Too Like the Lightning is a swirling, chaotic fever dream set 400 years in
the future, and I love it.
Author Ada Palmer describes a convincingly-complex world. The population is
divided across seven nations called “hives” which, thanks to technological
advances, are not bound by geography. Their citizens have distinctive values,
reflected in their unique governing structures. A world war situated in the
book’s past and our future culminated in a universal ban on organized religion.
Most people in this world agree that the so-called “Death of the Majority”
explains the sustained period of peace they’ve enjoyed.
In this context, it can be difficult (and at times exhausting) to recognize
which details are important and which are just exposition. This isn’t helped by
each nation’s tendency to assign different names to famous people (I’m still
not convinced that complication adds value, honestly). I often struggle with
the uncertainty that comes from books set in complex and unfamiliar times. It
was definitely a struggle in Too Like the Lightning, but it never felt
frustrating for a couple reasons.
First, the conceit of the narrator, Mycroft Canner, is helpful in more ways
than one. They address the reader as a student of history, and this gives them
a believable reason to explain details that they consider obvious. They also
clearly enjoy their own erudition, so their self-centered sociological analysis
is oftentimes accidentally helpful. These direct explanations are sprinkled
throughout the book, so you’ll never feel too lost in the dark.
It’s also thanks to great pacing: you’ll eventually come to trust the author’s
choices about when to move the plot forward and when to take time out for
…because there’s a lot to expose. The book’s packed with historical
references. There’s nothing too substantial, but a bunch of topics receive at
least a page of review. Here’s a partial list, started only after I recognized
that this was going to be a thing:
- St. Sir Thomas More
- Sir Francis Bacon
- Alexis de Tocqueville
- Eugene Francois Vidocq
- Denis Diderot
- Marquis de Sade
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau
And since the book takes place in the year 2454, a good amount of the “history”
covered is actually still more speculative fiction, e.g. the “Church Wars”
Layering on the complexity, all of this is even further complicated by the
narrator’s unreliability. Mycroft is mentally unstable, and although their
ailments are not specifically described, they’re at least borderline
schizophrenic. They are also frequently zealous in their focus and emphasis.
And to top it all off, an unnamed editor sparingly alters Mycroft’s words.
That would be a lot of intricacy “just” to tell an adventure story. What makes
Too Like the Lightning science fiction book rather than technological fantasy
is how many of the themes are a reflection on today’s norms. From the modern
family unit (hello, Heinlein), to organized religion, to models of government,
to adoption rights, to nationalism, to criminal justice, Palmer has a lot to
say. Maybe most compelling of all was gender identity–convincingly painting
today’s use of gendered pronouns to be chauvinistic or even perverted. (In the
spirit of the novel, I’ve adopted the 25th-century use of the neuter gender for
For all its headiness, the book also has an impressive emotional range: I felt
angry, disgusted, excited, and even a little spooked at times. This reminded me
of Transmetroplitan–another work which tirelessly assaults you with
sensational progressive ideas and imagery.
Too Like the Lightning is a workout, which is my favorite kind of science
fiction. But it’s incomplete. To some extent, this is to be expected from the
first installment of a quadrilogy, but hardly anything is resolved in the final
pages. More than just unfinished stories, there’s still a lot of ambiguity
about how the world works. If I were reading shortly after the book’s 2016
release, I’d definitely feel pretty sore about that. It’s the only reason I can
see that the book did not win the Hugo Award for which it was nominated.
Fortunately for readers in 2021 and beyond, the next two books are immediately
available, and the final book is due out by the end of the year. Potential
readers should at least consider the first two books together. Make your
decision based on an 800-page commitment rather than the length of the first
I can’t comment on whether the series delivers on Lightning’s promises, but
Palmer gives such an impressive performance that it’s hard not to give them the
benefit of the doubt.