Modern Classic: Too Like the Lightning (Terra Ignota 1) by Ada Palmer

This tour de force has easily become my favorite science fiction book of the 2010s, and it restored my faith that classic literary science fiction would thrive in this century. Don’t get me wrong: I have other favorite authors, from Kim Stanley Robinson, Neal Stephenson and Alastair Reynolds, to Catherynne Valente and Becky Chambers, all of whom produced some incredible books in the past decade, but in my opinion, Too Like the Lightning stands head and shoulders over any other books I’ve read from that time period. It combines an intriguing story, elaborate worldbuilding that meshes the past and the future, as well as powerful writing, into a very dense and complex work that may not suit everyone, but which fit my literary tastes like a glove.

In a world of the 25th century, nation-states don’t need to exist anymore. There is no scarcity, information (and surveillance) is ubiquitous, people spend their lives on what they want to, freely travel wherever they desire, and the resulting moral decay of the society is off the charts. That is not to say that there is no need for labor. People still have employment, but it’s no longer defining them, and instead they spend more time and energy on their hobbies. There are exceptions, though. For instance, there are the Servicers, criminals who have been convicted of very serious crimes but given a second chance by being forced to work in any job that is assigned to them, in exchange for food.

One such servicer is Mycroft Canner, the narrator of this book. He is a brilliant polymath, versed in multiple languages, and with excellent mathematical skills. Thanks to this, and his association to the Emperor, he is sought after by the elites who require more sensitive work than just shoveling muck. This puts him into the central position for this story, which is why he had been tasked to compile a history of the entire affair and present it to the reader, whom he often directly addresses. Even with his access to information, he is not the most reliable narrator, and sometimes even relies on others to write certain chapters.

To understand the significance of the criminal case that is presented in this book, one must first know the political structure of the future. Nation-states were replaced by seven Hives. People are free to apply to a hive or stay hiveless. Within the hives, people form familial units, bashes, which may consist of a larger number of adults and children, with or without any blood relations between them. The hive leaders are very familiar with each other and prefer to cooperate rather than plot against one another, but over time the balance of power has been slipping towards some of the hives, so a corrective action may be in order.

Mycroft is often employed by the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash of the Humanist Hive. This bash is responsible for routing most of the traffic in the world and ensuring the safety of all cars. However, the bash, unbeknownst to even its own members, also harbors a child that has the power to give life to inanimate objects and to turn anything tangible. Bridger, the child, has already turned a squad of toy soldiers into his bodyguards, and he’s been supplying pharmaceutical labs with life-saving drugs that he’s conjured. Mycroft, along with the bash member Thisbe, resolve to keep the child’s identity a secret and protect him until he comes of age.

In this setting, someone has stolen the Mitsubishi Hive Seven-Ten list and implicated the S-W bash in the crime. These lists, published every year by the most reputable newspapers, contain the names of the seven most influential people in the world and three up-and-commers. In a post-scarcity world, reputation becomes a commodity, and so these lists are carefully guarded until publication. The theft triggers an investigation of the bash, but also sets in motion a set of events that threatens the stability of the entire Hive system. Hive leaders begin suspecting each other, key investigators turn rogue, Mycroft’s identity as the world’s most despicable mass murderer gets exposed, Bridger gets hunted, and Mycroft himself becomes a pawn in the power plays and gets confined away from the action.

For a book of such an enormous scope, the storyline may sound rather thin and short, and it indeed could be summarized in a few paragraphs. It is, in essence, the story of Bridger, and the story of the theft. The two threads are never really interconnected, and the Bridger story, which ostensibly is what Mycroft’s accounting is about, is actually pushed into the background by the theft. The story of the theft takes several sharp turns, and a reader may not even realize that he’s been heading into an entirely different direction until the book comes to a close. What appeared to be a simple theft or even a prank turns into a global conspiracy, which may threaten the future of mankind. Even this is drowned out, though, by the bulk of the novel: worldbuilding and classic literature and philosophy.

What happens to a society that seemingly has everything? They lapse into decadence. Free to do as they please (unless laws are broken), people can pursue their base instincts and loftiest intellectual pursuits at once. As a result, you have a sex-crazed society obsessed by image, which is deeply involved with philosophical thought and classic literature. This is further enhanced by an interesting quirk of the worldbuilding: religion, being declared the root of all wars and human suffering, has been outlawed. It is replaced by the Cousins Hive, whose members are the Sensayers, a cross between a psychiatrists and philosophers, who take confessions and offer advice. One of the sensayers, Carlyle Foster, is a central figure in the book, and through him we get treated to philosophical discussions, primarily featuring French Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau. And, since this is a sexually depraved (or free) world, Marquis de Sade also plays a major role, from philosophical perspective.

In addition to philosophy, the book is full of mythology, as well as past and future history. Palmer succeeds to create a plausible future history without getting into too many technical details, and instead she focuses on the societal effects. Sometimes she may get overboard, for instance with callous destruction of property for the sake of art, and occasionally she becomes too tied up in reconstructing the ancient world in the future, but for the most part the three central elements, philosophy, mythology and history, are very well balanced and never overwhelming. I may be biased, however, as an amateur student of European history, philosophy, and mythology, which allowed me to follow the text with relative ease and enjoy it to the fullest.

This combination of elements, as well as the writing style, are not unique to Palmer, though. I was less than fifty pages into this book when I had a strong feeling that I’ve picked up a book by Roger Zelazny. The similarities don’t end with the substance, either. The literary writing style with flowery yet efficient language has a Zelazny feeling as well. And don’t get me started on the unreliable narrator, who happens to be eminently capable, and who sits in the middle of all information flows, yet only minimally affects the plot progression… That is not to say that Palmer copied my favorite science fiction author. She has her own voice in the book, which is clear and strong. Palmer’s obsession with genders and gendered language adds another, very intriguing, layer to the story, which among other things gives the reader a much greater freedom to imagine characters as he likes. In some cases, this causes amusing situations, like when I realized only halfway through the book that Carlyle was female. I am sure this has been done on purpose. In fact, the entire language is very tight and purposeful, which adds to the already dense book and may discourage some readers. In my case, it encouraged me to reread the text.

The only downside of the book is that it’s incomplete. It has been envisioned as the first part of a duology, so the action stops in the middle, and the conclusion is missing. I appreciated the fact that there wasn’t a cliffhanger at the end: the story is progressing in its natural course until it is chopped off. This allowed me to catch my breath and reread the novel before moving to its second part, but it also lacked any tangible hints on where the story might be going, and as a result, I don’t feel like I can judge the book on this without reviewing the sequel. What I can do, however, is to fully appreciate the cultural, societal, and philosophical layers of the story.

Too Like the Lightning is a must-read book for everyone with even passing interest in European history and culture, as well as appreciation of a more literary science fiction, full of philosophy and compelling, well-developed characters. The book will not make it easy for the reader: it is dense, with multiple and often conflicting writing styles, and a language that varies from the 18th century to a truly futuristic one. Those who are not at least passingly familiar with long dead philosophers may require an encyclopedia at hand. But ultimately, this novel delivers one of the best fleshed-out future worlds, beautifully weird characters and a storyline that twists and turns and surprises in nearly every chapter. For me personally, this book is one of the greatest literary achievements in science fiction of the 21st century.

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