A Novel of Ideas – A Review of Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

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When I read a novel, I have a kind of mental checklist of things to look for while I read. That list includes things like setting, characterisation, plot, narrative flow, prosody, themes – basically, all the things that I think are essential to a good story. Sometimes some parts are better than others: for instance, the setting might be beautifully built, but if the characters aren’t up to snuff, that lowers the quality of the book in my eyes. Or the plot may be perfectly paced and exciting to read about, but if the themes are not fully fleshed out or, worse, objectionable, then my opinion of the book goes down accordingly. Of course, these things tend to balance things out: great writing can sometimes make up for a poorly-built world, or fantastic characters can occasionally make a lacklustre plot more bearable.

But not all novels fit easily into this checklist. Sometimes a novel isn’t necessarily about telling a story, and is instead more concerned with experimenting with narrative, for example. Such novels can be hard to pick apart, and in such cases it becomes important to look for other parameters to use for measuring the novel’s quality.

Too Like the Lightning is one of those novels. Set on Earth in the 25th century, it follows the story of Mycroft Canner: a convict paying for his crimes by being at the service of anyone and everyone who might need him. His world works on a socio-political structure that is built upon globe-spanning, clan-like collectives of like-minded people called Hives, instead of upon 21st century notions of nationhood based upon geography and place of birth. For years, this system has not only kept the world peaceful, but has also helped create a technologically-advanced, near-utopic state for humanity.

But all of this is about to change. Behind the scenes, mysterious events threaten to undermine the world’s current stability, and in the meantime, Mycroft helps to take care of a boy named Bridger, who has an amazing – and utterly dangerous – ability: the power to make any of his wishes come true.

One of the most immediately noticeable – and notable – things about this novel is the writing style, which is explained to the reader in the very first chapter by the narrator, Mycroft Canner:

You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described.

This can be viewed as a warning, of sorts: if the reader is unwilling to put up with the linguistic vagaries of writers like Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding, then it might be a good idea to put this book aside and look for other reading elsewhere. For my part, the warning was more like a lure. It had been years since I read any of the works of Swift, Defoe, or Fielding, and even longer since I’d read anything by Rosseau, Voltaire, or de Sade. But I didn’t care; I could not resist the challenge, and took the novel up despite being incredibly rusty at reading Enlightenment literature.

As I read it, it became clear that even just a little experience reading Enlightenment novels is better than having absolutely no experience at all, because as it turns out, this novel is not for the literarily faint-hearted. For readers who might be more used to the cleaner prose and fast-paced narrative of contemporary sci-fi, Too Like the Lightning might seem overwrought and glacial – a deal-breaker, I’m certain, for many readers. But the key to enjoying this novel is simply to let go, to take the narrative as it comes, and to accept where it leads. The reader must trust in the author to take him or her where he or she needs to go, even if Palmer decides to take the longer, more rambling scenic route.

And there is a good reason for taking the scenic route, at least in this novel – the worldbuilding is absolutely incredible, and exceptionally detailed. Though I have said elsewhere that I’m quite happy to read a novel wherein the author uses the “sink or swim” approach to worldbuilding (by which I mean, giving only enough detail for the reader to get an idea of what the world is like, then leaving it up to him or her to fill in the rest based on foreshadowing and other clues), I’m also quite happy to read a novel with lengthy descriptions of how the world works and what it looks like.

However, that approach is not without its problems. If the author decides to completely detail the world in his or her novel, it is entirely possible to lose sight of the plot and have the story’s momentum slow down to an unbearable crawl. That is not the case with this novel; Palmer manages to keep a tight rein on the Mycroft’s ramblings, such that what might appear to be a pointless digression or information dump turns out to be quite important – if not immediately so, then somewhere further down the line. That is what makes Palmer’s writing such a joy to read: that the reader can be led down so many paths that do not seem to be going in any particular direction, but still arrive at the intended destination, at the appropriate time. It may take a while to understand why such a lengthy exposition on, say, the history of the bash’ is so important, but such details are never merely extraneous; they are always there for a reason.

And that reason appears to be to support the enormous, weighty ideas and themes that Palmer is playing with in this novel. In keeping with the style of Enlightenment authors (especially those of the French Enlightenment), Too Like the Lightning is not just a novel, but a vehicle for ideas: a space to explore various concepts and themes Palmer considers important and noteworthy. Part of it is in the worldbuilding, as when the novel explains what Hives and bash’es are and why they are so important in this world, but sometimes there are expositions on history or philosophy, or even conversations with the reader, as the excerpt below shows:

Do you know the reference, reader? Or does your age, forgetful of its past, no longer know Le Patriarch by that worthy epithet? Have you forgotten the first pen stronger than swords? The firebrand who spread Reason’s light across the Earth, battled intolerance, religious persecution, torture, forced kings to bow before the Rights of Man, and introduced wit into philosophy again? Is Aristotle not still known by the honorable title of the Philosopher? Shakespeare the Bard? Brill the Cognitivist? How then can you forget the Patriarch? Thou accusest me unjustly, Mycroft. History has not swallowed this great man, rather he has swallowed history. I do not know who created the first government, or built the first wheel—it is so ubiquitous that I do not need to. Just so, my better era does not teach me who first fought for these good heresies you list, for they are now Truths, and the blind age that doubted them is well forgotten. Perhaps you are right, reader, it is honor, not dishonor, if you forget the Patriarch. We now doubt Aristotle, understand Shakespeare only with footnotes, poke holes in Brill, but the Patriarch, whom all Earth follows without thinking there could be another way, he has indeed swallowed us up. But he has not swallowed Danaë, reared as she was, as if in his own age, when he—her Patriarch—needed defending. Voltaire, reader, the Patriarch of the Eighteenth Century, the era which has just remade your own, it was Voltaire.

Though these digressions might seem wasteful to the reader, they are, in fact, the core of the novel itself. By the book’s midway point the reader may realise that this novel does not have a lot of plot, nor does it feature any considerable character development, but then again, he or she must also have begun to realise that this book is not about characters or plot, even if it does have a bit of the latter and quite a few of the former. This novel is about ideas, many of which can be viewed as either reflections or possible responses to very real issues currently going on in the real world. From questions of gender roles and gender presentation to the very concept of nationhood itself, Too Like the Lightning holds itself up to the reader as a mirror of his or her world, and asks: how can things be different?

Overall, Too Like the Lightning is a deep dive into a world of ideas: ideas that are relevant not only to the world within the novel, but also to the reader’s. Though the writing style is not the most direct, the quality of Palmer’s prose is eminently readable, and, for a reader in the right mindset, thoroughly enjoyable. It is not a sci-fi novel in the strictly traditional sense of space battles and alien landscapes, but in the sense of presenting how certain ideas and philosophies can create a world both desirable and beautiful. This is not a book for the impatient, however, so if the reader is unwilling to spend the time necessary to truly immerse himself or herself in Mycroft’s world, it might be best to look for other reading elsewhere.

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