This is not a light book. Ada Palmer has rewritten the whole history of the modern world and the onrushing future, according to philosophies both new and old, but deeply held and profoundly discussed regardless of their age. Questions of progress, of perfection, of right living. It’s heavy and at times perplexing. But all of that is to the good, since it’s also not a book that should be taken lightly.
But the plot? Oh, yes, the plot. Our narrator, Mycroft Canner, is a criminal and a genius, though not–probably–a criminal genius. Especially not since he got caught, and is living out the rest of his life as a Servicer, one who can have no possessions or place, but can use his talents to better society and earn back some measure of self-sufficiency and honor thereby. Some Servicers work cleaning mucky streets, but Mycroft is called upon by the most elite of the elite, presidents and emperors, to do less menial work. He assists in determining economic futures for the world economy; he aids in investigations of the most celebrated inventor of the age; he serves the clandestine needs of a scandal-ripe, doubly-royal family.
Seeing all this through his calculating eyes would be enough, but Mycroft’s true fealty lies not with any of these. It belongs to a boy named Bridger, eight years old, who can bring his imaginings to life. In an age brightened by science, there is a child who could singlehandedly bring back religion. Religion–that is, the collective adherence to dogmatic truths–is banned for fear of the conflicts it inspires. But individual faith and questioning is still allowed, and sensayers are the guardians of that line between faith and religion. They act as confessors, educators, and skeptics all in one, encouraging people to ponder the big questions but disallowing the imposition of any conclusions.
What could a miracle child do to such a fine but well-tended line?
I did find myself somewhat exhausted by the experience of reading this book, since really, for any other author, this would be two books, or three, or more. The political maneuverings in a highly politically charged world are enough for a book. But these politics take place in spheres and terms that do not (yet) exist. Add to it the presence of Bridger, miraculous child in a world duly afraid of religion and therefore of miracles, and you have a truly dizzying array of stories competing for your attention. I do think Palmer could have done a better job introducing these people and factions, since often she drops names and lets the context for them come later. Now, I’m all for immersive writing, but this is a fictional history. We lack the context for even the basics we now take for granted–gender presentation, transportation, family dynamics–so adding another layer of complexity leaves the reader gasping. Plus,the narrator is not shy about interjecting opinions and explanations–so why not more of them, and sooner?
I was tempted occasionally to break out a notebook to keep everything straight, but in the end it wasn’t necessary. Why? Because Palmer’s characterization skills are so top-notch. You may have to skim backward to remind yourself of the finer points of faction politics, but once a character is introduced, they aren’t easily confused with anyone else. There’s no mistaking the alluring Danae with the mothering Bryar, nor any confusion of Ojiro the spectacle-prone androgyne with the deadly Dominic, who also uses gender as a means and not an end.
Yes, gender in this world has become more enlightened as well. I prefer Ann Leckie’s simpler system in which gender is called into question simply by referring to everyone as “she,” regardless of biology. It’s an elegant way to destabilize the concept. Palmer likewise de-normalizes gender by using the increasingly popular “they” and “them,” a move that probably has a greater likelihood of catching on and certainly does sidestep the gender binary. But then Palmer adds “he” and “she” back in according to different standards, not just going by whether characters choose a certain gender presentation, but also according to 18th century standards of what was coded masculine or feminine.
If gender truly doesn’t matter, then neither should this. Yes, all right, that’s fair. I’m not objecting on a philosophical principle, and I think this actually does advance the idea of expanding/eliminating gender in some ways. But it’s confusing. Confusing to have so many competing standards, confusing to have the narrator at odds with the dialogue he is purporting to write. Mycroft tells us that Dominic is biologically female but has adopted the dress of an 18th century man, and so will be referred to as a man, except when other characters refer to Dominic as “they.” It’s not that it’s impossible to follow on its own, it’s just that there is yet again one more layer to all of this, and not very much time to catch up.
Do these complaints render the book less worthy? No. In fact, there are more good ideas here than I’ve seen in the past dozen science fiction novels combined (with the exception of Ms. Leckie’s work, natch). Political buffs, religious inquirers, and anyone who thinks about the fate of the future ought to read this. This book is the perfect, perfect antidote to the rash of dystopian fiction (and dystopian realities–looking at you, Trump supporters) flooding our shelves recently. It describes a future full of hope and progress, not perfect, but with perfection as a goal. Not security, not survival, but perfection. I can’t fully explain what a joy and relief it is to be in that world, no matter how hard I had to work to keep up with it.
I enjoyed this a ton as well.
