Too Like The Lightning – Other People’s Takes

I’m still typing up notes but I thought it was time to look at other people’s reviews and takes on Ada Palmer’s book.

Intellectus Speculativus has strong issues with how gender is portrayed in the book. They make a strong case that it is problematic in a number of ways. Obviously, there is a distinction between the book’s representation versus how Mycroft deals with gender (likewise with religion) but they look at it deeper than that: https://intellectusspeculativus.wordpress.com/2017/04/26/the-problematic-presentation-of-gender-in-ada-palmers-too-like-the-lightning/ I’m back to the dilemma of whether this is a *good* book or a cynical one which partly hinges on whether the society here is intended to be (somewhat) utopian, or a disguised dystopia or a future history in which we are forced to draw our own conclusions (although then why has the author chosen this world to build?).

Meanwhile, Crooked Timber has gone full-in Ada Palmer with multiple articles on the book and some broader background by Palmer http://crookedtimber.org/2017/04/20/ada-palmer-seminar-begins/  This article by Lee Konstantinou offers a positive perspective by focusing on the Utopian faction in Palmer’s world http://crookedtimber.org/2017/03/20/ada-palmers-great-conversation/

The Book Smugglers doesn’t have a review but it does have an article by Ada Palmer about why as a historian she writes SF http://thebooksmugglers.com/2016/05/like-lightning-ada-palmer.html

The book has TV Tropes page http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/TooLikeTheLightning

Strange Horizons has a review by Paul Kincaid with a strong opening “Had Too Like the Lightning lived up to its aspirations, it would have been one of the most significant works of contemporary science fiction. That, perhaps inevitably, it fails in this ambition leaves a book that is engaging, entertaining, and interesting, but that contains too many confusions and contradictions to be fully satisfying.” http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/reviews/too-like-the-lightning-by-ada-palmer/  I wonder if that captures the mix of feelings here – an ambitious work that for some (many?) doesn’t fulfil its ambitions?

The New York Review of Science Fiction takes a different tack and directly compares Mycroft to Alex from A Clockwork Orange http://www.nyrsf.com/2016/12/two-views-too-like-the-lightningby-ada-palmerreviewed-by-stephen-gerken.html

WIRED asks ‘Should this book have an index?’ https://www.wired.com/2016/08/wired-book-club-too-lightning-2/ well it should have a set of footnotes by the time I’m done 🙂

How much of this doubt about the book a reflection of the doubts we have about Mycroft.

Well, it certainly rates 10/10 for ‘capacity to generate conversations’. I can’t doubt ‘ambitious’ as a description and I think ‘significant’ as well. ‘Good’? Aye, there’s the rub.

{ETA, thanks to Mark, Standback and Paul W}

A different take on the gender issues from Yoon Ha Lee http://yhlee.dreamwidth.org/2298302.html This isn’t a reply to Intellectus Speculativus’s piece and doesn’t cover all of their arguments but does address some.

{eta again}
And another: A discussion at Tor.com on the book as a commentary on utopias without being a utopia http://www.tor.com/2017/04/27/flawed-futures-make-for-better-stories-ada-palmer-and-utopian-sf/
{personal note}
I’m also rewatching Father Ted at the moment. I feel it balances things out nicely. It’s like the exact opposite of Too Like the Lightning – everybody is overtly religious but not remotely interested in religion and never leave one tiny island.
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27 comments

  1. Mark

    “Well, it certainly rates 10/10 for ‘capacity to generate conversations’”

    Yup, I’m probably thinking more about the issues I have with this book than with other books I enjoyed much more!

    On the subject of the first link, Yoon Ha Lee has written about why he doesn’t find it personally problematic http://yhlee.dreamwidth.org/2298302.html

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  2. Standback

    I’m back to the dilemma of whether this is a *good* book or a cynical one which partly hinges on whether the society here is intended to be (somewhat) utopian, or a disguised dystopia or a future history in which we are forced to draw our own conclusions.

    I think the best answer to this phrasing of Ada Palmer’s: “we hope that we can make a better future, but have to accept that it will be a long, hard, and complex path.”

    That’s the heart of it, to my thinking. It’s not about being a utopia (or a dystopia either) — it’s about what happens when you try your best to get there, but haven’t made it yet.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mark

    Entirely random thought from reading some of those links: Palmer is saying that repressing gendered language doesn’t work and just creates bigger problems, inc making sexuality a weapon that can be wielded against those now vulnerable to it, and later on she shows that the repression of religion didn’t work in her world – supposedly everyone is still secretly religious and in fact religion can be wielded as a weapon (JEDD Mason, the De Sade stuff). Is she basically just trying to prove that you shouldn’t repress talking about things, i.e. it’s an absurdist take on an allegory about the need for absolute free speech ?

