at the moment, but I suspect it’s the sort of thing that might be right up your street.


  2. Ahem, it’s Ingolstadt. The name lost its d sometime in the Middle Ages.

    Anyway, great review, Camestros. I’ve enjoyed your notes on and reviews of the Terra Ignota books very much. I also find that Too Like the Lightning is probably the hardest book on the novel shortlist for me to evaluate. On the one hand, it’s flawed and there is also the issue that it’s incomplete without Seven Surrenders. On the other hand, it is a fascinating book and also so much more ambitious than most other works on the best novel shortlist, even if those books are more satisfying works individually. Currently, it’s hovering somewhere between 1 and 4, since 5 and 6 are fixed for the two novels that just aren’t my thing.


  3. Well, well. I’ve just noticed that Amazon UK now has Kindle editions of the first two books announced for 1 July. The third, due out in December, also has a price given for a Kindle edition too.


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