I think there’s a certain art to writing (and, perhaps, to *reading*) books that are deliberately confusing. Some authors excel at sending a story barreling along at high velocity, building up a vocabulary of terms that *understand* that you don’t yet understand. (Hannu Rajaniemi springs to mind, with his excellent “The Quantum Thief.”)
If it’s done well, you trust the author to fill in the gaps as you go along, and your experience is one of suspense, waiting for all the pieces in place. (If it’s done less well, you can feel like you’re wading through a morass of meaningless terms that you don’t understand and don’t care about.) To some extent, an author skilled at this specific technique is good at creating significance and resonance *before* they’ve completed their exposition. “She drops names and lets the context for them come later” — if it’s done *well*, that can be infinitely more fun than pausing to explain things early on. And I thought here it was done very well indeed 🙂
I’ll also say that the early scenes, introducing the fascinating concepts of sensayers and bashes, the tension of a child who can bring anything to life, and Mycroft as a Servicer to the rulers of the world — these are all crystal-clear, immediately graspable and exciting. They gave the story a rock-solid foundation, and plenty of fuel for me to be intrigued by the social hints and gradual reveal instead of frustrated by it.
As with Leckie’s books, I think trying to keep track of who is male and who is female is the wrong approach.
Instead it’s a world with multiple layers, each exerting its influence. There’s polite society, where alluding to gender is taboo. There’s particular characters who embody particular gender roles for the power that gives them – whether or not the role actually matches their “real” gender. And there’s a constant acknowledgement that even as society tries to do away with gender roles, they still exist; they still affect us; they can only be hidden and swept away so far. So “following” that Dominic is biologically female is beside the point; it’s much more important that Dominic is “presenting” “male”. And the narrator constantly draws your attention to certain points they want to make about gender and presentation – those are perfectly clear, much more important than actually keeping a chart to remember what each of the cast has under their wraps and robes 😛
Anyway, thank you for the lovely review. It’s fun to find fellow enthusiasts!
Yes, that’s a good point, there are many authors who rush ahead. Gene Wolfe is another. It’s a stylistic choice and Palmer is equipped to do it justice, but there is a bit of confusion here and there, an issue I suspect is due to the fact that this is her first novel rather than any innate inadequacies. If you didn’t find it as confusing, then cheers! I’m glad we both agree that it’s great though 🙂
My objection to the description of gender doesn’t arise from what’s under Dominic’s robes (that is, you rightly point out, entirely none of my/anyone’s business), but rather Mycroft’s need to _point out_ what’s under Dominic’s robes. The character is introduced as biologically female, presenting as male by personal choice, but then “neutered” by others as “they.” Are we to think that “they” is respectful enough, or is it just as rude as assigning the wrong gender? Is Mycroft being rude by pointing out biological sex, even though he respects Dominic’s choice and refers to him as _he_ thereafter, or does Dominic wish his biological sex to also be known? It’s a problem of where we locate ourselves philosophically in this brave new world; Dominic’s introduction was dramatically effective, but intellectually a bit muddled. Which perhaps is the point–gender is not “resolved” in this world, not irrelevant–but I think it still served to confuse the issue as much as clarify it.
And yes, keeping track of who is “female” and who is “male” in Leckie’s books is futile and against the whole point. I <3 the Ancillary series too 🙂
In my reading, we don’t actually *know* what gender Dominic presents as. We’re told very very deliberately that Dominic is biologically female, but Mycroft writes her as male. We don’t know (or care) what Dominic thinks about their own gender.
Instead, we have a seduction scene and a sex scene where we “know” Dominic is biologically female but they’re *written* very strongly as being male. Which… kind of lets you read those scenes in two different ways, and wonder what, if anything, is the difference between them.
So, respect doesn’t really enter the picture. Instead, what Palmer does is introduce… well, I guess you could call it a *new* kind of gender identity. “Perceived inherent gender” – where Mycroft is doing the perceiving, and is being deliberately perverse about it.
Which toys with a lot of questions of what’s “inherent” about gender. It’s like taking typical “men are naturally X; women are naturally Y” patterns, and going “OK, this person is Y, I’ll just call her a woman then, shall I?”. Mycroft’s delight in confusing matters and making nonintuitive choices is a huge part of that effect – if you don’t know that he’s confusing things, then he hasn’t really done anything.
…all of which is quite beside the point of basic clarity. If you felt like you were missing information or being jerked about, well, that’s always frustrating :/ For me, this treatment of gender was… different, and quite fun. 🙂
(I do have _some_ criticisms of the book, but they’re mostly of the “How is she *possibly* going to justify all this in just one more book?” variety. She’s made a LOT of promises, big and small, and I hope she manages to pay them all off…)