Too Like the Lightning: intricate worldbuilding, brilliant speculation, gripping storytelling
Ada Palmer -- historian, musician, librettist -- debuts as a novelist today with a book called Too Like the Lightning, a book more intricate, more plausible, more significant than any debut I can recall.
Palmer's 25th century is in the midst of a long and carefully maintained peace, a peace that came only after the Church Wars, when religion nearly destroyed the world. Religions have been abolished, no grouping of more than three people may discuss religious subjects. The advent of ballistic, supersonic flying cars have eliminated space as a constraint on human grouping, all but abolishing nation-states in the process.
Humans belong to post-geographic affinity groups, some very large (Humanists, Utopians, Mitsubishi, Masons, and more), others much finer-grained: fans of a given sports-team, adherents to a philosophy, members of a trade guild or a hobbyist association. Every person is a minority of one, and majority has been abolished, taking with it the oppression of the many over the few. Even gender has ceased to be a meaningful category, though certain perverts insist on the use of gendered pronouns to describe themselves. Families are gone, replaced by group houses called bash'es, where child-rearing and other familial functions are shared by many adults and their children. Also all but gone is the penal system: instead of sending those who steal and murder to prison, they are turned into work-servants, "Servicers," whom any person may command, and who may only eat food given to them in return for their service.
Mycroft Canner, the book's protagonist and narrator, is one such criminal -- in fact, as we learn, he is a contender for the most notorious criminal of his age, whose brilliance and savagery has made him the confidant of every leader of every strat, and a trusted helper for the most important bash', the elite family who manage the flying cars whose smooth running is critical to the literal survival of 25th century society.
Palmer writes science fiction like a historian, maneuvering vast historical forces deftly, plunging effortlessly into their minutae and detail, zooming out to dizzying heights to show how they all fit together. Her acknowledgements cite Alfred Bester as an influence, and that's no surprise -- few writers can trump Bester for the sense of a world that contains within it all the other worlds of all its inhabitants. Palmer, though, may have exceeded the master.
Too Like the Lightning manages to be several books at once: a serious philosophical treatise; a murder-mystery whose surprises buffet the reader like cold slaps out of nowhere that feel inevitable in hindsight; a piece of historical theory in narrative form; a thought-experiment about gender, nationality, identity and bigotry; and a gripping personal story whose players are likable, flawed, sexy, and sometimes terrifying.
If you read a debut novel this year, make it Too Like the Lightning.
Too Like the Lightning [Ada Palmer/Tor]
I'm in the midst of couple of weeks' worth of lectures, public events and teaching, and you can catch me in Toronto (for Word on the Street, Seeding Utopias and Resisting Dystopias and 6 Degrees); Newry, ME (Maine Library Association) and Portland, ME (in conversation with James Patrick Kelly).
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