by Inci German
I still cannot believe some of the things I have heard at the last book club discussion on Ada Palmer's Too Like The Lightning! Here are some comments that stuck with me:
"I hate this book"
"Like a a slog through the wilderness..."
"If this was a slog through the wilderness then I DIED along the way!"
"Time will show if it is a glorious failure."
Let me start with stating that Too Like The Lightning blew.my.mind! I haven't had so much fun reading a book in the last year, and here I want to discuss why I think Ada Palmer is the best thing that happened to speculative fiction in the last decade.
Be warned, reader, for there will be spoilers.
Too Like The Lightning, (will be referred to as TLTL) first book of the Terra Incognita series, takes place in the 25th century, in a post-scarcity universe and follows (together with the second volume Seven Surrenders - which I absolutely recommend you read immediately after finishing the first one) the six critical days that (presumably) lead to war after three hundred years of peace.
There are no geographic nations anymore but "Hives" which divide
people not by birthplace nor by ethnicity but according to their ideologies -
seven hives are of major importance. And there are no families but
so called "bashes" as core social units.
It is not easy writing about utopia. Most writers in the realm of speculative fiction have focused on dystopia mainly because it is a tad more quirky, more interesting even. Palmer proves that utopia doesn't have to be dull and depicts an absolutely consistent and believable future, which is strongly influenced by present European culture and is no less lively and fascinating than any previous dystopia. Her role as a history professor at the University of Chicago obviously facilitates her creating a completely plausible, credible universe adorned with a story plot as complex as history itself.
The narrator Mycroft Canner, a servicer - a criminal who stands in the service of the community - is a textbook example of an unreliable narrator. This is especially crucial for the storyline that unfolds itself gradually. Nothing is as it seems. I started reading it with no clue whatsoever and had a different eureka experience with each new chapter, rendering the story more and more captivating for me.
It might be useful to warn potential readers of the one obvious peculiarity of Palmer's writing; her language. What hindered me from getting into the story in the first few chapters soon became a factor I immensely enjoyed! See, Palmer's utopia is a non gendered one and also a universe in which the Age of Enlightenment plays a different role than in our present time. So the language developed accordingly. Some book clubbers complained that the plural pronoun "they" which is used for both male and female third persons confused them as "they" is also used for plural persons, rendering the reading a bit confusing, to say the least. Some anachronisms such as "thou" are only used by certain characters, while others use a language that rather complies to our use of language. I have to admit that it was unusual at first but luckily I was quick to adjust. I can't say much about the anachronisms other than Mycroft, -who mainly uses them- is a certain kind of special in any way.
The elimination of gendered speech evidently reflects the non gendered principals and mentality of the society Palmer creates. These principals play a key role in the development of the events, as at the core of political power sits a certain Madame who likes to play with a gendered and anachronistic way of life.
Beneath this construct of non-gender and anachronistic speech, Palmer's stylistic genius shines through; and she's an expert of an author. I thoroughly enjoyed her playing with Bertold Brecht's distancing effect by making Mycroft address the reader. This reader is not us, mind you! Mycroft tells his story under the patronage of the powerful Mitsubishi Hive to a reader in the far future. While this effect is habitually used to break the illusion of the story and to provide a critical stance, in TLTL it becomes part of the illusion itself - Brilliant!
Furthermore, and especially in Seven Surrenders, she proves and extensively demonstrates the flexibility of her writing skills by presenting the reader scenes that could have jumped out of eighteenth century France - Take, for instance, the hilarity of the scene at the brothel where, in a society that claims to have gotten rid of gender and prides itself with sexual advancement, some powerful hive leaders discuss the origin of Danae Mitsubishi's son; confronting the father who rejected her because he thought she slept with someone else than himself, thus proving herself to be tainted. Comedy at its finest! Only a few chapters later we witness Mycroft and MASON at Apollo's grave in a devastating scene which could challenge the darkest tragedy you'll know.
Coming back to the philosophical aspects of TLTL; I deeply regret that I don't have more knowledge on all the allusions Palmer makes. I really can't say much about Greek philosophers or gods but at our discussion it was deprecated that many information on philosophy/history are sheer incorrect. Which again was countered with Palmer's statement that she wanted to reverberate our own misinterpretation of the Enlightenment era. There were also a few book clubbers who were motivated to read the works mentioned in TLTL which is probably one of the biggest achievements an author can attain!
And that's not the only food for thought that TLTL provides: Would you destroy a better world to save this one or would you destroy this world to save a better one? Can you have sympathy for a monster who tortured seventeen people to death -
vivisected, crucified, dismembered, beat, raped, cooked and ate
seventeen people - all for a higher purpose? Can humanity survive without war? Is gender useful? These questions are only the tip of the profound iceberg that is Terra Incognita!
A protagonist with obscure purposes; court/brothel intrigues at the highest level; philosophical passages that actually make you ponder and think; a deus ex-machina who crushes under the weight of the enormous power he bears; crazy, colorful, unpredictable, shady characters; a cryptic mystery, nay, multiple cryptic mysteries, a thought-provoking, deeply interesting, refreshing, sheer masterpiece - it's all here people!
The Will To Battle, the third book of the Terra Incognita series will be out soon. What are you waiting for, sophisticated reader? "Enlighten" your dark winter days with these fascinating amusements!
Although I complained about negative reviews at our meeting in the end enough people liked Too Like The Lightning so much that the Otherland Speculative Fiction Book Club gives its seal of approval and full recommendation, squee!