Book Review: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
Too Like the Lightning
by Ada Palmer
Tor, 2016

In the future, mankind has avoided self-destruction by a hair’s breadth. Organized religions have been outlawed. Ultrafast transportation has rendered geographical nations irrelevant. Society has been rebuilt according to the ideals of 18th century Enlightenment philosophy. The world’s most notorious criminal—serving a sentence in service to any who command—and a sensayer (a spiritual therapist and guide) discover a child who can perform miracles, with the power to irrevocably change the nature of reality itself. And a brazen theft threatens to expose secrets that could topple the world’s greatest powers.

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer is a near perfect blend of science fiction and philosophy.

As SF, it’s one of the most original novels I’ve read: visionary, compelling, utterly unique. As a work of philosophical storytelling, it’s intelligent, rigorous, challenging. Indeed, in her “Afterword” Ms. Palmer states her desire was to offer an answer to the great thinkers of the 18th century Enlightenment: Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, de Sade.

One of the most impressive things about Too Like the Lightning is how well Ms. Palmer summarizes the philosophies of the Enlightenment for the lay reader. You don’t need to have read any philosophy to understand the world of the story or follow what happens. Equally impressive is how appropriately she integrates philosophical discussions into the narration and dialog. For a book so weighty with ideas, the plot remains briskly paced and exciting.

But it’s the world Ms. Palmer creates in these pages which astounds me. It’s vivid, immersive, complex, fascinating, exceptionally detailed, and unlike anything I’ve encountered—equally dependent on technology and philosophical ideas. Too Like the Lightning belongs on every list of greatest world-building in SF.

This world is populated by a sprawling cast of compelling characters in complex political relationships, machinating amongst each other, vying for power, loving and fighting one another. The essential stuff of human drama and comedy.

The biggest challenge is keeping all the characters straight: there are a lot of them and many of them are referred to by multiple names. The convoluted naming conventions work well to flesh out the society and culture of the world of the story, but it can get a bit confusing if you’re not paying attention. Also, the way Ms. Palmer plays with gender pronouns is both delightful and occasionally frustrating—intentionally so, for good reason and to good effect. Like the names, it renders the world of the story in vivid detail.

The most immediate thing you notice when you start reading Too Like the Lightning is how it’s written in the style of 18th century philosophical treatises, with florid prose, complex sentences, asides and appeals to the reader, and a first-person narrator who explains why he’s telling the story this way. It’s an appropriate and effective voice for the story, breathing life into the philosophical underpinnings of this society, personalizing them.

Some people have said they find the writing style imposing. I had little problem with it—Ms. Palmer gives you space at the beginning to get used to it and it has a compelling flow that sweeps you along.

One detail which I particularly like: Ms. Palmer wrote this novel for English-speaking readers—therefore, almost all of the dialog is written in English (there are a few passages written in Latin with English translations provided). However, several different characters speak different languages and there are situations where this is important in terms of who can and can’t understand what’s being said. She employs a simple technique of using different punctuation marks to bracket dialog to designate lines spoken in different languages, even though it’s all written in English. It’s visual and effective.

With its ornate writing style, its complex society and many characters, and its weighty philosophical ideas, this book is intended to be a challenge for the reader. Don’t take it on if you’re looking for something easy. You better be willing to put in the work to read it—and that work is amply rewarded.

Too Like the Lightning is visionary and astonishing. There’s so much it does exceptionally well. It’s a stunning accomplishment and far more than we have a right to expect from a debut novel.

But I still walked away from it convinced that it should have been better.

(Does this abrupt change in tone surprise you, dear reader? For there are deep flaws even in the heart of such majestic pinnacles of artistic achievement.)

Take the 18th century writing style: The narrator goes to great effort at the beginning of the novel to explain why this story must be told in this style, and his reasoning is entirely sound. It’s an effective and appropriate device. But it also never quite stops feeling like a gimmick.

The world of this novel is rich, complex and immersive, an astonishing achievement. But it also feels ever-so-slightly too contrived, artificially constrained in service to the author’s clever idea.

That’s the essential flaw in this book:

It’s a very clever idea that never lets you forget how very clever it is.

It’s all a bit too self-conscious, it never lets go as fully as you want it to. Every time I expect a plot twist, I get a plot twist. Every time I expect a shocking revelation, I get one. As shocking as some of these plot twists and revelations are, as original and unexpected as this book is as a whole, it never feels quite as surprising as it should be.

I’m reminded of what the wise man once said:

“You can spend your life examining the nature of reality in all its depth and detail, and then one day a tiger jumps out of the bushes and bites your face off.”

All fiction is a thought experiment exploring the nature of reality. The art of fiction is to convince the reader there are real tigers lurking in the bushes.

As a thought experiment, Too Like the Lightning is a tremendous accomplishment: intelligent, insightful, creative, clever, unique. It offers up a feast of ideas.

As a work of storytelling, it falls ever-so-slightly short. As exceptional as its tigers are, it doesn’t quite fully convince me they’re real.

It feels wrong of me to have these criticisms of a book so visionary, so innovative. I want to be clear: I love this novel. But I don’t love it as unreservedly as I want to. The criticisms I offer are my attempts to understand why not.

Make no mistake: Too Like the Lightning achieves greatness. It just tries a bit too hard to get there.

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