/ Cory Doctorow / 5 am Tue, May 10 2016
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  • Too Like the Lightning: intricate worldbuilding, brilliant speculation, gripping storytelling

    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]


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    Notable Replies

    1. People went to war over religion, and then one day decided to just not have any any more? I'm not sure how that works. That's not how the Thirty Years' War worked out, at least. Maybe those were primitive people in a dark time.

    2. Are wars started over religion or just fought over religion? My guess is that many wars are started for other reasons, but religion is exploited to get people to fight in them.

      Not many are going to be willing to die if we told them Haliburton wanted more money.. but if "those people" want to "destroy our way of life" because of religion.. well, look out!

    3. This sounds promising. It also sounds like the very mention will make certain puppies sad, but that's merely schadenfreude on the pie.

      And, rather self-evidently, I'm an Alfred Bester fan. The flying cars sound a lot like the ones in The Demolished Man, the world-building of which was simply superb.

      On the Summer reading list!

    4. This is a topic I wished were explored more in fiction. We take it at face value that ideology or material resources always have been and always will be the casus belli. I'm personally unconvinced even money is the root cause of war. Ask any economist and they'll tell you that it's easier to profit and sustain profit in peacetime. Peacetime profits can grow. Wartime profits are a rationed pie. That's one of the few things Hayek got right in his disagreements with his friend Keynes. War can kickstart a few specific production sectors when they're slowing down, but destroying things isn't a recipe for increasing overall wealth. I think there might be deeper psychological reasons why human beings go to war, with religion the excuse and profiteering the economic grease for the costly war machine.

      But that also begs the question of what can happen if machines can be made to self-reproduce the way life does. Earth's greatest mass extinction in terms of sheer biomass was the Oxygen Holocaust of anerobic microbes by cyanobacteria. When cannibalization becomes a viable means of creating new wealth by spreading patterns to matter already in use by other patterns, the distinction between destruction and creation might become dangerously blurred. Forget Gray Goo; fear the Haliburton Goo!

    5. I believe that CD has gone on record as saying that's a dystopian novel that is generally misunderstood. I thought it was here in BB, but I cannae find it in his welter. okay, found.

      I'm mis-quoting - or running off with an implication, anyway:

      Meritocracy and reputation economics were the subject of my debut novel, 2003's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which, ironically, is often held up as an example of "utopian" fiction.

      BB article points to this Locus article with more detail.

    Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

    22 more replies