Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Too Like The Lightning
Ada Palmer
Tor, 432 pages
Review by Eris Young

It is the year 2454, and the invention of flying cars has long since made geographical borders, and by extension nations, obsolete: if you live in Chile but work in Japan and have dinner in France, what does it matter what country you were born in? Instead, people choose from a selection of seven global governments based on their interests and ideals. The nuclear family has been replaced by a larger family unit that you choose yourself. The average life expectancy is over one hundred and trips to the moon are government-subsidised.

But there is also a universal tracker system that makes hiding from the government largely impossible, censorship is rife and any discussion of metaphysics or religion is strictly regulated. The world of Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning is at once surveillance state and utopia, the dream of a fevered political scientist. Into this mix we add a vast conspiracy with world-shaking implications, and a boy who can perform miracles.

Though the implications of his power are not fully explored in the first book, the existence of young Bridger—who can bring toys to life (and back to life), and create from simple drawings ‘healing potions’ to cure any ailment—might pose a problem in a world that ‘has no need for religion’. Protected fiercely by narrator Canner and gradually more aware of the potential of his power, Bridger risks exhaustion and enslavement for the ‘greater good’, if the government get wind of him. Bridger’s narrative forms the emotional hook, and bookends the story, the bulk of which deals with developing the conspiracy storyline in parallel. Bridger rounds out the story nicely but I couldn’t help wondering if his existential implications were a bit of a stretch; surely ‘miracles’ are only a threat to secular society if they cannot, in fact, be explained by science?

It’s one thing to build an inventive world that immerses the reader, and an entire other to craft a good story within that world. Palmer has succeeded at both, but it takes a while for that to become apparent. The story is written in an archaic and rather florid style, apparently after the French enlightenment (but, you know, in English), and narrated by Mycroft Canner, an ex-con and slave of the state, a statusless ‘servicer’. Canner’s prose is flowery and, ostensibly for the benefit of a future reader unfamiliar with his world, every scene and custom and gesture is lovingly described, so much so that it was halfway through the book before any conflict was introduced.

So the book is world-building-heavy, as many of the best sci-fi novels are. But as I read I couldn’t help getting the sense that Palmer may have tried to do slightly too much. In particular, I found the way the story approaches language and gender a bit implausible. Though the prose is in English, the characters themselves speak many different languages, indicated in dialogue by the quotation marks conventionally used in those languages. So far, so realistic, but for the fact that there is also a prohibition on using gendered language to describe another person. No ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘man’, ‘daughter’, ‘wife’ etc, for anyone, no matter what government they belong to or language they use.

The problem with this is that every language uses gender differently. Some have only third person pronouns and nouns that are semantically but not grammatically gendered, like English. Others, like the romance languages, gender just about every thing you could name. In Japanese, gender is expressed in the first person but not the third (in fact, referring to someone else using a second- or third-person pronoun at all is considered a bit rude). In some languages there is already a neutral pronoun and in some there is no way to remove gender without inventing an entire new declension and several new lexemes. Basically, it’s a lot easier to ban someone from talking about God than it is to invent an entire new language.

From a pragmatic perspective this type of censorship seems impossible to enforce and would probably involve way more effort than it was worth. Even if you view it as more of a thought experiment and don’t worry about the practicalities, you begin to wonder how it would have come about. Is the implication that it is “PC culture” gone mad? Is Palmer’s point here to show us how silly and impossible trying to regulate gendered language is? In a universe with attributes of both u- and dystopias, it’s hard to see where gendered censorship is supposed to lie.

Too Like the Lightning is Clever with a capital ‘C’: the author has hit upon a concept and drawn it out to the fullest possible extent, but not without a certain sense of smugness. Canner often addresses the reader directly, pre-empting questions that I, at least, would not have asked. At one point he describes a character with facial stubble as ‘she’, and forestalls our objections by saying he’d seen the character protect a child ‘with a mother’s ferocity’. Setting aside the sexism (the book is full of ‘fierce mother’ and ‘witch’ tropes which the imagined reader rails against, and which Canner rationalises but does not fully justify) this assumption completely ignores the fact that some women do have facial hair. This implies that social progress and linguistic censorship might make transgender people, as it were, obsolete. Since the narrator directly addresses the reader, we are forced into tacit acceptance of a view which I, as transgender, found insulting.

Too Like the Lightning is without a doubt worth a read. It’s inventive and, like all the best sci-fi, challenges our current status quo. It shows us a future that is (if a little optimistic) not totally outside the realm of possibility, and it creates a plausible conflict that keeps the reader guessing until the end. Palmer draws on literature, science, classics and philosophy to create a beautifully written ‘future history’. But I’d advise approaching with a critical eye, lest you be blinded to its faults by fancy tech and pretty language.

This review first published in issue 10.