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Literature / Terra Ignota

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"Would you destroy a better world to save this one?"
Mycroft Canner (quoting Apollo Mojave)

The Terra Ignota series by Ada Palmer are a series of Science Fiction novels set in a future that is neither a utopia nor dystopia.

It is the year 2454, and the world is nearly unrecognizable. Geographic nations dissolved with the invention of transportation that could circumnavigate the globe in a few hours, the standard family unit disappeared following groundbreaking psychological research that determined groups of peers were more conductive to raising great minds, and all religion has been outlawed following the destructive Church Wars several centuries before. Sensayers — a combination of priests, scholars, and psychologists who teach any and all forms of spirituality without preaching or judging — have filled the spiritual niche. The world has been at peace for hundreds of years.

Then, one day, a sensayer by the name of Carlyle Foster walks in on a young child bringing a toy to life. But Bridger is only a small part of a vast political battle between rival nation-strats, corporations and Hives containing billions of people each.

The series is now complete after the publication of the final installment. It has four novels, the titles of which are:

  1. Too Like the Lightning (2016)
  2. Seven Surrenders (2017)
  3. The Will to Battle (2017)
  4. Perhaps the Stars (2021)

This series features the following tropes:

  • A Boy and His X: Parodied with the chapter title, "A Boy And His God."
  • Absence of Evidence: Inverted. There is some vague, circumstantial evidence that the Utopians might be behind the theft of the Seven-Ten list in order to discredit the Humanist Hive and their car system. Mycroft manages to convince world leaders that they couldn't be involved, because if they were, they would have performed the crime so perfectly that no one would ever suspect them for a second.
  • Absurdly Cool City: "Spectacle Cities" are cities designed from the ground up to impress. Cielo de Pájaros, one of the first and which houses the global car computers, is a coastal city built in descending tiers separated by "flower trenches" that support millions of wild birds. Togenkyo, the Mitsubishi capital, is not only a City on the Water but shaped like seven huge lotus blossoms, every petal of which is an inhabited skyscraper.
  • Amazing Technicolor Wildlife: The Utopians make use of U-Beasts, cyborgs in the shape of fantastical animals. Mycroft describes a rainbow Archaeopteryx, a green and yellow pillarcat, and a crystal griffin.
  • Ambiguous Gender: Very nearly everyone. Explicitly gendering people is considered borderline pornographic in Mycroft’s time, up to and including gendered pronouns. These have been greatly depreciated by Mycroft's time, to the point that whenever he does use them, he apologizes to the readers. Sometimes he even admits that his pronouns aren't matching an individual's biological sex, but he still uses the pronoun he does because the person acts so stereotypically masculine/feminine, no matter what their biology dictates.
    • Exaggerated, however, by Sniper, who is androgynous and deliberately plays up its sexual ambiguity as part of its celebrity persona. Fans who know which set of genitalia it has, which is quite a few of them since Sniper practices The Oldest Profession alongside everything else, faithfully swear themselves to secrecy. It has both, naturally.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: Played with by the Masonic Empire, which claims to be the Freemasons of conspiracy theory fame, humanity's secret shepherds down through the millennia now forced to rule openly by the chaos of the Church Wars. It's made clear that nobody actually believes them, but they maintain the fiction because it keeps them unified and gives them a semi-mystical aura of ancient power and heritage.
  • Animal Motifs: A surprisingly large number of characters are compared to dogs.
  • Art Initiates Life: This is a big portion of Bridger's powers, coupled with a large dose of all around reality warping. Not only can he bring toys to sentience or sapience (for a long but limited time, which can be repeated), but with some exceptions for physics, he can make real anything he draws (permanently). This even includes creating a panacea by drawing a tube of medicine and designating it as such (and hypothetically being able to wipe out all life by doing the opposite). Even outright magical artifacts are within his power to make, such as resurrection potions or Hermes' winged sandals. Bridger has a "No-No Box" filled with things he knows to absolutely never make real, which includes things like a black rubber ball (which he pretends to be a black hole), a doomsday device from a comic book, and representations of religious figures.
  • Benevolent Dictator:
    • Due to the way nations work in this setting, any person who objects to their Hive's decisions can renounce their citizenship and join another Hive (or even none at all). If a Hive wants to keep or increase its political power, it must make decisions that the majority of its populace supports, or they'll begin leaving in droves. The Masonic Empire, with its autocratic Emperors, can therefore prove that they have the support of their people by the fact that they have the largest population of any Hive. Mycroft describes Emperor Cornel MASON as the world's father, stern and iron-willed but a reassuring presence through his stability (though he's a self-acknowledged Unreliable Narrator).
    • The Humanists are run by an unusual form of democracy in which anyone may vote for anyone else, and how much power that person wields is determined by the percentage of the people who voted for them. 50 years ago the leading figure in government had received 7% percent of the vote, with the remaining 93% divided among more than 500 senators. But President Ganymede, a beloved public figure, received an unprecedented 63% of the vote in the last election, and therefore possesses 63% of the powers of government, giving him near-unilateral power by consent of the governed. As Mycroft says, "It was a revolution ... a transition from republic to dictatorship in fifty years without a single drop of blood. Detractors call it a cult of charisma, but Humanists themselves use aretocracy, rule by excellence."
