Ever since its first book came out in 2016, I’ve been reluctant to start Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series – even though it was met with a lot of buzz and praise. Something about it seemed try-hard, and even pretentious. A science fiction novel set in 2454 with 18th century mannerisms made me put up my guard.
Not only those supposed mannerisms made me wary, but also the influence of 18th century thinkers. I don’t know why, but I’ve never been big on Voltaire, Diderot or Rousseau. Not that I want to dismiss the French Enlightenment out of hand, not at all, but I’ve never been drawn to the thinking & writing of that age and place.
It not only seemed pretentious, there really was a certain intellectual huff and puff surrounding this 4-part series. In a 2016 interview on The Qwillery Ada Palmer – history professor by day – voiced a part of her ambition:
Terra Ignota is most directly based on 18th century philosophical novels by figures like Voltaire and Diderot. They wrote speculative fiction too, of a sort, exploring imagined political systems, metaphysics, even aliens in Voltaire’s Micromegas. We’re used to using classic science fiction futures to ask questions about things like technology, heroism, or transhumanism, but I wanted to write one that would ask the kinds of questions 18th century authors asked, about cultural relativism, hierarchy, equality, and whether we can reconcile Justice and Providence.
And in the author’s notes and acknowledgments at the back of the book, she takes it up more than a few notches – an issue I’ll get back to at the end of my review.
I wanted it so much. So much sometimes it felt like I couldn’t breathe. Sometimes I would cry, not because I was sad, but because it hurt, physical pain from the intensity of wanting something so much. I’m a good student of philosophy, I know my Stoics, Cynics, their advice, that, when a desire is so intense it hurts you, the healthy path is to detach, unwant it, let it go. (…) But there are a lot of reasons one can want to be an author: acclaim, wealth, self-respect, finding a community, the finite immortality of name in print, so many more. But I wanted it to add my voice to the Great Conversation, to reply to Diderot, Voltaire, Osamu Tezuka, and Alfred Bester, so people would read my books and think new things, and make new things from those thoughts, my little contribution to the path which flows from Gilgamesh and Homer to the stars. And that isn’t just for me. It’s for your. Which means it was the right choice to hang on to the desire, even when it hurt so much.
Well, that’s pretentious indeed. So much even, it kinda hurt my eyes. As I read it before I started the book itself, I entered with extreme caution.
Guess what, dear reader. About 25 pages in, the quality of this book already shone through crystal clear – like when you put on a brilliant record and you know it’s going to be brilliant for the remainder, halfway the first song.
While the jury is still out on whether Palmer made me think truly new things – I’ll reserve that judgement for when I finish the full series – the rest of her sentiments seem merited. Too Like the Lightning is one of the best books I have ever read, regardless of genre. Extremely ambitious, yes, but as a work of imagination, so far – again, this is just the first book – it is up there with the greats: Anathem, The Book of The New Sun, Dune.
A whole lot of readers won’t be convinced of that: this is a tough cookie. No beach read, no space opera romp. And even readers that do like chewy might not click with this: taste is taste. I don’t do the novel justice by reducing it to ‘intellectual’ by the way: it is a thrilling, at times wondrous story.
I’ll try to elaborate on my sentiments after the jump, and while doing so also say a few words about Palmer’s philosophical project.
Mycroft Canner, narrator and one of the protagonists, seems too good, too able, too well-connected to be true. He is named after Mycroft Holmes – Sherlock’s brother, even more intelligent, but somewhat detached. In Palmer’s future world, Mycroft has become the most common baby name, the paradox being that the narrator is both an Everyman and a Superman. A Samaritan and a sadistic criminal. For a book as ambitious and rich and imaginative as Too Like the Lightning it is a fitting guide.
It all boils down to this: this book is expertly & carefully constructed, on four fronts.
