Book Notes: Perhaps the Stars

Perhaps the Stars by Ada Palmer
Read Feb 16, 2022 - Apr 2, 2022

Perhaps the Stars is the fourth and final volume of the Terra Ignota series1. As with the previous volumes, I was excited by the richness of the ideas that it presents, and its vision of a world organized very differently from our own. At the same time, this book is fading quickly from my memory.

This is a very ambitious, very complex book. Grandiose, even. Much of it went over my head. For example, I was surprised to read in an interview with Ada Palmer that entire sections of the book are written in meter2. Palmer has said that her goal was to contribute to the Great Conversation, and she has probably accomplished that.

This grand ambition is the book’s strength and also its main weakness. The novel leans more towards political philosophy than storytelling, and I missed better character development and story. There are many topics packed into the series – political philosophy, mythology, religion, Greek gods, characters mixing different languages – but none of them is explored in the depth that it deserves. Despite being much longer than the previous books, Perhaps the Stars feels like it rushes to a conclusion, crowded and unsatisfying, leaving not only ideas undeveloped, but also what used to be major characters barely mentioned.

The Terra Ignota series succeeds at building a compelling world, at asking good questions and providing interesting – if partial – answers. But it doesn’t quite excel as a work of fiction. The many disparate and complex layers distract from the story and its characters. The central characters are deliberate archetypes, and while that makes perhaps for some interesting philosophical questions, it makes for less human, less compelling characters.

Still, there was some fun to be had. I am dazzled by the big questions raised, and encouraged by a world that is neither pure dystopia nor utopia, but a more complex – realistic? – world that needs to be worked on, as all worlds do.

Book Highlights

The vastness of it felt spiteful, this huge, fat planet, as if Earth had planned this, knowing that no wall or battlefront could be so dispiriting a barrier as the cruel width of America.

The Cousin’s wrap and Red Crystal armband are shield and armor for those who count the faces around them not like theirs, and fear that the snores are growing shallow of that long-slumbering beast, majority.

Global access to shared world news is a defining part of our modern age, tying us together into one people, not many splintered peoples. If we keep that, we keep our shared humanity, shared experience.

Free Speech, that old tool of plutocracy, the intoxicating, rosy blossom under whose petals parasite lies can breed and multiply until they devour all the garden. […] I do believe it was a pretty thing once, Free Speech, such a lofty notion, but we outgrew it with our communications revolution, as with our machine guns we outgrew pretty chivalry.

Did we poison our ethics with the trolley problem? Is it bad for us, our minds, our souls, to dive, even in thought experiment, into a universe so artificially unkind?

I find that storytellers slightly poet-mad often age better than their factful peers, broad strokes the fitter for my distant gaze.

Empire is a thought process, the impulse to celebrate when you see a strong hand reach, and grasp, and exercise its power over all things human.

“No one should have to choose between building the future they love and doing so kindly.”

  1. My notes on the previous books of Terra Ignota: Too Like The Lightning, Seven Surrenders and The Will To Battle↩︎

  2. “Palmer: A lot of the prose is in fact secretly in iambic pentameter just with the line breaks taken out, and while the reader isn’t conscious of it you do perceive it unconsciously, and I make the meter be more perfect the more intense and Homeric I want the scene to feel, so I intentionally break the meter a few times in a paragraph in most sections, so that when I get to the ones that are fully perfect meter, the rhythm of it draws you in and feels like epic.” (from↩︎

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