  • Big Brother Is Watching: Everyone wears a device called a tracker, which has several purposes: in addition to smartphone-like functions, it also monitors people's heart rates to detect emergencies, checks their location to ensure they aren't venturing into any off-limits areas, and sends this data to the flying-car system to help address their transportation needs.
  • Boxed Crook: Although generally, Servicers are essentially slaves — with the twist that they belong to everyone else rather than a single owner — Mycroft's arrangement is in line with this trope. He's an extremely clever notorious criminal (now reformed), which makes his services highly valued by the rich and powerful. While there's no promise of freedom in exchange for him carrying out dangerous missions (that's not possible for a Servicer), his arrangement means that he has powerful allies and gets to live in one location under comfortable conditions, rather than being a vagrant doing manual labor.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Mycroft often addresses his readers directly, mostly under the assumption that they are from centuries in the future and might need parts of his world explained to them, since he can't be sure what has changed. Conveniently, this also provides explanations for 21st-century readers. Uniquely, he sometimes has his hypothetical reader talk back to him with comments and questions.
  • Brown Note: Mycroft recorded his heartbeat during his crimes, mostly just on a whim. He expected someone would find something scientifically significant in it. Instead, someone turned it into music. Now, whenever he hears the "Canner Beat," he is ripped back to the moment of his crimes, shutting him down as easily as a stun gun.
  • Capital Letters Are Magic:
    • The masonic emperor adopts the surname MASON, elevating a term applied to every member into a special title for their venerated leader via capitalization.
    • Used liberally with regards to J.E.D.D. Mason. The name J.E.D.D., though it's actually an acronym, comes off to many as a normal name given special weight by the capitalization, fitting for a weird, powerful, and possibly divine young man. Mycroft also capitalizes J.E.D.D.'s pronouns and some other nouns related to him, as one would for a God, reflecting Mycroft's views about him. This is directly discussed on one passage where Mycroft notes that German, which capitalizes all nouns, was more comfortable for J.E.D.D. due to the weight and importance the capitalization gives to things.
  • Captive Date: Doubly subverted. One attractive and famous character is frequently subjected to experiences like these, but enjoys them, taking pleasure from being someone's "doll." However, one time it doesn't work out so well for them...
  • Common Tongue: In the 25th century, English is the language of all of Earth, while each Hive has its own language in addition to that, but members of any Hive are only allowed to learn them upon registering with the Hive (usually for life). The Mitsubishi have Japanese, the Masons have Latin, the Humanists Spanish, and so on, and it is considered extremely impolite to know the language of another Hive.
  • Complete-the-Quote Title: Two examples.
    • Too Like the Lightning, the first book of the series, derives its title from a passage in Romeo and Juliet: "It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,/Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be/Ere one can say “It lightens.” While in the original context, Juliet is expressing doubt about Romeo's constancy, in the context of the novel, it serves to raise questions about the novel's utopian setting and/or shocking events which threaten its continued utopianism.
    • The title of Book 3, The Will to Battle, comes from Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, which is most famous for its beliefs that authoritarianism is the only way to secure peace. The full sentence is "For war consists not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known." Although many characters are trying to Prevent the War, the title hints at Hobbes's belief that the world was, in this sense, already at war. Hobbes's beliefs are discussed in-story several times mainly through his "conversations" with Mycroft. His belief that the war was unavoidable also turns out to be correct when Atlantis is destroyed at the end of the book.
  • Content Warnings: Provided in-universe by the Gordian Exposure Ratings Commission. They include warnings about sexual and violent content, offensive opinions, and religion.
  • Conviction by Contradiction: Papadelias, the cop who brought Mycroft in after Mycroft's two-week-long murder rampage, has known for years that there is something off about Mycroft's case, based mostly on how Mycroft seemed to be in two places at the same time while committing his crimes. Every time they run into each other, he quizzes Mycroft on the timeline, trying to find discrepancies. Mycroft always has a correct and plausible answer. Papadelias is right, though. Mycroft is hiding his lover and partner in crime Saladin, who committed half the murders.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment:
    • The Utopians have a special punishment for killing one of their own: Modo mundo. They cut the perpetrator off from any sort of entertainment, from movies to books. The idea is that every Utopian has a thousand stories inside them (even if they never publish), and by killing them you killed all those stories. So, you are cut off from stories in turn.
    • When the cook at one of J.E.D.D. Mason's safehouses accidentally destroyed a priceless book, J.E.D.D. told her that the protagonist of every work of fiction is Humanity, and the antagonist is God. Since after that Chagatai's found herself unable to enjoy any entertainment without agonizing over the struggle between humanity and God, she placed herself under an unofficial modo mundo, forgoing any entertainment and collecting knowledge of movie trivia instead.
