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.
And in this review, I’m going to try to do just that. In particular, I will address how the novel thinks about the relation between qualitative and quantitative difference, the relation between the structure of things and their magnitude. That may sound abstract, but at a very literal level, the book’s world building investigates the qualitative changes that happen in society and politics as a result of a quantitative change—in this particular case, a massive increase in the speed of long-distance transportation. This will include discussion of how desire works in a globalized world grown simultaneously so large and so small and about how Palmer places her characters at the mercy of involuntary and forceful desire. In the end, the book asks us to consider the political implications of what happens when complexity—the nuance of an intellectual argument, of a technological system, of an attempt at seduction—is reduced in our imaginations to so much brute force.
Two things I should mention: First, Ada Palmer is a friendly acquaintance of mine. Second, a caveat: despite the book’s basic good cheer, consider this a content warning for discussion and low-resolution depiction of extreme violence, including rape. There are some more detailed warnings on the title page (disguised as in-universe content ratings), and you may want to take a look at them!
The first really strange thing I noticed was a confusion of scale. I found myself asking questions like: How big a deal is this? How unusual an anomaly? How fixable a problem? Admittedly, this happens for me with a lot of science fiction, especially when it has multiple or many differences from our own world, when it is not so much a thought experiment with a single independent variable as the fabrication of a believable alternate reality. (Theorists call this “multi-novum” sf: it has multiple “nova” or radically new aspects of the world.) In Hannu Rajaniemi’s 2010 novel The Quantum Thief, your body can be destroyed, recreated, and copied many times over, and sometimes it’s unclear whether you have a “real” body or are just a simulation; you can rise to almost godlike power, sink to near-nonexistence, and rise once again. In Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, it’s hard to tell whether Hiro Protagonist is really a world-class programmer—and if he is, why he is living in a storage unit and delivering pizza? The stakes of the novel are always in question. In a work of realist literary fiction, by contrast, you typically know whether an event has significance for the world, a community, a relationship, or an individual. But not all multi-novum science fiction confuses us like this: Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch novels, despite their many innovative ideas, contain familiar figures like an empire, serfs, governors, and so forth. When Ancillary Justice tells us whom the main character wants to assassinate, we have a pretty good idea of how big an ambition this is; to the extent that we aren’t sure, it’s only because the target distributes her consciousness across many bodies, and so the accustomed import of shooting just one of her isn’t quite right. In those books, the main empire’s territory (the Radch) is physically much larger than the (post)human territories of Too Like the Lightning or The Quantum Thief or Snow Crash, but we always have a sense of how big or small things are. So what gives?
It might be a matter of an altered social and political structure. Value judgments like “how big a deal is this?” are strongly socially determined, and like the eye-fooling layout of an Ames room, an unknown social and political order may make it hard to gauge scale. (Thanks to Greer Gilman for that analogy.) The Quantum Thief is posthuman, broadly Singularitarian far-future sf, and it’s not entirely clear whether there are governments; Snow Crash is set in a mildly dystopic near-future world where cyberspace is central and meatspace dominated in part by franchised nation-states—little islands of government in a corporate sea. Too Like the Lightning is set in the twenty-fifth century in what Palmer calls (SF Signal, May 2016) a “middle future” world, where governments—known as “Hives”—are borderless and global and individuals choose their citizenship—and the code of laws they want to live by—when they reach majority. Palmer’s world makes us wonder: how much does the anatomy of the body politic—a construct that, like cyberspace, seems both real and imaginary—determine how we perceive and value things in the real world?