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    • Standback

      I think she’s saying that’s a tempting route to take — not least, because it sounds like a concrete way forward. I think it sounds very *liberating* when you first approach it — I know I felt that way. (I’m also reminded of “Ancillary Justice,” which is — correct me if I’m wrong — an explicitly gender-neutral society.)

      But it’s also pretty much “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” It’s better than outright discrimination and violence, I guess, but it’s not a stable solution…

      I don’t think it’s absurdist, though. What do you mean by that?

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      • Mark

        Absurdist in the sense that she’s taking an reductio ad absurdum approach (Camestros will now tell me how badly I’m misusing that term!) of showing a society that has taken the ideas to the limit and found a failure point. That’s what I was thinking of, but now I don’t think “Absurdist” has quite the meaning I was going for though!

        In Ancillary Justice wasn’t the point that the *language* of the Radch lacked gender, but the society was still gendered – I’m sure characters were portrayed as being in sexual relationships, I think Seivarden and someone else in one of the later books were, with some discussion of problems in the relationship around power differentials due to ranks or something? Also iirc, Breq was aware of Radch people’s gender but couldn’t express it in the Radch language, whereas we had mention of her problems working out the gender cues of a different society because they were very different to the Radch ones and she didn’t usually have to bother with them anyway.

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      • Kat Goodwin

        The Radch in Ancillary Justice lack both gender norms in their society and gender terms in their language but do have biological sexes and consensual sexual intercourse, all kinds. But they don’t have gender concepts of masculine and feminine about biological sexes, or a binary notion of biological sex — there are no differences of dress (gender) based on biological sex or identity, no concept that some jobs are for one group and not another, no cultural gender designations or standards, no gender stereotypes. The pronoun we consider feminine is used for everybody in the same way as the singular they — as a neutral. What biological sex a Radch has is inconsequential to them culturally, and their leader and the big A.I.’s inhabit bodies of more than one biological sex — they don’t tie identity to biological sex as a gender; they don’t differentiate individuals in gender terms.

        But they let their conquered populations retain their own language and cultures until they become Radch as client states, and when the protagonist is in such a population that does have gender identities and gender terms in the language, readers learn that one major character is biologically male and that the body the A.I. protagonist is in is basically probably biologically female. That’s about it for knowing biological sexes of the characters, since most of the series takes place among the Radch.

        All of which was pretty straightforward. This stuff with Palmer’s novel sounds strange and much less consistent, and a more central issue than it was in Leckie’s world. But not having read it, I might find it makes more sense if I do. (Not really hearing a lot to interest me so far, though.) But Palmer’s world does seem to have quite a lot of gender issues. Or maybe it’s just the character of Mycroft who does.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Andrew M

        I’m sure there is at least one passage which implies that the Radch do recognise gender and do not identify it with biological sex; it’s just that they have no linguistic or other public marks of it.

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    • Mark

      I hope she puts that review in the packet. Something about the idea of the fan sections containing reviews of the pro finalists tickles me.

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      • Standback

        I thought of that too — but it feels like it could be kinda volatile! Plugging a favorite nominee from within the packet, or dissing a nominee from within the packet, feels like it could be really problematic.

        Which is a bit of a shame, really. It makes sense that some awesome fan writing concern the most buzzed-about items of the same year. But… ::squirms::

        (Fan authors spotlighting their favorites and unfavorites also might lead to some funny correlations between categories in the final voting… 😛 )

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  4. Contrarius Est

    Thanks so much for posting all those links. I don’t have time to read them right now, but I’m saving them!

    Here’s my very rough-and-ready take on how gender is handled: I think it’s of a piece with the other aspects of the book. Palmer is constantly showing us dichotomies between artifice/seeming and reality — the artifice of a supposedly gender-neutral society, the artifice of a supposedly areligious society, the artifice of celebrity and political power, the artifice of democracy vs. emperors and kings and princes, the artifice of the meek and harmless Mycroft vs. the reality of his violent past, and so on. Not to mention which, the whole book appears to be science fiction — yet we have at least one, and possibly two, characters who are essentially gods and can do miracles at will. There are layers to everything, and few things are as they seem.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Contrarius Est

    @Kat —

    “All of which was pretty straightforward. This stuff with Palmer’s novel sounds strange and much less consistent”

    It is not at all consistent — and that’s part of the point. Character A may refer to Character B as female, for instance, while Character C calls Character B male. It’s all about perception — making the point that gender and gender roles are social constructs.