  • Crystal Spires and Togas: The books are set in a (mostly) utopian future, ruled by (mostly) wise and well-meaning leaders. Newer cities, like Esperanza City or Togenkyo, are filled with spires and crystal, while other cities like Romanova were modeled after ancient Rome. With the exception of the Utopians, a lot of people wear normal-ish clothes made of fantastic fabrics, but the the Cousins' flowing wraps and the Mitsubishi jackets with botanical designs that reflect the seasons most closely fit the "togas" style. The book even features an important character (J.E.D.D. Mason) who deconstructs the idea of a Philosopher King.
  • Darkest Africa: Played with thanks to an Unreliable Narrator. Most of Africa is in the "Great African Reservation," which is described in-universe as a dangerous and violent place filled with primitive governments. While it is true that Africa is less peaceful than the majority of the world in this future, some of the narrator's prejudice against it is simply because public religion and gender are still allowed there. Furthermore, in book 4 we find out that the "primitive governments" are actually geographic nation-states, and they make up the largest remnant of the United Nations. They help the Utopians on multiple occasions.
  • A Day in the Limelight:
    • Several chapters in the first and third books are told from investigator Martin Guildbreaker's point of view.
    • Sniper narrates the first chapter of book two, Seven Surrenders. The Will to Battle reveals this to have been part of a deal between J.E.D.D. Mason and Sniper to convince Sniper to return Mycroft to J.E.D.D. Mason. The chapter details, from Sniper's point of view, what happened to it during it's disappearance at the end of book one.
    • The last chapter of the third book, The Will to Battle, is written by the Servicer whom Mycroft names Outis earlier in the book, after Mycroft himself is presumed to have died. In a Call-Back to the first book, where Mycroft claims the narrator should introduce himself to the reader by stating his name, background and qualifications but never reveals the later two, Outis reveals both his backstory and qualifications at length but refuses to name himself, then reveals that he's been training to become the next Anonymous behind the scenes. It would seem like Outis will be the chronicler from now on but Mycroft chimes in with a short note that he's still alive and will return after this chapter.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: For the future, rather than the past. In this world of 2454, priests are associated with wars, expressing any gender makes people uncomfortable, geographic nations are considered primitive, "free speech" is now considered a hate phrase, and a lifetime as a Servicer is considered more humane than prison. The characters and narration often emphasize how much better they are than the flawed societies of the past, namely us. Whether we should agree with them is unclear.
  • Disaster Dominoes: The first book begins with the theft of a Seven-Ten List, a newspaper editorial of the ten most important people in the world. One thing leads to another, and the fourth book is about World War III.
  • Domesticated Dinosaurs: The Utopians make use of an Archaeopteryx U-Beast. Being the Utopians, it has rainbow plumage and can be used as a remote scanning device.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Mycroft comments early on that while his own first name used to be one of the most common (presumably due to Sherlock Holmes fans), his past conduct made it so that it lost popularity and people named Mycroft are inclined to go by other names in public, like Mycroft Guildbreaker going by Martin Guildbreaker instead. Once the reader learns that Mycroft's a serial killer, this makes a lot of sense.
  • Embarrassing Middle Name: Sniper is a worldwide known and beloved celebrity, winner of several Olympic medals and secretly the most dangerous assassin of the 25th century. His full name is also Ojiro Cardigan Sniper. Mycroft comments how much of a closely kept secret it is that one of the most formidable people on the planet goes by Cardigan or just Cardie at home.
  • Expy: In Perhaps the Stars, it's revealed that many characters in the book are based on Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey, because Bridger's imaginations twisted their fate to follow along the books' storyline. 9A and Mycroft realizes this midway through the story and tries to avert the deaths of characters predicted in the books, to no avail.
    • Mycroft is Odysseus, whose return to Romanova in Chapter 11 is almost the same as Odysseus's return to Ithaca.
    • Cato is Helen, or more specifically, the H.E.L.E.N. research project in Apollo's re-written version of the Iliad in the story, capable of solving any scientific problem in a single thought. After Bridger made Cato H.E.L.E.N., his theft by Utopia made Utopia Troy.
    • Cornel MASON is Patroclus, Achilles's closest friend slain in combat by Hector and whose death spurs Achilles to pageful revenge.
    • Ando is Sarpedon, the Trojan hero slain by Patroclus.
    • Kosala is Hector, who kills Patroclus and is later killed by Achilles in revenge.
    • Sniper is Paris, who once held Helen and kills Achilles with an arrow.
    • Croucher-Praye is Thersites.
    • Achilles is Achilles.
  • Fantastic Racism: Set-sets are strongly discriminated against. They're essentially living computers, created by setting a child's developmental set (kind of like a Meyers-Briggs personality type, but with many, many more parameters) permanently in a format far above human norms. Defenders of set-sets point out that they are by far the happiest, most well-adjusted people you'll ever meet, while the Nurturists who oppose them call them unnatural, inhuman monsters who can't be called alive since they can't grow. As inter-Hive tensions grow, Nurturists begin applying the term “set-set” to any demographic they consider deviant in some way.
    Faust: But it is not a human being, it's farther than dolphins, farther than chimps, farther than U-beasts, and it is not welcome in my Institute!
