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.

Cross-posted from Goodreads

My book-reading fiscal year (BRFY) ends April 30. Here is my report, submitted for your approval.

This year I read 32 books, which in terms of sheer numbers is the worst book reading year I’ve had in BRFY history. In terms of pages it’s probably not quite as sorry since I read several very long tomes. But either way, it’s been a fairly weak year of reading, I’m sad to say. I didn’t read as much as usual and I didn’t love a lot of what I read.

I can cite a few logistical reasons. It was just a darn busy year. I changed jobs twice, which means I spent many evenings pouring over job listings and tweaking resumes and cover letters rather than sitting in my basement reading sci-fi books. (It all turned out fine, by the way. If I blogged more about real life sometimes instead of Star Trek this would probably be more clear. But I took a detour out of the library world last summer, which turned out to not really be what I’d hoped, then I had a good opportunity to go back into libraries, so I did. Quite happy with the new situation, thank you.) I also took a statistics class last summer which, while highly educational and interesting, was thoroughly brutal. It was everything I could do just to keep up with it. So, my reading time was hampered for a large portion of this year. I don’t know how this happens. I hate being busy. When will I be done being a grown-up? Most of this stuff is laaame.

What I did read was quite often very long. After looming on my bookshelf for years, I finally got around to Neal Stephenson’s gargantuan Baroque Cycle. I liked it fine. Naturally you’d want to like something 2700 pages long more, but there it is. I started Robert Caro’s The Power Broker some time ago, and read it for like forever and haven’t even finished it for this year. I tackled a bunch of thick nonfiction. Even the graphic novels I read this year took weeks.

Best of the year goes to an author, rather than an individual book. This was the year I finally read some Kurt Vonnegut, and man, I loved it. Cat’s Cradle was probably the best, but I also devoured Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Mother Night and dug them all. One caveat: K says that she read a bunch of Vonnegut years ago and liked it all a lot, but the problem is that in retrospect, she can’t really remember what happens in each particular book. They’re all just Vonnegut stuff. I’ve read them all in just one year, and I kind of agree. But still! You can’t beat the return on investment. Recall my post on The Barbecue Zone. Similar principle. Very outstanding read, and incredibly fast and absorbing. I like Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, but those dudes are out to destroy me. Vonnegut packs wonderful ideas into simple language like no one else. Planning on filling out my reading of him this year.

Other highlights:

  • Read Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin trilogy. The first one is truly great sci-fi. The second and third really can’t live up to their predecessor but I was happy to have completed the set. I should also say that Spin is a great sci-fi book for non-sci-fi readers who are curious about the genre. It doesn’t have the typical sci-fi problem of being weak on characterization and it’s a terrific story.
  • So remember how for years I was trying to read Hugo award winners? I read, uh, zero this year. (Well, I re-read a couple, but nothing new was crossed off the list.) I meant to knock out the two David Brin winners from the Uplift Saga, but I burned out on the second one, so that didn’t happen. This is actually a topic for a longer post. I came to some decisions about this ongoing project.
  • Best nonfiction book I read was The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Makes you pretty much hate yourself for going to the grocery store, but there’s a lot that everyone needs to know in there.

Some goals for the upcoming year: Resume some Hugo reading. I’d like to get through more books in general for the variety, but frankly, I’m reading a huge one now and want to read several others soon. So we’ll see about that. Will this be the year of Gravity’s Rainbow? Maybe. Read a few of the things that have been unread on my bookshelf forever. Re-visit some Brian Aldiss. I used to love that guy but haven’t read anything of his for years. I’d also like to tackle some of those notable titles that I always hear about that pop up on lists like this. The ones I have read on there are terrific.

The complete list, favorites in bold, listed with date of completion:

  1. Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut, 5/3/11
  2. Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli, 5/5/11
  3. The Far Arena, Richard Ben Sapir, 5/23/11
  4. Baseball Hacks, Joseph Adler, 5/24/11
  5. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan, 6/21/11
  6. Quicksilver (Baroque Cycle #1), Neal Stephenson, 7/5/11
  7. Round Ireland with a Fridge, Tony Hawks, 7/14/11
  8. Fuzzy Nation, John Scalzi, 7/18/11
  9. An Off Year, Claire Zulkey, 7/18/11
  10. The Final Reflection, John M. Ford, 7/21/11
  11. Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, Grant Naylor, 7/22/11
  12. Web Analytics 2.0, Avinash Kaushik, 8/11/11
  13. The Power of Positive Dog Training, Pat Miller, 9/8/11
  14. The Other End of the Leash, Patricia B. McConnell, 9/13/11
  15. Don’t Shoot the Dog!, Karen Pryor, 9/26/11
  16. Studs Terkels’ Working: A Graphic Adaptation, Harvey Pekar, 9/28/11
  17. Stranger Things Happen, Kelly Link, 10/8/11
  18. Neutron Star, Larry Niven, 10/16/11
  19. Ringworld, Larry Niven, 11/2/11
  20. The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon, 11/11/11
  21. The Confusion (Baroque Cycle #2), Neal Stephenson, 12/4/11
  22. Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut, 12/8/11
  23. Sundiver, David Brin, 12/19/11
  24. Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguri, 12/30/11
  25. Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut, 1/2/12
  26. You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried, Susannah Gora, 1/30/12
  27. The System of the World (Baroque Cycle #3), Neal Stephenson, 2/23/12
  28. Spin, Robert Charles Wilson, 3/2/12
  29. Axis, Robert Charles Wilson, 3/12/12
  30. Vortex, Robert Charles Wilson, 3/25/12
  31. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, 4/2/12
  32. Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut, 4/17/12

