Tor Books is proud to launch the first novel in a new political science fiction series, Too Like The Lightning by debut novelist Ada Palmer. Palmer’s unique vision mixes Enlightenment-era philosophy with traditional science fiction speculation to bring to life the year 2454, not a perfect future, but a utopian one, described by a narrator writing in an antiquated form to catalog the birth of a revolution. The result is The Iliad meets I, Claudius mixed with the enthusiasm of The Stars My Destination and Gene Wolfe style world building.
Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer–a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.
The world into which Mycroft and Carlyle have been born is as strange to our 21st-century eyes as ours would be to a native of the 1500s. It is a hard-won utopia built on technologically-generated abundance, and also on complex and mandatory systems of labeling all public writing and speech. What seem to us normal gender distinctions are now distinctly taboo in most social situations. And most of the world’s population is affiliated with globe-girdling clans of the like-minded, whose endless economic and cultural competition is carefully managed by central planners of inestimable subtlety. To us it seems like a mad combination of heaven and hell. To them, it seems like normal life.
And in this world, Mycroft and Carlyle have stumbled on the wild card that may destabilize the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life…
Perfect for fans of Jo Walton, Robert Charles Wilson and Kim Stanley Robinson, Too Like The Lightning is a refreshing change of pace from the current trend of gritty, dystopian novels. Much like Homer telling of heroic deeds and wine dark seas, Mycroft Canner’s narration will draw you into the world of Terra Ignota—a world simmering with gender politics and religious fervor just beneath the surface, on the brink of revolutionary change.
This is unequivocally one of the most audacious and skillful books I have ever read. Enlightenment-era philosophy taken to its Utopia ideals in a future five centuries from now, with the Nation-state being a thing of the past and the entire world in commuting distance. A sprawling cast of people at the highest and lowest reaches of power, dark secrets, miracles, adultery, technological marvels, the sins of the fathers carried by their children, honour, torture. This book has everything.
There are a lot of bad things contained within “everything”.
I was agog with delight while reading the first half of this book. I was enjoying it so much that there was no urgency to finish. It would be there waiting, and I could savour it a chapter or two at a time. Because I was reading an e-arc (thank you, Tor books!) I know exactly when that delight faltered. That was at the 56% percent mark, when I found out who our narrator was. I had known he was a convict, but due to some discussion around the Canner Device, I thought his crime had been privacy related. It was not privacy related.
Spoiler! Highlight to read. Our narrator is a rapist, torturer and mass murderer. He killed 17 people. He “made a list of the worst ways for a human to die and went through it systematically”. /spoiler. So that put a dent in my leisurely perusal. I read straight to the end once that bombshell hit, and from then on it was just one dark reveal after another. The utopian system is on the brink of war, there are no happy marriages, eccentric brothers are trying to commit suicide several times a year, sexual assault is a regular factor of life for the powerless, a priest gives advice on torture, and everyone is a murderer. Basically, when the cover copy said “inspired by enlightenment-era philosophy,” I should have thought harder about actual enlightenment-era philosophy.
The whole thing is masterfully done. A significant part of the joy I took in the first half of the book was how it uses a phrase I thought I understood (European, Humanist, Cousin) and then explains it a chapter later in such a way that makes me re-evaluate everything. Phrases, plots, and characters were introduced in one way and then BOMBSHELL everything you assumed is wrong. The technique continued (oh my word did it continue) in the later part of the book, I just didn’t like the bombs any more. The whole thing is plotted like a chain mail vest.
So yes. I can’t give this less than five stars, because it’s audacious and actually pulls it off. I want to throw it at all my philosopher friends. I just don’t know if I like it.
P.S. As I look at the cover copy again, I make a note to never read anything Tor describes as “dark and gritty”.