Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
I'd heard some good things about this book from other writers whose work I really enjoy, so when the Tor monthly book club put it up for download, I was totally stoked. Let me just say, it was a weird, wild ride.
Too Like the Lightning is a science fiction novel, set in the 25th century, but written more in the style of the 18th. It’s narrated by and told from the point of view of Mycroft Canner, with the occasional interruption or interviews from other characters.
If you asked Mycroft what the novel is about, he would tell you that it is about a thirteen-year-old boy named Bridger who possesses an incredible and mysterious power, and how he helped shaped the world as we know it (in the future beyond the book’s 25th century setting). If you asked literally anyone else, they’d probably tell you the story is a mystery involving the theft of a devious device and an article listing the world’s most influential people, and what that meant for the world of the future.
Along side the story of this miracle child and the mysterious theft and frame-job, there is some fantastic world building in this novel. Also sex, philosophy and murder. It’s really a mixed bag, as are my feelings about it.
What a World
Okay, so my absolute favorite aspect of this story is the world building. Ada Palmer does this masterful job of interweaving history, culture, politics, economics, everything, with her story. We quickly learn that five hundred years into the future, flying cars with the ability to circumvent the world in four hours have eliminated mankind’s need of countries and borders. A person living in Rio de Janeiro might very easily work in Prague and then go have dinner in Shanghai. The technology behind this way of life is incredibly important and heavily guarded and plays a huge part in the story.
The other thing we learn almost immediately, is that religion is now illegal. Well, not so much religion as discussing religion in a group, or proselytizing. Civilization as the book knows it feels that faith is not a bad thing, but religion is highly dangerous. To allow people to work out their feelings about a creator, or an afterlife, or what have you, a group of licensed priest-like specialists called sensayers exist, and go around discuss people’s religious feelings.
“’Humanity cannot live without these questions! Let us create a new creature! Not a preacher, but a teacher, who hears a parishioner’s questions and presents the answers of all the faiths and sects of history, Christians and pagans, Muslims and atheists, all equal. With this new creature as his guide, let each man pick through the fruits of all theologies and anti-theologies, and make from them his own system, to test, improve, and lean on all the years of his long life. If early opponents of the Christian Reformation feared that Protestants would invent as many Christianities as there were Christians, let this new creature help us create as many religions as there are human beings!’” Ada Palmer. Too Like the Lightning (Kindle Locations 151-155). Tom Doherty Associates.
Another aspect of this future that is really fun is that while countries and religions don’t mean much anymore, there are still nations after a fashion, and universal laws that state that when children pass into adulthood they have the right to choose in which they would like to belong. One of the first we’re introduced to is the Humanists. This group is described as being focused on human achievement. They tend to be athletes and part of their culture is to have a part of their home decorated to display all the awards and trophies they’ve earned. They also prize the Olympics, which are still going strong.
The other groups are based off of either their historical geographical locations (nation-strats) like the Mitsubishi (the Asian nation-strats) or Europe, or they were an organization that became a nation, such as the Masons, based off of today’s masonic traditions or the Cousins, which started as a network to allow female backpackers to find safe places to stay. There’s also the Brillists, who are obsessed with measuring personality and intelligence and the Utopians, whose major goal is to colonize Mars.
The world building is intensely rich! Each of these groups have their own traditions and cultures and politics and they all intermingle, creating this colorful tapestry of a backdrop for a pretty epic story.
Mycroft on his own is a pretty interesting character. He unfolds the details of the story (and his own) very slowly, and we soon see that he’s involved in pretty much everything going with the world’s movers and shakers, but at the same time, is also down in the streets. You see, not to spoil too much, Mycroft is a criminal, serving a life sentence of being what is pretty much a slave to the people.
"Tell me, when our Twenty-Second-Century forefathers created the Servicer Program, offering lifelong community service in lieu of prison for criminals judged harmless enough to walk among the free, were they progressive or retrogressive in implementing a seven-hundred-year-old system which had never actually existed?"
Ada Palmer. Too Like the Lightning (Kindle Locations 376-378). Tom Doherty Associates.
Despite his criminal status, Mycroft appears to be on call to all the world’s leaders and involved in some major historical moments, like a more intelligent Forrest Gump. The few incidents taking place elsewhere are reported on by an associate of Mycroft’s or he tells us what he learns by interviewing the people he knows who witnessed whatever. It’s all an intriguing, albeit sometimes unbelievable frame for the narrative.
