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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 planned to have 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 (TBA)

This series features the following tropes:

  • 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.
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  • 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.
  • 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, but with some exceptions for physics, he can make real anything he draws. 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).
  • 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, including the pronouns. Fans who know which set of genitalia it has, which is quite a few of them, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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: 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.
  • 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 commiting 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 commited 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.
  • A Day in the Limelight:
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 those against them claim that they can't be called alive since they can't grow.
    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!
  • 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 on another continent 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 canditate 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.
  • 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 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.
  • Grey-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.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • Mega-Corp: 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.
  • 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.
  • OOC 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.
  • 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 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 covenient, as in the case of Sniper.
  • 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?"
  • 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.
  • Title Drop: The title of the series, 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."
  • 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.
  • 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, cosidering 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.

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


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