Too Like the Lightning and The Holy War Hole

At first read, Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning isn’t a war novel. It would fall under utopian novel easily, even though it seems so ideal that it doesn’t leave you with the sour taste of older utopias like Brave New World. My overwhelming sense while I read it was wow, how could she get so much of this right? And I had no doubt in my mind that everything in the novel was coming, that Ada Palmer had a genius prescience. Call it airtight worldbuilding, maybe.

It’s not until you get to the second book in the Terra Ignota series, The Seven Surrenders, that the war narrative takes over in an obvious way. I was forced to reconsider my reading of the first novel.

To set up this airtight world in TLtL, Palmer has to explain why the world is the way it is, from the “archaic” language to the philosophies that abound and the naming conventions.

First, I should say that I loved TLtL. I loved the characters and the utopia–with its hairline cracks–and I loved that Palmer went dark–so dark!–without turning the novel into a grimdark medieval war story. (I love those, but it also belies the fact that we humans are plenty dirty without war, too.)

And there it is…without war. TLtL is a novel shaped around a distinctly war-shaped hole. It becomes even more evident as you read TSS and learn get more character background. The Terra Ignota world as Mycroft and the gang know it, though, is all because of the church wars (I can’t remember what they’re called right now and don’t have my copy; also also, I audiobooked both books, and then bought the hardback TLtL). No religious gatherings, sensayers and personal, secret faith, and on and on–all because of this war that the reader knows almost nothing about.

I have my own theories, because I wrote a short story in undergrad about church wars myself, and coincidentally, the enlightenment texts had a role to play as well (not really a coincidence; the story was for a western civilization course so it was required).

What does the prevalence (I say prevalence because if two writers who have never heard of each other could come up with this idea, I’m sure tons have thought it) of imagined holy war stories say about the nature of war today? For one thing, that people see it as one of the most major conflicts of a global scale.

And if we return to the idea of redactions that I wrote about in a previous post…we have my biggest question in the whole Terra Ignota series–where is the Arab world? What has happened to Africa? Were the Middle Eastern and African landmasses destroyed in the Church Wars? By desertification? Did the people scatter and integrate into other nation strats? Does anyone choose to be Muslim? The only character with a remotely Arab name is Saladin, who is Grecian according to Mycroft.

I don’t know if Palmer is saving this information drop in The Will to Battle or if she’s talked about it in an interview (I’ve looked but not found). But I know she’s whipsmart to come up with a series like this. I trust her enough to assume it’s not an oversight…but I want to know, and soon.

Questions, comments, arguments–hit me with them. I know these posts probably won’t be the most organized. It’s more important to me to get the thoughts out, and it’s probably more like having an actual conversation about the topics. When I want to, I’ll write a paper and come with receipts, but until then–this is about curiosity and my desire to think.

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