A little more about the world building of the novel. The borderless system of government is enabled and necessitated by the primary technological novum—an automated system of self-piloting flying cars that enables transportation around the world in a couple of hours. It’s possible to sleep in San Francisco, commute to Hong Kong for work, and go to the theater in Cairo that evening, and in this extremely globalized world, governing locally just doesn’t make sense. The Hive system did not arise peaceably: centuries before the events of Too Like the Lightning, the “Church Wars” ravaged the planet as the endgame of globalization made pluralist, tolerant societies both more urgent and more difficult than ever. The first Hives were nongovernmental organizations that provided the affluent with security, housing, and transportation around the world as the Church Wars raged; later, after a speech by a leader named Thomas Carlyle, the European Union extended citizenship to anyone anywhere in the world who wanted to join, and this was perhaps when the fate of bordered states was sealed. (Stateless) nations do persist in the twenty-fifth century: in addition to the signifying features of their Hive, individuals often wear indicators of their affiliations with “nation-strats” like Greece or Japan. This, again, is independent of where they live, work, or grew up. This notion of “strats”—intersecting identities—is important to the novel, which in its political thought is concerned with the dangers of majority. If everyone is a minority, goes the reigning political doctrine, no one is oppressed, and nobody is the oppressor. In effect, Palmer’s twenty-fifth century is governed by subcultures.
The second strange thing in Too Like the Lightning is the fact that virtually everyone in the novel is exceptional. Seriously: they’re either a world leader or an Oscar winner or a hugely influential pop star or a member of the tiny family that runs the world’s all-important flying car network, or they’re the secret bastard child of a world leader, or they’re an inhumanly gifted investigator and walking talking lie detector who, instead of using guns, weaponizes people’s theological beliefs against them and the child of a world leader, or they’re a brilliant statistician and shockingly knowledgeable about literature, history, and philosophy and friends with all of the above and another superlative I’d better not tell you about because [spoilers]—or they’re a kid who can literally perform miracles. The most ordinary named characters are mostly servants to the above, but even they are pretty damn impressive. And, you know, impressive is fine. To paraphrase Patrick Rothfuss, it’s fun to read about a badass. But there’s more going on here. Palmer or her narrator seems fascinated by those in whom so much power is concentrated that they are set outside the ordinary domain of humanity not in degree but in kind. Again, as with my concern about the significance of things, quantitative difference seems to be convertible into qualitative or structural difference. This conversion about how change works is at the heart of the novel. But change goes both ways. Someone (Greer Gilman again) pointed out to me that when we read about Cornel MASON, grim emperor of the Hive of Masons, who, dressed in iron gray, emanates raw power, we might be reminded of the Colossus of Constantine, a giant wood-and-stone statue of that Roman emperor, of which only fragments remain today.
And others, too, are described as being, not only in apprehension but in their ability to provoke emotion, how like gods. They perceive more than the average person. They fascinate the eye. They disarm the will by sensation; through threats, seduction, and intellectual acrobatics; through fear and desire. They are themselves disarmed by the same. But there’s also evidence of real relationships of love, care for the world, and philosophical sincerity among this group of giants. Chief among my praises for Too Like the Lightning might be this: I have never been more convinced by a vision of how politics works behind closed doors. When we look with fascination at a politician, part of what fascinates us is that flicker of uncertainty: what portion of their public persona and platform is just a lie? In the words of the college student who stayed with my family for several months while I was in high school, is George W. Bush evil or stupid? Television series like The West Wing and House of Cards give famously divergent answers to the general form of this inquiry.
Palmer is an intellectual historian or a historian of ideas, and these questions about political hypocrisy remind me of a view expressed by the elder intellectual historian, Quentin Skinner: “preexisting moral structures, and the vocabularies in which they are formulated, can hardly be mere epiphenomena. Rather they must act as constraints on what can be legitimized, and thus on what can be done” <bit.ly/2d6WYa9>. Meaning: if those who grant power to politicians are listening, caring, and remembering, then regardless of whether politicians truly believe what they are saying, they cannot with impunity act in ways obviously counter to their stated principles. Action is not the living embodiment of ideas, but action wears ideology like a second skin, and ideology cannot be stretched too far beyond its bounds without tearing, incurring rupture. If this theory holds, then the two will most commonly diverge not when action breaks out of the skin of ideology but when action falls short of it by omission, allowing the skin to fall in folds around the empty space. Several key revelations in the novel turn on the omission of action by various world leaders. And relatedly: Mycroft Canner, our narrator, is ambiguously passive. A slave of the public, he has little self-determination or control over his own movements. Similarly, at several points in the novel, he emphasizes that he doesn’t get to decide what he reveals to us. But actually, he often lies by omission both to the reader and to the people around him.
