Review: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer Hugo2017

RAGNAROK! Loki is unleashed and gathering his foul offspring together he and the enemies of the gods besiege Asgard, throwing down the bifrost, culminating in an apocalyptic battle which none can survive. From Wagner to Joanne Harris to even Marvel movies, is there a more compelling story? So hoorah for Ada Palmer’s fresh new take on Norse mythology and…

Whattttt? Why are you guys shaking your heads? No, no, I’m not going to let you speak directly in this post. I can see what you are up to. Trying to trick me into italicized direct speech where we banter back and forth about how wrong I am. Nope, won’t do it because that would cast me in the Mycroft Canner role and that is a big pile of nope.

Where was I? So look, Mycroft is Loki and Cornel MASON is Odin obviously, Thisbe is Thor and her whole bash is Heimdall and…no? You want a serious review that isn’t wholly at odds with the book? OK, ok. [record scratch as Wagner is taken off the turntable and then replaced by Mozart.] Let’s begin – this may take awhile and may not go anywhere…

Cave! De historia explicatur infra.*

Introduction

Too Like the Lightning is Ada Palmer’s debut novel. She is a published historian with an interest in the Renaissance as well as the history of ideas. In the novel, we are introduced to a future society by Mycroft Canner – a mass murderer serving incognito in a kind of extended community service for his crimes. That society has moved past the notion of geographic nations (although some still exist) and operates a voluntary system where people join a ‘hive’ whose laws fit their personal outlook. The society has also moved beyond the nuclear family and instead people mainly live in a ‘bash’ – a kind of family-like commune of near relatives. In a further attempt to reduce inter-societal conflict, organised religion has been suppressed. People still seek spiritual comfort and answers to theological questions but do so through a system of counselors/teachers called ‘sensayers’. Finally, transport is free, fast and easily available. People can routinely move between continents several times a day via a complex system of flying cars.

It is rather like somebody took the lyrics to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and then spent a lot of time trying to work out the practicalities.

The story has several interwoven story lines:

  1. An apparently miraculous boy called Bridger who can bring things to life.
  2. The theft of a kind of ‘top ten most influential people’ list.
  3. Mycroft Canner’s past.
  4. The machinations of the most powerful people in this future Earth.
  5. The Saneer-Weeksbooth bash, the people who control the flying car system that keeps the world connected.

I’ll say upfront that I really enjoyed the book. As people who read this blog will know, I read it in an odd way, chasing down various references made in the text. So I’ve also spent a lot of time with this book. It would be absurd for me to claim I didn’t really enjoy it. Having said that, when reading reviews I have found myself tending to agree more with the negative ones than the positive ones and that puzzles me. I remain unclear about what I think about this book.

So this will be a long and fragmented review. If an overall theme and structure arise, it will be less than by design.

