I should begin this review by saying that Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer, is one of the most thoughtful and complex science fiction novels that I have read in a long time. That in itself, of course, does not make it a good novel. It is a book that, if one is being kind, one would describe as “ambitious”, and if one is being unkind one would call “pretentious”. All I will say for now is that I found myself thinking that perhaps I should take notes while reading it so I could keep track of all of the complexity. Whether you think that is a good thing or a bad thing will depend very much on what sort of reader you are.
Palmer’s interest is in philosophy, in particular the 18th Century Enlightenment philosophy of the likes of Voltaire, Rousseau and de Sade. I’m not equipped to debate the works of these men with her, but I will note that these days talk of philosophy tends to raise alarm bells for me. Free thinkers such as the gentlemen mentioned above introduced many useful ideas into the Western world, and hastened the end of feudalism. Many of their ideas we take for granted now. These days, however, when someone describes themself as a philosopher or free thinker, it is often in reaction against what they deem political orthodoxy or, as they would have it, “political correctness”. Philosophy gets trotted out as an excuse for all sorts of biological essentialism, including the “natural” superiority of white people over other ethnicities, the “natural” superiority of men over women, and the “natural” nature of heterosexual, cisgender identities as compared to “unnatural” LGBT+ identities.
It is important to note that I read the book with these alarm bells ringing.
Before we get to opinions, however, we need some facts. Let’s start with the world that Palmer builds for her fiction.
Too Like the Lightning is set a reasonable length of time after the Church War, an event in which the USA, drunk on nationalism and religious fundamentalism, unleashed a third world war. In the wake of this, the rest of the world turned its back on both nationalism and religion. There is a world government, and religion is illegal. The political situation is stable, but enough people remember the horror to not want to go back there at any cost.
Politics, in this brave new world, is done on the basis of Hives, of which there are seven of any importance. Two of these are still ethnic in nature. Palmer has correctly identified the European Union as an anti-nationalist project and has created Europe as a cultural entity that can be joined by anyone who aspires to European ideals. Mitsubishi is the other ethnically-based hive. It encompasses much of Asia, and Asian-descended people. The Japanese are in charge, primarily because Bejing and Shanghai hate each other more than they hate the non-Chinese, and partly because of some assumptions about India that smell a little of ethnic stereotyping.
In addition we have the business-oriented Masons who claim descent from the mediaeval Freemasons. We have the Humanists, who are nothing like present-day humanists but rather are based on celebrity culture. There are the Cousins, who run the world’s charities (and are the only Hive headed by a woman – yes, stereotyping again). There are the Utopians, who as scientists care little for everyday politics and put all of their effort into colonizing the Moon and terraforming Mars. Finally there are the Gordians who are academics with a strong interest in psychoanalysis. Each of the Hives has its own internal factions. A person can also elect to be Hiveless and even to live outside of any law.
There is an Emperor, a post held by the head of the Masons. His role appears to be in a large part symbolic, though he does have an important part to play in the administration of justice. He is one of the few people on the planet allowed to administer the death penalty.
While religion is banned, people still have spiritual needs. These are taken care of by sensayers, who are like psychiatrists for the spirit but also have a duty to sniff out and report any unauthorized religious activity.
Family life is now based on the bash’, which is an extended family comprising several generations and parent-child groups. This doesn’t seem to be based on an assumption of polyamory. Gender has apparently been abolished. Anyone can dress in whatever style they like, and everyone is referred to with gender-neutral pronouns.
Two more technological aspects of this future world are the transport system and set-sets. The vast majority of transport is run by a world-wide network of automated taxis owned and operated by members of the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash’. They are able to do this because the bash’ includes some set-sets, people who from birth have been trained to interface with computers. Some citizens strongly dislike the idea of any post-human enhancement. The Nurturist movement campaigns against set-sets and the Utopians’ space-adapted children.
Finally I should mention surveillance. Almost everyone in this world wears a “tracker” which allows computer systems to know where they are at all times. There is thus universal surveillance, except when there isn’t because the plot requires it. Criminals are usually sentenced to community service, and the police track them at all times. Anyone in danger can send an SOS to the police via their tracker.
All of these things are important to the plot, especially the last one because the book is narrated primarily by Mycroft Canner, who is a convicted criminal. Exactly what they have done to deserve punishment I will leave you to find out, but they committed their crimes with the aid of something called the “Canner Device” which allows people to evade the universal surveillance.
Mycroft is a deeply unreliable narrator. Other characters point out how good they are at manipulating other people. Think Loki levels of deception. They admit as much themself. But Mycroft is a reformed character now, and uses their many skills, including prodigious analytical abilities, to aid the Hive leaders.
Now for the plot. Every few years each of the leading newspapers publish something called a Seven-Ten List. This is a selection of the most important people in world business and politics. Traditionally the top seven are one from each of the Hives, though not necessarily the Hive leader, while the extra three are up-and-coming stars. These lists are seen as important insights into the state of global politics.
