I'm not sure if it's a positive or negative that I read Too Like the Lightning so soon after reading Ilium. That is, Ada Palmer’s writing here reminds me a lot of Dan Simmons’ writing: science fiction heavily saturated with literary and philosophical references. In this case, Palmer grounds her story in the duelling philosophies of the Enlightenment—humanists vs rationalists, individualists vs collectivists—while simultaneously springboarding us into a vision of a future for humanity that is probably utopic, if you’re willing to be flexible about how you define “freedom.” Honestly, I don’t know how much I liked this book, but I know for certain I’ve never read anything like it.
The narrator is Mycroft Canner, an infamous convicted murderer. Most of the world thinks him executed; actually, he lives out his days as a Servicer—a kind of lifetime sentence of community service. He’s on call by pretty much all the Powers That Be. Mycroft is also helping a child named Bridger, who has the mysterious ability to reify any image or give life to inanimate objects. For example, he’s breathed life into some toy soldiers. In this future world, by the way, religion is outlawed. Nation-states are a thing of the past, mostly—instead, people join “hives,” what we might call a collective or club or association, and form bash’es, which are like extended families. And it’s rude to gender someone in polite conversation—everyone is referred to with gender neutral pronouns. Against the backdrop of this human society that’s alien to us, Mycroft explains how he and a few allies are trying to prevent Bridger’s premature discovery. Meanwhile, an inexplicable theft and perhaps a murder mystery threaten to destabilize the world order.
A good deal of this book is exposition and philosophical discussion between Mycroft and the reader. Now, Palmer never quite gets us into the realm of infodump—one of the best yet, for some people, most annoying attributes of Too Like the Lightning will be the fact that it doesn’t show all its cards. Want to know what’s really up with the mysterious J.E.D.D. Mason? Too bad. You get hints and proclamations, but not all is revealed—at least not in this book. Want to know why Bridger can do the things he can do, and whether to shelves this as science fiction or fantasy? Again, you’re going to be out of luck.
What you will receive is an ambitious thought experiment that tries to take Enlightenment ideals and apply them, along with some social engineering, to the 25th century. Basically, Palmer posits a nearly-utopian federal society that has settled on the bare minimum of universal laws. Humans can choose to apply more laws and mores to themselves based on their hive membership. Hives also help you declare your overall goals and values. If you want to LARP as a bad mofo, you can declare yourself a Blacklaw, a Hiveless person who claims no protection from any law—i.e., anyone can dish it out and you better be able to take it.
If you have the energy and inclination to immerse yourself in this world, then you’ll be rewarded with one of the treats of a good, self-consistent science-fiction story: the richness of human ingenuity. Palmer has mined philosophy for sets of ideologies and then adapted to them to create a possible future that is, for all intents and purposes, utopic. At the same time, because of course we need some conflict, she examines that edge cases that could precipitate a failure mode of the system—and the extraordinary lengths to which some plutocrats might go to preclude that possibility.
So we have this theft of what is essentially a really popular ranking. But the investigators pull on one too many threads, and it leads us to learn that there is more going on here than someone stealing a list. Or tweaking a list. Or making lists in the first place. There is murder happening, people. Murder! Egads! And not your nice, tidy, face-to-face murder. We’re talking conspiracy, hiding-it-in-the-sea-of-data murder. For the greater good, of course. Because the way this all hooks into the wider utopian vision is the old truism that you need to break a few eggs. Too Like the Lightning’s thesis is essentially that humans are smart enough and good enough to create utopia, but that we are also always going to be the snake in our own Garden. Utopia is achievable but perhaps not a sustainable vision for the future.
Or is it? I don’t know—the story definitely doesn’t end here. I don’t have the energy to pick up the sequel just yet. Maybe one day, when I’ve completely forgotten this story (so, next month), I’ll come back to it. For now, I’ll just reiterate: Too Like the Lightning is effusively original and interesting, but it’s exhausting as well. Think carefully before taking it on, lest you be disappointed by how taxing it is. But don’t write it off just because it’s heavy, because the experience is quite rewarding indeed.