Review: Ada Palmer’s “Too Like the Lightning”

by Miles Raymer

Terra Ignota #1

I discovered Ada Palmer via a couple interviews on one of my favorite podcasts, Singularity.FM  (Interview #1, Interview #2). Even if you have no interest in this series or science fiction in general, I highly recommend that you listen to these interviews. If you do, you’ll quickly find yourself enthralled by what is surely one of the great minds of our time. Ada Palmer is an academic historian who specializes in the Renaissance, and she’s also a composer and polyglot. When she talks, she displays a working memory much vaster than that of a normal person, one replete with seemingly-unrelated concepts and facts that she spontaneously weaves into beautiful, coherent, and novel ideas.

This is also what it feels like to read Too Like the Lightningwhich is one of the finest works of science fiction I have ever read. It’s the first in the Terra Ignota Quartet, a series set in the 25th century but presented in the style of an 18th-century novel. This genre-bending approach is so unique that I had trouble coming up with a way to describe it. Historical Scifi? Future History?

Whatever it is, it’s fucking phenomenal. Putting aside for a moment that it’s technically genre fiction, Too Like the Lightning has all the elements of a superior novel, plus a bunch of bonus features. It only has two flaws, which aren’t really flaws at all––more like provisos for curious readers. First, it was originally planned as a much longer novel, but Palmer’s editors split it into two separate books. So even though Too Like the Lightning holds up on its own (including an extremely satisfying cliffhanger ending), readers who get into it will want to have Seven Surrenders on hand so they can immediately continue with the story. The second proviso is that reading this book takes a massive amount of concentration and time. The language is brilliant but quite dense, there are a ton of characters (many of whom have multiple names/titles and are related to each other in abstruse ways), and the world-building is advanced to the point where some readers will probably feel a bit disoriented as they acclimate to Palmer’s genius.

For a certain kind of reader (like me), every page of this book will be intellectual candy. Actually not candy, but rather something that tastes amazing and is also healthy, like the to-die-for green tea my wife makes. Recounting everything that makes this book special would take more time and verbiage than I have for this review, so I’ll list the main world-building features and then comment briefly on a few other topics.

Terra Ignota depicts a 25th-century Earth where:

  • Traditional nation-states have been abolished due to automated flying cars being able to take anyone anywhere in the world in a couple hours or less.
  • People voluntarily participate in “Hives,” new borderless nations based on shared values rather than shared geography. “In our world,” Palmer writes, “all powers are global powers, and all snarls global snarls” (82).
  • The nuclear/biology-based family is a thing of the past. Instead, people form or join “bash’es,” chosen families usually made up of a few different adult couples and their children. They all live together in big houses and help out with domestic maintenance and child-rearing.
  • With the exception of “vokers/vocateurs” (people who choose to dedicate almost their entire lives to a profession), citizens work no more than twenty hours a week.
  • Science, automation and medicine have advanced considerably, including the controversial creation of “set-sets,” humans who are bred from birth to excel at a particular task or set of cognitive functions.
  • Violence (especially homicide) has been almost completely obliterated, and most criminals become “Servicers” (semi-free on-demand servants who have to work for their meals) rather than suffering imprisonment.
  • Organized religion has been outlawed and is even illegal to speak about except in very limited circumstances.
  • Abject poverty seems to be nonexistent (or at least not shown in this installment of the series).
  • Human populations have become truly cosmopolitan, with most people having multiracial heritage and racism not playing a significant role in world affairs. There is, however, competition and prejudice between Hives.
  • Sex and gender are…complicated. Really, really complicated.

It would be hard to exaggerate the quality of Palmer’s writing. Here are a few not-too-unusual examples of her prose:

Reader, do not wrestle with the numbers. Do not even read the chart unless you are an economic historian reconstructing this precarious time. Instead think of Vivien Ancelet, studying the data as a doctor listens to a child’s breath, or views an ultrasound and sees disaster where the others see only blobs. His hands clench, tendons stand erect. If you cannot imagine numbers have such power to move a man, imagine instead one of his historical counterparts: you are the tutor who has sensed something strange about this youth Caligula; you are the native who sees a second set of white sails on the horizon following the first; you are the hound who feels the tremors of the tsunami about to crash on Crete and erase the Minoan people, but you know no one will heed you, even if you bark. (83-4)

What are humanity’s greatest dreams? To conquer the world? To split the atom? When Alexander spread his empire from the Mediterranean to India, we say he conquered the world, but he barely touched a quarter of it. We lie. We lie again when we say we split the atom. ‘Atom’ was supposed to be the smallest piece of matter––all we did is give that name to something we can split, knowing that there are quarks and tensors, other pieces smaller that we cannot touch, and only these deserve the title ‘atom.’ Man is more ambitious than patient. When we realize we cannot split a true atom, cannot conquer the whole Earth, we redefine the terms to fake our victory, check off our boxes and pretend the deed is done. (153)

A young invented language with a couple thousand words might manage baby books and street directions, but Voltaire, Shakespeare, the profound peaks and doggerel troughs of literature, those take a million words. (323)

He who would use Reason as a key to open one door opens many, and he who would make Reason a scythe to fell injustices must beware what else the blade might cut. We did not know that the threads sustaining the moral warp of our society were so interconnected until we pulled one. Since before man learned to count his summers, we had sown each generation’s seeds in tradition’s soil. Suddenly the Enlightenment would sow our seeds instead among the furrowed pages of the Encyclopedia, and water them with Reason. If the fruit grows black and strange, it will not matter that we have a philosophe willing to taste first and test for us whether we have raised manna or poison; as liberté and égalité grow universal, we have no other crop left on which to feed. (365-6, emphasis hers)

Beyond displaying Palmer’s prowess as a stringer-together of words, these passages also reveal a couple other delightful aspects of this book. The most obvious is the extent to which this work of futurism is rooted in humanity’s past. Little scrumptious history lessons abound in Too Like the Lightning, as if Palmer’s every glance forward is simultaneously a glance behind. There’s also a healthy dose of metafiction, with the narrator often addressing the reader to muse about how we might react to the story. Palmer executes with just the right amount of wit and playfulness, thereby avoiding the chasm of pretentiousness into which much metafiction falls.

Given that it takes pretty much the entire novel to meet the main characters and learn the basics of this complex and wacky world, it’s hard to decipher Palmer’s intended message. But one question stands out as a clear indication of her direction:

If you had something, something so wonderful that it seemed that it might…that, given the chance, it would make a better world, for everyone, forever, so much better, but first there was a danger, a terrible, terrible danger that it could rip everything we have apart…would you destroy that better world to save this one? (397)

Even as pure speculation, this is a truly difficult moral question––a tantalizing choice for the thematic fulcrum of an epic narrative. Given her seemingly-limitless talent, I can’t wait to see how Palmer answers it.

Rating: 10/10