Ada Palmer has just outed herself as a full-on Sadist, so I feel inspired to jot down some thoughts about what I’ve been reading recently.

I’m halfway through the first book in the Terra Ignota series. It’s very satisfying so far, the science is good and hard, mostly kept just far enough out of sight to avoid blunders but fully present in the world. The scope is ambitious, almost a space-opera except it’s (so far, mostly) Earth-bound. And her background as a classicist pervades it in a most satisfying way, her influences are very present, the characters from history tumbling onto every page, but very plausibly presented, fun and engaging. I recently finished History of Western Philosophy, and this makes a great follow-up, a main dish with plenty of spices to that somewhat dry aperitif.

But a little bit about where I’m coming from. I decided to finish the Three Body Problem, because it came up again recently on some peoples lists and I don’t like leaving books unfinished. I wondered if I had missed something. In the end, I had to force myself through, and found my eyes skimming some passages. I honestly think it was quite a bad book. I’m still a bit perplexed, wondering if I missed something obvious. At many times, the characters seemed doomed to always make the stupidest choices imaginable, and I wondered if it wasn’t being written on a different level than I was reading it. The second half of the book is sometimes so farcical that it reminded me of Lem’s Futurological Congress. But that book is a brilliant farce and knows it, and the pace and the wit are ever-present. The Dark Forest seemed to marry farce to melodrama, even occasionally attempted poetics which just fell flat for me. Farce and melodrama are difficult bedfellows.

Still wondering if I missed a trick, I decided to read something I knew would be more satisfying to me, to see if I could pin down the difference. But first let me try to describe it. Many of the best books I have read in recent years have a similar theme, a classic of science-fiction– some complex set of institutions in engaged in play in the world, and their toings and froings drive the action. I’m thinking of The Ministry for the Future, Gypsy by Carter Scholz, Accelerando. The latter has considerable weaknesses in the characterization, but the institutional drama is top-notch. I find these books to be plausible histories of the world, and interesting lenses on how things can be.

But that isn’t all or even the best science fiction. There are others on the fringe, such as Ballards Atrocity Exhibition or any of the many misadventures of Ijon Tichy. You don’t have to be writing a future history of the world. Maybe The Dark Forest belongs with these books? The lead does have a strong hint of Tichy about him, and if that is what it is meant to be then I can only apologize to the author, but claim that I didn’t catch it. Or maybe the humour was too strange for me. The book does have its One Big Idea (an extension of Asimovs Psychohistory) which is fine enough, but I don’t think it merits the praise the book recieves.

So, for satisfaction, I read the sidequel to Blindsight, Echopraxia. I loved it, a nerd-fest of factoids heaped together into a fully-functional narrative automaton. I will study the list of some 120 or so papers and articles at the end of the book. And from the Reddit AMA, it seems the third in the series is nearly upon us. This was exactly the kind of book that Dark Forest wasn’t, and exactly what I wanted to read.

Peter Watts does fall into many older-generation tropes though, and doesn’t explore gender as much as he could, and still glories in space-battles and military drama. I decided to press on, and look for some new blood. I remembered a contemporary female sci-fi author interviewed by Tyler Cowen.

I went looking, and downloaded Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel. I did not enjoy it for a moment. The writing was minimalist and hard to fault on style, though there were a few silly moments such as a 18th century narrator using the word ‘simulation’, and several passages that were repeated word-for-word when the same action was crossed again or discussed again, which I don’t understand as a style. But the science and the speculation was abysmal– the only thing science-fictiony about it was that part of the action was set on the moon, and there was time travel involved– but the moon city was just a regular American suburb, and the time-travel was handled completely gracelessly, like a teenager who had never read any other attempts would handle it.

Last year I read Barley Patch by Gerald Murnane, a brilliant book about the bizarre relationship between an author, the reader, and the characters in a book– where those three things are in relation to one another, what impact they have on one another. That book gave the key to unlock one reading of Sea of Tranquility that raises it up a tiny notch, though hardly rescues it– all the absurd psychology of the characters and the pure wish-fulfillment action with no basis in the law of Gods or man– could be seen as big clues pointing to the fact that the book is a simulation that exists only to serve the author. In fact there were two author-inserts, one could say that most of the characters were quite direct representations of the author or her ambitions or drives, and the characters do discuss the simulation hypothesis. Is the author making a clever comment on these strange little simulations we create, a la Gerald Murnane? Perhaps, but even so it wasn’t particularly satisfying.

But as I was searching through the archives of Conversations with Tyler I found another contemporary female sci-fi author. Ada Palmer. So lets get back to her, and Terra Ignota.

She is a serious classicist and academic, and having so many tools to speak with (the words and ideas of so many philosophers), its marvellous that she manages to orchestrate it all so well. It is a grand spectacle, and also a classic detective story– she mentions Sherlock and Victor Hugo. She handles gender much more intelligently, and I hope she doesn’t fumble whatever she is building to with that, she clearly has more to say on the topic and will. And the future of geopolitics that she sketches is marvellous, she should do a collab with Charles Stross, they would compliment each other. Whats remarkable though is how she marries her knowledge of classics with contemporary science to create so many interesting ideas and weave them together. It may be true that history rhymes, and if so we should wish for many more academic classicists to turn their eye to the future.

She also mentioned the Divine Marquis quite early on, and flirted with Sadism in the early chapters. But I have just come across (ahem) a sex-scene worthy of Genet so it isn’t a secret any more. She is really willing and apparently capable of plumbing the depths of philosophy as thoroughly as any, and I’m very excited to see where she goes.

There is a lot of talk these days about human values, but the rationalists writing these essays often seem to dismiss or ignore those few who were actually down in the trenches– I’m speaking of De Sade, Jean Genet, Rimbaud, Burroughs, Trocchi etc.– actually trying to figure out the length and breadth of human morality manually. Or rather, those few who made it back from the trenches intact– in fact, my Dad asked this very question of Irvine Welsh at a book signing when I was a kid: “How are you capable of knowing these things and still capable of writing about them?” He smiled and said that you have to leave a long time between the two. (If Genet and the Marquis have any lesson for us, prison helps.)

There is a risk in Palmer that she drop over the edge– she is near a part of literature-space populated by cos-players and fedora-tippers, steampunk, Victorian, Sadist etc. I’m sure there are many sweaty edge-lords who would write some of this stuff. But she is very very smart, and seems capable of justifying it all, everything necessary and sufficient. She makes me laugh out loud, a very rare treat. Before I started my one reservation was the length of the series– four long books. Now this is looking like a great gift.