This brings to mind a lyric from one of Palmer’s songs, “Thunder Away” (as noted, she is also a composer): “Don’t forgive me / for the sacrifice I ask / it’s torture to unmask / the questions you have thundering away.” Someone who can say “Don’t forgive me [for what I’m about to do]” is someone who believes both in determinism and in moral culpability. And Mycroft begins the book by warning us that we will come to hate him in time. But in a science-fiction novel whose salient science is the theory of history, we should be careful around claims of inevitability from our narrator or our author. Unlike Larry Niven’s famous Ringworld instability gaffe, calculations made using the theory of history like the putting-into-practice of ideology are hard to hold to a rigorous standard. And omission—failing to include something that would logically follow from an ideology or a scientific body of knowledge—is much easier to commit than positive transgression against that ideology or body of knowledge. So our “historian”-narrator is not bound by inevitability: even in science fiction, representation never unfolds according to the laws of nature. Authors always have choices in what they represent and how they represent it.
I want to turn back to my thoughts about the dynamics of qualitative and quantitative difference. On quantitative issues: In Too Like the Lightning, a significant, global economic downturn—one caused by complex and shifting arrangements of capital, land, and demographics as well as by public opinion—is an event worthy of great narrative weight. Economics—really complicated economics—can motivate the characters. This perspective is perfectly common in nonfiction, and one would like to imagine that arcane economic indicators with serious consequences are important to our real-life leaders as well. But in fiction, concern for large-scale economic events seems more rare.1 When Palmer’s world leaders are seen to genuinely care, it is not only in the one-size-fits-most way in which humans usually deal with tragedy. It is also proportional; it considers the scale of things. These leaders are selfish, and they care about not allowing the world to come to harm. Because the world is big.
Then again—not to keep harping on the same point—in another sense, this world really doesn’t seem that big. At one point, Palmer’s narrator tells us, “In our world, all powers are global powers and all snarls global snarls.” In the terms of mathematics, the world of Too Like the Lightning has a huge cardinality but is metrically small: There are many things in it, but the distance between any two points is negligible. It’s like a real-life version of the World Wide Web since all links take roughly the same amount of time to follow. Or it’s like making balsamic vinaigrette: I start out with two spatially separated regions (oil and vinegar), I agitate them (with a fork), and now instead of large homogeneous zones, I have a mélange of tiny droplets of either persuasion, and while they’re still unmingled, each molecule of olive oil is within spitting distance of one of balsamic.
And maybe you can figure out now why I’ve put that Robert Hass quote up there at the beginning. I wonder: In a world without endless distances, how is longing supposed to work? I long not only for love, security, and personal growth—things which are near to hand in Palmer’s ambiguous utopia—but also for recognition and distinction, which are harder to come by when the potential scope of my audience and of my competition is unlimited. There’s so much to read, write, and love, and so many possible genres, forms, and aesthetics—and maybe this can be resolved (whether in our world through the Internet, or in hers, with high-speed global transportation) by what the kind of people who worry a lot about social media call “bubbling.” As the proverbial Atlantic article goes, the great thing about having neither financial nor temporal transportation costs is that large, healthy communities can form around niche interests—but the bad news is no one has to interact with anyone who has different values. Remember how I said that this world is governed by subcultures? But in her utopia of the mid-twenty-fifth century, Palmer is pointing furiously in the direction of what seems to me to be an essential question of the turn of the twenty-first: how can different value systems be incorporated into a single, common idea of value? Value, of course, is what we long for.
