Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

March 8, 2017 at 1:26 am | Posted in 5 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 4 Comments
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Too Like the Lightning coverWhen Strange Horizons asked me to contribute to their 2016 Best of the Year wrap-up, I immediately knew my entry would have to discuss Too Like the Lightning, my favorite novel not only of 2016 but of the last decade. The natural question to ask me, then, one I certainly asked myself, is if it’s so great, why haven’t I actually written a review of it? Well, for a variety of reasons I haven’t reviewed much of anything in a while, so with the sequel arriving today it seemed like a great time to both reread Too Like the Lightning and actually write about it this time.

The novel takes place in a future where humanity has flying cars, a moon base, and robots that make full time jobs strictly optional. Humanity is also enjoying lasting world peace, having given up geographic nation states, organized religion, and even gendered pronouns. Our window into this world, the narrator Mycroft Canner, seems like an example of the best this future has to offer. Intelligent, erudite, diligent, sensitive, empathetic, and humble, he works as a sort of freelance analyst for world governments. However, Mycroft is not the paragon of this society but rather its monster, a criminal so feared and reviled that his name scares even adults. Secretly rehabilitated, Mycroft is now a Servicer, a convict doing forced labor. Most Servicers do menial tasks, but the world’s leaders recognize Mycroft’s gifts make him uniquely qualified to help protect the world that hates him. Silence of the Lambs made a cliche out of the scary captive criminal, but far from scary, Mycroft seems sensitive and even kind. You might then assume this is yet another novel where sympathy is stirred up for the narrator by making him the target of unjust accusations and hatred, but there’s something a great deal more subtle happening with Mycroft’s character.

The novel’s plot consists of two strands that at first seem unrelated. In one, Mycroft investigates the theft of a manuscript from a newspaper office, a seemingly simple crime that turns out to threaten both the stability of the political system as well as the computer systems that operate the world’s flying cars. The other storyline, which at first seems like a non-sequitur for a futuristic science fiction novel, concerns Mycroft’s efforts to keep secret a boy named Bridger who can perform miracles.

To understand what’s going on here, perhaps we should start by considering Mycroft’s own words as he opens his account:

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. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Five Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.

This is not a mere preface or framing device. Throughout the narrative, Mycroft not only frequently speaks directly to the reader, he even allows a hypothetical reader to make italicized responses. He also is explicit that he is not just relating events but arguing a point. The “transformation” he describes is one Mycroft thinks is widely misunderstood and he aims to correct that understanding. This is a book much concerned with philosophy, and throughout the story Mycroft time for asides about and even quotations from eighteenth century thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, De Sade, and others as he tries to show how their ideas have shaped his world. As the presence of miracles in the narrative suggests, it is also concerned with religion. Since religious gatherings and discussion are thought to produce hatred and discord, every person is assigned a professional spiritual adviser who helps them search for truth, a truth they are then forbidden to discuss with anyone except that adviser. This is justified by the assumption that religion is a subjective matter of faith, but a boy who can produce miracles on demand threatens to turn at least part of the religious experience into observable truth.

Even though Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers would be comfortable with this future’s religious skepticism, there’s another aspect to the novel’s future society that has greatly departed from eighteenth century precedents. Referencing gender is taboo, and only “they” is permitted as a third person singular. And so it is used in Mycroft’s story…in the dialogue, that is. In his actual narration, as part of his invocation of the eighteenth century, Mycroft insists on using gendered pronouns despite many objections from his hypothetical reader. Here is the first of many passages in which he discusses this decision:

He nodded.

She nodded back.

Does it distress you, reader, how I remind you of their sexes in each sentence? ‘Hers’ and ‘his’? Does it make you see them naked in each other’s arms, and fill even this plain scene with wanton sensuality? Linguists will tell you the ancients were less sensitive to gendered language than we are, that we react to it because it’s rare, but that in ages that heard ‘he’ and ‘she’ in every sentence they grew stale, as the glimpse of an ankle holds no sensuality when skirts grow short. I don’t believe it. I think gendered language was every bit as sensual to our predecessors as it is to us, but they admitted the place of sex in every thought and gesture, while our prudish era, hiding behind the neutered ‘they’, pretends that we do not assume any two people who lock eyes may have fornicated in their minds if not their flesh. You protest: My mind is not as dirty as thine, Mycroft. My distress is at the strangeness of applying ‘he’ and ‘she’ to thy 2450s, where they have no place. Would that you were right, good reader. Would that ‘he’ and ‘she’ and their electric power were unknown in my day. Alas, it is from these very words that the transformation came which I am commanded to describe, so I must use them to describe it. I am sorry, reader. I cannot offer wine without the poison of the alcohol within.

Yet even this explanation is not complete. You see, Mycroft does not use the gendered pronoun that matches the biology of the character in question. Rather, he assigns genders to his characters based on his idiosyncratic notion of how to apply eighteenth century gender roles to his futuristic milieu. Mostly this is left implicit, but from time to time Mycroft mentions as an aside a character’s biological gender, then rejects it and explains why. He even engages in debates with his hypothetical reader about borderline cases. I found the resulting effect quite remarkable. Mycroft socially constructs gender right there in front of us, in defiance of biology and at times strenuous imagined objections of his readership. By the end of the novel, I knew what gender Mycroft had assigned each character and this colored my perception of them, yet I couldn’t remember who was biologically what without flipping through the book for minutes to find if there was one spot where Mycroft happens to mention it. Often he never does.