Some common observations about the book and my personal opinions on them…

  • It is only half a book? This is true – more so than a typical book 1 in a series or pair. It makes it hard to evaluate the story not because the plot hasn’t resolved itself yet but because there are ambiguous elements to it. In the sequel, those elements may remain ambiguous (the treatment of gender for example) or maybe resolved (Whether Mycroft is Mycroft or whether Past Mycroft was something else than the Mycroft we meet). How and if those issues are resolved will change some opinions on the book.
  • The representation of gender is problematic? Sensible people have found it to be problematic for reasons I’ve linked to. Does the book push a problematic view of gender? That is another related question and I think that it doesn’t. Rather it presents some deeply flawed people with various ideas about gender – part of which I’ll get to later. That doesn’t address all of the objections raised about the portrayal of gender in the book though.
  • Mycroft is an unreliable narrator? This is not really true. He has a skewed perspective and his own biases. He certainly withholds important truths from other characters (mainly because he is obliged to keep confidences of the multiple he works for). To his intended audience, he is upfront about who he is. The nasty twist in his identity comes from Palmer’s structure of the book, not from Mycroft.
  • The book is utopian? The jury is still out without reading the sequel but my feeling is no, it isn’t intended to be. It describes an attempt at a utopia or a better society but the novel is aimed at looking at the flaws rather than asserting how great it is. Seeing the novel as a critique of a supposed utopia makes it feel less problematic as well. Taken as a utopia (i.e. as if Palmer was saying ‘this world is great!’) and all sorts of things feel off.
  • The world building is amazing? Yes and no. The worldbuilding is, I contend, intentionally thin and superficial in places for good reason.
  • Mycroft is problematic? Yes. I know some readers took an instant dislike to him and others feel betrayed when they discover how repugnant his crimes are. I get the ‘why’ of Palmer’s choice here but I think it is a cheap trick. How to write a sympathetic mass murderer: write a sympathetic character [I like(d) Mycroft] then tell us later, once we get to know him, how horrible he is. Feels like cheating BUT the story isn’t over yet – so, we’ll see.
  • The book is really philosophical? I’ll say, not in the way several reviewers seem to suggest. It has philosophers in it and there is that neat section on the Epicureans but I don’t think it strays too far from the baseline level of philosophy you’d expect from a serious SF novel except… I’ll come back to this point.
  • It generates discussion? Yup. Looking at the discussion it generates, it is notable how much of it is about society and societal norms. In so far as those are also part of philosophy then yes, it is very philosophical (contradicting my point above). That theme of how society should be is one many philosophers have tackled.
  • The book is about The Enlightenment? Ha! See. I could get multiple paragraphs into this review without using the ‘E’ word. Undeniably the book has multiple overt references to The Enlightenment but I’ll take issue with the word ‘about’.

Figure and ground

Who is missing? You can’t read Too Like the Lightning without meeting Voltaire. Several characters are Voltaire fans – and I mean fans deliberately. Palmer also tells us that the Utopian hive (who mainly appear as side characters) treat science-fiction as their cultural canon, making a direct connection between the Utopians and SF fandom – whereas Mycroft and several others are, in effect, Pre-revolutionary Parisian high-society fans, even down to cosplay and LARPing.

So we do encounter fans of Voltaire and Diderot and the Marquis De Sade. The Enlightenment was centred on Paris and these great thinkers were also key to disseminating ideas. In turn, we encounter in conversation and references, the cultural influences on these people – thinkers and writers that preceded them from the 17th century or the Renaissance or the classic worlds of Ancient Greece or Rome.

But we don’t encounter David Hume, barely touch Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith is mentioned only in passing. Why? It isn’t an oversight. The focus is on 18th-century France and the cultural milieu of that time. Hume’s scepticism or Kant’s weighty response to that scepticism is not a perspective that Mycroft can use. The book opens with a child performing miracles and who better to discuss miracles from the 18th-century than Hume? But that’s the point – that’s not the style of thinking Mycroft is employing. The Enlightenment was still digesting Hume, and we are still digesting Kant.

Rather, Palmer is trying to make us do something difficult: look out through the eyes of the Enlightenment and/or that milieu of pre-revolutionary France. A historical setting wouldn’t do that because we would bring our own prejudices and pre-formed opinions. Also, we know the punchline. We’ve read (or seen adaptations of) A Tale of Two Cities, the 18th-Century has been filtered through the 19th-century experiences of it. ‘Terrorism’ has become soaked into our vocabulary. We’ve seen other kinds of revolutions play out and new ideologies and ways of thinking that would make Voltaire’s head spin. We aren’t necessarily wiser but we aren’t the same.

So how to get into the strange magical world, full of Rococo designs and fabulous clothes and brilliant witty people discussing deep ideas with their aristocratic patrons? A world that would seem like a paradise? Palmer builds a different one and gives us a Voltaire fanboy as a guide. We meet only the great and the good (aside from a few servicers, bodyguards and servants). We see no shops, no factories, there is only one reference to a restaurant that I can recall. THIS IS DELIBERATE. This is not an oversight from Palmer. She hasn’t forgotten Worldbuilding 101 class. She is giving us a skewed perspective so we can see out from a skewed perspective.

In Voltaire’s Candide, the central character finds himself kicked out of what was effectively an Earthly paradise. Voltaire understood that there was a bubble in which The Enlightenment was occurring and sends Candide out into a more ugly world. However, Voltaire was still of that more rarefied fake-paradise.

