TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING, by Ada Palmer

Novel (2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5.

An intellectual historian’s sf, if ever there was one. A world—the thorough product of a decade of coffee shop napkin sketches, all doled out with the droll care of one who does not want to want to entertain—that turns on History-Making Grand Statements and is nearly devoid of discernible socio-economic structures. A forgivable absence, had the text itself given us any sense of the “utopia” supposedly on display here, whether of a de facto or de jure (i.e. no one wants, but not equally) nature.

Now, that utopia is there, although, like most things with this book (and often to its credit!), we have to find it ourselves. And once we do find it, we realize how peculiar it is, as the causal element seems to have been the dual development of very cheap energy powering very fast travel and the replacement of national affiliation with elective dispositional affinities. This dissolution of national bonds had been brought on by the suppression of confessional proselytizing after disastrous religious wars (themselves spurred – ding ding! – by shifts in mentalité [Grand Statement] rather than material circumstances). In short, a pipe dream utopia for a certain jet-setting segment of the liberal upper-middle creative classes in our own world. So, sure, a strange utopia—but one nonetheless. It was not, however, foregrounded in such a way to explain the disproportionate number of reviews that seemed to read this predominantly as a Finding-the-Dys-In-The-Utopia book.

What’s therefore discordant with this view is that, only shortly after realizing that we’re even in a utopia, we next realize that we’ve nevertheless been following the literal elite of the elite at the same time. Top-down narrativization is of course knee-jerk genre narrativization (in which we follow Presidents or Generals or doctors with the CDC or whatnot as they react, respond, scheme, and so on in response to any number of events, while even “slip/mainstream” takes on genre conventions are more apt to confine itself to on-the-ground, common POVS [think of genre’s take on the Rapture vs. Tom Perrotta’s; or World War Z vs. Zone One]). This elite cast of characters is different, though. Those genre works are fully aware of what they’re doing – here we have little way of knowing that, to take one example, the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash’ was literally one of the most important business and infrastructural elements of this whole world, chock full of, again, literally the most famous people in the world. We do not know this because that information was not told, implied, or hinted at – until all of a sudden it was. More importantly, we do not know this because we have no larger sense of the world.

The fact bespeaks either a blinkered worldview or some understandable first-book deficiencies. I’d venture, happily, that it’s the latter (see the late-in-book revelation that apparently 90% of the world’s most powerful political leaders are all simultaneous patrons of a Parisian brothel and each other[?]). The charitable reading is that our author got lost in her world and forgot how to share it with the uninitiated (which would seem to fit with an article I saw where she noted that she had built up the world for years before writing a word of the books).

That genuine, deep sense of lived-in-ed-ness of the world, strangely enough, does lead to one of the novel’s strong points: the often extreme level of cognitive estrangement it engenders in its readers on account of its set-you-adrift-upcreek-without-a-paddle ethos. David Pringle has mentioned the difficulty of assessing sf by “literary” standards, ie style. While some think it’s ultimately possible (Pringle himself), others think it’s either impossible and/or superfluous and therefore necessary to apply/create novel, genre-specific metrics to adjudge the “worth” of genre material. I’d imagine I’m in-between on the first question, although heartily on board for the latter option, even if all proposed metrics I’ve so far seen seem actually just like bastardized and/or weaker forms of those received and rejected literary metrics (and which can seem embarrassingly handicapped for “puerile” genres and award undue merit where little than an escapist one actually exists). Reading Palmer, however, brings to mind one criterion that I think actually does transcend these others, and one that is primarily based on genre-specific traits–namely, the Suvinian conception of “cognitive estrangement.” We might therefore consider the myriad ways available by which an author might “estrange” her audience, and judge their various successes and failures along a spectrum that would be otherwise meaningless outside of sf as a genre. Therein lie an abundance of estranging strategies, and the artfulness or thoroughness or etc. of the effect stands as a purely sf equivalent to litfic “style.” Palmer, by this metric at least, is quite successful. Whether deliberate veiling (and unveiling) or unconscious obfuscation, TLTL has it in spades.

Disconnected thought: I’m still uncertain on my ultimate takeaway regarding the supposed Enlightenment influences on the society, as well as the deliberately antiquated style therefore given to the prose (apart from some certainty regarding the second-hand embarrassment felt at ham-fistedly shoehorning ones professional expertise into the meat of a story [although, true, so it must be with them all]). The purple flourish in the large paragraph on pg. 114 (even if not necessarily representative of the prose as a whole) brings a thought to mind (benefited by a bit of experiential knowledge): the frankly ridiculous notion that this future world is indelibly stamped by the elite thought and elite lifeways of a sliver of the globe seven centuries previously is mostly just a means to an end, ie to let her write with the grandiloquence she’s most accustomed to both studying and (in private or academic work) aping. Is this bad in itself? Who knows? There’s nonetheless always, which is more than can be said for much genre fare, a broad, sharp intelligence behind the scenes apparent on each page, and the asides between Mycroft and reader often work as nice checks on the perceived objectivity and omniscience of our narrative.

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2 thoughts on “TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING, by Ada Palmer

    1. Exactly. You’ve got to the crux of it much quicker than I did. I likewise tried hard, and gave it the benefit of many doubts. Out of all the dross I wrote above, I do think the main thing was that she got lost in her own world and, forgetting that her readers would not come to the story pre-enamored with it, also forgot how to share it with them.

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