New York: Tor Books, 2016; $26.99 hc; 432 pages
Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning begins in the middle as if A Clockwork Orange opened when Alex has committed his mayhem after he has been captured and defanged and returned to the street, there to render defenseless service to his droogs. This novel’s Alex is Mycroft Canner, a forcibly reformed reprobate whose philosophical convictions precipitated his youthful commission of the most infamous crimes of his generation. As part of his ongoing restitution to society, he narrates his personal history of several days that reshaped his times.
Mycroft’s world postdates that of Alex by some five hundred years, an interval marked by outright war, relative peace, and advancing automation. In extrapolation of the technological changes in our time, Mycroft’s era is liberally salted with many human inventions which in their accretion subvert longstanding articles of faith and the institutions such faiths sustain including cults, churches, and all manner of organized worship; linguistic conventions associating gendered pronouns primarily with biological sex; blood-lineage families; and geographically delimited nation-states. Tribal affiliation of familial intimacy occurs in this future via agreement of the adults involved in whatever number and combination and via truly equal standing given to birth and adoption. Nation-level tribal affiliation such as we would call national citizenship is via adult declaration. Nation-level organizations called Hives solicit membership from an empowered citizenry, a situation resembling policies of open borders and welcome immigration that may yet return from our own historical dustbin.
The pronoun situation resembles a mash-up of human professions and character traits with a German dictionary, in that in some peculiar way, it almost makes sense to apply three distinct genders without particular regard to anatomical resemblances.
Though present, such themes of tribe are backdrop for the more prominent themes of the individual’s relationship with the unknowable, with the incomprehensible, in domains variously called philosophy or religion or faith, and relatedly with the individual’s relationship with others in the domain of power commonly called governance. Our well-connected narrator walks his penance equally in the common streets and in the halls of dukes and ministers, and from both standpoints he speaks at length of the evolution of societal expectations of the individual. The first several dozen pages, perhaps up to the first couple hundred, focus primarily on the philosophical relationship of the individual to the broader society in the presence of incomprehensible forces, of the duties owed by and to the individual in relation to and sometimes in command of forces historically attributed to gods. Though Mycroft’s history is not quite as dry as, say, that of Thucydides, the novel’s opening will hardly be confused with an action blockbuster. The primary motion in these early pages is the slow reveal to the reader of the vision held by the author.
After detailing the future utopia at considerable length, the novel’s pace picks up in the second half with increased development of the individuals peopling the utopia. Here are echoes of the Stanford prison experiment, visibly absent from street-level policing but reverberating still in the halls of power. Here, too, are self-motivated characters creating their own futures at scales both intimate and national, puncturing societal boundaries in pursuit of outcomes realizing personal lusts for honor, power, and pleasure. Evils abound in these pages; evils latent in the more intimate, early discussions are vividly realized by the closing passages of the work.
Also evident in the novel’s latter half are various ways by which the depicted utopia is imperfectly realized in its inhabitants. Boundaries are honored by their keepers as much in the breach as in the delineation. Technology with immense capacity to aid and protect is nonetheless wielded under human oversight, and faults attributed to technological imperfection may be better understood as flawless manifestation of human motivations kept deliberately opaque from both broader society and the reader. Mycroft’s own personal defanging may not be so complete as first presented; what violence he cannot personally perpetuate, he can nonetheless wish for, and he may yet realize his desired savagery through another’s hand.
Throughout, the dominant viewpoint through which this future is viewed is strongly though not explicitly Christian. When the narrator breaks the fourth wall, the mores presumed offended are contemporary Christian ones, and much of the naming and iconography is that of the Christian faith. Physical depictions span the globe, but it is a globe viewed everywhere through a unifying, stained-glass lens.
On reflection, the relative underdevelopment of character early in the novel lingers as a flaw of the work. Many names are introduced early, and conversations occur between many different sets of participants. However, one cannot shake the recollection that most early conversations are of a form comprising a student, a teacher, and a scribe with various names attached to those roles. The format is effective to educate the reader in a hurry, but in the absence of strong individual characterization, the reader has few clues as to why the named characters hold a particular conversation; nothing yet known to the reader precludes a similar number of others from having the same discussion. By novel’s midgame with both pawns and major pieces developed and in play, the dialogue is individual to the characters who partake in it, an evolution that helps story dominate exposition.
Once it gets going, this story is complex and packed; multiple potent actors pursue contradictory ends, characters of whom we grew fond in the early parts come under threats which they are ill-equipped to counter, and societal stability itself is in question. A pawn who escaped the previous game by moving beyond the edges of the board returns knighted and pounds the drums of war. The iron fist emerges from its velvet glove, revealing violent machinations underpinning the superficial utopia.
For the reader desirous of stories that end, it is worth noting that the narration of Too Like The Lightning ends on the fourth day with the story still very much in its midgame. The remaking of the world is promised to continue in early 2017 with the release of Seven Surrenders, also from Tor Books and with two volumes beyond that.
Stephen Gerken lives in ...