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 you. 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.