A Future Worth Having: Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning comes out on May 10th, and I’ve read it four times already.

It’s quite a common experience when you’re a teenager to read a book that blows you away, that causes the top of your head to come off and your brain to rearrange itself and be a better more interesting brain thereafter. I’ve talked about this a lot, both in posts here and also fictionally in Among Others, it’s one of the fundamental experiences of the SF reading kid. It’s a much less common experience when you’re grown up. I read books now and I think “Oh I like this! This is a really great example of that thing”. I may get immersed in a book and hyperventilate but I won’t finish a book and think “Wait, who am I? Why is the world like this? Do I even have a head?” This did that to me, it gave me that experience of reading SF when SF was new to me, the feeling that I am a different and better person because I read this, and not only that but a better and more ambitious writer.

Really, I’ve only read the current version of Too Like the Lightning once, but I read three earlier drafts, watching it get better each time. I read it first in 2012. Ada’s a friend—she’s one of the most awesome people I know. She’s a professor of Renaissance history, working on the history of ideas. Some of you may know her blog Ex Urbe. She also composes a capella music for her group Sassafrass, some of you may know her amazing Norse song cycle Sundown Whispers of Ragnarok. I’d known her for quite some time before she let me read Too Like the Lightning. Even in its early draft it blew me away, because it was so impressive, so ambitious, and it was doing so many things at once and making them work. I was lucky enough to read Too Like the Lightning and the sequel Seven Surrenders at the same time. Seven Surrenders will be out in December, so you don’t have long to wait. This is good, because in many ways Too Like the Lightning is introducing the world and setting things up, and then the payoffs come in Seven Surrenders. The payoffs are fabulous, and well worth waiting for, but you should read Too Like the Lightning right now, because even that one book alone is in itself mindblowingly great.

The series name is Terra Ignota, and there will be four books. I’ve read the first three, and I am waiting enthusiastically for book four to be finished.

Too Like the Lightning is a very difficult book to talk about to people who haven’t read it. It’s a huge complex book introducing a huge complex world, and it’s bursting with fascinating ideas. But there’s no simple elevator pitch explanation for it. I’ve spent the last four years dying to talk about it. As people have been reading the ARCs and loving it and posting about it on Twitter—Kark Schroeder (“most exciting SF future I’ve encountered in years”), Fran Wilde (“AMAZEBALLS. GET. READ.”), Ken Liu (“reflective, analytical, smart, beautiful.”), Ellen Kushner (“stylistically wacky and daring”), Max Gladstone (“I’m kind of in love with this book”)—I’ve been bubbling over with “I told you you’d like it!”

Where to start? I once asked Steven Brust (who loves Too Like the Lightning and has written a back cover quote) whether the Vlad books were SF or Fantasy. “Oh yes, absolutely.” he replied, The same goes for Terra Ignota, but from a very different direction. This is science fiction, set in the future, with a moonbase and flying cars and Mars in the process of being terraformed. But it’s also fantasy, with a boy who can do miracles, and among the cans of worms it opens are questions about Providence and souls and immortality. (This isn’t a spoiler, you find out about this very near the beginning.)

It has a wonderful warm first person voice, it’s confiding and confident and draws you into complicity with it. Mycroft Canner, the narrator, has secrets of his own, that are revealed over the course of the narrative. If you’ve read the first chapters, published here, that’s enough to give you the flavour of what the book is doing with that. If you don’t like them, I’d seriously advice against going on with it. I love this book with the passionate love of an exploding supernova, but every book isn’t for everyone. You need to be able to enjoy Mycroft’s voice if you’re going to take this voyage of immersion into a very different world. If you can relax into it and cope with the beautifully written and unusual prose, you’ll find it well worth the effort and very rewarding. I loved the voice from pretty much the first word.

The world of Terra Ignota is a future but a world that grows organically out of our own in a very interesting way. Talking about this with Ada (for an interview that’ll eventually be on Strange Horizons), I realised that in the same way we have too many orphaned characters in genre, we also have too many orphaned futures. I love futures that feel like history—Cherryh, Bujold, Delany—that have the complexity real history has. But too often they don’t have roots in our present and our history, what we have is all new history. Either that, or they come right out of today, but not out of our yesterdays. It feels very odd to read a book written in 1982 and set in 2600 that’s full of the concerns of 1982, with the Cold War still going on, or like those very weird references to Winchell and Lippman in Stranger in a Strange Land. But it’s also odd to read something set in a future where you can’t see any path from here to there and there’s nothing left of our culture. John Barnes’s LOLO universe has a very clear path, but that path starts in such a very near future that it became alternate history before the later books were published. Near future SF does often connect right on, but very often as soon as there’s more distance, we lose the connection, all the and culture and history is new.

