Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
“Some books have to be sad to get across the ideas the author wants to talk about. Victor Hugo is describing a very sad part of real history. Hugo wants you to understand that moment in time, what was beautiful about it, and what was horrible. Books, even made-up stories, can’t all have happy endings because they reflect the real world, and the real world isn’t always happy.”
The Major nodded, sagely slow. “If history is written by the winners, fiction like that is written by bystanders trying to guess what the victims would have said if they’d survived.”
Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning (2016), book one of the Terra Ignota series, is an impressively ambitious debut science fiction novel. Set in the Twenty-Fifth Century in a new age of Enlightenment, the book is written in the style of the Eighteenth Century to reflect the original age of Enlightenment as Palmer’s future world allows her to riff on the philosophical arguments of Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau and de Sade. What could come across as dry and mannered becomes exciting and engaging thanks to Palmer’s sheer enthusiasm for her ideas as well as her intellectual rigour.
Palmer brings her expertise and her attention to detail from her job as a professor of history to her science fiction, resulting in a future Earth whose social and political systems are as well thought out and as thrillingly extrapolated as any technological advance in a hard SF story. Distinct from both the frightening dystopian visions that characterise much of recent SF and the far flung fantasises of space opera, Too Like the Lightning is interested in how people can build a better world, a new era of peace, freedom and prosperity for everyone. However she is also well aware of the cost of maintaining a utopia, and how fragile such an era of peace and plenty might be. This it shares with the “ambiguous utopias” described by Ursula K. Le Guin in The Dispossessed (1974) and Samuel R. Delany in Triton (1976), but the most striking thing about Too Like the Lightning is its freshness and originality.
Too Like the Lightning is narrated by Mycroft Canner, an infamous convict who, to atone for his crimes, is now a Servicer, bound to wander the world performing useful tasks where needed. Due to the variety of skills he picked up during his time as a criminal, he is frequently called upon by the Hive leaders, the heads of the clans of people with similar interests and aims that drive the world’s politics and economy, to investigate and solve delicate problems. When a leaked press release from a magazine threatens the delicate balance between the Hives, Mycroft struggles to solve the mystery before three centuries of peace are brought to an end. Meanwhile, Mycroft introduces the sensayer Carlyle Foster, whose job is to provide unbiased spiritual counselling in an era when the public practice of religion is banned, to Bridger, a child Mycroft has been looking after in secret, whose ability to manipulate reality may be an even bigger threat to the world they know.
Mycroft is a wonderful narrator, intelligent and charming and desperate to show it, yet slippery and cagey. This technique allows Palmer to portion out information about the world the story is set in in digestible chunks, as Mycroft is always very careful with how much information he reveals to the reader, even as he writes his memoirs with the understanding that they will be read by people far removed from the time he lives in. The Eighteenth Century style he has chosen to tell his story in, replete with stylized dialogue and philosophical digressions, reflects his love and enthusiasm for the ideals of the Enlightenment and the era he lives in. The fact that he takes these ideal so seriously allows us to trust that he has Bridger’s and the world’s best interests at heart, even as he lies to us about his past, avoids the truth when it’s uncomfortable for him, and eventually reveals the horrific nature of his past crimes.
The intentionally antiquated style also serves to remind us of the distance between the Eighteenth Century, our present day, and the Twenty-Fifth Century, as the distance between the setting of the book, the time we are reading it in and the style it consciously mimics allows us to consider how much social customs and norms change over such lengths of time. Palmer’s society is not merely cosplaying the Enlightenment; whilst they have drawn much from the philosophy of the time, the world we see is one shaped by its technological and sociopolitical changes. The future world in Too Like the Lightning has been shaped by the invention of the flying car, which can circumnavigate the whole globe in under five hours, and the collapse of nation states.
As everywhere in the world is now within commutable distance, people no longer are organised by the land they are born in, but upon taking their Adult Competency Exam choose one of the seven Hives they will become a part of, depending on their profession, their hobbies and their interests – the Humanists, the Utopians, Europe, Mitsubishi, the Masons, the Cousins, or Gordian – and form a bash’, a collective home of four to twenty friends. Each Hive has its own laws, customs and protections, or an individual can choose to remain Hiveless. Organised religion has been outlawed due to the centuries of wars and conflict it has caused, but recognising the human need for spiritual fulfilment, people are assigned sensayers, who are impartial spiritual advisers whose job is to discuss the various different belief systems with people and help them think about these things and come to their own conclusions. The economic and political competition between the Hives is carefully managed by those in control, and Earth has enjoyed three centuries of peace under this system. Palmer explores what it would be like to live in this world, Mycroft’s position as servant to all making him a useful, impartial viewpoint who can show us the different societies created by the different Hives and how they all interact with each other.
Too Like the Lightning also does interesting things with gender. In Mycroft’s time, gendered pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ are considered taboo in everyday conversation. However because he is writing in the style of the Eighteenth Century, Mycroft feels obliged to use them. But because he doesn’t employ gendered pronouns in regular speech, rather than simply using them as a marker of biological sex, Mycroft uses them to emphasise characteristics associated with ‘masculinity’ or ‘femininity’. Thus a male character with strong maternal instincts may be labelled ‘she’, whilst a female character who is aggressive and domineering may be labelled ‘he’. Sometimes Mycroft assigns pronouns merely to achieve a sense of balance between rivals or teachers and their pupils.
By emphasising the social coding of gender, Palmer points out that gender is a social construct, and that it is more complex and mutable than the strictures of our language sometimes allow. This makes Too Like the Lightning a part of the conversation SF has been having about gender through books like Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness (1969), Samuel R. Delany’s Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand (1984) up to Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy (2013 – 2015).
Palmer takes great delight in pitting the book’s various characters in philosophical discussions with each other, as a way of exploring the different viewpoints and perspectives they and their Hives represent. In particular, the cynical, manipulative and ruthlessly pragmatic Mycroft makes a fine counterpart to the sincere, open-hearted yet frequently naïve Carlyle, and their frequent arguments and discussions act to solidify their unlikely friendship as well as provide the precocious Bridger with the education he needs to one day come into the world and responsibly use his powers for good.
Mycroft’s canniness makes him particularly suited for untangling the complex motivations of the Hive leaders and those in power, whilst Carlyle’s friendliness allows him to interact with regular people within their own bash’ and put them at ease. The book explores the arguments of the leading intellectual lights of the Enlightenment, as well as the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, not to mention Thomas Moore and Robert Heinlein, in a way that is approachable and engaging, and never manages to swamp the direction and momentum of the story.
The society depicted in Too Like the Lightning is fairly utopian. Mycroft’s age is an age of plenty and peace, in which humanity has managed to overcome racism, religious persecution and war. However Palmer is aware that utopias frequently come at a cost. The collapse of nation states was precipitated by a catastrophic war. The system of flying cars that has made the world accessible to everyone is only possible because of set-sets, children who are raised in a digital environment at birth with all their nerves rewired to act as computing outlets to achieve the computational power to keep all the cars in the air and on schedule and to prevent them from crashing, and who have access to everyone’s flight data.
People’s protection is secured by having them wear trackers at all times which monitor their location and report increases in heart rate to the police. The close cooperation necessary for the Hives to co-exist has resulted in a small group of leaders and powerful people who essentially control the world. Palmer’s book asks the questions if these trade-offs are worth paying for a better world, and, with the threat of Bridger’s world-changing powers, is it worth destroying a better world tomorrow to save the world we live in today? Too Like the Lightning’s abrupt cliff-hanger ending denies us answers to these questions or closure for its characters, but if the follow-up is as engagingly written and fiercely intelligent, it will be worth the wait to find out.