For starters – and this is important for most speculative fiction – there’s the world building. Rarely have I encountered a novel that is so intricately crafted, with so much backstory, so much history, so much detail, all interlocking. On top of that, Palmer is a master in disclosing her world bit by bit, providing that joy of joys for the speculative reader: the pleasure of slowly discovering something marvelous, something that’s spanning an entire world, an entire era.
I will not dwell too long on the book’s plot and content, you’ve probably read about that elsewhere, but I will say this: Terra Ignota is set on Earth in the 25th century, in a future that is more or less utopian and that more or less has abandoned the nation state in favor of a system of 7 guilds, or “Hives” – which one is free to join. People work only 20 hours a week, and there is transport system that can take anybody to any place in the world in under 2 hours, practically at will. People can work in Sydney, drink a coffee in London and dine in Hawaii, all in the same day, and it is that true globalism that brought the death of the nation state. Aside from politics & transport, there’s also a fair amount of cool tech, and as such this is a true science fiction novel, on a bold, vast canvas.
Utopia or not, political power, elites and prejudice are still an issue. The world Palmer paints is on the brink of war, Too Like the Lightning an account of the things that lead up to it.
But Palmer’s construction is not limited to the backdrop of her story. Also the story itself is an intricate affair. While this first book only describes a few days, there is a ton of mystery. Next list spells those out, without spoiling. There is mystery about the nature of Mycroft’s abilities, loyalties and motivations. There’s mystery about the crime central to the plot and about Mycroft’s past crimes. There’s mystery about Bridger and J.E.D.D. MASON – their origin, their nature and their abilities. There’s mystery about the political involvement in all the mysteries I have already named. And there’s mystery about the nature of the text we are reading – it is presented as a history for future readers, mainly written by Mycroft, but it is not fully clear who commissioned it or who edited it, and to what extent. It is not even clear if Mycroft writes the truth, let alone whether the other characters speak it. There are also a few meta-parts that add to this particular part of Palmer’s weaving.
Thirdly, it’s not only world building and plot, as Palmer also presents a deeper mystery, a metaphysical one: are we reading a realistic sci-fi novel? Or is this science fantasy too? Or rather science philosophy? What is the nature of creation? Our world? Our universe? Other universes? “This is a question of uncovering the deep truth about the provable reality humanity lives in, and someday sharing that.”
And finally, there is an ethical mystery too, or at least a question. With only the first book under my belt, I’d dare to claim that a question central to the series is a version of the trolley problem – what place does utilitarian calculus have in (the politics of) a world trying to be good?
Other philosophical themes tied with ethics include representation, free will, reductionism and the validity of determinism. There is an undercurrent examining nihilism too – linking D.A.F. De Sade to where ratio could take us. I will return to these themes in my future reviews of the remaining 3 books, hopefully at length – I don’t doubt that Palmer’s intentions in this regard will become more clear. (And even if they don’t, in that case there should be enough text on these matters to properly try and deconstruct it.)
The beauty and the wonder of Too Like the Lightning is that these 4 levels feed into each other, and not in some trivial way, but conceptually, narratively and formally. Palmer reportedly spent years and years planning the series, and everything – from the first book to the last one, Perhaps the Stars – was fully conceived before she started writing. That shows. It is nothing less than a triumph.
Other reviewers have spoken about Palmer’s prose, claiming the book is hard to read, as Mycroft’s voice tries a kind of faux 18th century English, and in the first chapter he – and ultimately Ada Palmer – claims that it is necessary to properly convey the story. I don’t think that choice was truly necessary, yet it does add flavor and character to the book. But, it also needs to be said that the English Palmer presents her readers is not the real issue: it is perfectly readable. It is not the language that’s 18th century-ish, it is certain parts of the content matter and formal stuff like Mycroft addressing the reader. Don’t fear long forgotten words or out of date grammar, spelling, phrases or whatever. Actually, the English of Too Like the Lightning is very much our own present day English, even though it is careful and considered. So what are some reviewers blathering about?