The Enlightenment was the last great philosophical movement in which the patronage of kings and queens and lords and ladies plays a significant role. And while these astute minds knew that, the kind of cognitive tools needed to understand what the wider world was like were still being forged. The thinkers of The Enlightenment were a necessary part of that but none of them could really give a perspective of the mechanics of the societal changes that were taking place. They couldn’t sum up The Enlightenment because it hadn’t finished yet. They knew they were in a bubble but they were still in a bubble.

Götterdämmerung

The book shows us the kings and queens and their self-indulgent lifestyle. While we also see that events are occurring that despite their best efforts, they are struggling to make sense of. Those events, from the theft of the Seven-ten list, the instability of the Sanseer-Weeksbooth bash and its control of the transport system to the return of Tully Mardi and his rabble-rousing, threaten the established order.

We know how the story of 18th-century Paris ends. Does that mean the sequel Seven Surrenders must be blood on the streets and Cornel MASON decapitated? No. Palmer isn’t tied to a point-for-point retelling of the French Revolution. It’s an SF novel, anything can happen. It isn’t necessary for there to be a revolution, to show that ‘something isn’t right’ quality in the pseudo-utopia.

This world is presented as stable but we are shown its fracture lines. There is a growing centralisation of power, economic, social and political (just like…18th Century France). The transport system is controlled by one small group of people who have their own issues. Religion is suppressed but there are issues bubbling away among some powerful people. Issue of sex, sexuality and gender have been pushed to one side and the society is pretending that they have got past all that – but hasn’t really.

Neither Wotan nor Voltaire can save the realm of the gods that they live in, even though both can see that the cracks are growing.

Mycroft

How to write a sympathetic mass murderer? Start with them murdering millions in an almost casual act. Do it right at the start of the book. Don’t explain it. Don’t even bring the character back until several chapters later. Never make excuses for them, don’t even make them nice or liked by others. Build the story and the world until we see the tragic why of it. We don’t even need to agree with there actions, just see how they arise out of the character’s humanity.

Alabaster in The Fifth Season destroys the world. His action kills millions. Yet he is a hard man to hate.

That is not a fair comparison, of course. Different books, different authors, different stories set in different worlds.

I like Mycroft because the character we meet is likeable. So, the twist about how appalling his crimes are is deeply unpleasant. It makes me not like the book and it makes me feel manipulated by the author. But I also like the book. And I get that the reveal allows the reader to get the sense of outrage that Carlyle feels. Palmer didn’t do this just for cheap shock value. The reveal is also placed so that it fits into the growing sense of a society that is much less perfect than it seems.

That Mycroft is a kind of hapless serpent in Eden or a psychotic Figaro filling in for Loge in Das Rheingold due to a scheduling conflict at an opera house, is both in his monstrous acts AND that his continued survival was covered up by the most powerful.

The contrast between the Mycroft we meet (witty, knowledgeable, servile-almost, with a Franciscan air at times) and his crimes is vast. It, as things stand halfway through, makes no sense. That doesn’t mean it can’t make sense but even that implies some distressing territory. Is it better if now-Mycroft is an act and he is revealed to be still evil or is it better if his crimes are explained by childhood trauma or abuse? Again, LIKING Mycroft makes neither direction palatable. Or, will we discover that Mycroft has been changed? This is a world with one or maybe two people with supernatural powers.

I don’t know until I read the sequel (on its way – still can’t get it as an ebook in Australia).

Art, science, the protagonist and Bridger

Gibraltar Chagatai has a curse placed upon them that means they now see every story as one in which humanity is the protagonist and God is the antagonist. Mycroft, in an argument with the reader, insists that he is not the protagonist and despite the objections of the reader (and the structure of the book) insists that the magical boy Bridger is the protagonist.

What is Bridger? He runs through the book as an innocent miracle. His abilities look like a proof of god but for a book full of thinkers we don’t discuss this. In part, because Bridger is too outrageous (as the reader comments). His abilities run roughshod over classic attempts at proving god – he is too empirical an example. He is a miracle but he is presented directly so, at least ‘in-world’ we can’t assume his powers are an error in reporting.