List is stashed here and on GoodReads (which has ratings and very occasional reviews)

Somehow it’s been almost three months since I posted anything. I was surprised to see this myself. I thought it had been like, a few weeks. Sorry, seven loyal blog readers. One of my math teachers in high school supported the theory that time goes faster as you get older because each year is a smaller fraction of your life. Of course a year seems like forever when you’re eight. It’s only 1/8 of your life. When you’re 34, it’s a lot less. Also you occasionally say the wrong age because you don’t immediately remember how old you are.

Well, fact is this summer was a blur. I got a new job, a dog, we did some traveling. Mostly it was probably the job taking up a lot of mental space, though still, I don’t know where all my time went. Seriously. There were three months this summer, right? Like, the usual amount? I remember spending a lot of time mowing the lawn and sweating.

Guess I’ll fill in some details. Then, maybe three more months of silence? I dunno. The blog lives in a weird netherworld these days. Though I’m back to watching Trek again, so there’s that.

*Let’s get the puppy pictures out of the way first.

*Job blogging is generally not appropriate and often boring, so I won’t be doing that, but I will note that I’m doing something pretty new after several years as a librarian. I still liked being a librarian but had an opportunity to round out some experience with web analytics, programming, and statistics. And I was able to do it without moving and while getting a raise. So, yeah. It was the right thing to do for now.

*Seriously, if I’m not going to talk about my stupid projects on this blog I may as well not even have the thing, so: more on that Ticket to Ride thing I mentioned a while ago. I spent a bunch of time developing a new map for the game Ticket to Ride. They were running a contest for new designs, and winners scored $10K and they’d publish your map. Well, the deadline for them notifying winners came and went, and I barely mentioned it here because I was too busy sobbing in my basement. Recently they announced the winners. They’re pretty great, though in retrospect it seems like they probably had something specific in mind and I was pretty far outside the box. Come on though, Steampunk tie-ins! Clearly they made a terrible oversight here.

*I started out the summer with the intent to read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. But I failed very, very miserably. Part of the failure was the general busy-ness and not having as much time to read. The other part was that I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I’d hoped, and it ended up being a bit of a trial to get through. I slogged through book one, then got pretty far into book two before putting it down for a while. I intermittently read some other things but I am grappling with whether I’ll actually even bother finishing. I love Neal Stephenson, but these haven’t really been doing it for me.

*I took a statistics class, which, come to think of it, was a major culprit in my loss of time. It cost me at least ten hours a week when I was already busy. All for education and self-improvement and professional development. Which sucks, because I could have played Metroid: Other M this summer instead.

My book-reading fiscal year (BRFY) ends April 30. Here is my report, submitted for your approval.

This year I read 48 books (well, depends on how you count: I read half of two others which I didn’t count, but read several novellae and novelettes which I did). Employment and the biological need for sleep continue to hamper me. I never seem to quite make that 50-book goal, and have fallen short yet again. I always seem to have one or two months during the year where there is some extreme stress or busy-ness that just kills my pace, and it happened again this year over the past month. It’s probably unrealistic to ever count on having 12 consecutive months of peace, at least until I am named King and make some serious changes to the structure of society. When will that be happening, by the way??

Anyway, books. I did have a nice year of reading, although kind of a different one, defined by my getting a membership to WorldCon last spring with the intention to vote for the Hugo awards and do all of that reading over the summer. But: I got started too late and procrastinated a bit with all of it and had to bail on the novels. I did eventually read all of them but didn’t complete the last one until, uh, last month. And to be honest, they weren’t a strong crop. Of the six nominees, I’d say I liked two a lot, thought two were just OK, and didn’t particularly like the other two.

Whoa: I just realized something while writing this. I would have voted for Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. It happened to TIE for the win with China Mieville’s The City and The City. Had I gotten all my reading done and cast that vote, Paolo would have won outright and China would not have won a Hugo. Sorry, Paolo! Although I guess you still count as a winner. I inadvertently gave China a win share, though. You’re welcome, China.