  • False Utopia: The whole point of the series. Despite three centuries of global peace, human comfort and happiness being at its highest point in history, and "the end of majority", there are still uncomfortable cracks in society: controversy over set-sets, the Mitsubishi land monopoly, the increasingly overwhelming political power of the Masons, and more. Some of these have caused riots that very nearly boiled over into war. But by far the greatest flaw is revealed to be that the three centuries of peace have been bought with the assassinations of over two thousand people over that time by an international government conspiracy, each death precisely calculated to calm the latest crisis before it becomes a flashpoint.
  • Far East: Deconstructed. Although the majority of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people are united under a single government in the Mitsubishi Hive, which carries on traditions from multiple cultures, the tensions between them threaten to tear it apart at several points, and it ultimately splits into five factions during the war.
  • Flying Car: Flying cars are essential to the world, since they have been developed far enough to circle the globe in mere hours, allowing people to live in Europe, work in South America, and return home in time for dinner. A large portion of the plot is centered around the bash' house that runs the flying-car system for almost the entire world, something they have been doing for generations. It all can only function because set-sets, human computers specialized to an extreme for the calculation of millions of flight routes at once, have been developed.
  • Foreshadowing: When Mycroft gives out names based on characters from the Trojan War to his fellow Servicers in order to preserve their anonymity, he names one of them Outis, which is later revealed to mean "no one" in his native Greek note . "No one" as in "anonymous". Since Mycroft never planned to stay the Anonymous for long, he already had a candidate to succeed him ready, which "Outis" does at the end of The Will to Battle.
  • Frame-Up: The story is kicked off when someone frames the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash' for stealing the Seven-Ten list from the Black Sakura newspaper by smuggling the list into their house. Interestingly, the investigators realize very quickly that it's a frame-job, and immediately start asking why anyone would bother to frame the bash'. It turns out to be part of a gambit to get another Seven-Ten list into the public eye, since it wasn't going to be published due to a poorly timed retirement.
  • Future Slang:
    • The Utopians use slang that sounds like it's been taken straight out of a sci-fi story instead of an actual unique language like the other Hives use. Fitting, since they're basically the world's speculative fiction nerds organized into a nation. Mycroft's favorite is "superprosthesis" for exceptionally useful tools.
    • Society in general has developed a line of slang words surrounding their revised idea of a family unit, the bash', which does not consist of related/married people anymore, but of friends/like-minded individuals who set up their own households and rear any children they might have together. This has produced words like ba'sibs and ba'pas (siblings and parents, respectively), all based on the Japanese word for 'home', i-basho.
  • Geas: Played with. Chagatai believes J.E.D.D. Mason, who believes himself to be a god, placed a geas on her, which led her to put herself under a modo mundo. After she accidentally destroyed a priceless book, J.E.D.D. Mason told her that the protagonist of every work of fiction is Humanity, and the antagonist is God. Ever since that Chagatai's found herself unable to enjoy any entertainment without agonizing over that struggle, swearing off fiction forever. It's pretty clear that nothing would happen should she revise that decision, but Chagatai herself strongly believes that something unusual happened.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Names such as Lesley, Vivien, Robin, and Bryar contribute to the gender ambiguity of the setting. Also, many people regardless of gender are given last names of historical figures as their first names, such as Ockham, Voltaire, Aldrin, and Carlyle. This is especially prevalent with Utopians.
  • God in Human Form: Played with in not one, but two characters:
    • J.E.D.D. Mason believes himself to be a god from another universe, brought into this one and reborn in human form for no reason he can deduce despite his outstanding intelligence. He claims to remember his existence as that other universe's god as being timeless and without ambition, quite in contrast to his life in this universe. Since he can easily tell when someone is lying and is unable to lie himself, and seems able to read minds, the people of his bash' are convinced that he really is a god and worship him. He becomes set on finding and confronting this universe's god about his reasons for inflicting the pain of a mortal existence on him. However, whether he truly is a god or a really convincing megalomaniac is left up to the reader to decide when provided with the information that he was conceived and raised in isolation as a social experiment, with the goal of establishing him as the unfailable and beloved ruler of the world.
    • Bridger is a thirteen-year-old boy who can literally work miracles, including curing cancer, creating life and bringing people back from the dead. However, due to being raised by loving people he is a very normal boy with human wants and fears and morals, fighting a deep-seated desire to help everyone with the knowledge that he cannot just magic everything to be perfect. He has only memories of his human life, but several people claim Bridger has no belly button, meaning he cannot have been born normally. Initially Bridger is presented as just an anomaly and a chance for the world to become a better place, but J.E.D.D. Mason becomes convinced that he is this universe's god, raising the question of whether he really is god in disguise or a being sent to Earth by this universe's god. Eventually, scared beyond reason by the people set on finding him and using him for their own means, Bridger miracles himself out of existence, leaving the questions of his origins and purpose unanswered.
  • Government Conspiracy:
    • A benevolent version is at the center of the first two books of the series. The supposedly disparate Hives are actually very closely intertwined through the relations their leaders have in Madame's brothel/church. Despite the general debauchery and the world's leaders literally being in bed with each other, they genuinely do value the safety and stability of the world over their own power, conducting secret negotiations and deals away from the public eye in the knowledge that should that ever come out, no matter how benevolent their intentions may be there would be a massive public outcry.
