Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer

9780765378002_custom-eb8c9e821cbe420ade7f9de35c1a41691ed35d22-s400-c85This is possibly the most interesting book I’ve read not just this year but last year too. This does not mean it is the best book. When describing it to others, my descriptor of choice has been “godawful”. Or “dire”. Or “completely shit”. Just to make that clear. But it is diversely shit, sometimes in opposite directions simultaneously, and it is sufficiently innovatively shit that it is worthy of discussion… possibly lengthy discussion.

That being said, it’s quite difficult to know where to start. The Goodreads blurb reads thus:

Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer–a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.

The world into which Mycroft and Carlyle have been born is as strange to our 21st-century eyes as ours would be to a native of the 1500s. It is a hard-won utopia built on technologically-generated abundance, and also on complex and mandatory systems of labelling all public writing and speech. What seem to us normal gender distinctions are now distinctly taboo in most social situations. And most of the world’s population is affiliated with globe-girdling clans of the like-minded, whose endless economic and cultural competition is carefully managed by central planners of inestimable subtlety. To us it seems like a mad combination of heaven and hell. To them, it seems like normal life.

And in this world, Mycroft and Carlyle have stumbled on the wild card that may destabilize the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life…

Which is… somehow completely useless, while all being technically accurate. It gives a wildly inaccurate sense of what the book will feel like, while strictly speaking giving you some of the plot points.

So I’m mostly going to ignore the plot, and talk about how the book feels, about the writing and the setting and the ethos of the book and of the narrator, all of which are way more important factors in what this book was to me.

I’ll start with what struck me first and in many ways hardest was the style of the writing. Palmer has some sort of notion that her story’s themes mirror those of the 18th century (not really) and so has her narrator adopt the style of an 18th century narrative. Only… she’s not 100% successful at this. And she drops out of it. A lot. So what we actually get is brief moments of painfully awkward pseudo-archaism, within some not particularly brilliant, fairly modern prose. Joy. This is made particularly bad by the moments where the text includes a supposed interjection from the reader. Now, the reader, being on more familiar terms with Mycroft, the narrator, uses “thee” and “thou” and the appropriate verb forms, like “thou canst”. And I’m sorry but it’s just horrible. The juxtaposition with normal text… it just hurts it’s so awkward. When you’re far enough away from these crimes against narration, the writing is merely forgettable. Which shouldn’t be something to aspire to, but she’s set the bar low for herself here. Add to that the fact that what the reader says is really rather contrived, so not only is it not what I would say to the narrator in the circumstances, it’s vastly outside the scope of what I want to know about anyway. Most of the time it’s the reader objecting to Mycroft’s philosophy or choice of focus or sexualisation of the characters.

Ok, fine, that I do agree with. But they’re doing it wrong.

Which brings me to probably the second worst thing about the book. It’s actually the worst, but the writing is so omnipresently bad that it overrides anything else.

So the story is set in a future where we don’t mark gender in speech. Not just grammatically, people just aren’t discussed as gendered except in specific circumstances. Everyone is “they”. Which is great. This I like, please continue with your exploration of gender in the future. However. Because of the whole 18th century nonsense, the narrator feels he does have to gender people. Because historical authenticity or something. But he doesn’t do this how we might do this now. Instead, he decides that certain characteristics are only assigned to a particular gender, so if someone displays that characteristic, they’re that gender. And it gets… well, it gets horribly reductive. Anyone caring? Female. Anyone aggressive? Male. Meek? Female. Forthright in any way? Obviously male. There’s an entire political class (I’ll get onto that in a minute) that he dismisses as female because they’re “nice” and “organised”. Their leader is “the world’s mom”, while the head of one of the other groups is “the world’s stern dad”. The leader designated female is also described as “cuddly” and “sweet”, and she’s the one who makes sure everyone gets ice cream. And all the designated women in the book are somehow like this – vastly stereotyped and then caricatured, so they’re weird avatars of femininity. To the point that one of the characters, about a third of the way in, starts being described as a witch, simply because she behaves in ways that the narrator codes female but is also sexually overt and a bit forthright and plotty. There’s nothing about her that’s actually witchy. And it’s not really clear where that’s coming from, from the book’s point of view.

If I were a more generous person, I might assume that Palmer is trying to make us think about gender by doing this… challenging our assumptions with grotesque parody or something. But I’m not, so I’m just finding it mildly insulting. I’m not saying it’s worse than assigning gender strictly by genitals (though the narrator does discuss characters’ genitals for fairly spurious reasons, so that comes into it too), but it’s not exactly better to distill a gender into certain essential qualities either and arbitrarily assign them to people who, in that world, would be accustomed to think of themselves and others as “they”. “But 18th century aesthetic” is not a good enough reason for this, I think. It’s like she tried to be thoughtful and interesting, but failed so spectacularly she managed to be even more offensive than we now often are in reality. I dunno, I just feel like, unless you want to characterise them as a bad person (and she’s not, her narrator is definitely meant to be sympathetic), you shouldn’t be having someone misgendering people here, there and all over the place.

