Five Reasons The Seven Hives Are Collapsing (Themes in TLTL, #2)
Second 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 Part #1, “The Precariousness of Coexisting In Utopia,” we discussed how Terra Ignota is a fundamentally pluralistic attempt at utopia. Its defining value is coexistence — and it flourishes under such ideal conditions, that its issues seem to be endemic to that defining value.
Let’s see what those issues are.
<<Since when have they let politics be this openly incestuous, Mycroft? (…) Even thirty years ago you couldn’t find two Seven-Ten lists with the same top Seven. (…) What worries me is that they aren’t even being subtle anymore.>> (p.293)
Consolidation, here, is when a system starts out with a bunch of different agents, competing and cooperating and interacting between them, and gradually evolves into a system with only a few major actors, each stronger and more solid than before.
Though it is seldom directly in focus, much of the underlying structure of Too Like The Lightning portrays this process of consolidation. Terra Ignota’s society began with a near-infinite assortment of options and identities:
I have a Hive, a race, a second language, a vocation and an avocation, hobbies of my own; add up my many strats and you will soon reduce me to a minority of one, and hence my happiness. I am unique, and proud of my uniqueness, and prouder still that, by being no majority, I ensure eternal peace. (p.294)
But along the way, those many, many options have clustered around just a few major focal points. Entire Hives have vanished. Not scattered to the winds, mind you; not faded into nothingness or imploded due to internal pressures. No, the absent Hives were consolidated away, absorbed into other Hives in their entirety, and then promptly forgotten by history:
The third speech, Olympic Chairman Jean-Pierre Utarutu’s, was delivered by an actor, since the Olympian Hive was long since swallowed by the Humanists, and the Humanist President has more important work on Renunciation Day than assuring a bored audience that there will still be sports teams in this brave new world. (p.107)
Back when the Mitsubishi Hive proposed its mighty marriage with Greenpeace, it had lusted after more than Greenpeace’s twelve billion acres of nature reserve and five hundred million nature-loving members. It lusted after India. (…) What Mitsubishi can’t buy, they adopt. (p.225)
A mighty marriage it may have been, but not one that preserved both powers equally. The Greenpeace Hive — and the Olympians, one of the three founding members of the Hive system — have vanished entirely, and their only legacy is as an acquisition made by a stronger, more important, surviving Hive.
But the consolidation of the Seven Hives has gone much further than that. In the climactic chapter “DEO EREXIT SADE,” we learn that nearly all the Hive Leaders and figures of power have, in fact, formed a single, cooperative bloc. Mycroft stresses how monumental a revelation this is:
Things change here, Reader. Or, more aptly, you change, while this world you visit stays the same. (p.377)
This is what is revealed to us: that consolidation is not only occurring, but that has already occurred. That it has been absolute and total. And still it continues, nibbling at the few outsiders remaining. The chapter’s capstone is a four-page deliberation, deciding to bring Casimir Perry — the last unassimilated Hive leader, literally dubbed “The Outsider,” — into the fold as well:
Caeser frowned. “Jehovah, what is your impression of Casimir Perry? Should we invite them to join us?”
Jehovah awoke again from His inner solitude. “Perry fights for power more fiercely than most fight for their lives. You invited danger by leaving the man outside this long.” (p.395)
The collusion between the Hive leaders is portrayed as illicit and shocking — but also, as necessary. Mycroft introduces the revelation thusly:
I promised I would show the wires beneath the cloth. (…)
Kohaku Mardi was always wrong. 33–67; 67–33; 29–71, it will not tip us into war, no matter what the numbers say. (…) It never really was a house of cards. It was one long piece of paper, folded and disguised to feign fragility. (p.377)
He is literally telling us that having consolidated down to one power, is what will save the Seven Hives from catastrophe.
We’re at the crisis point, past it, but it doesn’t matter anymore. You know about Jehovah. War can’t break out between the Masons and Mitsubishi while Caesar and Ando are both fathers of the same Son. (p.361)
If that’s so — perhaps consolidation can be a good thing?
Reason #1: Consolidation, Therefore Stagnation
One classic issue with consolidation is that it makes it nearly impossible for new players to enter the field.
In an internet dominated by Facebook and Google, new startups for internet mindshare can’t get a foot in the door — or get acquired if they do.
In U.S.A. politics, both parties are deeply unpopular, yet third-party candidates have zero viability — and the system’s set up to keep it that way.
Speaking more generally, a newcomer to the field can rarely compete with the field’s existing giants, mighty and well-entrenched. He cannot match their resources; he cannot match their reach or scale. Nor is it a fair fight between mismatched opponents — the existing powers have immense influence over how the system functions. Even with no outright monopoly, with multiple major players, it’s still in all their interests to keep new competitors out.