    • A separate conspiracy in which the President of the Humanists, the Chief Director of the Mitsubishi and the Head of the European Parliament are involved is more ambiguous. Turns out that they've been behind a secret group of assassins conducting mathematically determined assassinations of certain individuals in order to keep the world's politics balanced, resulting in several hundred years of uninterrupted peace around the globe. On the other hand, their victims are innocents often uninvolved with politics and number in the thousands.
  • Gratuitous Greek: Mycroft, who is Greek, addresses J.E.D.D. Mason by the title Anax (Lord), spelled out in the original Greek as Ἄναξ. In later books, epithets of ancient Greek gods also appear in their original language.
  • Gratuitous Latin: The Masons use Latin as their special tongue, and all the Masonic offices and rules have solemn Latin names. It adds to the Mason's ancient, mystical aura. Due to the taboo on learning other Hives' languages, most of the Latin spoken in Terra Ignota is presented without Translation Convention. (Translations are tacked on in parentheses, in-universe unauthorized, by 9A for the sake of readability).
  • Gray-and-Grey Morality: The series has a number of competing factions who are sometimes at odds with each other and occasionally allied. Every faction contains members with noble aspirations and admirable qualities as well as members with heinous tendencies (some characters combine both). Well Intentioned Extremists abound, and the narrative carefully avoids making any one faction the one for audiences to root for. And the most virtuous characters, Bridger and Carlyle, are the most passive and removed from the struggle for power.
  • Greek Chorus: While Mycroft is narrating, he interrupts himself from time to time with what he imagines a future reader would say, as well as various dead people, most notably Thomas Hobbes. The trope name is uniquely accurate, since Mycroft is Greek.
  • Herr Doktor: The German psychologist Adolf Richter Brill revolutionized justice, linguistics, and education, and developed the Brillist number set, an eight-digit string of numbers designed to quantify one's behavior and personality (think MBTI types if they used numbers and were actually reliable). The meaning of each digit is never actually mentioned, and understanding them requires years of study with the Brillist Hive (and you have to learn German - Brill believed Language Equals Thought and that German was the only language precise enough to record and teach his work in), but the relatively few people who have can do a Sherlock Scan with someone's body language alone and identify their number set just by looking at them, and they're never shown to be wrong. The current headmaster of Brill's Institute, Felix Faust, exemplifies all these traits.
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier: Due to the taboo on learning another Hive's language, many characters do this to keep sensitive information from one another. For example, early on in Seven Surrenders a conversation between the president of the Humanist Hive and his security officer takes place in Spanish, allowing the president to explain a pertinent personal matter without the other people present knowing what was said.
  • Holiday Ceasefire: A preemptive example. In The Will to Battle, with world war seemingly inevitable, all sides agree to delay hostilities just long enough to hold the 140th Olympics. The world therefore sees 128 more days of peace before the war begins.
  • Illegal Religion: Except in designated Reservations, all organized religion is banned as a result of the Church Wars, to the point where simply discussing theology "unchaperoned" in a group of three or more people is specifically outlawed. Just possessing religious iconography isn't illegal, but nobody wants it anyways. However, non-organized religion is tolerated: specially trained people called sensayers address peoples' spiritual needs by helping them develop and practice one-person religions, individual to each of their clients. However, a significant fraction of the population remains closeted worshipers of the old religions; Carlyle in particular is introduced as someone who secretly honors the holy days of every religion, and the privations of war makes that minority significant in several ways in the last book.
  • Literary Allusion Title: Too Like the Lightning is taken from Romeo and Juliet.
    Juliet: It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
    Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
    Ere one can say "It lightens."
  • Long-Lived: Not as long as some examples but definitely present. Thanks to anti-aging drugs and genetic modification, characters as old as 38 are said to look like older adolescents, 90 is considered young for retirement, and the oldest character in the series is still working at 165, though this is noted to be unusual.
  • Made a Slave: As part of the Deliberate Values Dissonance, slavery has made a comeback in the form of the Servicer program, in which people convicted of serious crimes such as murder are sentenced to a lifetime of slavery. This is supposedly a humane alternative to prison. The twist is that, instead of a single master, they serve the public: anyone who needs an extra pair of hands with anything is entitled to demand them from a Servicer. Servicers are not paid, are forbidden from owning property, and eat only what food they can scrounge or their masters compensate them with.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: The Saneer-Weeksbooth bash', the members of which are responsible for the running and safety of the world's Flying Car system, has been involved in a conspiracy to stage car crashes and other accidents to kill off minor, unimportant relatives of famous people in order to calm down riots and other dangerous world events for the past 244 years. They went so far as to stage the deadly boat accident involving their own bash' parents. The Utopians are noted to be immune to being murdered in this manner; since they have their own Flying Car system and investigate any Utopian death with a single-minded fervor, no one wants to risk getting them involved.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Several key events, such as Bridger's powers and the resurrection of J.E.D.D. Mason and his supposed godhood seem to be caused by magic or divine intervention, but due to the heavy levels of Unreliable Narrator and deliberate ambiguity about what is technically possible in the world, books 1-3 leave open the possibility of further developments Doing In the Wizard. The supernatural nature of these events is debated in-universe as well. Book 4, however, comes down firmly on the side of magic, being written in part by someone with a stronger grip on reality and having the supernatural or otherwise inexplicable elements of previous books being corroborated by other people and Utopian science.