And the thing is, you may not like Palmer’s solution to the problem. Palmer opens her author’s note by talking about how she felt before she got published, saying, “I wanted it so much. So much sometimes it felt like I couldn’t breathe.” Although it’s ostensibly about how people with different values can coexist, the novel is also about how the experience of not being valuable—because supply is so much higher than demand—feels like a physical blow to the body. But rather than trying to imagine a world in which complex human bodyminds are not assigned scalar values of worth, she seems to imply, essentially, that universal value is found in what is complex and undeniable. An example: on the first appearance of most of the characters who project power or allure, our narrator treats us to an elaborate description of their attire. Danae, the stunningly beautiful and expertly manipulative wife of the Director of the Mitsubishi Hive, wears an Edo period kimono with an “obi sparkling around her stiff waist like a puzzle box of silk” (48, emphasis mine). Ockham Saneer, who has the right to kill to protect the transportation network, wears a shirt and pants that “once plain, were now a labyrinth of doodles: black spirals, cross-hatching, and hypnotic swirls, though he wore them as indifferently as if the cloth had never tasted ink” (32, likewise). And that suggestion of complexity in ink is picked up in the fabric of the novel itself; though Palmer never focuses much on our narrator Mycroft Canner’s appearance, his “ravishing voice” (that descriptor from Sherwood Smith’s blurb) is in fact an ornate and mazelike textile of allusion and obscurity. Another example: Several times in the novel, it is stated that certain characters are performing traditional codes of sexualized masculinity or femininity—in their dress, body language, inflection, etc.—and that these codes have retained their effect on the gazing observer, even in an age when gender is mostly taboo, precisely because there has not yet been time to develop equivalent nongendered codes that are complex enough to compete with them. And the desire, disorientation, and loss of self-control provoked by these displays of complexity are an involuntary, almost mechanical, or at any rate forced response. Sexual and, say, theological complexity are mingled freely in the novel, and they seem, if not identical, at least interconvertible. God can turn you on, and sex can prove God. In an essay on the history of skepticism <www.exurbe.com/?p=3320>, Palmer talks about Voltaire and his apparent invention of a new form of argument, founded neither on Reason nor on Evidence, which some have called the argument from Sentiment, or Common Sense. What we feel, she says, can conquer our denials and force an assent from our lips. Do you begin to see why this is disturbing? Is it an accident that Mycroft’s complex voice is described specifically as ravishing? Jurgen Habermas has a famous phrase: “the force of the better argument.” But in the world Palmer chooses to represent, a kind of force—the force of involuntary sentiment—is argument. Not only is structural specificity (argument) convertible into a quantity of force, that conversion is automatic and mandatory.
And the complexity criterion is deeply troubling as well. Too Like the Lightning articulates a vision for science fiction as an inheritor of the Western intellectual tradition. It shifts science-fictional philosophical inquiry from an analytical mode, one that seems to proceed from first principles, to a Continental mode, which creates new philosophy, in large part, through examination of the history of philosophy itself. And Palmer has explicitly stated that she wants to write a future that is fascinated by the past in the way that all eras have been fascinated by (some of) the past; the world leaders of her twenty-fifth century are especially obsessed with the European eighteenth, and the story is told with some of the stylistic markers of Enlightenment narratives, including a running train of delightfully smarmy direct addresses to the reader and at a few points, a transition to a playlike style of dialogue marking sans description. Now, the Western tradition is a lot of fun, and inheriting it need not keep sf from inheriting other traditions, too. And Palmer certainly doesn’t erase the ethnic, genetic, and national lineages of those people/s who in the present day labor under the persistent and exhausting disadvantages of colonialism, racism, prejudice, and marginalization. But she does omit any mention of the philosophical/cultural/imaginative heritage of those peoples, and their potential for new growth and innovations. Most egregious—indeed, the only thing in this book that really seems sloppy to me—is the fact that (I think) the only reference to sub-Saharan Africa, other than descriptions of certain characters’ ancestry, is to the “Great African Reservation.” Maybe this will be rectified in later installments in the series. But as things stand, in Too Like the Lightning, the African continent is notable for its wildlife. For a writer who wants to combat the notion of the end of history, Palmer sure is ready to send Africa back to Eden. She does include the various cultures of East Asia as major players on the global and intellectual stage, and since her research specialties are Western Europe in the Renaissance and Reformation and Japanese anime, perhaps we can understand how this happened. Alternatively, the absence of Africa may be a symptom of the fact that the novel’s sources are right at the heart of the formation of intellectual racism, which scholars of the African diaspora argue was motivated by a need to justify the transatlantic slave trade. When the current ideology doesn’t fit the intended action, find another. Voltaire—a hero here and in many ways an extraordinary thinker and writer—was a huge racist. In the twenty-fifth century of Too Like the Lightning, the ideologies of the Enlightenment come back to life apparently without the colonialist action that originally inhabited them on the force of their complexity.