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    • Kat Goodwin

      And also the point that people cling to old gender constructs while pretending not to in this attempted utopia that is actually an unequal dystopia? It’s a little hard to see how much is the society in general and how much the psychopathic unreliable narrator protagonist having a temper tantrum about it from the various comments in reviews. I’d have to read it to understand the focuses. It sounds an awful lot like the Divergent series or Stephenson’s Seveneves. 🙂

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      • Mark

        It’s impossible to be sure if it’s the character, the world, or the author at this stage, which I guess is why people keep on having different reactions.

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  6. Standback

    Ooh, here’s another one. I like this one particularly for this observation:

    In fact, the world of Lightning looks suspiciously like a utopia conjured by the 2017 New York Times.

    This is a lot of what I enjoyed about the book – the sense that it takes a lot of modern, liberal, humanistic beliefs, and then crafts a society that was founded upon those principles. And, particularly, that when your principles are the foundation of social order, then yes things are a lot better, but also some of your principles become calcified and cargo-cult-ed. I think TLTL did a good job imagining this process of establishment and calcification, without undermining the importance of the principles themselves — I found it fascinating, and food for thought.

    Oh, and now there’s also my own response to the Intellectus Speculativus essay, which I hope I won’t regret too badly 😛

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    • Mark

      Having read it again, I think my first reaction is that I _still_ don’t know what I think about the whole issue.

      Your explanation for the misgendering – being aimed at replicating the offence for cis people – makes a lot of sense but I have to wonder if it’s more a post hoc explanation rather than divining Palmer’s intent. That said it’s a very good description of how it made me feel while reading – rather than the quiet effect of making you view characters without a particular bias that the Ancillary books created, you have an aggressive creation of confusion and unease, which are both valid tactics to make you think about the issue, and they both succeed in that.

      I’m not sure that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is *quite* the right example, but definitely get what you’re going for. I think Palmer is aiming at modern/near future aspects of modern liberal thought rather than ones from a few decades ago. You absolutely right when you say that Palmer’s message is that hiding gender isn’t the solution, but I think that she’s aiming at a target that is, at least in part, made of straw.

      (possibly more thoughts later, but that’s all I’ve got right now!)

      (Minor note, I think the author of the piece is D Franklin, not Libris)

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      • Contrarius Est

        @Mark —
        “rather than the quiet effect of making you view characters without a particular bias that the Ancillary books created, you have an aggressive creation of confusion and unease, which are both valid tactics to make you think about the issue, and they both succeed in that.”

        Absolutely this.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Standback

        > (Minor note, I think the author of the piece is D Franklin, not Libris)

        On their Twitter they’re D Franklin; on the blog they use D Libris. I went with the blog 🙂

        > Your explanation for the misgendering – being aimed at replicating the offence for cis people – makes a lot of sense but I have to wonder if it’s more a post hoc explanation rather than divining Palmer’s intent.

        I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say “Palmer’s intent was to replicate the offense of misgendering for the benefit and edification of cis people.”

        I will go so far as too say I believe Palmer intended the constant misgendering to be jarring, insulting, arbitrary. I don’t think we’re meant to go “Oh, I was annoyed that Mycroft decides to gender Chagatai as female, but now that he’s given his rationale, I’m totally on board with it” — what’s going on here characterizes Mycroft, and the world, much more than it does Chagatai. Sometimes it also adds richness and characterization — e.g., I think the characterization of Dominic is vivid and effective — but the tension and wrongness of the misgendering is always clear, and frequently the book calls our attention to it specifically.

        I would say that Palmer deliberately uses misgendering as a constant device, presents it as explicitly grating and discordant, and uses misgendering in a way that’s entirely divorced from queerness. I don’t know that I can speak to her intentions in choosing to do all those things, but I can speak to the final effect I experienced as a reader.

        —-

        > I’m not sure that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is *quite* the right example, but definitely get what you’re going for. I think Palmer is aiming at modern/near future aspects of modern liberal thought rather than ones from a few decades ago.

        My intention wasn’t that Palmer was specifically addressing “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”; rather, I’d say she’s pointing out that some visions of a brighter future seem to have a “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”-like dynamic.

        As I said, “Ancillary Justice” is one example — the idea of a gender-neutral society as one where gender is obscured and deliberately ignored.
        Religion runs into a very similar issue — the idea of religious freedom, but only within your private domain, without intruding on others with your beliefs, is one of inherent tension and difficulty, since religion often has strong components of community and social norms. I’m not saying anyone is literally advocating for “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” about your personal faith — but “keep your faith to yourself” is pretty popular (and for good reason, imho). When John Lennon’s “Imagine” begs for a world with no countries, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too — obviously, context is necessary and there’s a lot of discussion to be had, but I don’t think this is a straw target.
        I might be connecting some dots here that others wouldn’t think to, because, well, these are issues I struggle with myself. I’ve discussed this previously on the File (unsurprisingly, with precisely the same TLTL catalyst 😛 ) over here.

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