If we take Chagatai’s curse and Mycroft’s insistence together then Bridger is humanity. His opponent is God and Mycroft is….Prometheus maybe? Another firey mythological trouble maker.

What Bridger does is delve deep into humanity’s trash heap, finds treasures and brings them back to life. He’s a creative force. This digging into the past might suggest a historian (as Palmer is) but I think Palmer is actually showing how the people have found ideas from past societies (specifically how classical thinkers and cultures was rediscovered by later artist, writers, thinkers) and bring them back to life.

Bridger is a child in this Enlightenment world. Whereas the other characters live in a world of powerful meetings, fabulous parties and indulgent hobbies, Bridger digs in the trash. His friends are war-hardened soldiers (tiny ones – but still). He is not disconnected from the industrial world or the refuse of humanity. He read Les Miserables. I guess he’d enjoy Beethoven more than Mozart. He is from, not of the Enlightenment.

What comes after The Enlightenment? Well, lots of stuff. In Britain, the industrial revolution was already full steam ahead (sorry) before the end of the 18th-Century. Cities were becoming more like modern cities. The maps were changing as national identities start asserting themselves. The middle-class was expanding in both directions, wealth was shifting from land.

There is also a division. The Enlightenment as a cultural phenomenon influenced all spheres – the arts, humanities, philosophy, mathematics and science. As we shift to the 19th-Century, the age of the polymath fades away. There are many ‘greats’ if we want to see history the way Thomas Carlyle did, but increasingly they are greats in particular domains. Who is the Voltaire of 19th Century France? Victor Hugo? As a writer – sure, why not. As a political thinker? Well, he was but…well, no. As somebody who popularised science and was instrumental in spreading scientific ideas? I’ve no idea, it’s just not really relevant. There isn’t a Voltaire of the 19th -Century because he could only exist in the 18th-Century.

In terms of the arts, Romanticism is the major movement for the early 19th-Century and amid the mess of industrialisation and the trauma of revolution, it took on a more wary view of science and rationality. Bridger is both literally creative and his power are an intrinsic rebuke to science and rationality. He is as much of a challenge to attempts at rationalising god as he is to atheism. He is just a regular kid with powers that can’t be reconciled with a rational view.

Well…I say that but this is an SF novel and maybe aliens-did-it or he is actually Anakin Skywalker. We hit the book’s-not-finished-yet issue again. We can’t really make sense of Bridger yet – as an allegory of Romanticism arising out of the disillusioned Enlightenment or as just a kid with magic powers.

Misdirection and inconclusion

I remain convinced that shenanigans are afoot. If it turns out that shenanigans aren’t revealed in Seven Surrenders then the shenanigan was making me expect shenanigans. I suspect Palmer of misdirection – and that is part of the fun of Too Like the Lightning. It is rococo – lots of curves and details that hide structures underneath but many of those structures are there simply to hold up the curves and frolics at the surface.

Palmer visibly points us at many things: Voltaire, de Sade, Paris. This smells like misdirection. My only defence is to look in the opposite direction after paying careful attention to what she was pointing at. However, treating everything like a puzzle is itself a cognitive bias.

I need to sum up and I can’t. I can’t recommend this book and I really liked it. I agree with its detractors more than its fans but I’m definitely a fan and not a detractor. It is possibly a deeply immoral book but might be the exact opposite.

It’s OK I guess [runs out to check whether the parcel with the sequel has arrived yet…what? No parcel? darn. Waits anxiously. How long before I can check again without seeming weird?]

 

*{Google Translate Latin – the Latin of the barbarians. That is my effort at a spoiler warning}

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30 comments

  1. David Goldfarb

    In terms of your opening paragraph: you are aware that Ada Palmer has composed a cycle of a capella polyphonic songs retelling Norse myth? That are sung by the group Sassafrass (sic), in which she herself sings the part of Loki?

    If you’re not aware of that, then I strongly recommend that you go to sassafrassmusic.com and check it out. (Unless polyphonic vocal music about Norse myth is deeply repugnant to you for some reason.)

    I have read the sequel, and (trying to avoid spoilers) who would I say is the protagonist? I think the setting, the world itself, is a character. And that that is the thing which has a story arc involving change and growth. Hey, what was that about “the protagonist is Humanity, and the antagonist is God”…?