Too Like the Lightning happens at the same distance to us that we are to the Renaissance, and many many things have changed, but others have stayed the same. There’s still a European Union—it’s really different, but it’s still there. There’s still a king of Spain. There was a king of Spain in 1600 and there’s one now, and there has been both continuity and a phenomenal amount of change in what it means, and in the Terra Ignota universe that change has continued, but the King of Spain is still there. One of the things that happens historically but that you don’t see much in SF is that periodically different bits of history will be rediscovered and reinterpreted and validated—think of Egypt in Napoleonic France, the classical world in the Renaissance, or the Meiji revival. One of the intriguing things that’s going on in Terra Ignota is a similar kind of reinterpretation of the Enlightenment.

Another is that this is the future of the whole planet—this isn’t a society that has grown just out of today’s America, but also today’s Asia, South America, Europe. What ethnicity means has changed, but it’s still significant, and growing from our past through our present and on into their future.

Some reviewers have been calling the world utopian, and it is certainly a future it’s easy to want to live in. But there are also things about it that are unpleasant—the book begins with a set of permissions for publication. There’s very definite censorship. And while religion is banned as a consequence of the traumatic and long over Church War, everyone has to have a weekly meeting with a “sensayer” (trained in the history of all faiths and philosophies) to talk one on one about metaphysics and belief. Mycroft explains this as the one outlet for talking about this stuff, which would otherwise be utterly repressed, but while I might want to have conversations about the soul with my friends now and then, being forced to have a regular meeting with a trained sensayer strikes me as just as unpleasant as being forced to go to church every week—worse, because it’s not a ritual, it’s a spiritual therapy session. But it’s not dystopian—it’s much more complex. Like history. Like reality.

I said it’s difficult to talk about. Part of that is the way it all fits together, so you start talking about something and you find yourself deep in the whole thing. For a tiny example, I was telling a young friend about the bash’ houses, the fundamental building block of society, replacing nuclear families. Everyone lives in groups of adults, who mostly meet in college. There might be romantic pairings going on within that set (marriage is still a thing) or romantic pairings may be between people in different bash’es, but sex and romance isn’t the point of what draws people into a bash’, friendship is, shared interests and community. (And this makes one think, well, why do we structure our families and living arrangements around sexual attraction anyway? Why did I never wonder about this before? Is it a good idea, now that I think about it?) These are groups of friends, like groups of college friends sharing a house, wandering into the shared areas and hanging out. So bash’es are normal, children grow up in them and connect to their ba’parents and ba’sibs and go on to form bash’es of their own. They believe that this is the way to maximize human potential and happiness. Some people are solitary, but not having a bash’ is really exceptional. “I want to live in one!” my friend said. Well, tough, you can’t, because in this world today it’s hard enough for two people to find work in the same place and stay together, let alone a whole group. It’s the flying cars, the ubiquitous transport system that means no two points on Earth are more than a couple of hours apart that makes bash’es possible. So the flying cars are integral—they’re integral to the plot as well, but I’m not even going to attempt to talk about the plot. The bash’es are a consequence of the technology, and so are a whole bunch of other things. And I mentioned work, work and attitudes to work are another thing that’s really different and interesting in this world.

When I said that I’ve been wanting to talk about Terra Ignota, it isn’t one thing I want to talk about. I want to talk about different things about it with different people in different contexts. With some I want to discuss the huge philosophical questions the series raises. With others I want to talk about the details of social or political organization, or the way the narrative is written (so clever, so delightful) or the way celebrity works, or gender—there are just so many things. Somebody will say something, and I want to refer to the books, on all sorts of subjects. But when it comes to reviewing and recommending Too Like the Lightning, I’m reduced to babbling about the effect it has on me.

Sometimes I read a book and I know it’s going to be a huge important book and everyone’s going to be talking about it and it’s going to change the field and be a milestone for ever after. It’s always a great feeling, but it’s never happened to me before with a first novel written by a friend, which is an even greater feeling.

I’ve been waiting for the book to come out so I can talk to people about it the way I used to wait for Christmas when I was a kid. Read it now. Preorder Seven Surrenders.

Too Like the Lightning is available now from Tor Books. Its sequel, Seven Surrenders, publishes in December 2016.
Read an excerpt from the novel here on Tor.com.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. Necessity, book three in her Thessaly series, is available July 12th from Tor Books. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here irregularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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