Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer

Review copy provided by Tor Books. Further disclosure: while not a close friend, Ada is that next connection out: a close friend of a close friend.

My best history professor once said–to open a class, no less–that one needed a science fictional mindset to understand the past properly. Ada Palmer is a history professor, and she’s setting up this mindset in both directions. Too Like the Lightning is set in the Twenty-Fifth Century but calls upon the Eighteenth as a frame of reference for its events very first thing, as its mode of storytelling, its voice. This could easily be taken for a stylistic whim. That would be a mistake. Nothing here is accidental. It is all very, very thoughtful.

I am trying to avoid spoilers, but: the Eighteenth-Century very carefully sets up a frame of reference that is not our own in a number of ways–gender, politics, religion, questions of innocence, crime, and patronage. If you lose sight of that. If you think that this is a book that is really using the same ideas as you are for guilt and sin, family and priority and importance, you will find yourself abruptly quite wrong, and possibly as upset as one of the characters about it.

There are other historical touchstones. Victor Hugo is specifically called upon to justify the unhappinesses that crop up in the characters’ lives. Why are we not reading a happy book: like many other ideas, this one is touched on explicitly, discussed. There is an entire profession centered around the discussion of ideas about the universe, the sensayer, and a sensayer is a central character to this novel. There is plenty of room to discuss historical figures past and conjectured. What Palmer does not do is fall into the common science fiction writer trap of behaving as though the music and culture of her own teens were eternal to the universe forevermore. This is not just statistically more probable. It’s a hint: do not center 2016 and its concerns in your mind. The characters are not who you want them to be if you are feeling cuddly. They are very thoroughly from another milieu, with its assumptions built in. Even their faults are built into other assumptions completely.

For everyone who has ever asked: where are my flying cars? Fine, here, here are your flying cars. Did you expect them to come with pronoun emphasis changes, multiple interlocking/overlapping changes to the dominant social structure, and plots ranging from a family’s spiritual advice to the fate of what might pass for nations if nations still worked that way? With plenty of murder, gore, and implied sexual content along the way? And arguments between the characters but also between the reader and the narrator? No? Well, we can’t do you blood and love without the rhetoric in this universe, and we can’t do you flying cars without the pronouns and social structures. A lot of things turn out to be compulsory. Diderot does, and imaginary friends. You get a lot for free with your flying cars these days. George Jetson’s hair would curl.

George Jetson’s hair needed it.

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