  • MegaCorp: The Mitsubishi somewhat resemble one, as they are ruled by a board of directors who are elected by shareholders in accordance to how much they own and are constantly scheming for more power (they already own most of the world's land). However, as a Hive they're more equivalent to a government than a company, though they may have descended from the modern Mitsubishi conglomerate.
  • Not Actually the Ultimate Question: When Martin Guildbreaker is interviewing Cato, he asks why Cato has been volunteering at the science museum since he was fifteen. Cato goes on a long rant about how science is being taught wrong, and it's all geared towards end goals like "learn geometry so you can design a building." Martin politely explains that he just wanted to know why Cato started at that age specifically.
  • One-Steve Limit: Mycroft and Carlyle are (or, were, in the former's case) some of the most popular names in the book's recent generations. Martin Guildbreaker changed his name from Mycroft, Ektor Papadelias's middle name is Carlyle, and there are several historical figures with both names as well. Fortunately, there's only one current, important user of each as a first name in the story.
  • Orphaned Etymology: In-universe, no one is quite sure where exactly the word sensayer came from. Mycroft notes that the woman who invented them was more worried about making sure all religion and spiritual history didn't disappear, and didn't bother writing down the origins of the word she just made up.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Martin Guildbreaker is an aggressive and serious investigator who is always careful to make sure he has all the facts before making a decision and is dismissive of anything frivolous. So when he says that he's pretty sure that J.E.D.D. Mason can read minds, Papa takes the statement seriously.
    Papa: I'll do you a favor and not ask you to explain yourself.
    Martin: Thank you.
  • The Perfectionist: The Utopians always take the time to do everything perfectly, no matter how small an error or how long it takes. For example, the worldwide transit system is controlled by the Humanist Hive, and is the safest, fastest, and most efficient transit system in human history. There was an accident which resulted in a number of Utopians (and others) dying. Everyone else accepted it as an unfortunate statistical error, but the Utopians removed themselves from the Humanist system and created their own transit system. It is slower and smaller, but it has never caused even one death.
  • Prevent the War: Many characters try to do this, in different ways.
  • Pronoun Trouble: By the 25th century, "he" and "she" have been set aside in favor of gender-neutral "they". So "they" is used in the dialogue, when the characters are talking to each other, but Mycroft uses "he" and "she" — along with "thee" and "thou" — in the narration to mimic the style of writing he's trying to use. He doesn't really use them the traditional way, often assigning pronouns based on his (17th-century-influenced) perception of someone rather than their biological sex or outright stating that it's a carefully kept secret and he's just using what's convenient, as in the case of Sniper in the first book of the series. Dominic, for example, is biologically female, but due to his male dress and exaggeratedly masculine behavior, is called "he". One character Mycroft refers to with "him" even starts being called "her" after she's put in an emotionally charged situation, and then switches back to "him" a few chapters later.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: Invoked by narrator Mycroft, who refuses to translate Latin due to his reverence for the Masons, but defied by in-universe editor 9A, who provides translations anyway.
  • Science Fantasy: This series seems like a pure Science Fiction series on the face of it, but the fact that Bridger can work miracles such as bringing toys to life and possibly even resurrecting the dead, which nobody can explain with science, edges it just that tiny bit into Fantasy territory. Due to sufficiently advanced science, there are also pet unicorns and all kinds of other fantastic beasts.
  • Serious Business: The primary plot only touches on Bridger. Most of it revolves around the Seven-Ten list, an editorial list of the ten most powerful people in the world. The top seven are always the leaders of the Hives (hence the name), but a major list in the book swapped out the leaders for others. It's lampshaded multiple times that the list shouldn't be important, but there's been so much hype around them for decades that the theft of one is a huge deal.
  • Single-Minded Twins: Kat and Robin Typer are both intentionally indistinguishable and archenemies. They have the same body language, same scars, and have burned off their fingerprints. Each continually watches through the other's tracker, so it's impossible to tell them apart by testing their memories. They also absolutely cannot stand each other, and hearing muffled screaming matches coming from their bedroom is an accepted part of life in the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash'. Mycroft's narration can only refer to whichever is speaking as "Kat or Robin." When Commissioner Papadelias asks their bash'mate Lesley which of the two he has in custody, she can only reply with "How in the world should I know?"
  • Soulless Bedroom: J.E.D.D. Mason, a young man who in-universe sometimes falls into the Uncanny Valley due to his near-robotic affect, is revealed halfway through the first book to have a bedroom consisting of a mattress laid directly on the floor, a closet with six identical black shirts, and nothing else. This is acknowledged as being kind of creepy. The rest of his house is well-furnished, but purely for the comfort of guests. His housekeeper mentions that one of his favorite things to do at home is lay completely motionless doing nothing. Not sleeping, just lying down.
