Review of Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer
by Ada Palmer
For some reason I thought this book seemed way shorter than the first one, but I’m realizing now it’s just that I read Too Like the Lightning in hardcover, so it seemed thicker and more imposing. That being said, Seven Surrenders was less exhausting and easier to digest than the first book. At first I thought that was because I was just used to Ada Palmer’s writing, but now I think it’s also because this book is more focused. Whereas the first book educated us about this future world, Seven Surrenders is much more invested in unravelling both the political plot at the heart of this book as well as the existential and epistemological questions Palmer cloaks in this science fiction story.
This book picks up where the last one left off (so spoilers for the first book, but not for this one). Mycroft Canner, convicted murderer in a world of peace, must protect Bridger, a child with god-like abilities, from those who would corrupt or manipulate them. Meanwhile, we learn more about a conspiracy at the highest level—a conspiracy to murder just enough people every year, basically using statistical analysis to determine who to murder to keep the world’s powers balanced and humanity at peace. At the centre of this story? Mycroft’s fervent belief that J.E.D.D. Mason is another universe’s god made flesh, and that they and Bridger together can avert a war brewing despite anyone’s best efforts to the contrary.
What strikes me immediately about Palmer’s writing is how she brings her Renaissance historian perspective to writing the future. I commented on this in my review of the first book, but let’s talk about it again. This book has shadows of Umberto Eco. Its scenes are mostly intense dialogues between two or more characters, dialogues that verge upon philosophy and shade into the deepest questions of the human condition. Seven Surrenders asks us to consider what qualities make good leaders, how gender roles and ideas influence our behaviour, and how our religious and spiritual beliefs shape our ability to conceive of the world. Although set in the future, the language and intrigue would equally belong to the seventeenth century (something one character lampshades after the climax of the story). This is, of course, the purpose of science fiction in general (to explore the human condition and hypotheticals thereof), but Palmer’s use of Renaissance and Enlightenment motifs creates an interesting, compelling style to the entire piece. It’s challenging and not something I would like to read all the time, but I appreciate having my mind challenged in this way.
The gender stuff, of course, really jumped out at me. I read and reviewed Too Like the Lightning at the same time that I was questioning my own gender (and eventually landed on woman, hi!). So of course I’m interested in how science fiction books reimagine gender. In this 25th century, Palmer imagines a world that has pursued what we might call gender abolition. It’s not that sex is gone, but no one is supposed to care about anyone else’s gender—everyone is supposed to use they/them pronouns. This sounds liberating, but honestly as a trans person it kinda sounds like just a different kind of hell. Having fought so hard to figure out (and now assert) my true gender, the idea of erasing/ignoring that identity in a quest to erase gender roles and stereotypes doesn’t appeal to me. Gender abolition’s goals are noble but conflate the symptoms with the disease: gender as a social construct is not a problem, but the ways we police gender are. So I appreciate that Palmer depicts some of the problems with this approach to dealing with gender stereotypes. A kind of prohibitionism of gender is apt to backfire because it creates the opportunity for a “gender-aware underground,” which in this case becomes the framework for allowing an egotistical megalomaniac to corrupt and manipulate the major leaders of this world.
One of the subplots in Seven Surrenders eventually coalesces around the Cousins, a Hive (think … philosophical movement turned into club) that focuses on doing good for others. Without getting into spoilers, let’s just say that the subplot hinges on the idea that the Cousins embody the feminine in our society, but because this future society has worked to eradicate stereotypical gender roles, they’ve also eradicated the language that allows people to express this idea. As a result, the Cousins are at an existential impasse, unable to fully grasp and articulate the true nature of their work.
This made me think of Eugenia Cheng’s thought-provoking x + y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender. Cheng also zeroes in on the difficulty of using terms like masculine and feminine while avoiding stereotypes. For that reason, she proposes new language—particularly the terms ingressive and congressive to describe behaviours, because we can more easily divorce these from our concepts of genders. This seems to be missing from Seven Surrenders—that is, I don’t agree with Palmer that it follows that, if we abolish gender, we also lose language to discuss traditionally gendered activities. As Cheng points out, it is going to be work, but I think we can shift our language to abolish gender stereotypes when talking about behaviour (I just don’t think that should or needs to then turn into an abolition of gender itself).
Finally, let’s consider the religious themes in this book. One of the big reveals of Too Like the Lightning was that Mycroft (and many other powerful people) think J.E.D.D. Mason is literally the incarnation of a god from another universe. Palmer further develops this idea here while still keeping the idea fairly postmodern: there is room to interpret this as metaphorical, to view J.E.D.D. Mason as a particularly delusional youth shaped by his bespoke upbringing. Consequently, I found this particular mystery unremarkable. I don’t really care whether or not J.E.D.D. Mason is a god. But the idea that J.E.D.D. and Bridger complement one another is far more intriguing. And here we come full circle, for Palmer uses this plot to explore Western ideas on the best way to govern a society, to avoid war, to have peace. Some characters believe a benevolent dictatorship by J.E.D.D. Mason, perhaps assisted by the miraculous powers of Bridger, would ensure the continuity of peace. Others believe it would lead to stagnation or more division. That is ultimately one of the most interesting mysteries in Seven Surrenders.
Will I read the next book? Yes but not right away—I need a break again. This is definitely not candy science fiction; there’s so much going on here. And just in general, the style and the heavy focus on so many named characters is exhausting. So take this as the high praise it is when I say that, despite such frustrations, I still enjoyed and found this book a valuable addition to my 2020 reads.