Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer
Published May 10, 2016
When I updated my progress on goodreads to 80% of the way through this 432 page book I still didn’t know whether I was interested in continuing this series – not exactly a ringing endorsement. As it turns out, taking a step away from the book for an extended weekend (it was both too dense for me to read between plays at the Toronto Fringe Festival, and physically too heavy a hardcover for me to carry around when I was travelling between venues on foot) brought some much needed clarity. I didn’t miss Too Like The Lightning when I put it down. Not even a little. Much like the first volume of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (not the odious second volume), it’s the kind of book that is clever and will appeal very much to a certain type of person. That person just isn’t me.
The story is told through a framing device, with Mycroft Canner recording his version of events for a distant future reader, but in the style of an Eighteenth century account. Throughout the story he maintains a dialogue with the reader, imagining our reactions to certain narrative choices. Through Mycroft’s eyes we learn about the 25th century. On the surface, this world is a utopia, where people can use a vast network of cars to travel to different continents in a matter of hours, lifespans have reached 150 years, nation loyalties are no more and so there is world peace. Fear of organized religion, caused by religious violence, has led the world to outlaw the public practice of any kind of religion, yet there are mandated weekly one-on-one sessions with sensayers, a sort of spiritual counselor who present answers to spiritual questions from multiple belief systems. Gender distinctions have become distinctly taboo so most use the neutral pronouns thee and thou, and there is an extreme form of censorship that requires complex labeling of all public writing and speech. Oh, and there’s a boy who can bring inanimate objects to life which threatens the very stability of the world.
Palmer has created the ultimate unreliable narrator in Mycroft Canner, a convict who has been sentenced in the 25th century way (based on an idea from Sir Thomas More that was never actually implemented), to wander the earth, without home or property, serving at the command of any citizen who needs labour. Allusions to the severity of Mycroft’s crime are scattered throughout the text. For example, the name Mycroft is no longer one that people use, and Canner’s identity is kept a secret from all but a select group of citizens. It’s more than halfway through the book before the reader learns exactly what Mycroft did and, as our narrator would no doubt say, “Beware reader! it’s gory!”
Unsurprisingly, since she is a professor in the history department at the University of Chicago, Palmer’s first novel is heavily influenced by the eighteenth century Enlightenment period (especially the writings of Voltaire) and by humanist thought. It makes for a weighty philosophic read, but I thought the author’s ambitious emphasis on ideas hindered her plot development and her characters.
I had a number of issues with Too Like The Lightning. I found it slow moving, with more politicking than plot. I usually enjoy works that involve political intrigue, but I just didn’t find it very interesting here, perhaps because I didn’t have a strong connection to any of the characters, and therefore didn’t care which group came out on top. I liked the characters, I just didn’t fully connect with any of them and I don’t feel invested enough to continue the series and learn their fates. I was also disappointed that the story doesn’t stand alone very well. There are some books in a series where there are unfinished threads leading to the next volume of a series, but also a clear sense that a chapter of a larger story has finished. I didn’t get that with Too Like The Lightning.
For all this negativity, there are things I admired about the novel. It’s unique. I have never read anything like Too Like The Lightning before, and as much as I love the science-fiction and fantasy genre, it’s a rare thing to encounter a book that’s so completely different from anything that came before. The world building is also tremendous. To knock down the world we’ve known, one with gender distinctions, religion, and loyalty to nations, Palmer creates new systems of belonging for her 25th century setting.
Instead of nations there are seven supranational bodies called Hives, which people join based on their shared interests, rather than their place of birth, seemingly based on the idea that “what we choose means more than what is handed to us by chance.” Instead of families there is the bash’ system (derived from the Japanese “basho”) where individuals are born into a bash’ but often choose to leave and join or start a new bash’ in their twenties based on mutual interests and values.
The world is diverse, and the use of gender pronouns is unusual. The world claims to be a strictly gender neutral society where the usage of gendered pronouns is taboo, but Mycroft suggests that the world is not truly a gender neutral society, but just pretends to be gender neutral. He breaks this restriction on social custom often by including gendered pronouns in his narrative, and yet these correspond with his impression of how individuals fit his ideas of gender, not their biological sex. Cousins, the spiritual Hive of sensayers, are referred to with the feminine pronoun, even when they are biologically male, like Carlyle Foster, and the wolfish Dominic is given male pronouns by Mycroft despite being biologically female. I gather from the author’s answer to a question on goodreads that the intention is to make the reader feel uncomfortable and to present a world that has failed on the gender conversation, and given up too easily, but I don’t think this point comes across in the text.
All in all, Too Like The Lightning is a frustrating read. At its best it presents intriguing world building and visions of a possible future with a centrally controlled car system that makes traveling an ease. It also stimulates important thought about the place of gender, religion, and censorship in our world. However, it’s a confusing novel that’s sometimes downright incomprehensible, weighed down by its own ideas. Although I don’t think Too Like The Lightning succeeds in its ambitions, I can’t help but admire its creativity.