  • Suddenly Significant City:
    • Ingolstadt, Germany, a city which currently has less than 150,000 people, became the capital of the Gordian Hive when its governance was transferred to the Brillist Institute.
    • Alexandria, Egypt, is not as small (it currently has about 6 million people), but it became the capital of the world's largest governing body, the Masonic Empire, due to its ancient history.
    • The small village of La Trimouille, France, becomes a notorious party town after Ganymede, the wealthy heir to its ancient dukedom, becomes President of the Humanists and hosts his influential parties there.
    • Yangon, Myanmar, is hardly mentioned during the series, but ends up being an impromptu site to host J.E.D.D. Mason's global peace conference.
  • Sufficiently Analyzed Magic: It's mentioned as soon as Bridger's introduced that the products of his miracles are already being studied in labs and scientists vetted by Thisbe and kept ignorant of their origins (to avoid the threat of They Would Cut You Up). At least one disease has already been eradicated by scientific replication of one of Bridger's antidotes. By the fourth book, with Bridger's existence public and the Utopians given his surviving relics, they've managed to work out a purely technological version of his resurrection potion, which doesn't work as well as the original but nonetheless succeeds in bringing Kosala back from the dead and undoing the crushing injuries that killed her. The end of the book is hopeful that his healing potions can be copied as well, and perhaps even the Art Initiates Life power that made all his relics in the first place.
  • Super Window Jump: Sniper and Perry jump through the window of the top floor at Madame's, dramatically falling several stories into the Flesh Pit as TV cameras look on. It's a deliberately dramatic act that includes a showman like Sniper in order to attract attention to Madame's and expose the conspiracy to the world. Neither of them are seriously injured, though the world has much more advanced healing technology than we do now.
  • Test of Pain: Traditionally, aspirants to the throne of the Masonic Empire undergo weeks of Cold-Blooded Torture to prove they have the willpower and the integrity to be good rulers. Among other things, Emperor Cornel MASON had his left foot hacked off piece by piece with a cleaver. 25th-century medicine regrew it just fine, but he suffers from a psychosomatic limp that manifests whenever he's stressed, as it never felt quite right again.
  • Title Drop: The title of the series as a whole, Terra Ignota, is dropped by Vivien Ancelet at the beginning of book three, The Will to Battle. Ancelet tells Ockham Saneer to plead terra ignota in the upcoming trial because what the O.S. did was, while morally questionable and murder by most Hive's laws, strictly speaking for the protection of the Humanist Hive. Pleading terra ignota means saying "I did the deed, but I do not myself know whether it was a crime. Arm thyself well for this trial, young polylaw; here at the law's wild borders there be dragons."
  • Tomato Surprise: Several, making the series a good one for rereads.
    • Vivien wants Mycroft to help him as the Anonymous.
    • All the world leaders know each other well, and have sex with each other frequently.
    • Kosala is cheating on her husband Vivien with the Anonymous, her husband Vivien.
    • The Saneer-Weeksbooths are nervous around outside authorities because of the OS conspiracy.
    • Some characters behave differently around Casimir Perry (and vice versa) because he's Merion Kraye.
    • Any mention of the Great African Reservation has to be read differently after Chapter 2 of book 4, when it's revealed that the United Nations still exists there. This figures into the plot of book 4 when they help Achilles to reach the Moon in time and prosecute the Cousins for violating the Outer Space Treaty. Furthermore, given that wars still take place there, it was in fact not the case that Achilles was the only remaining war expert: the UN could have given good advice as well, or even diplomatic mediation, but the Hives' prejudice against geographic nations prevented them from even thinking of asking.
    • Papa only prosecutes certain characters because he also made a deal with Madame.
  • Translation Punctuation: When Mycroft is translating something from another language to English, it's written with the punctuation of the original language. For example, Spanish uses ¿ and ¡ while German capitalizes the nouns.
  • Unconventional Formatting: In addition to Translation Punctuation and Capital Letters Are Magic, described above, there are also two instances of the text being divided into two columns, with the left column containing a long speech and the right column describing the actions of other characters during that speech.
  • United Europe: Played with. The European Union is one of the Hives, and mostly acts as a single government, but individual countries or "nation-strats" still have some influence. Also, "European" is now something of an Artifact Name: although most European Hive members we see are from current EU countries such as Spain, Greece, and Poland, it is also stated that nations from Canada to Mongolia are a part of it. Its role has somewhat shifted into being a Hive for mostnote  people who still care strongly about their nationality.
  • United Space of America: Strongly inverted. The principal governmental models are French Enlightenment philosophy and the Roman Empire (admittedly, these were also major influences on the US). The Hive capitals are located in Europe, North Africa, Asia, and South America (and the Moon). No characters are stated to be American. The only American locations that enter the plot are the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and Klamath Marsh Secure Hospital in Oregon. Justified because many American cities, including New York and Washington, were destroyed in the Church Wars, and the United States was implied to have started them in the first place.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: All over the place, as one of the series' themes:
    • Mycroft Canner himself committed parricide, murdering all but one of the Mardi bash', his adoptive bash'family, in the most gruesome manners possible to show the world that man can still perform evil for evil's sake — but really because his victims planned to instigate World War III. The tortures he inflicted on them was, in his mind, simply a reflection of the suffering their plans would have inflicted on the world.