This is not an accusation of greed or foul play towards those dominant parties. Mycroft clearly holds each of the Hive leaders in high regard. He considers their alliance to be salvation itself. But even granting the very best of intentions, the process of consolidation means the playing field grows less and less level; more and more impossible to break into.
Today, these seven Hives might be just the ones their world wants and needs. Their leaders may be good and noble men. Their alliance may save the world.
But needs change. Tomorrow, the world will need something else; something new. And a society that has undergone total consolidation, has no room left for something new to grow.
Reason #2: Consolidation, Therefore Vulnerability
The Olympian Hive is gone. The Greenpeace Hive is gone. Over the course of the novel, other Hives may be destabilizing as well:
“This is going to be a firestorm.” A deep breath. “I want to see numbers. (…) Mycroft, do a precedent check, see if there’s ever been a confidence shift this abrupt. Look especially at the 2380s, right before the Greenpeace-Mitsubishi merger.”
Su-Hyeon’s eyes widened. “You think there’ll be a Hive merger?” (p. 81)
Here’s another thing about consolidation: not everyone is going to survive it.
In a consolidated system, there’s only room for so many giants. Not necessarily because they’re hostile to another. But because, if one does begin to falter, their losses are usually the other giants' gain. If the system has settled into a delicate balance, and then one Hive suddenly contracts — other Hives will inevitably expand, and the balance will have shifted considerably. Competition, as we’ve said, is not kind to the underdog. A big enough shock, or a series of consecutive failures, can leave a Hive severely demoted — or extinguished entirely.
For the same reason a newcomer will find it impossible to break in, a power diminished may find it impossible to restore itself. For the same reason the number of major players is not going to go up, the only place for it to go is down.
And so, despite having no enemies, despite having only benevolent neighboring factions committed to the cause of coexistence — even so, each faction fears for its own survival.
Reason #3: Consolidation, Therefore Uniformity
The failure that is perhaps the most subtle, but also that cuts deepest, is that the Seven Hives are not merely a failure of pluralism. In consolidation, they are a betrayal of it.
The end-point of consolidation is a small number of large blocs. It might be a single dominant power. It could be two or three like-minded blocs; perhaps differing somewhat, but effectively a monopoly. Or, two or three rivals, so large and so uncontested that they hold each other in check.
I call this subtle, because there‘s no immediate harm in having just a few major blocs.
- It doesn’t mean the Hive members are unhappy. On the contrary; the characters we meet seem content in their way of life, and wholeheartedly devoted to their Hive.
- It doesn’t mean there’s no variance or diversity. We can already see how two characters, passionate for the same cause, can be wildly different characters. The Masons have room enough for proud, patrician Cornell MASON, and for Martin Guildbreaker, who would spend a lifetime in humble Masonic debate. Being a Blacklaw appeals both to vicious Dominic, and to genial Chagatai.
- Consolidation may even be the only way to survive. As we’ve noted, Mycroft sees the conspiracy of Hive Leaders as the great safety net, the secret that means “It won’t go like Tully thinks. The Mardi’s predictions were wrong.” If this is so, is there even a real choice here?
There’s one problem. This end-point society is many things, and it may be a happy and prosperous one — but the one claim it can’t make, is to be practicing the virtue of coexistence. You cannot coexist in homogeneity.
To bring this back to the terms of the text: there can be no greater blasphemy unto the Death of Majority, than the revelation that the Hive leaders be revealed as a single unit, raised as a single 'bash, entwined with each other by blood, sex, and religion. Not because it does any immediate harm, but because it is an utter betrayal of the principle.
And the principle, let’s recall, believes that “by being no majority, I ensure eternal peace.” That conviction was forged in the chaos of global war and destruction. If the principle cannot be upheld, that bodes ill for a society founded upon it.
OK, that’s been a whole lot on consolidation — which I’ve described as a macro-level social process, which in theory is just as likely to be long and slow, as short and bloody.
There’s another process at play, though. One which may build slowly, but erupts with sudden violence.
Or, as Mycroft would have it, “Majority.” As we’ve seen, the society of Terra Ignota see the establishment of majority to lead, inexorably, to war. Mycroft carries that principle to its logical conclusion, advocating that Hives hobble their own growth, on their own initiative.
Carlyle’s deathbed embrace of Adolf Richter Brill strengthened and crippled Gordian. Others may call it a mistake, but I call it the wisest move Carlyle ever made, for, if Gordian’s growth had not been checked, by now its matchless popularity would have doomed us to that dread death-knell of peace: majority. (p.152)
That’s harsh advice, and the Seven Hives do not seem to have adopted it. The Death of Majority becomes a very questionable principle, if this is the price it demands. But the danger it is trying to guard against — that, we see play out, over the course of Too Like The Lightning.
