[Spoilers for Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders appear]
In 2012 Ada Palmer wrote a series of essays on her blog on Niccolo Machiavelli. In the second of them she laid out her thesis that Machiavelli establish the third major model of ethics in Western philosophy. To summarise the usual account of ethics divides into three branches:
- Deontology: being good is about following the rules and about knowing the rules. The rules could be from God or society or to flip it round could be expressed as rights. The key question is what are the rules?
- Virtue ethics: being good is about being a good person as personal quality. Your motives and intent matter. The key question is whether you can become a good person if you aren’t already. Jesus, Buddha and Aristotle all say ‘yes’.
- Consequentialism: being good is about the consequences of your actions rather than the rules or your intent. The key questions are how do we judge those consequences and over what timescale/distance should we judge the consequences?
The first two have deep roots in Christian theology and in classical theology. The third feels a lot more modern and really becomes codified in the 19th century with thinkers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mills and Utilitarianism.
For Machiavelli (according to Palmer) the central question was how to help Florence, with all its beauty and learning, survive in troubled times. Italy was a chaotic mess of powerful city states, notoriously corrupt Popes, and prone to invasion by foriegn powers. Yet also the centre of the European Renaissance and rich with new art and literature and music and thinking. How to keep this alive in a world of bandits and tyrants?
The shift of understanding for Machiavelli was to see that the models of ethics of classical and Christian thought were about the individual. For a Prince or a state the question shifts. Being a good person as an individual is not the same as being a good ruler. If you are a Prince and your people are starving or beset by bandits, what good does it do them that you strictly follow the 10 commandments or are humble and pious? A good prince is one whose state and people prosper and hence…well, that means they’ve got a moral obligation to do what needs to be done and that might mean all sorts of things.
What is right, what is good? What is it to be a good person and can a bad person become a good person? What is to be a good STATE or a good company or a good organisation? What is to be a good society or a good culture? What is to be a good god? These questions pervade The Will to Battle.
The story picks up in the aftermath of the events in the previous two-part novel. The world has discovered that the quasi-state known as the Humanist Hive has been operating a secret assassination program whose purpose has been to ensure the survival of the hive and political stability. Worse, leaders of some of the other hives have known about this and had done secret deals with the assassination program.
The ensuing scandal and coming trial have ignited hidden tensions within this future society and old fracture lines have re-appeared. Added to this the very public assassination of JEDD Mason and his apparent resurrection have created a dilemma for a society were religion is regard as a stricly personal and private matter and where public discussion is taboo. Finally, the vexed question of using advanced psychological techniques to determine and fix a child’s (or change an adult’s) personality has been re-opened with those for and against the practice regarding themselves as having a moral high ground.
The consensus is unravelling and the world is heading to war. Reformed mass murderer and confidant to the rich and powerful, Mycroft Canner follows the events in the company with the mysterious Achilles. Ostensibly the re-born hero of Greek epic poetry, Achilles is either a larger version of a child’s toy soldier or the reshaped form of that same child: the apparently magical Bridger who died (or was transformed) at the end of book 2. Together they seek to help the world prepare for war, so that the war can be short and decisive and that civilisation can survive.
Joining Achilles and Mycroft is the imagined and disembodied voice of Thomas Hobbes. Where Palmer’s earlier books orbited the French enlightenment figure of Voltaire, The Will to Battle adopts the pessimism of Hobbes whose book Leviathan, argued for a strong monarchical state during the chaos of the English Civil War.
There are no simple conclusions to the questions raised. Should states act only in their interests? Is the murder of innocents by the state GOOD if the murder brings peace? Can a person change who they are? Can you become good just by doing good things, even if your initial motives are insincere? More disturbingly, can your personality be altered? If so, are you the same person? If a guilty person is changed are they still guilty?
These questions about the individual and the state are not the only deep questions of ethics. Amongst them is the more abstruse question of whether god/God/gods can be good and what it means for a god to be a good? Is God good? Does good proceed from God (i.e. good is good because god will it to be) or is God intrinsically good (i.e. goodness is external quality of god). Mirroring these questions of good are the questions of evil and whether it is a thing in itself or simply the absence of good.
Mycroft sits at the centre of this, a figure that combines both Voltaire’s Candide as a kind of innocent abroad, with the Norse Loki as a master of deception, Machiavelli as both the historical character and as the notorious manipulative villain, along with the ultimate social bogeyman of the mass murderer. That Mycroft is increasingly unstable is hardly a surprise but he remains a wry and yet distorting viewpoint of events.
Where The Will to Battle is less successful is in the surrounding characters. Where the first two volumes provided us a close set of people surrounding Mycroft (in particular Sniper, Thisbe and Bridger), the nature of book 3’s plot is more concerned with the more powerful figures fighting over policy and events. JEDD Mason, while intriguing as a person is not a character you can engage with given his apparent nature. However, it is necessarily more concerned with events than the previous book and following the choices of the powerful as they increasingly lose control.
Rich and meticulous, Palmer delves into the roots of Western thought in a way that is stylistically quite different from but which closely mirrors Jo Walton’s works. Necessarily, a major flaw in a book series set on a world stage is that events are interpreted deeply eurocentrically. It is an issue tacitly acknowledged by the partisan and unreliable perspective of Mycroft Canner. While I’d love to read a parallel version of the same world shaking events from a narrator with a quite different background (e.g. a perspective informed by the contrasting strands of Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist thinking), Palmer is exploring the ideas that she knows in great depth. The future world she had created is not neccesarily limited in view but rather the very specific (and intentionally erratic) window she has given us is.
In a similar manner we also really only see this future world as it pertains to the very powerful or to the servants of the very powerful. This also reflects Mycroft’s skewed perspectives on the nature of history and also his tendency to mythologise. Throughout all three books Homer’s Iliad has loomed large and is Mycroft’s pre-eminent approach to history: documenting the kings and heroes as they stuggle and the actions of the gods around them.
As yet unanswered, the role of gods, magic and miracles in this ostensibly science fiction setting is unclear. Mycroft’s central unreliability is not a willingness to lie so much as his own weak grasp on reality. I remain unclear as to why so many people accept JEDD’s claims to divinity or whether this is largely Mycroft projecting his own faith onto JEDD. A similar question exists around Bridger’s miracles, the nature of Achilles and I’m not sure if Saladin is entirely real.
Epic and tragic, The Will to Battle maintains the strengths of the first two books. With the fourth (and I assume final) volume to arrive next year, I look forward to seeing how these events play out.