New York: Tor Books, 2016; $26.99 hc; 432 pages
Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances.
—Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”
Ada Palmer’s debut novel, Too Like the Lightning, makes a fierce yet ambivalent argument: ambivalent, because it is filtered through a mercurial, unreliable narrator and because the persuasive ideas put forth by its characters are also politically favorable to them. Palmer writes about an uncertain utopia, a moment in future history when real progress seems to have been made and further work remains to be done in a world which has evolved believably from our own. Despite its utopian attitudes, the novel is as much about how politics, power, and desire really work as it is about the virtues of her twenty-fifth-century society. Book one of a planned quartet with the second due out in early 2017, it also picks up many of the futurist and theological themes present in Palmer’s work as a composer and lyricist for the Renaissance/folk/filk a capella group Sassafrass. Her prose is engaging but rarely elegant it feels grainy and overstuffed like a tasty meat lover’s sandwich eaten on a sandy beach. Too Like the Lightning is a novel of ideas more than a novel of character, but it’s also a novel of baroque and delightful detail. I have serious emotional, philosophical, and political issues with what the book seems to be saying, and I recommend heartily that you read it: this is a brilliant, engrossing, hard-to-put down work of speculative fiction that needs desperately to be answered.