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New Decameron Seventy-Eight: Ada Palmer

Two Ruminations Upon Distance

excerpted from Perhaps the Stars

Book Four of Terra Ignota

by Ada Palmer

Author’s note: These two brief passages, taken from different parts of the novel, don’t require knowledge of the previous books because they don’t relate to plot at all, they’re pure philosophical ruminations by the narrator. In both cases, when we get to these ruminations we don’t yet know what events have caused such feelings—we meet the ideas raw, before the unfolding chapters explain what sparked them, so the two passages can each stand alone, effectively as a prose poem. Our narrator is Greek and deeply interested in the lens that Homeric myth offers to understand the world, but is also deeply invested in later monotheistic/stoic/deist notions of Providence. It helps to know that the series takes place in the 25th century. Utopia is the name of a large nation dedicated to space exploration and is half-way through terraforming Mars; at this stage in the series Utopia facing a lot of hostility and danger, and is frequently compared to Troy. I recommend reading slowly, and you may want to read aloud, to enjoy the rhythm. I also recommend pausing and mulling for a minute on the first section before preceding to the second.  

Chapter [...]

The God Who Rings the Earth

I have misunderstood Poseidon, reader, all this while! That is the lesson bought by my days a captive of his seas. You know I study carefully the names and faces by which Stranger Jehovah’s near and native Host makes His Own Strangeness known in facets small enough for us to grapple with. The names used by my people—Kronos, Hermes, deadly Artemis—have always been the readiest upon my mind’s tongue, but not so easy to understand. Often I think I understand them. In boyhood I thought I understood Apollo, an easy error while his kinder aspect shone so near, but we who bask in light and inspiration do not know the distant, deadly archer, not until we see him strike from worlds away. Zeus too, the lightning-loving father, I had thought I understood, but I did not—not until the hour the last of my bash’parents lay dead before me, and I stood on this Earth liberated, no power near me but the wind and sky and my own hands, and yet I feared, and cringed, and felt the whimper deep inside myself that knows it will be chidden. What was this I feared? Still? After the fall of all who had once stood above me? Only then did I truly come to understand the title Father.  

Just so, I used to think I knew and honored grim Poseidon. I had thought I met him in childhood, that day I first swam in real sea surge, whose waves turned from toys to terrors as the undertow made friends and shoreline shrink. I had thought I met both Zeus’s brothers that day, as my child limbs weakened, and the god who shakes the Earth dragged me farther out into his waters, where the third brother’s kingdom waits one drowning gulp away. But even then my thoughts were half of storybooks, of Jason and his Argonauts, of rafts and shipwrecks, thrilling in my mind: “This is what it felt like! To them, so long ago, our ancestors! Why they believed the grim sea was a god!” They, not I. I knew in half an hour I would be in a car again, hopping with a thought across the sea whose power once made every ship’s launch equal parts hope, prayer, and funeral. We brave the seaways now for sport, for self-indulgence, we conquerors descending for a voluntary tussle with an old foe now domesticated, like our fawning household wolves. No, reader, that conquered thing is not Poseidon. We mistake, we foolish moderns, when we seek the sea god in the sea. He is not H2O, not surface tension, tides and shorelines known and knowable. We could not see him while we sat cocooned within our arrogant prostheses—trackers, vid-feeds, cars—but Ares stripped those from us, leaving us naked before his grim-faced uncle, whom we face now in the sea, the land, the sky, and in that outer sea where Utopia’s bright barques shudder, fragile still. The god who rings the Earth, Poseidon, is Old Enemy Distance, reader, that facet of Our Maker’s Making which—alongside Death and Time—we often find hardest to understand. Technology mitigates the tyranny of distance, but Poseidon has grown no weaker over time, and when mischance conspires with him their union trumps our brash technology. A hundred thousand years ago we hollowed out a log to make a boat, yet yesterday I still sat weeping on the shore, with no tool to help me reach my friends again but prayer—and so will others sit and pray, when mischance strands them on a rock around some distant sun, a hundred thousand years from now.

Author’s note for the second passage: ‘Caesar’ is what he sounds like, leader of Earth’s largest political empire, currently allied with Utopia; he has a close but tense relationship with our narrator.  

Chapter [...]

I Do Not Know How to Call ‘Friend’ One Who Does This

I am waiting, reader. I am waiting for Caesar to return and tell me how the stars have changed.

