SFsignal sent me an advance review copy of Ada Palmer’s debut fiction (she’s written nonfiction before) novel Too Like the Lightning. However, SFsignal is no longer hosting new content so I’ll post my review here.
First: Fantastic cover art! But, as you’ll see, it’s a bit misleading. I have a feeling if a scene from the book with ponytailed gentlemen in high boots and laced cuffs discussing Spinoza while spanking a woman under an uplifted petticoat in front of other 17th century cosplayers graced the cover sales figures and fawning reviews would not be so vigorous.
I’ll say right at the beginning before further criticism: I’m an amateur in awe of what Ada Palmer has accomplished both in style and characterization. Reading my own words feels like eating chalk in solitary confinement after sitting at her splendid table with a new cup for every drink and new cutlery for every fantastic beast in an infinite course fete at Versaille. Despite such praise, I was torn how to rate this book. For what Ada Palmer was trying to achieve she deserves five stars. However, it’s clear within a few pages that her goal was not science fiction, but a tale of the supernatural (the religious kind, not the Potterverse kind) set in the age of enlightenment.
Every 1,000-page tome starts with a simple idea. Ada Palmer quite clearly wondered: “What if Jesus appeared not in the 1st century, but the 17th?” Palmer’s love (and deep knowledge) of that period is on display; more time is spent describing the ornate clothing or hairstyle characters wear than any actual plot point. In the last 150 pages I skipped entire paragraphs between character quotes and felt confident I hadn’t missed anything important (I get it, they’re wearing fancy clothes, I don’t care that this guy chose that shade of blue because that lines up with some obscure quote from Descartes). Despite its beauty, there is an unfortunate abundance of poetic prose that does little to advance the plot, serving instead to educate the reader (who Ms. Palmer-through her protagonist, Mycroft-rightly assumes is unaware, but wrongly assumes cares) about the thought leaders of the enlightenment.
Entire pages in multiple chapters are devoted to the teachings of Marquis de Sade, Voltaire, etc. I had to slam the book down when, late in the novel, Mycroft ends up at a free-thinkers orgy in which nearly every guest is a world leader in 17th-century cosplay. This is like a sci-fi novel set in 2016 where inordinate amounts of time are spent discussing how our shirts were influenced by medieval England and we come to later find that the president of the United States has a real stone and torch torture dungeon below the white house where the G8 summit actually happens. Alex Jones’ ravings about the Bohemian Grove sounds sensible by comparison.
Although the book brings overly loving attentiveness to elements of the past pulled forward, unfortunately, most of the author’s inventions of the future are little more than standard tropes (flying cars, tracking devices, people living on the moon, etc.) to fit contrivances of the plot. The exception is the inventive “bash/hive” living structure that seems a very plausible extrapolation of geopolitics a few hundred years from now. A nice twist is the central character’s “bad guy forced to do good” story. Maybe Suicide Squad 2 should hire Ada Palmer as a consultant as her Mycroft is a hundred times more complex and engaging than anyone in the recent film. (Spoiler alert: Mycroft has actually killed someone innocent, and not by accident, unlike anyone in Suicide Squad)
The elegant prose combined with a diary “dear reader” style is an interesting wrinkle on how stories like this are usually presented. However, simile and metaphor run rampant through the text like a wet dog in a clean house. No—like a child left at home with paint and white walls. No—like a fossil fuel company under a republican presidential administration. No—like untracked sales at gun shows after a mass shooting. Is this annoying yet, reader? I mean to show how a bit of this can help, but too much can hinder, and inside each simile the offending element is the misunderstanding of a useful thing, not the thing itself. Palmer’s similes are very descriptive and inventive, albeit at an unnecessary volume. I have a feeling a CTRL+F of the text for “like” would produce tens of thousands of results. This is especially irksome as feedback on my own first attempt at long-form science fiction received the same criticism for far less of the offending figures of speech.
I suspect the book would be an absolute dream for anyone who likes reading about the enlightenment, essentially anyone who liked the author’s earlier books (non-fiction about the period). I can’t blame Ms. Palmer for following the old dictum of write what you know, but perhaps the marketing department at TOR could rein in reapproach the marketing a bit and take a look at the author’s own website (which has a page background and font reminiscent of the 17th century).
