…But Perhaps, The Stars: Optimism and Increments (Themes in TLTL, #3)

Last of three essays discussing the underlying themes of Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning.
Content warnings: None. Spoilers for the book abound (but not for subsequent books).

In our previous parts, we discussed the thought experiment of a pluralistic utopia — and Too Like The Lightning’s conclusion that peaceful coexistence is an inherently unstable social structure.

And yet, while it can be doleful, it is not bleak. An invigorating current of optimism runs through Too Like The Lightning, and completes its theme.

The Utopians of Utopia

Nowhere is Terra Ignota’s optimism as unadulterated as in the portrayal of the Utopians.

Mycroft reveres them. Cato Weeksbooth longs to join them. Glorious, martyred Apollo, he who was “the best of us,” (p.103) was once their avatar. “The Utopians aren’t dirty like the rest of us,” says Cato (p.345). “I told you, reader, that Utopia does not give up on dreams,” says Mycroft (p.161).

And what is it that makes the Utopians so unique, so noble? The Utopians are ascribed many different characteristics — they are remote; miraculous; decentralized; self-sufficient. And, oh yes, they also all happen to be diehard science-fiction fans.

But above all that, the goal to which their Hive has devoted itself is the project of Mars. Describing that project is where Mycroft makes clear the Utopian’s defining credo; the element that makes them so special.

Younger Shanghai: “The Utopians aren’t a competitor. No matter what they earn, they can’t grow while they spend it all on their Moon Base and lobbing junk at Mars.”
“Terraforming,” I corrected. “It is terraforming. In two hundred and fifty years it will be done. Even if you own this world by then, Utopia will own another one.”
Is it not miraculous, reader, the power of the mind to believe and not believe at once? (…) We never doubt that every individual shipment they send to Mars must be successful, that their science is sound, their effort proceeding, but somehow we do not believe the distant end will ever come. These Nine Directors don’t believe Utopians will really live on Mars in 2660. Utopians do. (p.225)

What makes the Utopians so special? They are patient. And more than the patience of just hoping things eventually improve; they are incrementalists — that is, they advance by increments. Each shipment, in its own right, is so negligible as to be “lobbing junk at Mars.” Two hundred and fifty years of increments, though, will get you the world.

And while terraforming Mars over a quarter-millennium is a rather extreme example, incrementalism is a crucial part of effecting major change. You need to be able to break problems down into bite-sized pieces. But it’s also very challenging to carry through effectively — you need to be willing to invest, constantly and heavily, in something that is not giving you any short-term benefit. That’s hard for a society, as a whole, to stick with.

But the Utopians manage it.

And so, in a way, does Too Like The Lightning as a whole.

Utopia By Increments

The novel’s approach to utopia, I think, is much akin to that of its Utopians. It presents a world in which many great advances have been made — very imperfectly. A world which has achieved peace and plenty, all its factions living in harmony — which is sliding further and further towards war.

In other words, the world has advanced, but only by an increment.

Its changes are partial, and are prone to backsliding, because they are only an increment.

If we declare the Seven Hives a total loss — a society dysfunctional beyond repair, and heading for self-destruction — then their dysfunction is still an attempt to improve upon the social dysfunctions of today. It’s an increment.

And so, the Seven Hives are neither utopia nor dystopia, but a work in progress, which needs more time, and more work, and not to remain stagnant. They are, maybe, on the path to utopia, and Mycroft’s hopes are for a future world better than the one he inhabits:

Perhaps in your age, gentle reader, the human race is better, good enough that you no longer need so dark a tool? (p.23)

It’s a book that doesn’t believe in one-step solutions; in miracle cures. Even the boy who can literally produce miracle cures still needs a long adolescence of trial and error and maturation, lest his gift do more harm than good. And it is still two hundred and fifty long years before the Utopians reach Mars.

Likewise, the Seven Hives were a valiant attempt at resisting the most overwhelming, intractable, and systemic pressures that make pluralistic coexistence so very, very difficult. An attempt, not a success. But true success is never going to be the product of one attempt, either.

Finding the shape of our better future is going to take more than one iteration.

And that’s what I feel Palmer does in Too Like The Lightning: tries to sketch out what a “better future” might actually look like. Not “What do I want to happen” or “what if there were no problems to deal with”; that would be utopian. But rather, she’s imagined something that flawed, struggling humanity might actually evolve into, that would still constitute a step forward. Their society addressed some of our most pressing issues. Their solutions temporarily held firm.

I feel it’s grown rare for science-fiction stories to imagine a world that is not just different than ours, but better. It’s easy to see why — as sorely as we might want hopeful, encouraging visions, it’s a tall order to construct one that isn’t naive, simplistic, or pure escapism.

Palmer’s incrementalist approach is different. She doesn’t claim to have a solution, but she doesn’t want society to stop working on the problem. She offers steps she knows are flawed, and advocates for them enthusiastically — because that’s the only way incremental progress can happen.

Imperfect solutions are the basis for deeper analysis, for insight gained by experience, and eventually — better solutions. And so, Palmer offers up the best goddamn imperfect solutions she can. It forces her to delve into sticky issues and cold practicalities, to take broad ideals and try to make them more concrete. We oppose sexism and bias, but how do we try to neutralize their effect? We live chained to the local conflicts or tensions we were born into, what might the world look like it if we were not? We want different ideologies to live side by side; what kind of rules actually facilitate that? We want to reset the clock on harmful divisions, biases, and accumulated power — what does that mean; what does it look like; what consequences might we expect? And on, and on.

And there’s an implicit challenge here. To the author; to us; to society. The challenge is to improve on the novel’s suggestions. To come up with answers and systems and details just as concrete, but solving some of their flaws.

The challenge is to figure out what kind of future we’re striving for. To understand what kind of world we want to live in.
Not what we don’t want; but what we do.
Not what we won’t tolerate; but what we aspire to.

Ad astra.

End Material

Thanks, first and foremost, to Ada Palmer, who wrote a book that charms and captivates me, and that I feel compelled to ponder and discuss for hours on end.

These essays, and my reading of Too Like The Lightning, are unquestionably influenced by some of Scott Alexander’s writing. Particularly, “Meditations On Moloch” (which discusses failures of society and Malthusian Traps), and “Archipelago and Atomic Communitarianism” (Alexander’s attempt to delineate what demands we might have for a pluralistic utopia). I highly recommend both if you’ve enjoyed Too Like The Lightning and/or my essays (although I don’t necessarily endorse his take on A.I. risk, or other issues).

The Freakonomics podcast episode “In Praise of Incrementalism” is a good primer on the topic, and an excellent episode besides.

Thank you to Tali, who beta-read an earlier draft of these essays and kept them from being even less coherent than their final form. Tto Mike Glyer and File770, who pointed me at Too Like The Lightning to begin with, and who are always up for arguing about books. And to the amazing, multifaceted community of SF and literature lovers, who spend their time reading essays like this.

If you’ve enjoyed these essays on Too Like The Lightning’s themes, I’ve also written a response re: the book’s treatment of gender, and I hope to write more essays in the near future. You’ll find my other stuff here.

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