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Perhaps the Stars, by Ada Palmer

Review copy provided by the publisher.

In some ways it’s hard to review a book like this, where I know not only the author but also many of the people closest to her. In other ways it can become a fun game, smiling along to see–oh yes, there’s another of her favorites, and oh, I think I know who she was talking to there.

One of my favorite things about later books in a series is that you go in knowing what you’ve agreed to. The parameters are set. If you have issues with the worldbuilding, you know what those are, you’ve decided that you’re up for them at the moment, or else you don’t go in at all. This is the culmination of everything you’ve liked or disliked about the worldbuilding of the Terra Ignota series. This is the moment when the factions plunge into a worldwide war of non-nations, when we see what it is for bashes instead of families to be torn apart or reunited. There are aspects of it that are thrilling, touching, funny, and moving. My particular favorite was when humanity was excoriated about learning to get better at First Contact with truly alien intelligences–indeed, we do need to learn that, and fast, not just in case of little green men but in the smaller ways that more mildly alien intelligences all around us require it of us.

Unfortunately, I am fundamentally in axiom lock with this book. There is a fundamental principle that both major sides of this war agree on: that making Earth a nicer place to live will make it psychologically harder for humans to choose to pursue space travel, to reach out for the stars and other potential intelligences who live there. They are simply in disagreement on whether they should or should not make this choice–in enough disagreement, in fact, to go to war over it. No one in the entire book seems to say, “Wait–do we have solid reason to think that’s how humans work?” And in fact I don’t think it is. I certainly don’t think it’s substantiated enough that everybody should just say, oh yeah, obviously, now let’s pick a team. There’s a point about three-quarters of the way through where a character well known to the reader from a previous volumes who has not been interacting with the others in this volume shows up and has this presented to them. And instead of examining evidence of this–instead of asking questions about, for example, whether people who do science in very extreme conditions (deep sea! Antarctica! space but not just space!) now tend to come from comfortably-off families and countries (I think they do) and whether most people who pursue extreme sports tend to come from comfortable circumstances (again, I think they do)–whether in fact having a safer nest to launch from allows people to fly farther–instead, this character, upon having this axiom presented, basically nods and says, oh yeah, I get it, and picks a side.

This particularly frustrated me for two reasons. One, because I have personal examples in my life of people who come from more, not less, comfort being the ones who want to take risks for what they view as something greater than themselves. (We all miss you, Maxi.) And two, because it was not actually necessary for the plot to work. It would be a major spoiler to say which faction(s) is/are aligned against the pursuit of space travel as primary and why, but there is a specific other goal the major group is pursuing that would be entirely convincing on its own without this axiom coming up over and over again unchallenged.

I think this is one of the hard parts about trying something really ambitious. If a book isn’t aiming for something world-spanning, it’s easier to shrug when you run into something like this: okay, perhaps these five people all have this axiom. But the very overarching nature of the scope of this series means that when nobody seems to be thinking of something, it’s really nobody–or at least nobody who, in the context of this world, gets a chance to matter. I was left at the end of the book hoping that the places where there was compromise and contact with alien minds would allow for this particular piece to open later, or at least for readers to open a door that the book’s context left firmly closed. Which I think, from what I know of the author, is exactly the sort of thing she would like to have happen.

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