Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
Perhaps the greatest pull of Too Like the Lightning is its glorious break from the current trend of imagining absolutely dismal futures. Frequently described as “neither a dystopia nor a utopia,” Palmer’s earth of 2454 has not fallen into disaster, but it hasn’t been perfected either—rather, it is a world that feels complex, real, and foreign. The novel is written from the perspective of a convict, Mycroft Canner, who has become a “Servicer” as punishment for his crimes—forced to do undesirable jobs for (primarily) powerful people in order to earn his meals. Quite cleverly, Palmer frames his narration as a “History” that is produced not for our time, but for a future one. Thus, Mycroft’s occasional explanations of 2454 social workings feel like somewhat organic asides, rather than awkward “info dumps.” His narrative voice is at once authoritative and deferential, beginning the first chapter with a “prayer to the reader” in which he intriguingly tells us:
“Those of you who know the name of Mycroft Canner may now set this book aside. Those who do not, I beg you, let me make you trust me for a few dozen pages, since the tale will give you time enough to hate me in its own right”
The “tale” Mycroft shares is primarily centered on the protection of a young boy, Bridger, who has the power to bring inanimate objects to life. While this plot line doesn’t always progress with the same amount of urgency we get in the first few chapters, the complexity of Palmer’s world-building doesn’t offer readers any “slow” periods; there isn’t a moment you won’t feel immersed and challenged by this text.
In 2454, Earth has significantly restructured itself, socially, as the result of an oft-alluded-to global “Church War.” Aside from banning gendered language and talk of religion (outside of meetings with an assigned “Sensayer,” a kind of personal therapist who is trained in knowledge of all the world’s theologies), the most basic concepts we have about how we organize and identify ourselves in communities has changed. Nationality is renounced and replaced with a chosen “Hive”—a group of people with shared laws, customs, languages. Biological families are replaced with a chosen “Bash’,” which forms around common interests and goals when adolescents are away at school. Although much of this world feels new, Palmer often gives herself away as a renaissance historian, with near constant allusions to enlightenment philosophers (at least 10 to Voltaire specifically!) The constant references to the 18th century and almost none to our own (despite the fact that the 2000’s would be as much “history” to 2454 as 1700 would) struck me as odd at times, but Palmer nevertheless makes her knowledge and application of the era of Humanists feel fresh, and very much a natural part of her imagined future.
When it isn’t deeply (and sometimes exhaustingly) complex and philosophical, Palmer’s writing can be wonderfully tangible, bringing the world of 2454 alive with passages as simple as a description of a dazzlingly futuristic garment worn by the Utopian Hive:
“Utopian coats are dream visions, created by covering a long trench coat with Griffincloth and programming the computer to process the real image before projecting it, substituting gold for grey, marble for brick, fish for birds, whatever the Utopian imagines…Utopia means ‘nowhere,’ so all Utopians drape themselves in their most precious nowheres.”
But what is even more exciting, on the level of language, are the experiments with dialogue—punctuation—Palmer plays with throughout the text. In addition, she also uses different quotation marks in order to denote when different languages are being spoken—the familiar “…” is used for English, 「…」is used for Japanese and Chinese, and «…» is used for French, Spanish, and Greek. Many parts of the texts present themselves in the form of a script-like or Socratic-like dialogue, marking the speaker before the speech with their name and a colon, rather than after in a dialogue tag. She also incorporates snippets of actual French, Spanish, Japanese, and Latin—as well as an unexplained schwa (ə), to mark an ‘uh’ sound. So much about the text feels tactile and demanding of readers; despite its typical-soft-sci-fi-looking cover, it demands real and complicated intellectual labor. From the very first page—a permission for publication from “The Romanova Seven-Hive Council Stability Committee,” and others—the text sells itself as a “found document.”
The abundance of linguistic and cultural knowledge that characters possess highlights one of the more provocative themes the novel explores: the potential impacts of globalization. Other than a suspicious lack of African presence (other than mention of a “Great African Reservation,” and the occasional dark-skinned character), Too Like the Lightning represents a range of cultures—South American, European, Asian—whose boundaries seem much softer than they do in our 21st century world. Because language and custom are no longer housed by nations, but by hives, there seems to be an interesting melting down and universalizing of geography-based cultures as we know them. This is most apparent in Palmer’s descriptions of “mixed” characters, such as this description of Toshi Mitsubishi:
“Africa and Europe are cofactors in her ancestry, visible in her rich, medium-brown skin and afro-textured hair, which she wears in a thousand little twists like tongues of flame, but Japan dominates her syntax, her posture, her reflexive half-bow as we arrive, and she wears a Japanese nation-strat bracelet.”
In many ways, this depiction of Toshi imagines the inevitable result of our quickly shrinking world, in which cultural knowledge and trends are being exchanged more frequently and easily. Palmer’s 2454, of course, has this melting down and mixing of cultures rapidly accelerated by hover cars that allow travel across the world within mere hours. Her portrayal of a world shrunk even more than our own is one of many examples of the way Palmer’s text invites inquiry into complex questions about the nature of human community, and the way we organize and value our social interactions.
While I certainly wouldn’t describe Too Like the Lightning as an “easy” read, it is one that offers a serious payoff. The speculative and cognitive labor the novel requests is, to the speculative mind, immensely pleasurable. Despite its imaginative departure from our world, the issues and ideas the novel works with—issues of gender, technocracy, nationality, and knowledge production—are entirely relevant to us today.
Hailey Sanden is from Folsom, California and received her degree in Literature and Writing from UC San Diego. She is a current graduate student in English at the University of North Dakota, where her scholarly interests focus on modernism, postmodernism, experimental writing, linguistics, and pedagogy. As a writer, she is interested in in creative experiments that cross genres and expand traditional definitions of narrative.
Purchase a copy of the reviewed book through our affiliate link and help support the journal!