This has been much remarked on by those writing about Too Like the Lightning, but largely lost in the debate is that Mycroft was making still more interesting claims. First, he is asserting that banishing something from polite conversation doesn’t make it go away, and that his society’s supposed victory over gender bias and religion may be far less thorough than claimed. Further, he is describing a transformation, and he says that gender is essential to understanding that transformation. That some readers have glossed over this is understandable, because unfortunately the novel is only the first half of Mycroft’s text and the transformation he alludes to has yet to take place. We won’t see whether he can justify his claim that the ideas of the eighteenth century generally and its gender roles in particular are somehow essential to understanding what’s happened to his society until the sequel, Seven Surrenders, which not coincidentally has been released the very day I’m posting this.

There’s another important element in that second excerpt that also has not attracted enough attention in the discussions of the novel I’ve read, and that is that Mycroft has been commanded to write this text. This shouldn’t be a surprise, for Mycroft is, after all, a convict laborer. The book is prefaced by many messages indicating the many censorship gates his text has passed on its away to publication: “Certified nonproselytory by the four-hive commission on religion in literature”, for example, and “Raté D par la comission européenne des medias dangereux”. Further, Mycroft occasionally describes several characters in the story as being sources for scenes in which he is not present and, even more occasionally, mentions a few as having read what he’s writing and asked that this or that detail be changed.

These metatextual flourishes are fun but become quite relevant to our understanding of the story when we consider the setting. Enjoying as it does world peace, voluntary citizenship, spiritual advisers that sound a lot like therapists, and little need for labor, Too Like the Lightning‘s future has been described as utopian. Yet there are many aspects to it that seem quite sinister. A few of these are obvious, such as the complete censorship of nearly all religious speech. Many science fiction readers won’t shed many tears for religious speech, though, which is why some may overlook more subtle warning signs. How exactly were the world’s powerful existing religions extinguished? Is it really true that seven “Hives” drawn mostly from European traditions are sufficient to categorize all the world’s cultures? Why is it that the leaders of these supposedly rival Hives are nearly all related by blood or marriage and seem to be on better terms with each other than they are with their people? Why do essentially no ordinary people even appear as named characters in the book? Why is it that in this supposedly tolerant and benevolent future, the ordinary people that do appear are violent xenophobes?

The answer to all these questions could, of course, be that Ada Palmer simply didn’t think things through. Interviews she has given suggest that in fact she has, but we need not resort to appeals to her authority. Here I benefited greatly from rereading the novel, for when looking at these issues from the beginning, all sorts of throwaway remarks by Mycroft or other characters add to the impression that there’s quite a bit rotten in this particular Denmark. For example, in exactly one brief anecdote we learn that the hive system was created by the world’s rich, the postnational Davos set (though that label is of course not used), and that it was imposed on the rest through propaganda and probably warfare. Another example is the way the current rulers of the allegedly democratic Hives got where they are through family connections with the previous generation of rulers and frequently make comments that assume their own children should have ready access “to the high offices”.

But the biggest reason why it’s hard to see the future as anything but wonderful and the governments as anything but beneficent is the way Mycroft describes the Hives and their leaders. He is effusive in his praise for their wisdom, intelligence, charisma, and even beauty. He frequently stops to comment on how enlightened his culture’s system of religious repression is, how much of an improvement Hives were compared to nations, and so on. It’s very easy to assume that Mycroft loves this society, and therefore Ada Palmer loves this society, and that you as the reader are supposed to love it too. But in fact none of these conclusions follow. Again and again it is emphasized that although the novel was written by Ada Palmer, historian and science fiction author, the text was written by Mycroft Canner, arch-criminal in captivity, writing at the command of some of the very leaders he is extolling. While a full analysis must wait until Seven Surrenders or perhaps even the following two books, it seemed increasingly likely as I reread the novel that Mycroft is an insidiously unreliable narrator. I wouldn’t put it past him (and Ada Palmer) to outright lie about some fact or other, but more likely his unreliability consists of his shaping the narrative to the desires of those forcing him to write it and, he even mentions, at times literally reading over his shoulder. So of course he describes them as the good and the beautiful, born to be the just rulers of this world. Mycroft’s true feelings might be evident from the fact he asks us to apply the wisdom of the eighteenth century, yet when it comes to the ruling order he leaves this as an exercise for the reader. The reason why should be obvious: far from the wise rulers Mycroft portrays, to any of the eighteenth century thinkers he valorizes, the elite that rule the Hives would clearly be an ancien régime, a bunch of nepotistic aristocrats fighting vainly against the tide of history to preserve their petty power and dignity.

A novel this gloriously complex has many influences, but for me it’s hard to look past one obvious one: Gene Wolfe, particularly his Book of the New Sun. This is not to say that Palmer is simply rehashing Wolfe’s work; quite the contrary, she’s taking aspects of his work and carrying them in new directions. Book of the New Sun is a masterpiece but it’s hard to recommend because of it’s unlikable narrator, its questionable treatment of female characters, and, most of all, its uncompromising refusal to give the reader any assistance in understanding what’s going on in a first reading. Too Like the Lightning doesn’t have Book of the New Sun‘s beautiful language or dreamlike atmosphere, but it does have a delightfully unreliable narrator, a subtle and complex story that rewards close reading and even rereading, and a constantly thoughtful deployment of philosophical ideas drawn from sources the reader is unlikely to be familiar with. Yet it takes these aspects and puts them in a novel with a likable narrator, a thoroughly modern (albeit unusual) approach to gender, and a surface narrative that doesn’t leave the reader at sea. I love Gene Wolfe’s fiction, but it’s long since time for someone to step up and beat him at his own game. Too Like the Lightning is a first wonderful step in that direction, but the job’s not finished. Apparently this too is a four book series, so a full verdict may have to wait, but today I’m going to eagerly start reading Seven Surrenders to find out whether lightning can strike twice.

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