Our law speaks of “intolerable crimes”: that it is intolerable to cause extensive or uncontrolled death or suffering; intolerable to devastate Nature or the Produce of Civilization; intolerable to strip from an anguished soul the means to cry for help. But what does ‘intolerable’ truly mean? That humanity cannot endure it? We have endured so much, pandemics, earthquakes, self-inflicted genocides, yet we plod on. That we will not allow it? How many atrocities have we allowed, perpetrated, caging our aid and empathy in bars of selfishness? Does ‘intolerable’ mean that we cannot forgive it? Perhaps, but no matter how bloody our race’s history, how rank our guilt, somehow human hearts still look upon ourselves and see some excellence. But not all human hearts. I think that’s what ‘intolerable’ means, that something dies inside us when we face such things. A spark dies out. It is not forever’s death, more like the year’s death, when intolerable winter snuffs out light, life, growth, and though we claim thaw’s kiss will always come to kindle life anew, some roots are chilled too deep and stir no more. You know that I once lost the will to battle, that night I gazed up hopeless from the becalmed Shearwater at stars too cruel and far for aspiration. That night I learned Poseidon is intolerable, Distance a frost too deep for hope’s faint flicker to endure. You knew Poseidon was too strong, Ἄναξ Apollo, didn’t you? That Old Enemy Distance has stamped out your spark a thousand times, and will a thousand more? I boasted, when my own light was relit, that he has never snuffed it out in every breast at once. But he could. You knew he could when you began this war, this quarrel with your uncle. Apollo Έπιβατήριε (Epibatérie), Lord of Embarkations, you who ever lead us onto ships, not for Hermes’s journeys from settlement to settlement as coins from purse to purse, but for far journeys beyond borders, knowledge, maps, we living arrows whom you aim at worlds away—you knew your all-encircling uncle can strip the feathers from our shafts, the strong sails from our masts, and leave us grounded. They say you two built Troy together, that side by side in ancient days uncle and nephew laid her firm foundation stones, and I believe it, for Utopia is no sailor without a sea. But while you, Ἄναξ, still love your Trojans dearly, the fearsome Earth-Shaker aids the Greeks against us, raging that we did not pay his labors back with thanks and sacrifice. We did not thank you either—for your gentler gifts perhaps, but not for the journey, not for your command that we must face Intolerable Distance for your sake, again, again. That you still love us shows your strangeness more than kindness, distant archer, for it is no kindness when you, who dared not face your mighty uncle when he challenged you on Homer’s battlefield, restart that quarrel here. You know he wins. You know your Trojans suffer. But no, all this is stranger, deeper, than a quarrel, for the two of you are yet one Thing, two parts of Providence as interlinked as lungs and heart. You light the spark and snuff it. So what was yesterday? That yesterday when you taught me, taught all of us, that there is a true Intolerable, a limit to what we can endure before all sparks die out. Before Poseidon beats us down. Before Love—yes my love for you, my Lord, my own Ἄναξ Apollo—before my love and His Love too, a greater Love born in a greater Breast than humans bear, both snap and die. That yesterday when you bade Fate and Heaven open to reveal that, when such Love reaches its breaking point, then you, Ἀπόλλων Προόψιε (Apollon Proöpsie), Far-Seeing Apollo; you Ἀπόλλων Προστατήριε (Apollon Prostatérie), Apollo Before the Doorway; you Ἀπόλλων Ἕκατε (Apollon Hékate), Apollo Who Aims So Far; and most of all that you, Ἀπόλλων Θεοξένιε (Apollon Theozenie), Apollo Guardian of Strangers; care. You care. That changes everything. So I begged Caesar—I dared beg a boon of Caesar—that he take me from this cell a moment, bound however he wills, so long as I could see with my own eyes Night and her lights uncountable which must burn different after such a day. And he, too wise to give a monster such an inch of freedom, is yet so kind he promised he would step out into the night himself, gaze on your distant targets with his own eyes, Lord Apollo, then return and tell me how the stars have changed.


Tears are streaming down Maya's cheeks, and when she looks over at him he is crying too. "How can that be so moving when we don't even know what it's about?" she asls.

"Well, except Mycroft, and the universe," he says. "So beautiful. Wow."

"But it makes me want the book right now even more!" Maya says, wiping her eyes. "That's Poseidon too."

"July next year," he says. "Cake?" He cuts her a slice of pear cake.

"Am I always going to be waiting for books, all my life?" she asks.

"It seems likely," he says. "And also you'll be surprised by books."

"There's really nothing else like Terra Ignota," Maya says. "It's unique."

'It's unusual. It has different concerns from most things. It's more like older science fiction."

Maya looks at him in complete perplexity. "It's nothing like older science fiction! Asimov, Heinlein, Brackett, they're nothing like this at all! What are you talking about?"

He laughs. 'Well, it's a little like Bester, don't you think, and Wolfe? But I meant earlier than that, I was thinking of Voltaitre."

"Voltaire wrote science fiction?" Maya blinks.

"Have you never read Micromegas? It's a first contact story. And it's very much concerned with the same kind of philosophical things Palmer's interested in Terra Ignota." He looks at the pile of books on the table. 'It's not our usual kind of thing, and I don't remember their being any food in it, but library?" He taps the table. "Micromegas?"

Nothing seems to change, but when he pulls the top book off the pile it is Voltaire's Micromegas. "Didn't he write it in French?" Maya asks, hesitating.

"Yes," he says, looking shifty. "But as we read it, you'll find it's in the vernacular."

She takes the book, and they read.

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