    Some very good insights in your article: I particularly enjoyed the thoughts on why the focus is solely on the upper classes.

    Like

      • David Goldfarb

        The group has turned the album into a play, with a frame story starring Snorri Sturluson, and period costumes, and everything. I got to see them perform it live at the Worldcon in San Antonio, and I was totally blown away. They recorded a performance of it at a Balticon, which is available for order as a DVD. I strongly recommend it.

        Like

  2. Hmpf

    This is probably the best review of the book I’ve found so far! Especially your “summary”: that’s pretty much exactly my reaction, too. These books trouble me deeply (and I can’t say 7S really fixed that for me) but *man, are they fascinating*.

    I’ve ordered a copy of Jacques le Fataliste, because it seems clear that that is one of the main texts Terra Ignota is a reply to, and I’m feeling more and more like I can’t really hope to understand what Palmer is doing without getting a much better handle on the wider context. This book is making me get the education I failed to get at uni…

    Re: the question of Mycroft. A lot of my reaction to the series turns on how Palmer will eventually justify (or not justify) having Mycroft as its narrator. I don’t think that, after 7S, she has quite done it yet. The extreme gruesomeness of his crimes (and the ickiness of his psychology; because really, on a second read especially, he is still quite, quite creepy even in his “reformed” state) can’t be incidental, it must be instrumental to the plot and/or symbolic structure here. Why *this* narrator?

    For most of the plot and/or symbolic functions I can think of for Mycroft in the books, though, it wouldn’t be strictly necessary for him to be *quite* so … twisted, and quite so mixed-up (literally: reading Mycroft feels like someone poured out most of the “evil” at some point, as if it were a viscous liquid, and replaced it with liquid “good”, but the “evil” wasn’t removed completely, it’s thick and sticky and so some of it stuck to the walls, and occasionally gobbets of the stuff come unstuck and rise to the surface to startle and disgust). Surely, there must be a very specific reason to write a character who has *that* specific effect on the reader, a character who oscillates *this* disturbingly between “good” and “evil”?

    7S does develop the theme of violence and its role in history/ progress/development, and human nature quite a bit further but I’m unsatisfied with it. And in a very characteristic way (characteristic for my overall reaction to these books, that is) I’m still not sure if that’s due to what the book really is saying, or because it’s not actually properly saying yet what it’s probably going to say at some later point.

    (Sorry, not very concise or coherent. Late night after a long shift as a call center drone.)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lunarg

    Ada Palmer is releasing a second duology in this world. The third book is finished. They are not, as I understand it, entirely from Mycroft’s PoV, and they are being related as events occur, rather than as a history.
    She was GoH at a convention I attended this weekend, and shared this info.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Hugo 2017: Best Novel | Camestros Felapton
  5. Mark

    A great review. As I’ve said in previous comments, I didn’t particularly enjoy reading the book, but I have absolutely _loved_ talking about it.

    I think your argument that Palmer is recreating the French Enlightenment for our education and edification is persuasive, but how exactly did this come about within the world she posits? Is she saying that her Hives and bashes grew from the 21st century but only succeeded in recreating the 18th century somehow?

    I think your point about Mycroft not being the unreliable one is valid, but the wider point is that the narrative is unreliable, and that is being used to play some tricks on the reader – is it reasonably feasible to guess how bad Mycroft’s past is from the text? Not really, especially as he seems to be a changed man now (something else unexplained…) which means that apart from the occasional mutter that we might not like him there’s no real clues.

    Like

    • camestrosfelapton

      I think part of the bash and hive is genuine sf speculation but the other half is to create a PRE-19th century perspective. Arguably our view of family is from a middle class Victorian one. Our view of nationhood is also through the lens of the nationalisms of the 19th century. Remember in 1750 there is no USA, no Germany (as a nation), no Greece, no Italy as such, none of the South American nations existed per se. European ‘nations’ were a patchwork of great royal families.

