(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)
Review Soundtrack: I suggest reading this review while listening to Eternal Source of Light Divine, composed by George Frideric Handel (Spotify, YouTube).
Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer, is an incredible novel. It is intelligent, strange and utterly mesmerizing. But, above all, it is unique, completely unlike anything I've found before. When reviewing, I always try to compare new books with others I've read in the past, at least to give a rough indication of what you can expect, but in this case it is almost impossible. The best description I've come up with is that it is 'a mash-up of a science-fictional history of 18th century philosophy and a remake of Rocky Horror Picture Show as written by Adam Roberts and Cordwainer Smith', but that does not even begin to cover it.
The first first thing that strikes the reader is the particular writing style of Too Like the Lightning. The novel is a fictional report of the events that, in just seven days, led (will lead?) to dramatic social changes in the year 2454, as related by a possibly unreliable narrator to people from an even further future, but written as it were the Age of Enlightenment. Thus, we are not one or two, but three times removed from the context of the book: in time, language and knowledge of some crucial facts. You can hardly provoke more cognitive estrangement, to use Darko Suvin's term, with just a few pages. And, what is even more important, Palmer makes it work like a charm, with no detail left to chance.
The worldbuilding is also excellent. In the 25th century there no longer nations but Hives, no longer families but bash'houses, gender is no longer defined (only) by the genitalia you are born with and politics and democracy have evolved to new, strange forms. I will not explain any of these changes for one of the pleasures of reading Too Like the Lightning is, precisely, to figure out for oneself how every little piece fits with others, but let me at least quote a paragraph to give you a taste of the society you will find in the novel:
“Separately, as the King of Spain, and with no directive from the European Union, I wish to express my personal support for Chairman Carlyle and his ideal that citizenship should be voluntary, not forced. To that end, I hereby call on all Spanish citizens—no, on all people who consider Spanish identity an important part of who they are, to show their support for that ideal by renouncing their citizenship, becoming floating citizens of the EU for twenty-four hours, and then reapplying to become Spanish citizens again, this time by choice. What we choose means more than what is handed to us by chance. I will count every citizen who leaves and rejoins my country a more loyal Spaniard, a more sincere Spaniard, a truer Spaniard, than before, and I will stand proud as the king of a people brave enough to leave our fatherland to show support for those endangered by this war, but loyal enough to return again.”
Palmer introduces just a few technological elements: the flying cars, the tracker (a wearable communication device) and the set-sets (human computers), mainly. But they are more than sufficient to provide the basis for a society in which many of the ideas of the Enlightenment can be put into practice. Too Like the Lightning is not about the science (although science is an important part of its world) but about the philosophy and social theories of Voltaire, Diderot, Carlyle and even De Sade. They all come to life in a way that is both believable and surprising, transforming almost every aspect of life as we know it. Language, for instance, is a key element throughout all the book and has evolved in an organic fashion:
I wonder, reader, which folk etymology you believe. Is ‘sensayer’ a perversion of the nonexistent Latin verb senseo? Of ‘soothsayer,’ with ‘sooth’ turned into ‘sense’? Of sensei, the honorific Japan grants to teachers, doctors, and the wise? I have researched the question myself, but founder Mertice McKay left posterity no notes when she created the term—she had no time to, working in the rush of the 2140s, as society’s wrath swept through after the Church War, banning religious houses, meetings, proselytizing, and, in her eyes, threatening to abolish even the word God. The laws are real still, reader. Just as three unrelated women living in the same house was once, in some places, legally a brothel, three people in a room talking about religion was then, as now, a “Church meeting,” and subject to harsh penalties, not in the laws of one or two Hives but even in the codes of Romanova. What terrible silence McKay foresaw: a man afraid to ask his lover whether he too hoped for a hereafter, parents afraid to answer when their children asked, “Who made the world?” With what desperation McKay screamed to those with the power to stop it, “Humanity cannot live without these questions! Let us create a new creature! Not a preacher, but a teacher, who hears a parishioner’s questions and presents the answers of all the faiths and sects of history, Christians and pagans, Muslims and atheists, all equal. With this new creature as his guide, let each man pick through the fruits of all theologies and anti-theologies, and make from them his own system, to test, improve, and lean on all the years of his long life. If early opponents of the Christian Reformation feared that Protestants would invent as many Christianities as there were Christians, let this new creature help us create as many religions as there are human beings!” So she cried. You will forgive her, reader, if, in her fervor, she did not pause to diagram the derivation of this new creature’s name.
The novel features many intriguing characters, most of them really larger than life (Thomas Carlyle would certainly approve): Bridger, J.E.D.D. Mason, Sniper, Dominic Seneschal... And, of course, Mycroft Canner, our humble narrator, who is one of the most mysterious characters I've ever encountered. Mycroft, charming and repulsive at the same time, intelligent and cunning, saint and sinner. Their voice is, without a doubt, one of the strongest points of the novel and Palmer's decision of making them the narrator of the story is right on spot.
But the biggest success of Too Like the Lightning is the way in which Palmer leads the reader, step by step, from the utter confusion of the beginning to understanding even the most subtle consequences of the culture and social organization of the world of the novel. This is an utopia but, as in Le Guin's The Dispossessed, a very ambiguous one, in which those things that have apparently been superseded (nationality, gender, religion, crime, war...) still are very important and have become, in many cases, taboo. This is especially notorious when the real name of certain character is revealed and the reader is as struck by the implications as the characters of the novel are. I profoundly admire the amazing work that the author has done to so deeply immerse the reader into the universe of the novel. Simply impressive.
Too Like the Lightning is a book that I loved from the very first page. It surprised me, it made think, it blew my mind away. It is certainly a complex and multi-layered novel and I am sure it won't be everybody's cup of tea, but I think that every science fiction fan should at least give it a try, for it is also extremely rewarding. I, for one, want more books like this one. No, scratch that: I need more books like this one. Seven Surrenders, the second part of the story, is coming this winter but I wish I had it now to begin reading it as soon as possible.