Reason #4: Dominance, Therefore Panic
As we’ve noted, Too Like The Lightning is exaggeratedly charitable to its rulers and leaders — imagining that each faction, each bloc, each Hive, is still acting in the best of faith, still espousing coexistence, even if they are trapped in systemic quicksand.
What can upset that camaraderie, though, is when factions do not merely compete amongst themselves, but can dominate one another. When one side can exercise decisive, overwhelming power over another. When one side can, if it so chooses, cripple the other side, debilitate it, or wipe it out entirely.
This is why the Death of Majority is so crucial; Too Like The Lightning shows us how the dynamic unfolds. When there is majority, domination, then the weaker side survives and flourishes only by sufferance of the stronger. Dominant power — even if never used, even if the dominant faction is irreproachably benevolent — is an existential threat, which does not tend to go unnoticed.
And the mere existence of such a threat is enough to set off a cascade. People on the defensive are less trusting, less cooperative, and more hostile.
You’ve seen the numbers: three billion Masons, three point one, three point two. If they grow, the others shrink (…) and everyone worries: how long until my Hive drops below a billion? Below half a billion? When my children grow up, will their Hive be as rare as Utopians? (p.356)
The most reckless of them may lash out, in what they perceive as self-defense. Even when there’s no actual danger, the possibility of one is enough to spark disaster:
You’ve made good efforts, the Censor’s data reflects that. But people are already so worried about it, and there are so many hostile counter-campaigns, so many people riled up, most people aren’t aware you’ve slowed down, they just see Mitsubishi landlords on every street and feel like you’re eating up more land even if you aren’t. (p.224)
And so now the dominant faction feels threatened as well. Hostility begins to swell. Back and forth, and the fabric of society weakens. There is no room for pluralism in a zero-sum game.
It’s not that hard. It’s already happening. It’s been happening for years.
The rest of the world has been held together by shoestrings and assassination for the past seven years. (p.425)
Nurturism and the Mitsubishi land grab are the most volatile issues in our world right now, and a good third of these hits seem to have been designed to calm those down. If they hadn’t, I wonder what those set-sets see in their numbers. What would’ve happened? (…)
I gave a different answer then, which I pass over here, a useless, reasonable, Mycroft might say rose-tinted answer. But now, as I reread, I hear a different answer (…)
So, then. As rose-tinted as Terra Ignota begins, it’s also very clear: once a faction achieves dominance, any faction at all, a slide into war is inevitable. It is inevitable because nobody wants to feel their future is at risk. People can coexist with each other just fine — but only as long as the other side doesn’t get offered a choice between coexistence and domination.
Reason #5: Dominance Is Inevitable
The Death of Majority principle would hold that, well then, just don’t let any faction achieve dominance.
That, however, does not seem to be a workable option.
I: “You’re the richest Hive measured in land, but what if we measure by manpower?”
Shanghai: “The Masons win by their standard and we win by ours, I see that. That doesn’t make us wrong.”
I: “But there aren’t only two measures, Directors. There are many.” (p.225)
The consequence of idyllic coexistence is that each subset of the society succeeds and flourishes. They gain capability, practical power. The Mitsubishi have Earth’s land; the Masons have its people; the Utopians have Mars. The Cousins dominate the hospitals and the sensayers; the Humanists run the Cars that are the world’s lifeblood.
And since they are different, their strengths and abilities will be different, and lie in different spheres — which means each subculture is highly vulnerable to others’ strongest suits.
The conclusion here is that dominance is inevitable. If you want multiple cultures existing and thriving — and that is, after all, exactly what Too Like The Lightning wants most — then dominance, and panic, and war, follow as unavoidable consequences.
I’ve argued that the utopian element in Terra Ignota is a pluralistic one — a world of utopian coexistence, aided by some generous smoothing of the path by the author. I read Too Like The Lightning as being heavily concerned with the instability of a pluralistic utopia; arguing that even assuming the best from all parties involved, the system is inherently disposed to crack and fail.
I’ve tried to summarize those systemic dangers here, and demonstrate how they thread through the book. In a nutshell: you can kill the Majority, but it can’t stay dead. You cannot keep everyone from ever attaining any kind of dominance — not without forming an overriding power of your own. And until the fear of survival sets off its cascade effect, each faction simply tending to their own security and stability sets them into a consolidation dynamic, choking out those newer or weaker, and making it harder and harder to veer away from the tipping point.
The very idea of humans coexisting with each other, Too Like The Lightning says, is unstable. This is why Mycroft’s tone is so tragic. This is why his need for Bridger, a miracle granted to an ostensible utopia, is so desperate. This is why J.E.D.D. Mason weeps.
And yet, optimism is as much in Too Like The Lightning’s DNA as tragedy is. This last piece of the novel’s core will be in part #3, “Optimism and Increments.”