I think this is evidence that the complexity criterion for value, which might also be called the structure criterion, is deeply flawed. Even from a mathematical standpoint, the complexity of a stream of data (I’m thinking of Kolmogorov complexity, the length of the shortest program capable of producing that stream) is incomputable. It is mathematically impossible to write a program that will tell you the Kolmogorov complexity of an arbitrary piece of data. A less fun argument, but one I can state with a little more confidence, is literary theorist Stanley Fish’s point, that the value and interpretation of a literary work are strongly dependent on the community the reader belongs to. Or French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s point that knowledge of a canon of important art and writing, gained through an expensive university education, is a form of “cultural capital”—what a biologist might call a kind of honest signal of wealth and privilege. Complexity and brilliance are only intelligible within their frames; looked at from the outside, they appear as mere flavor and magnitude. What plagues me is the occasional thought that all this literary criticism I like to read is really just a meaningless, behaviorist acquisition of a mind-bogglingly complex style, like a game of Mao that’s been going on for centuries and adding rules along the way. Anyway, if complexity is not an inherent trait but a feature of how you look at something, then in some sense we determine complexity by how we feel when we look at it. And so we’re back to the undeniable, to the force of sentiment. And the problem is that racism is made of sentiment, and sub-Saharan Africa—whose cultures, apparently, lacked complexity sufficient to significantly influence the post-2016 course of this world’s history—was certainly beginning to feel force from the direction of Western Europe in the eighteenth century.
Too Like the Lightning’s meadows are painted with delight. It is fast-paced, ornate, full of asides worth pursuing, the kind of book that crouches in your mind and springs forth suddenly with a concept or metaphor you didn’t know you needed. It has new ideas, and it’s really worth reading. But consider the following description of a wall-mounted display at the headquarters of the all-important world transportation network:
a projection of the Earth in her slow spin with the paths of the cars’ flights traced across in threads of glowing gold. Hundreds of millions crisscrossed, dense as pen strokes, drowning out the continents so the regions of the globe were differentiated only by texture, oceans smooth masses of near-parallel paths like fresh-combed hair, while the great cities bristled with so many criss-crossing journeys that the Earth seemed to bleed light.
Whenever Palmer refers to complexity, she describes intensity: light, power, desire. Quality is referred to, but quantity is provided. She helps us imagine the ambiguities of politics but will not help us imagine the felt complexity, the felt ambiguity of being a mortal living as a messy body and mind awakening in a world whose origins we do not understand. That is not what she is about; her purpose is not to give us back to ourselves. Too Like the Lightning is a good book, and there is a lot of truth to be found in it. But it is not the kind of truth that makes us free.
Robbie Eginton lives in Iowa City.
1 I don’t count American chattel slavery as an “economic event” in this assessment, in part because, one hopes, chattel slavery is not economically abstracted from its mortal, moral consequences by layers of financial legality; whereas the manipulation of derivatives still may be. When we think of slavery, our thoughts turn rapidly to the degradation and abuse inherent in the idea of owning a person, and even before that, we think of the horrific violence that actually resulted from that system. We might also consider its various covert continuations leading up to the present day. We do not, for the most part, direct our focus to the legal and financial trappings, the chit of the chattel.