This post includes spoilers for:
- Perhaps The Stars
- Worm
- Worth The Candle
- The Wave (1981 film)

For me, Bridger’s narrative-warping powers destroyed Perhaps The Stars as a novel. I don’t think it was the only flaw — but it was the flaw from which the novel could not recover.

The problem with narrative-warping powers is both that it destroys the characters’ agency (even, in Perhaps The Stars, over their own psyches). Narrative-warping powers aren’t the only thing that can do this: sufficient alien mind-control works too. I basically had to pretend that the entire bit about Shards in Worm hadn’t happened so that I could stand to finish it.

It didn’t matter that Mycroft made decisions which lead to his death (twice), because the plot demanded that he return.

To be fair, Mycroft’s second return, in the chapters leading up to and including “No One”, was rather well-written. The way that the prose shifted to include more and more of his distinctive style, leading up to the moment when the fateful words “No one” were uttered, was quite delightful. But I don’t think that impressive prose style is enough to carry the novel; we had already had three volumes of that.

It didn’t matter what arguments Faust made, because he was destined to be Priam. If Faust knew who Mycroft was, how did he not know that he himself was Priam, and Gordian Troy? And if he knew, how did he not expect a Trojan Horse? (For that matter, how did the Trojans not expect a Trojan horse? There’s an earlier Egyptian story, The Taking of Joppa, in which the Egyptians use a similar tactic, and which pre-dates the fall of Troy by hundreds of years. Maybe Priam hadn’t read The Taking of Joppa, which is not an excuse that Faust has available).

So why did Worth The Candle work? Degenerate Cycles (perhaps the bleakest cosmological concept since quantum immortality) showed the GM’s thumb on the scales. It worked because the stakes in Worth The Candle were not whether Juniper would get the good ending. The stakes were whether Wales could come to terms with the loss of his friend. That’s why Fenn’s resurrection wasn’t a cheat. Fenn was resurrected. Arthur wasn’t.

These are stakes that are particularly poignant to me this past week, as I think about the end of Terra Ignota. First, I remember coming upon my copy of Too Like The Lightning when I was cleaning out my brother’s apartment after his death. I didn’t realize it was mine, and we gave it away, and then I had to buy it again to reread in preparation for the release of Perhaps The Stars. And then Tuesday, I was in court fighting my bullshit unreasonable noise ticket (I won), and I remembered the last time I had been in court over some petty bullshit (my landlord dropped my air conditioner out the window and then blamed me for it), and my brother came up to watch, and I know he would have wanted to come up to watch this one too.

I think people will vary in how much the narrative-warping bothers them. If the story had otherwise worked, I think I would might have been willing to treat the entire Homer thing as a symptom of Mycroft’s insanity. But I also was struck by a few more problems that made the whole thing fall apart for me.

Frist, Gordian. Prior to Perhaps The Stars, I sort of assumed that they were a self-improvement cult, like EST or NLP. But actually they’re more like the Bene Gesserit. Or are they? For instance, if they’re so smart, how come they ain’t rich? This is a real question: they’re clearly resource-limited, which is one reason they envy Utopia.

I just started listening to Your Undivided Attention, and the first episode discusses how casinos manipulate players into spending more money. They give an example that Felix Faust would love (my brother would have loved it too):

A good example of this is, I think we talked about this once, that in psycholinguistics if you have two theoretical pain medications, one’s called Pavel, and one’s called Bavel. Which one works faster?

I’m going to leave their answer off, because I replicated this at a very small scale and 4/5 people agreed so and I’m pretty sure that you will too (it helps if you say them out loud). Bouba/Kiki is a more famous example of a similar phenomenon, but nobody is trying to sell you a bouba. The podcast isn’t really about casinos qua casinos. It’s about the tech industry. As Jeff Hammerbacher (of Facebook) noted: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” If Gordian has such a deep level of insight into humanity, then why aren’t they using it to either (a) make money, or (b) become more popular?

(I want to exclude the possibility that the answer is actually the same as Louis Jordan’s original answer: I don’t think 50 hours a week of hard work beats 20 hours a week of Jedi mind tricks).

Also, if Gordian techniques really work, the fact that they are in German wouldn’t stop people from learning them. Like, I understand that in 2012 (when Terra Ignora was initially conceived), machine translation sort of sucked. And I’m sure that it’s very hard to translate deep psychological insight. But if the techniques work well enough to win a war against Utopia, then the incentives are certainly strong enough to get a translation. This article aside, generally useful technologies spread unless something stops them. And German isn’t enough.

One thing that could stop technologies from spreading is patents (especially if they were longer-lasting than our current patents). And this gets to a problem with Terra Ignota as a whole: while it examines religion, history, gender, and government, it seems to treat property as a given. I think it would be uncharitable to say that this is unsurprising from a professor at the University of Chicago, but I do admit that the thought crossed my mind. Two of Kohaku Mardi’s three triggers are about property. But the nature of property is entirely unexamined. What sorts of things can be property? What sort of right is a property right? This is especially hairy in a poly-legal system: I say you’ve trespassed; you say you’re practicing your freedom to roam. I say you’re infringing my eternal patent; you say that patents on mathematics are illegitimate and anyway your patent expired after seventeen years. All this is to say that a land value tax would totally fix the Mitsubishi problem. And some wishy-washy corporate social responsibility thing, which is what they ended up with, would totally not.

