Too Like the Lightning is Ada Palmer’s fiction debut, and it is part one of at least a two part series. (I wasn’t warned about this, and I kind of wish I had been. My expectations are different when reading a story that won’t be finished for another book.) And, I liked this book. I think. Mostly. It’s very peculiar and difficult to explain, which makes it sound awful. It’s not awful, but it is a kind of book that I found it hard to grapple with.
Too Like the Lightning is set in the future, in a sort-of utopia, which has achieved its status by a careful balance of alliances and interests. This occurs less across national and international divides and more through clusters of philosophical outlook and tradition which people subscribe to. These are called Hives, and are the main political and personal forces. Public displays of religion have basically been outlawed.
So, this is science fiction, but it’s the kind of science fiction that talks about Thomas Carlyle and Voltaire all the time. The Enlightenment is as powerful a force in this society as any other point in history–we are given a sense of the great philosophers and thinkers of the fictional near past, but they also hearken back to the 18th century. And there’s the kind of science that basically looks like magic, also possibly real magic in the form of a mysterious child named Bridger. This is what I mean by peculiar.
It is mostly narrated by a man named Mycroft Canner–everyone in this book has that sort of name–and he is not entirely reliable. This fact is hammered home a little too forcefully towards the end of the book, but it’s fairly clear from early on*. Mycroft is a Servicer, sentenced to a lifetime of usefully helping society after having committed a serious crime. Mycroft, we’re given to understand, is an extra-specially notorious criminal whose identity has to be obfuscated for his own protection.
We do also have occasional interjections from other characters and points of view, although how many of these are in fact filtered through Mycroft is an open question. But this book is full of other people, because Mycroft has his fingers in all of the pies and knows all the powerful people in this world. This is a book about power and who wields it and how it is balanced and unbalanced. Most of these characters are sketched in quickly, but some of them are given more depth. The sheer number of names and the relationships between them can be pretty overwhelming at times.
And that, I think points to my main lingering puzzlement about this book. It’s almost 400 pages long and I read them all. I feel that I should be able to say if it’s interested in plot (things definitely happen!) or characters (there are lots, and they’re interesting!) or philosophy (there’s so much of it. SO MUCH.) but in the end it all seems somehow very detached. My point earlier about it being interested in power and the shifting and balancing of power is as close as I can come to any kind of a theory of what this book is about, and why you might be interested in it. (Unless you are the kind of person who automatically perks up at the mention of Enlightenment philosophy, in which case this is the book for you.)
I have other lingering puzzlements, however. First: how do I feel about Mycroft at the end of the book? I don’t know. Palmer is playing with the reader’s expectation of trust and I’m not entirely sure if it’s not working, or if it’s working perfectly and I just don’t like it. Second: how do I feel about everyone else? WHO KNOWS? They are all kind of awful in a fascinating way, even–I would argue–Bridger. The narrative really seems to want us to care about Bridger, who is the force of innocence and goodness, but who ends up coming across as Charles Wallace Murry x 10.
Also, two related further puzzlements. Why does everyone seem so pro-Mycroft? Is it simply that we’re getting the story filtered through his perspective? I ended up wondering if I would like the story better if it were about Thisbe. Further: the social understanding of gender in this world confounds our gender expectations, which would be really interesting. Except that Mycroft’s narration, which often puts gender back onto the characters, seems to reinforce them, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. It seems less successful than, say, Leckie’s use of “she” as the default pronoun in the Imperial Radch books.
Finally, this is less of a puzzlement and more of an outright nope–I got very frustrated with a section about icons that does not understand icons or their religious significance and use. I shouldn’t be surprised about this, because it happens all the time, but I found it annoying, and it made me wonder what else the book got wrong.
Sometimes when I’m not sure how I feel about a book, writing the review helps me solidify that. In this case, I still don’t know! It’s a mostly-positive befuddlement. And I’m not exactly sure who I would recommend this book to, either. You don’t need to have an in-depth knowledge of philosophy to be able to read it, but you do have to be patient enough to work through all the names and social conventions and mini-history lessons. Ultimately, for that patient reader, it is a rewarding book, even though I still can’t say exactly why I liked it.
* Yes, yes, arguably all first person narrators are unreliable to a certain degree. Mycroft is a bit beyond that.