Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
Ada Palmer’s debut novel, Too Like the Lightning, is an absorbing, exhausting, and complicated work of science fiction literature. This is not the kind of book you can read in bits and pieces and quickly pick up the plot threads after watching a couple of nights of TV. Once you jump in, it’s best you stay focused, allow her world to wash over you and trust that Palmer’s taking you a worthwhile ride.
It’s the 25th century, the church wars are long over, and society is in relative balance. We’re reading the government-edited recounting of something of political, cultural, and pan-global significance. The narrative of Mycroft Canner is largely first-hand, but some elements are witnessed through trackers that allow him to see and hear events through a device attached to individuals. And some events Canner has asked others to retell on their own.
While Mycroft is the conduit for the story, he makes it abundantly clear that he is not the protagonist. That role falls to a special 13-year old named Bridger whom we learn early in the story has the ability to ‘miracle’ inanimate objects to make them real: he touches a drawing of food and it becomes real; he touches a toy soldier and it comes to life … full of the vim and vigor of a miniature wizened army Major.
Bridger’s ability is fantastical, but this story is far from fantasy. Palmer does a credible job of creating a recognizable world 400 years in the future. Elements of our modern day politics, entertainment, communication, science, and transportation are evident, but they’re evolved. While organized religion is verboten in Palmers’ world of Too Like the Lightning, it still exists and is one of the persistent undercurrents throughout her story.
A driver of political power in Palmer’s world is the annual release of the ‘seven-ten’ list. Seven of the world’s most prominent publications release their lists of the ten most influential people on the same day every year. The list includes politicians, business people, and a few glitterati who seem to be famous simply for being famous. The order of individuals as well as additions and deletions from year to year significantly influence world society and politics. The theft of one of these lists is the underlying narrative thread throughout Palmer’s enormous tapestry and Palmer uses it as a launch pad for her intricately nuanced (and sometimes confusing) political machinations.
Too Like the Lightning is very intellectual. Palmer embeds philosophy, history and plenty of politics within her story. Hidden beneath the veneer of a thoroughly futuristic Earth resides a subculture that mimics Enlightenment-era France. Tapping into her background as a PhD in European histories, as well as the formation and growth of knowledge, Palmer embeds more than a subtle bit of Voltaire, Marque de Sade, Francis Bacon and the importance of chance vs. providence.
It’s hard to even describe the narrative, which contains numerous independent and interconnected plot threads which, in and of itself, may scare some readers away. Warning: This is not a straightforward read. This book is a challenge. You will like it if you enjoy philosophy and politics (mostly subtle, some not so much). And you will love it if you like internecine politics spread over a layer of culture upheaval and solid speculative fiction.
In Too Like the Lightning, independent nations, as an organizational structure, no longer exist. However, people can still choose to display (physically, with an arm band or insignia) their affiliation with the notion of a land-based organizing principal. Palmer’s society is organized by ‘hive’ — politico-cultural organizations to which individuals self select their affiliation. Individuals can choose to be hiveless, and some individuals have their hive taken away. Mycroft fits into this latter category. He’s a criminal that’s reduced to the equivalent of a respected state slave. Palmer does a fabulous job introducing some very dark elements with Mycroft’s full back-story exposed midway through the 400+ page novel. The ‘reveal’ of Mycroft’s crime is a doozy.
The science fiction elements run an interesting gamut. You’ll find technological advances like digital clothing, and the concept of a gag-gene (while all genetics are known and tracked by world governments, certain genetics can not be revealed to the individual) Cars are controlled by set-sets, computer-like humans who are raised to interact with each other and networks, and have little contact with other humans.
Palmer’s world is fully realized and must’ve taken a herculean authorial effort to work through the nuances and impact of the complicated plot across her universe. The myriad of mysteries are so complex, one can’t help but honor what Palmer’s even conceptualized into a mainstream piece of literature. And it is very literate.
There are mysteries and secrets a plenty in Too Like the Lightning. Some are resolved during this first novel, but some won’t be revealed until the sequel, Seven Surrenders, is released in December 2016. Too Like the Lightning does not work as a stand-alone novel. Too few plotlines are resolved and Palmer’s scope is simply too large to end only halfway through. This is an ambitious and speculative piece of literature without being absurd. It’s deep, meaningful, complicated and worthy of a second read.
What a fascinating concept! And ambitious, too, for a debut novel. I’m glad to hear that you thought it was successful.
That does sound very dense and ambitious. I can add it to the TBR pile, which is (virtually) ready to collapse from it’s own weight.