One possible explanation for this omission is that the philosophy of property didn’t really get interesting until the 19th century, while Terra Ignota’s philosophical core is in the 17th and 18th centuries. I don’t know if this is actually true: maybe there’s a bunch of interesting stuff in the 18th century, but the 19th has JS Mill, Karl Marx, and Henry George (and arguably William Foster Lloyd). Schelling, in the 20th century, provides another novel argument. But Thomas Carlyle was 19th century, so I’m not sure that the date theory works. Palmer has collaborated with Cory Doctorow, who has certainly written plenty about the nature of property, so I have to admit that I don’t understand this omission.

This also feeds into the weakness of the ending. OK, so Utopia has surrendered — but why doesn’t everyone just quit Utopia and join a new hive, Utopia B, which doesn’t recognize Utopia’s surrender? After all, they’ve already lost their space elevator and given away most of their patents. What’s left that Utopia has that Utopia B doesn’t? Mars itself? But if you believe that Original Utopia owns Mars, then you’re back to geographic nations.

Let me also say that an ending in which J.E.D.D. Mason was successful in reforming the hives was completely unexpected, and rather unsatisfying. What I expected was something more like the ending of The Wave: J.E.D.D. Mason tells everyone that they are fools to follow him no matter his personal charisma, that the idea of salvation is a myth, and that any change that he could impose by fiat would be better imposed through democratic means.

I wonder if this is just a failure to suspend disbelief. Like, I recognize that there’s some special thing that J.E.D.D. Mason has, and that somehow everyone who meets him recognizes. In a real sense, he’s not just one of us. So maybe if I had met him, I, too, would worship. But maybe not. Even if I accept that J.E.D.D. Mason is a god (and I think it’s far more likely that he’s simply the normal, extra-terrestrial-but-not-extra-planar sort of alien and that the entire scene with his death and resurrection was theater; the fact that it is possible to reverse-engineer Bridger’s technology is some evidence for this), that doesn’t mean I have to worship him. I think a lot of people would object to being ruled by an alien god, and I think they would be right to.

I often feel, in philosophical fiction, that my position is not well-represented. This was one problem that I had with Ken Liu’s Reborn. Perhaps The Stars didn’t really have that problem with respect to my political view: my position in the war was that of the the Blacklaw Hiveless: I would have just wanted to be left alone. (I’m actually somewhat sympathetic to OS, but only in the context of a philosophical novel; in actual reality, the unaccountable killers who claim they’re protecting us are stunningly incompetent). And I also understand that my position is unpopular. War is popular. Last Thursday was Veterans Day, and even otherwise sensible people posted bullshit like “thanks for your service” instead of what they ought to have posted, which is “fuck you murderers, I’m not celebrating you.” Which is, somewhat surprisingly, ultimately with J.E.D.D. Mason said.

But my religious views were rather unrepresented: everyone seemed to believe that (a) J.E.D.D. Mason was in fact a god, and (b) that this meant that he was worthy in some way of respect. It seems possible that this was supposed to be unbelievable. That is, whether by questioning Jehovah Mason, we are supposed to question Original Flavor Jehovah, and the logic of theocracy in general. Like, “this is what believing in God looks like from the outside”. The thought experiment carefully separates out a lot of the baggage of religion: there’s no tradition, J.E.D.D. Mason isn’t our creator, and you can’t object to any particular thing that he represents because (until the end), he refuses to tell you what his plans are. I don’t understand why nobody — no Utopian, no Humanist, no Gordian said, “well, imagine that you are some kind of God. So what?”

And “So what?” is, unfortunately, my reaction to the entire denouement of the book.

A few more things:

  1. Whenever I saw Sniper being thwarted, I couldn’t help but imagine Dora the Explorer saying, “Sniper, no sniping!” (She even speaks Spanish, like a good Humanist!). I would have liked to see more of Sniper.

  2. I was extremely surprised to see something named after Aung San Suu Kyi. At least I assume that’s what was going on? That was definitely confusing.

  3. Huxley should have replied to Faust: “Yes, we will bring Distance, but so will you. How much faster will emulated brains run? Reykjavik to Antarctica is already 60ms - but if ems run faster, that would feel like minutes, or hours, or days. And if they run slower, then we waste lifetimes as the sun darkens.”

  4. There were some really good bits: the Odyssey set-piece was fun, Dominic’s return was beautiful, and I enjoyed that Thisbe, being a cinematic sort, had to do a villain speech and that’s what did her in. Oh, and J.E.D.D. Mason’s speech about killings during war is the sort of common sense that is under-appreciated.

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