The part I really find interesting about Mycroft, I can’t even begin to talk about for fear of ruining things for those who haven’t read this book yet. All I can say is that his crime and the motives behind it are both a trip and a bit of a mystery.
His and Hers (More Like Theirs)
Okay, now we near an aspect of the book that I found both interesting and frustrating. In this future, gender is kind of a personal thing, seemingly reserved for intimate, sexual situations, if at all. What do I mean? I mean that not only are characters generally referred to by gender neutral pronouns, but when gendered pronouns do come up, they’re accompanied by this attitude that this is somehow lewd or taboo. The gender neutrality also helps explain and flavor a lot in the late chapters of the book, which is kind of cool. It’s an interesting aspect of the culture, but then you get Mycroft, being a bit impish now and again, gendering characters as he sees fit, rather than how you and I might (according to sexual organs or personal preference).
"With Chagatai, however, your guess is wrong. It is not her job which makes me give her the feminine pronoun, despite her testicles and chromosomes. I saw her once when someone threatened her little nephew, and the primal savagery with which those thick hands shattered the offender was unmistakably that legendary strength which lionesses, she-wolves, she-bats, she-doves, and all other ‘she’s obtain when motherhood berserks them. That strength wins her ‘she.’" Ada Palmer. Too Like the Lightning (Kindle Locations 4567-4571). Tom Doherty Associates.
This became a little frustrating to me, particularly when I didn’t always want to go off on a tangent about a character’s gender, but continue with the story. Carlyle, the sensayer is another character Mycroft drops hints about, referring to them as a “he” but suggesting that this person is biologically female. I don’t particularly care what Carlyle or Chagatai or anyone else is hiding under their skirt so long as we get on with what’s happening.
I find the gender neutrality and the other things that go on with gender interesting, but how Mycroft treats it sometimes is exhausting, and just feels witty for wit’s sake…
I will totally admit that my frustrations with this book probably stem from the fact that it’s been a while since I’ve read anything this challenging, so while I might find some things annoying, people smarter than me might enjoy them.
Elementary, My Dear Watson
Another aspect that sort of bothered me is that toward the end of the book, certain things are just blatantly revealed with few clues or foreshadowing. I don’t like this sort of thing in mysteries, preferring the ones that show you all the information up front, allowing you the chance to guess correctly, if at all. Too Like the Lightning is a bit of a wild ride, which aspects of the story suddenly coming to the fore with no warning. This can be both exciting and feel like a cheat. I can’t really get into what bothered me because it would be chock full of spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that. And now, my least favorite part of this book:
As I mentioned before, Bridger is who this story is supposedly about, but it’s more about pretty much everyone else. Bridger is a little boy with an amazing, miraculous power. You find out about this power very early on, and about Mycroft’s relationship with the boy, but seriously, the kid’s probably in less than ten percent of the book and most of the stuff that goes on has nothing to do with him.
This is not the problem I have. The problem I have is that Bridger is like an infant, but he’s thirteen. I mean, not exactly like an infant, but he doesn’t come off as a teenager either. Maybe a very young child. But then, on the other hand, he’s got a deep understanding of classical philosophy and has seen some pretty disturbing things, yet appears to be mature and as well-adjusted as is to be expected about it. This dichotomy kind of brought be out of the story a bit. His character isn’t very even, which maybe is realistic? I don’t know. Either way, it bothered me a bit. I could not bring myself to get attached to the kid at all, despite his importance.
This is a really weird book. Like, really weird. You will be hard pressed to find something similar, and despite my frustrations with it, despite the fact reading it exhausted me, I have to recommend you at least try to experience it. If you’re interested in philosophy, particularly of the 18th century, you will probably have a great time. Palmer is actually an associate professor at the University of Chicago, so I guess it’s not surprising she’s a world-building pro.
This quote from her “About” page on her website sums up her work really well, I think.
“All my projects stem from my overall interest in the relationship between ideas and historical change. Our fundamental convictions about what is true evolve over time, so different human peoples in different times and places have, from their own perspectives, lived in radically different worlds with radically different rules.” Palmer, A. (n.d.). About Ada Palmer. Retrieved August 21, 2018, from https://adapalmer.com/about-ada-palmer/
What's it Like?
Imagine if someone with a philosophy/history/lit PHD had a series of affairs with Ellon Musk where they never stopped talking during. That is the spirit of this book.