      Like

    • Hmpf

      There’s actually a surprising amount of clues, on a second read! References to watching slow deaths “from blood loss” occur; dissection knife imagery; the would-be rapists he stops at Ganymede’s party quoting him as an example of what they’re going to do to their victims; the fact that he imagines his “reader” suspecting him of being sexually attracted to Bridger… There’s enough there, for a close reader, to get at least a hunch, if perhaps not all of the details (there’s no hint of the cannibalism though).
      It’s quite a creepy book, on the second read. And it really demonstrates the power of narrative voice, and our readiness to trust a narrator.

      Like

      • Mark

        Interesting. (Just went to find those via the magic of kindle) That dissection-knife comment is really well hidden, in a place where it would be a valid metaphor – very clever. “before I go Mycroft Canner on your ass” is pretty blatant, I admit. “Blood loss” – well, yes that’s quite a strong hint, but it’s on the same page as magically animated army men so I’m not sure it really goes in! I’m not sure where the Bridger bit is.
        Overall I think there’s some strong misdirection – we get a big foregrounding of “The Canner Device” and that it’s considered a major threat to world order – several people are insisting it be tracked down ASAP. I have to say I got the impression that Mycroft had done something transgressive *by the standards of that specific world* like messing with identity systems or interfering with the political process or something. When he turns out to be an extra from Hannibal it was pretty surprising to me.

        Liked by 1 person

      • JJ

        I must be way more cynical than the average reader — or perhaps it’s the years of reading mystery novels (or the years of putting up with a couple of different sociopaths, which will tend to make you very jaded).

        Because as Hmpf says, there are copious amounts of clues dropped by Mycroft all during the story, to the point where at 2/3 of the way through, when the Big Reveal came, I was like, “Well, that seems consistent with the hints which have been dropped”, and I wasn’t terribly surprised or shocked (in fact, at that point, I was feeling as though the author was being pretty heavy-handed and unsubtle about attempting to manipulate the reader).

        I suspect that the fact that I found Mycroft pompous and annoying made me less likely to discount the hints he dropped about just how dire his crime had been, than perhaps the readers who found him sympathetic.

        Like

      • Mark

        I’ll cop to not being the most observant reader – I tend to read at a fairly breakneck pace – and also minutiae-mysteries aren’t my thing. So if it’s more obvious to others then I guess it’s just me.

        Like

    • Dawn Incognito

      Hello Mark, slightly belated note here:

      You say especially as he seems to be a changed man now (something else unexplained…). I feel like the clues of that explanation was given in the scene with the character who could no longer read fiction. Who did that? Why, J.E.D.D. Mason. I feel like he must have said something to change “Old Mycroft” into someone who is literally incapable of killing anymore. What was it? I must trust that Seven Surrenders will give me an answer to that.

      Like

  6. Hmpf

    (@host: sorry, I feel a bit like I’m crashing a private party here, but man, I’m so hungry for discussion of these books and there isn’t that much going on at reddit yet…)

    Like

    • JJ

      Hmpf: sorry, I feel a bit like I’m crashing a private party here, but man, I’m so hungry for discussion of these books and there isn’t that much going on at reddit yet…

      Oh, don’t worry, Timothy The Talking Cat is quite happy for anyone to comment here — as long as they hate squirrels and bring him kitty treats. 😉

      Like

    • Mark

      Notthehostbut: a lot of the regulars here are from file770 (and in fact my default assumption was that you were a filer with a different screenname!) and so we’re fairly comfortable throwing stuff at each other but definitely join in and have fun!
      (Umm, there might be some *slightly* obscure in-jokes though, especially about varying types of animals – cats, squirrels, puppies….)

      Like

      • Hmpf

        I love cats! So… here, kitty kitty! *offers treat*

        (Fifth late shift in a row so I’m smashed tonight, though. Will probably be all over your annotation posts and this conversation here over the next few days, once I’ve recovered a bit :-))

        Liked by 1 person

  7. JJ

    Camestros, I’d just like to thank you for the detailed notes and analysis of this book. While I don’t necessarily like it any better now, I have at least been given some insights and things to consider which help me to understand why other people love it.

    As thanks, I’ve sent an entirely-legally-purchased 7-pack of Squirrel Jerky to you and Timothy. Please check your inbox. 😉

    Like

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