    • The Mardi bash' itself were war historians who believed World War III was a statistical inevitability, and therefore that starting it now, with themselves in leadership positions capable of controlling its scope and intensity, was better than fighting World War III centuries in the future, when technology would have advanced such (and knowledge of strategy regressed such) that the whole world may be destroyed.
    • Tully Mojave, last survivor of the Mardi bash', is a warmonger seeking to finish their work in the same belief that a short, limited war now is better than a vicious, devastating war in the future.
    • Utopia supports Tully and the Mardi' bash's goals, as all project the future World War III will be fought over Mars once the Utopians finish terraforming it, and will probably leave Earth uninhabitable. About halfway through the third book, the Utopians shoot first in the impending war by destroying facilities and kidnapping certain people from other Hives — facilities and people they have determined are capable of making superweapons. By doing so, they take such weapons off the table for the first few months of the war at least, and also pass ownership of Utopian assets of approximately the same financial value to the offended Hives.
    • The Humanist, Mitsubishi, and European hives are conspiring to use O.S., a bash' of assassins, to murder innocent people whose deaths will, by a statistical butterfly effect, cool global tensions and prevent war from breaking out. Their body count is over 2,000.
    • Sniper, the leader of O.S. after Ockham Saneer's arrest, becomes a rogue agent and rebel figurehead intent on assassinating J.E.D.D. Mason, who he views as a threat to human freedom and society.
    • The Guildbreaker bash' commits high treason against the Masonic Empire by breaking into the Sanctum Sanctorum and revealing the name of the next Emperor, hoping to diffuse global tensions by showing the world that J.E.D.D. Mason is not the successor. Unfortunately, he is.
    • By the fourth book, J.E.D.D. Mason seeks to bring about a better world, one that no longer requires tools like O.S. to maintain peace. The problem is he has no idea what this new world will look like, and therefore to account for every possibility, he seeks the subjugation of all humanity, so that all will obey whatever edicts he devises.
    • One of the fourth book's big twists is that the Brillists are responsible for many aspects of the war — the cars being hijacked, the communications blackout, and the propaganda war against the Utopians (a nominally neutral faction) that sees many of them lynched. But the former two were done to reduce the destruction the war would cause, while their war against the Utopians is due to Brillist fears that space colonization will revive the era of differences and geographical borders, leading inevitably to more conflict. (And also because they want to be given Utopian assets for their own research into Brain Uploading.)
  • The World Is Not Ready:
    • The adults of Bridger's bash' keep Bridger and the fact that he can work miracles very secret. Part of this is because Bridger is still a child, but they also want to map out his ability and develop his personality as much as possible before revealing him to the world. Not only is his ability exceptionally dangerous — there's nothing preventing Bridger from taking a vial that says "world-ending plague" and making it real —, but they know people won't believe it even if they see it with their own eyes.
    • The fact that Mycroft Canner is still alive and mostly at large (though under supervision) is also something everyone in the know is sworn to keep a secret, considering the terror everyone was experiencing all over the world during the two weeks of his murder rampage. Nobody quite knows what would happen should the public find out that Mycroft was not, in fact, executed on the spot. As story progress shows, the fears of the world's leaders are not unreasonable: Once Mycroft's situation becomes knows, riots break out in the streets worldwide and random Servicers are lynched by mobs because from afar they vaguely look like Mycroft Canner.
    • Another instance of this trope concerns the true reason why Mycroft and Saladin murdered the entire Mardi 'bash. The official version Mycroft keeps repeating is that he wanted to prove that evil for evil's sake still exists and to force the world to bloody its hands by carrying out an execution, because he believes the world is not ready to face the fact that the globally beloved Mardi 'bash was collectively planning to start a world war. They had come to the conclusion that it's better to have one now instead of in the future where it may be that much more destructive. There is a lot of debate throughout the series about whether the world is ready for a worldwide war or not, especially considering that after a couple hundred years of worldwide peace nobody knows anything about how to deal with it.
    • Also debated throughout the series at length is wether the world is ready to know what Martin Guildbreaker has found out during his investigation into the theft of the Seven-Ten list, namely that a secret organization has been murdering people on behalf of the world's leaders under the pretense of the bigger picture of keeping the world at peace. What makes it worse is that they were using the Flying Car system used by almost everyone on the planet to do the deeds. While Martin acknowledges that the public has a right to know what has been going on, he also is acutely aware that the public is in no way, shape or form ready to calmly receive this information and understand it's implications. It is highly implied that he would've kept his discoveries a secret and dealt with it only among the higher echelons of power had the only person on the planet incapable of lying and deceiving the public not been listening in. The result, predictably, is a world war and public demand for dissolving the entire Hive system.
  • Yellow Peril: In-universe, people are worried that the Mitsubishi (who are primarily from China, Japan, and Korea) are trying to take over the world by owning all of the land.

Alternative Title(s): Too Like The Lightning, Seven Surrenders