No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

2017/85: Too Like the Lightning -- Ada Palmer

Animals may hunt by speed, by trap, by disguise, by ambush, but name for me another beside mankind that hunts by trust. [loc 7596]
A novel about the Twenty-Fifth century, told in a style that owes much to the Eighteenth, by a self-reported unreliable narrator: this is one of the most immersive and engaging SF novels I've read in a long time, and every time I've revisited this review I've found myself rereading chapter after chapter, fascinated by foreshadowing, characterisation and world-building, and admiring the layers of Palmer's prose.

A brief history of this future: rapid transit has more or less abolished the geographical nation; the Church Wars (which seem to have left a few uninhabitable zones behind) have more or less abolished religion; the standard work-week is twenty hours; poverty, famine, disease and crime are almost unknown. People choose to belong to one of seven Hives, and live in 'bash's' (families of choice). The few, atavistic criminals become Servicers when caught and sentenced: a lifetime of community service with no right to property. Our narrator, Mycroft Canner (the name derives from that of Sherlock Holmes' older brother) is a Servicer, for crimes initially undescribed but clearly horrific in the extreme.

No more nationalism, no more religion, all the old curses banished: Utopia, then? Of course it is not, quite, that simple. Mycroft, who is not only a criminal but a genius, is in possession of many secrets: some theological, others pertaining to the unseen bonds and alliances forged between the leaders of this brave new world. It should be noted that many important people put a great deal of trust in Mycroft, which initially is jarringly juxtaposed with Mycroft's uncomfortably servile behaviour. Recruited (though he has no choice) to investigate the theft of a physical document representing social capital, Mycroft is also instrumental in the exposure of secret engines that drive and shape the world.

Too Like the Lightning is not an easy read: it failed to keep my attention when I first attempted it, during a stressful and busy month. There is a large cast, a lot of worldbuilding, the aforementioned unreliable narrator, and a great deal of Plot. Palmer plays, too: with language and gender (the narrator is deemed -- by their anonymous, but not absent, Reader -- contrary and archaic for using 'he' and 'she' rather than the generic 'they': there are good reasons for this, but it does also allow some trickery) and with structure and style. That unknown Reader, who is definitely a contemporary, interpolates observations: Mycroft abases himself (and only towards the end of this volume, the arc of which continues in Seven Surrenders, did I begin to feel more comfortable with Mycroft's persona): different languages are signified with different typography and punctuation: sometimes the narrative shrinks to script format. There are frequent references to the philosophers and writers of the Enlightenment, from Voltaire ('the Patriarch') to de Sade. And there are a lot of toys, some of them mined from ancient rubbish dumps.

But I reiterate: Too Like the Lightning is a delight. I could ramble about the little details (Frankenstein! Cannerbeat! Mars! the Nobel Peace Prize! the Exponential Age!) for hours, and every time I dive back in I find something new. I'm glad I returned to it after initially being overwhelmed, and actually I'm very glad I didn't read it until the second volume was available: there are so many unresolved plot threads and themes that Too Like the Lightning alone would feel like half a novel. (Still want to know about the 'Nemean lion', though: mentioned very early on, and never again, and only on a reread did I begin to question that omission ... That's the problem with unreliable narrators: you can't trust a word they say.)


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