Review of Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
Ada Palmer knows a lot more than me about language, history, and philosophy, and she interweaves them all into some seriously skillful social/political sci fi. She’s created a fully-realized future society that seems inevitable, yet fantastically different. It’s complex and ambitious. Most novels are doing well if they tell some truth about one or two social concepts–Palmer is after them all. Just a sample: Binary gender constructs on the 21st century are largely a historical relic (but just as incomplete and rife with unfair norms and taboos). Numerous cultures live together and everyone speaks a mishmash of languages. Religion is carefully regulated. And people aren’t loyal to the arbitrary geography of their birthplace (easy when you have rapid worldwide travel), but to a global “Hive” of similar philosophies.
While this is all incredibly intricate and well-done, and is legitimately comparable to Dune in scope, it doesn’t always make for breezy reading. I struggled to follow some parts or keep track of the heaps of characters with names that are as fantastic as they are difficult to remember. It’s not just unusual spellings or widely diverse language origins (but it is that)—their names, Hives, and relationships tell you something about their motives, and you may not understand how as you’re reading, but have to wait for an explanation to come later. They frequently appear on the scene in an instant, with no clue as to who they are or what they represent, only to evolve into major figures as they are discussed by other newly-introduced characters in later chapters. The thread of plot itself is a bit thin and somewhat baffling at times, Palmer rarely gives in and explains what’s happening, preferring to gradually introduce context and mete out revealing nuggets over its entire length. Much of the novel proceeds as carefully nuanced philosophical or political conversations to fill in societal details or historical backstory, which may effectively build on her world but doesn’t always keep things moving. It doesn’t help that this is a planned Part 1 of 2, and more focused on establishment than resolution.
While at times I thought I might not even finish Book 1, in the end I’m looking forward to Book 2. Especially since I feel like I’ve done the hard work of catching up with Palmer’s world, and some potential payoff is still ahead.
Also I dug this passage about the trope of the mad genius:
Heartless reality does not grant humans the lifespan necessary to master every specialty of science, so no one genius in his secret lab can really bring robots, mutants, and clones into the world at his mad whim–it takes a team, masses of funds, and decades. But one man can love all sciences, even if he cannot wield them, and he can inspire children with the model of the mad genius, even if he cannot live it.