As the book opens, a draft of the list to be published by the Mitsubishi newspaper, Black Sakura, has recently been stolen. Whoever took it also broke into the home of the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash’ and left the stolen document there. The Emperor has dispatched their top investigator, Martin Guildbreaker, to try to solve the crime.
This might not seem a big deal, but exactly who stole the list, why they might have wanted it leaked, and why they tried to plant the blame on the transport magnates, turns out to be a matter of key political importance. One of the reasons for this is that the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash’ is hiding a very dangerous secret. Carlyle Foster, newly appointed as sensayer to the bash’, is about to stumble right into it.
The fact that it has taken me over 1000 words to describe the set-up when many of my reviews are only 500 words or so in length should give you an idea of just how complex this book is. All of the things I described above matter to the narrative. They are not just set-dressing.
So does it work? Well to a large extent I am reserving judgement because the book is the first part of a duology and Palmer could go off in all sorts of directions from here. However, there are some observations worth making.
Let’s start with the gender thing, which is after all the main reason why I needed to read this book. I don’t think Palmer understands how gender identity works. In reported conversation everyone refers to other people as “they”. Mycroft, in their narration, uses “he” and “she”, but does so based on gender presentation rather than birth assignment or gender identity. As far as Mycroft is concerned, anyone who looks and behaves like a stereotypical woman must be a woman, and vice versa. They gender everyone, except for the famously androgynous media star, Sniper. According to Mycroft, the entire world is obsessed with knowing what is in Sniper’s pants, because being ungendered is unthinkable.
The message that the book gives, very strongly, is that gender neutrality is “political correctness gone mad” and that people’s true natures will out. These natures are assumed to always be in line with gender stereotypes. As I noted earlier, the only Hive led by a woman is the nurturing Cousins. As with so much of the book, it all leads back to the Enlightenment:
The Age of Reason speculated that women might be no different from men if they were reared the same; Rousseau agreed, but cried that this would strip women of their rightful thrones, unmaking society’s peacemakers, and making men grow harsher without a fair sex to temper their passions.
Palmer has decoupled gender from biology, but still sticks rigidly to stereotyped ideas of gendered behaviour.
There’s some suggestion that she’s anti-feminist as well. Both the Cousins and the sensayers seem to be quite prudish, if not downright anti-sex. The suggestion appears to be that charities will be just as down on sex workers as priests. Palmer has a character note:
Celibacy is the most extreme form of sexual perversion, after all.
That’s Denis Diderot she’s quoting there. Neither he nor Palmer appears to make any distinction between deliberate celibacy and asexuality. The idea that feminists are destroying traditional sex-roles, and are generally sex-negative, is quite common, and not entirely without foundation. Thankfully we are by no means all like that.
As I noted earlier, I approached the book with some trepidation because of the focus on philosophy. The obsession with the 18th Century did nothing to dispel that. At times the book reminded me of Ian R. MacLeod and even early John C. Wright. I found myself thinking back to how, in Masks and Shadows, Stephanie Burgis contrasts the arrogance and selfishness of the nobility with the precarious situation of the servants (even such exalted ones as Haydn) and the utter squalor and degradation suffered by the peasantry. Compare that to how Palmer describes the Humanist President, who models themself on Louis XIV.
Clothed so, he embodies the age when a peasant, glimpsing such beauty through the window of a passing coach, might think that all his toil is worthwhile if the sweat of his back allows so noble a creature to grace the Earth.
(Mycroft, you will note, genders both the President and the peasant as male; the former based on knowing the person well and the latter presumably on an assumption of masculinity being the default gender.)
We see very little of ordinary people in Too Like the Lightning. The Servicers (condemned criminals), when they appear, seem worryingly like the jolly chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins, with Mycroft as Dick van Dyke. The middle classes don’t seem to exist. Between the very rich and the Servicers there is only the Mob, who appear as violent, bigoted thugs.
The main thrust of the philosophical argument of the book is the age old question of how society shall be governed. I don’t think that Palmer is coming down on the side of hereditary dictatorship, but she may be on the side of US-style political dynasties, or an EU-style technocracy. She does appear to understand that an oligopoly such as the seven Hives will tend towards collusion in order to retain its market power by preventing others from entering the market. Although the Hives are all theoretically democratic, their leaders understand the need to manipulate public opinion so as to get the votes they want.
The trouble with democracy is, of course, that it can be very unstable. The general public tends to be neither wise nor altruistic. Autocrats can be both, but given time tend towards corruption and selfishness. How to create a system that produces a stable, wealthy and happy society in the long term is an age old question of political philosophy.
The big problem, of course, is economic uncertainty. That leads to popular unrest, which can lead to political instability and even revolution. That is the can of worms that the theft of the Black Sakura list opens in Too Like the Lightning. And that, of course, shows us that, like all of the best science fiction, the book is not about the far future, but about what is happening in our world today.
Despite all of my reservations, I am looking forward to the second half of the story.
For more information about Ada Palmer, see the SF Encyclopedia.
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