The third awful thing about this book (there may be a lot… I will try to be a bit less verbose about them from here on) is her obsession with several historical figures, but specifically among them Voltaire and de Sade. The Voltaire stuff just smacks of the sort of person you see online who thinks they’re the generation’s top thinker because they read some philosophy once. The de Sade… she tries to make it clear it’s about the theology, not the titillation, but it is definitely about the titillation. The sexy nun was bad enough, but if I never read another sex scene where people are discussing theology, there will still have been too many. None of the philosophy stuff she incorporates feels particularly clever or incisive, it’s just your usual self-congratulatory “look at me, I so smart”.

Which gets worse with one of the characters. So Carlyle is mentioned in the blurb, like he’s really key to the whole plot, but he’s not. I can only assume, based on the foreshadowing and weird hints, that he’s going to be important in the sequels, because frankly he doesn’t contribute much here. He’s there to have moral outrage and theology exposition. And the theology exposition is just so tedious. If I had to call the author’s views, I’d peg her as “rabid atheist”, and that’s a really not good thing. It just permeates a lot of the plot, and even the setting (I don’t want any exposition on the “Church War” that led to religion being banned worldwide, I really, really don’t), and then she goes all de Sade (minus what I assume is his intellectual merit, because presumably he has some if he’s still this well known) and makes theology some sort of all-encompassing sexual fetish in her world.


And then the leaders of the major factions are all into it and all sleeping with each other. Or watching other people have sex and getting all worked up and excited about how it’s always that combination of personality types because in the distant future people can do a personality profile just by looking at you…

I could go on for a long while, but the crux of it is that this is a horribly self-congratulatory book by an author who clearly thinks she is Super Smart and Ever So Cuttingly Incisive and Political. And it’s just cringey and clunky and awkward and none of that works. The “intricate” politics feel just like a mess, so for all that you could puzzle it all out, you don’t want to. The plot meanders back and forth with no real sense of purpose, leaving unresolved threads everywhere that I can only assume she’ll pick up in the next book, though they never have the feeling of cliffhangers, more of afterthoughts. And then the whole thing just stops suddenly, with no real coherent feeling of an actual ending.

The one bright and shining thing within all of this heap of shit is that, underneath the cringe and the sex and the misgendering and the frankly teenage politics/philosophy, there is lurking a really interesting bit of world building. I like what she’s created, her hive-system in a world where an innovation in transport has made everywhere within three hours’ travel, and thus rendered geography politically irrelevant. I don’t quite agree with how she’s done it, sure. But it’s really very interesting. It’s gone a bit reductive on her seven hives (her political units… like countries but without any sort of geographical component), so Cousins are always nice, Utopians are mad-scientists, Humanists are all the absolute best at something and determined to Win At Everything, and Masons are… a bit culty and Illuminati-ish.

Oh yeah, one of her political factions is the actual Masons. No, really. They speak pseudo-Latin and are ruled by their Caesar, an emperor empowered to kill, where no other leader is. She’s mashed up a badly understood, idealised Rome and the pop culture image of the Masons and… I just don’t even know, frankly.

And one of her other factions? The Mitsubishi corporation. Now, she definitely does some legwork to try to make this make sense within the setting, but realistically? It’s just your usual “omg the future is corporate how awful” bullshit* and I’m a bit tired of it.

Then there’s the Brillists, who do personality profiling (yep, all of them) and… uh… damnit, who am I missing?

Oh yeah, Europe. Which is largely ignored. You see the King of Spain a fair bit but that’s about it.

It’s an odd set of factions, and she’s fallen into the trap of making everyone in each faction quite samey (there are some non-faction options too, but they’re discussed less), to the extent that it feels a bit childish, when it could have been really quite an interesting setup. Well, that’s not fair. It still is, but there’s a veneer of oversimplification to it, which has not affected anything else she’s done with her story, and so is more blatant and jarring by contrast.

I say this is one of the most interesting books I have read in a while mainly because of that contrast of a really good setting with a really awful book. I’m normally the one grumping about how I don’t care about the setting, just give me a good story, so it’s weird to be here thinking that if the story had been a bit less shit, it would have been worth it for the setting. She’s done something genuinely new (to me) with her non-geographical world, and it is such an absolute shame that the mind-numbing terribleness of everything else overwhelms it.

That’s probably enough ranting. I don’t understand how this book made it into the Hugos, and if it wins, beating out things like Ninefox Gambit, by people who can actually write a decent story, I shall be rather miffed. If I didn’t know otherwise, I’d have thought it a Puppy nomination.

I can’t think of a worse indictment than that, frankly.


EDITED TO ADD: Sorry, I needed to say another bit (because I Googled reviews of this book that were positive and they were making me angry by being Wrong). So the main character is a convicted criminal. One of the worst criminals of EVAR in his world. Yet for some reason, he is happily wandering around, associating on friendly terms with nearly all the world leaders, while also having basically super-magic abilities with languages. And apparently no one else speaks languages as well as he does, so you have to call him to translate anything you need translating. And also also he’s a whizz with numbers, so the head of the neutral central administrative body has to call him in when he’s worried about the world economy. And he’s involved with the upbringing of the son of one of the main world leaders. And… well, you get the idea. He’s a ridiculous Gary Stu of phenomenal proportions, apparently knows basically everything, from history to language to statistics, and no one in any sort of position of power could do without him and his charming, ex-mass murdering ways. WHY. WHY DO PEOPLE LIKE THIS?


*I finished watching Marvel’s Iron Fist today. This may or may not be feeding into that feeling of “so done with evil corporate world” stuff. God it was dire.


About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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3 Responses to Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer

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