What does make this book hard to read is the meticulous construction and the way Palmer discloses information. Nothing is spoon fed. Important details are easily missed if you don’t pay attention. It’s also the reason some readers will drop out of this book: it is hard work. Yes, I loved reading it, I couldn’t put it down, but it also gave me stress, real physical stress – taking notes, trying to keep things in my mind, occasionally thumbing back a few pages or even chapters.
On top of that, Palmer uses a lot of different names for certain characters, and that adds to the density. I think her choice to do so is totally in line with the book’s content – as if she wanted to emphasize people play different roles in different contexts, and are perceived differently by different eyes.
Another thing I will not dwell on too long is the aspect of gender. I think Palmer does clever things with neutered pronouns, and gives an interesting spin on something that has been in vogue since Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch. She speaks at length about the issue in a 2016 interview in Scientific American by Clara Moskowitz, and her ideas and goals with the novel are interesting. However, contrary to Palmer, I think it is impossible “to get rid of gender” in the long run, and anybody thinking we will one day be able to bypass biology is naive. The biggest criticism I have about the book is the implication that the human race somehow would be able to evolve to forms of neutered sexuality in under 5 centuries. Granted, part of the book’s message is that we can’t stop the conversation about these things too soon: underneath the utopian veneer of the world Palmer presents us is a lot of unprocessed stuff. But even with that in mind, it is inconceivable that neutered sex – I’m talking about actual carnal love making, not gender as a social construct – would become the accepted social norm so quickly, seemingly widespread. But that particular aspect of Palmer’s gender ideas is just a minor thing in the narrative, hardly more than a page among the 429 pages. And given the book’s many, many strengths, and the fact that the idea provides for some larger-than-life theater, in a brothel no less, I can easily forgive Palmer.
Similarly, a few other things aren’t entirely realistic and could hinder suspension of disbelief. But also in these cases the main narrative doesn’t hinge on them. More so, they do generate symbolic effect, and as such serve the book’s content. They also remind us we are not reading an exact, realistic prediction of a future, and not a work of Hard SF either, but an artificial construction, a work of art, a piece of theater. Critics could call some of it a bit contrived, yes, but for me it all worked splendidly. Similarly, one could call out there’s a bit too much description of clothes, but it generally does serve character & world building rather than mere aesthetics.
Speaking of characters: so far this has not been a story that focuses on individual psychology. A big chunk of the sprawling supporting caste are larger than life – a president, a king, an emperor, the powers that be. Some are mere sketches so far, and might remain so. But that is not to say there is no meat on the bone either, Palmer does have something to say about humans, even though she paints these things in bright, clear strokes: love, hate, revenge, lust. And while J.E.D.D. and Mycroft are fascinating characters, all those mysteries keep their emotional development out of focus – even though I think a denouement on that front will be part of the subsequent books.
Too Like the Lightning can be very theatrical at times, and I think it is in that way we should also read the author’s notes I quoted from in the beginning. Pretentious? Yes, probably. I also think it is heartfelt, for who can fault a writer, an artist, to have ambition? To want to communicate feelings and ideas? Isn’t that the essence of a lot of art? I think it is brave for Ada Palmer to be honest and upfront about her reasons, rather than play the socially acceptable humble writer. It is also in line with another of the novel’s main ideas: Do we still aspire to greatness as a species? Do we dare dream? Do we aspire to the stars?
Normally, I leave a lot of room in between books of a series – 15 or 20 other titles. Part of that is to keep this blog varied. I will ditch that rule: I’m addicted. I’ll probably read 2 short novels first, but after those, expect a review of Seven Surrenders.
I hope Palmer doesn’t drop the ball somewhere in the remaining three books, but I have high hopes, given reviews like those on fellow blog A Sky of Books and Movies. And even if she would, that doesn’t take anything away of the mature & bold achievement that is her debut. Whatever happens, the first book of her next series – one she has been planning for years as well – will be an automatic, blind buy.
Highest possible recommendation, quoi.
“I have no truth to offer but what I believe.”