All of the above criticism is forgivable, but the author has made a decision that will leave most readers disappointed if not downright angry. Anyone plunking down the absurd $12.99 for a kindle version (even at peak Martian with Matt Damon on the cover that book was still under $10!) should know that the central mystery described on the book jacket about the boy Bridger IS NOT ANSWERED IN THIS BOOK! In fact, nothing happens to Bridger at all. It would be like if Jesus showed up in the new testament but only turned water into wine for his parents and never left his carpentry shop, with a teaser at the end to read the NEXT new testament because Pontius Pilate just found out where Jesus lives.
Or it’s like if Quinten Tarantino directed an X-men movie, where everybody has amazing powers but they just stand around debating the merits of 70mm film.
Or it’s like if Tom Hanks never met up with Private Ryan, but spent the entire movie in flashbacks about his days as a school teacher.
Or (See what I’m doing? If you’re annoyed already you probably shouldn’t attempt to read this book.) it’s like if we never rendezvous in Rendezvous with Rama, but listen to the astronauts talk about the wonderful weather patterns they can observe from space.
Of course, the author would likely say “the question of this book is who stole the 7-10 list!” Nobody cares about the 7-10 list. It’s a MacGuffin of the future, a TMZ popularity contest for the 25th century. Even the characters in the book who claim to care are eventually (spoiler alert) exposed as being capable of manipulating the list and stating openly they don’t care who stole it as long as they can manage the repercussions.
There is another, plainer mystery about a series of accidents. Thankfully this mystery is answered in the last chapter but in the supremely clinical way of an interview with an investigator and a police chief realizing the cause/culprits. It’s a stark contrast to how all the other elements of the book are treated—no, caressed—no, kneaded—into our minds like hot oil by a middle aged-but still young looking-Thai masseuse who gives a quarter of her earnings to the gold buddha and hopes her little boy will one day be able to see again, if only to smile at her like he did as a baby and warm her heart cooled by a decade of broken promises from broken men. Oh, Andrew, what does that sad Thai lady have to do with Too Like the Lightning? Please stop this nonsense! <<Dear reader, did you not like that flowery digression into something not really pertinent to my review or that paragraph? I am only giving you a taste of what I sat through for over 400 pages! Now I’ll placate and place you back in the review you crave so:>> It’s almost as if Ms. Palmer was reminded by the editor that she forgot to wrap that flying car suicide subplot up, so she just added another chapter before saying: Surprise! If you want to know what happens to my Jesus character you have to wait to read the next book (or maybe even the next book after that if it’s a trilogy).
Which brings us back to the most problematic part of the story: Bridger. With so much talk about the banning of religion (again, something stated on the jacket, not a spoiler) it’s obvious the contrast the author is reaching for with a character who is literally referred to at one point as (paraphrasing since I only have a hard copy) “a little god.” However, is this not the dividing line between fiction and fantasy writing we’ve adopted for a century? Harry Potter’s spells define his text as fantasy, as do Gandalf’s miracles or Jesus’ for that matter. Bridger’s unique talents, seemingly endless and certainly godlike, are never explained or even questioned as a functioning reality in the world of Too Like the Lightning. This is problematic for any science fiction author that endeavors to ground any fantastic elements of the story. Arthur C. Clarke’s space elevator in Fountains of Paradise didn’t just appear out of thin air, he discussed the tensile strength of the material needed to hold the counterweight, though not knowing any material in real life that could meet those standards. At least the magical replicator on Star Trek is defined as using energy from the (also magical) dilithium crystal (not magical) matter/anti-matter reactions to break and reconnect the bonds of atoms to form new molecules. We all know Clarke’s famous quote about magic, but he wasn’t referring to real magic: things actually supernatural and miraculous, he referred to things that only seem that way to those unfamiliar with the technology. Bridger can perform real magic, no technology involved. Literal God stuff like turning toy soldiers into real men with history and memories. Things even hundreds of years in the future that would break any rational understanding of physics. Jesus’s alchemy not enough Ada Palmer added soul creation to the armamentarium of his stand-in.
But we’ll hear how this is possible next time. Maybe. After we’re force fed how Kant had therefore to remove knowledge, in order to make room for belief. I have to remove knowledge of what a sci-fi novel is supposed to be in order to believe the quotes on the dust jacket for this novel are sincere.