Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer – Book Review
Science fiction is at its finest when it tackles bold ideas, when it offers striking visions of the future, and when it cuts to the very core of the human condition. These three—and more—Too Like the Lightning does with expertise and skill, as author Ada Palmer does remarkable work in constructing a 25th century that is bursting at the seams with imaginative concepts of the path humanity is going down on.
If only it wasn’t so smug about the depths of its own intelligence.
The first novel in the Terra Ignota trilogy is a remarkable piece of fiction. As dense as this novel is, it is difficult to penetrate at first, with a futuristic glossary that takes time to get used to, and a society whose way of life seems downright alien. But the effort necessary to follow along with the writings of focalizer Mycroft Canner is well worth it, I promise you—especially in our day and age, when identity is so hotly debated a topic. Beyond the debates, identity becomes a question of life and death in our present day, but Palmer offers a vision when its nature—sexual, national, ideological—is a question of choice, inalienable to every single one of the billions of humans living in this future…Or does she?
What do you need to know about this future? Nation-states have lost virtually all importance—they only still seem around as geographic regions, because of nostalgia—and have been superseded by seven Hives, each of which has different values, interests, leaders, and internal structure. These are enormous societies that interact in complex ways, every single one of them filling a niche in the wider and very interconnected world. The Masons are an Empire fashioned after that of Ancient Rome but through the prism of the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment; the Humanists have control of the system that does all the calculations necessary for the flying cars that transport nearly all of humanity; the Mitsubishi are massive land-owners.
The Utopians are likely the most fascinating of all the Hives. Their anarchist structure espouses all notions of hierarchy, and at its core, the Hive strives towards innovation towards the betterment of mankind, by being the only one of the seven to not only dream of unlocking the mysteries of the cosmos but of actively working towards the colonization of Luna and Mars. They are the dreamers and inventors of this 25th century of Palmer’s, and no barrier is high enough to hold them back:
I told you, reader, that Utopia does not give up on dreams. When a Utopian dies, of anything, the cause is marked and not forgotten until solved. A fall? They rebuild the site to make it safe. A criminal? They do not rest until he is rendered harmless. An illness? It is researched until cured, regardless of the time, the cost, over generations if need be. A car crash? They create their separate system, slower, less efficient, costing hours, but which has never cost a single life. Even for suicide they track the cause, and so, patiently, blade by blade, disarm Death. Death, of course, has many weapons, and, if they have deprived him of a hundred million, he still has enough at hand to keep them mortal. For now. (161)
It is no difficult task to sympathize with these bold dreamers and inventors, though whenever they appear, they seem more alien than all other Hive members.
I have to touch on the cast of characters, all of whom are grand and larger than life. Philosopher-kings, presidents and their confidants, sensayers—whose role is somewhere between that of psychologist and priest—and toy soldiers; the cast is truly bursting at the seams with names you’ll at first struggle to remember but then will never forget. The dynamics between so many of these characters are wonderfully twisted and complex, and though you will think that the only nexus between them all is the inciting incident at the novel’s opening, you will soon discover
Mycroft Canner is one of the most entertaining, most unreliable narrators I have come across yet, and reading on as he revealed information piecewise about himself, trying to connect it all—it’s very rewarding. The conceit here is that Mycroft writes these annals of his time in a style that resembles 18th-century literature—and the nods towards Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are ever-present—which is where that smugness I mentioned comes into the novel. Addressing the reader in so fanciful a way, with all those “thoust” and “thy”s, it strikes a tone that is indeed insufferably smug and even arrogant; that’s one element of an otherwise excellent style I would’ve liked to be rid of.
Ada Palmer had a set of goals when she set out to write this novel, and she has succeeded. I’ll let her own words illustrate these goals better than I can:
I wanted it so much. So much sometimes it felt like I couldn’t breathe. Sometimes I would cry, not because I was sad, but because it hurt, physical pain from the intensity of wanting something so much. I’m a good student of philosophy, I know my Stoics, Cynics, their advice, that, when a desire is so intense it hurts you, the healthy path is to detach, unwant it, let it go. The healthy thing for the self. But there are a lot of reasons one can want to be an author: acclaim, wealth, self-respect, finding a community, the finite immortality of name in print, so many more. But I wanted it to add my voice to the Great Conversation, to reply to Diderot, Voltaire, Osamu Tezuka, and Alfred Bester, so people would read my books and think new things, and make new things from those thoughts, my little contribution to the path which flows from Gilgamesh and Homer to the stars. And that isn’t just for me. It’s for you. Which means it was the right choice to hang on to the desire, even when it hurt so much.
Ambitious—but as Steven Erikson once wrote in his introduction to Gardens of the Moon, “Ambition is not a dirty word. Piss on compromise. Go for the throat.” Ambition drives Palmer on, and for that, she has earned herself more than a memorable line or two in that Great Conversation she’s eager to take part in. If you’re familiar with the philosophers I mentioned above (and Enlightenment philosophy and beliefs in general), you will certainly appreciate much of what Palmer does here; and if not, there’s nonetheless a lot here that’s valuable about gender roles, religion, power and the way it is exercised, a fascinating alternate family structure, and a throng of other imaginative ideas I am utterly in love with. This story is a mystery, it’s a celebration of the Enlightenment, and it is ambition fulfilled, something I can’t help but admire Ada Palmer for.
I checked this book out of my local library. Support your libraries, folks!