Other highlights:

  • Some great re-reads, including Snow Crash and White Noise. I generally consider these two of my favorite books, and re-reading did not disappoint. More broadly, re-reading is awesome. I need to do more of it. It’s nice to read new books, of course, but when you re-read, honestly most of the time you get just as much or more out of it, with the foreknowledge that it’s something you will like.
  • One benefit of the 2010 Hugo voting was that I tried a number of new things I wouldn’t have otherwise thought to read. However, I’ll probably bail on doing the membership/voting thing again anytime soon. It’s really for people who want to read ONLY that stuff for months. The graphic novels, in particular, were disappointing. Most were parts of LONG series and not really my taste.
  • Gah, I only read three Hugo winners.  That puts me at 43 out of 62 total.  I had been reading 6 or 7 a year, which would put me on pace for a finish in 2013, but I fell off that a bit. Might still be that year, but not sure. I’d intended to plow through a bunch this year but after my 2010 Hugo voting  push I was off of them for a while. I am not setting any goals about this for the year, though I’ll certainly try more than 3. Yuck. One thing: I probably read next year’s Hugo winner already, in Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear.
  • I got through another Pynchon book! I think I can tackle Gravity’s Rainbow again when the time is right.
  • Read a few good series, including Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. Both worthwhile.

Best read of the year (among new reads) is either Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity or Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. The Asimov book was classic Ike, and just a great read. Just a perfect Golden Age sci-fi novel, of which I am spending way too much time not doing more of (like right now! I could be reading Isaac Asimov right now!). Winter’s Tale, though, is a special book. I just finished it yesterday so I probably need more time to let it settle, but I think I can say it was the most interesting book I read this year. Really unique, modern magical realism. Among the funniest books I’ve read, too.

Some goals for the upcoming year: more rereading. Didn’t get to the Baroque Cycle, but will absolutely do so soon. Between that and the new Neal Stephenson coming this fall (NEW NEAL STEPHENSON) I don’t know if I’ll get to Gravity’s Rainbow, but I’m not ruling it out. Fill out my Asimov reading. I’d like to carve a big chunk out of the remaining Hugos. Read a few of the things that have been unread on my bookshelf forever.

The complete list, favorites in bold:

  1. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 5/8/10
  2. Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, James Patrick Kelly (ed.), 5/14/10
  3. Brian Eno’s Another Green World (33 1/3), Geeta Dayal, 5/29/10
  4. Nick Drake’s Pink Moon (33 1/3), Amanda Petrusich, 5/30/10
  5. The Fall of Hyperion, Dan Simmons, 5/31/10
  6. Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader, Neil Gaiman et al, 6/10/10
  7. The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi, 6/13/10
  8. Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow, 6/16/10
  9. Palimpsest, Charles Stross, 6/18/10
  10. The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Kage Baker, 6/19/10
  11. The City & The City, China Mieville, 6/29/10
  12. The God Engines, John Scalzi, 7/13/10
  13. Fables: The Dark Ages (#12), Bill Willingham, 7/15/10
  14. Girl Genius Volume 9: Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm, Phil Foglio, 7/25/10
  15. Laika, Nick Abadzis, 7/27/10
  16. Little Fuzzy, H. Beam Piper, 8/2/10
  17. Fuzzy Sapiens, H. Beam Piper, 8/9/10
  18. Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby, 8/11/10
  19. The Android’s Dream, John Scalzi, 8/21/10
  20. God Save the Fan, Will Leitch, 8/26/10
  21. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer, 9/4/10
  22. Blackout, Connie Willis, 9/18/10
  23. Physics for Future Presidents, Richard Muller, 10/4/10
  24. V., Thomas Pynchon, 10/11/10
  25. The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, 10/17/10
  26. Hominids, Robert J. Sawyer, 10/26/10
  27. All Clear, Connie Willis, 11/15/10
  28. Humans, Robert J. Sawyer, 11/26/10
  29. Neutron Star, Larry Niven, 11/26/10
  30. Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins, 11/29/10
  31. Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins, 12/5/10
  32. The End of Eternity, Isaac Asimov, 12/15/10
  33. Hybrids, Robert J. Sawyer, 12/23/10
  34. Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon, 1/5/11
  35. Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, Robert Charles Wilson, 1/11/11
  36. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson, 1/21/11
  37. White Noise, Don DeLillo, 1/30/11
  38. Boneshaker, Cherie Priest, 2/8/11
  39. Nova, Samuel R. Delany, 2/14/11
  40. This Immortal, Roger Zelazny, 2/20/11
  41. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot, 2/23/11
  42. Zodiac, Neal Stephenson, 3/2/11
  43. Star Trek: Klingons: Blood Will Tell, Scott Tipton et al., 3/13/11
  44. WWW: Wake, Robert J. Sawyer, 3/14/11
  45. Palimpsest, Cathrynne M. Valente, 3/27/11
  46. House of Stairs, William Sleator, 3/28/11
  47. Newton and the Counterfeiter, Thomas Levenson, 4/21/11
  48. Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin, 4/29/11

List is stashed here and on GoodReads (which has ratings and very occasional reviews)