As I chatted to fellow sci-fi fans at Worldcon 75, dashing between panel events and signings, there was one book on everyone's lips. You could hear its name whispered with quiet reverence in the halls of the Helsinki Messukeskus Expo and Convention Centre. It was mentioned by fans, authors and publishers as a great work of the genre. Those who had read it, found it hard to describe but were full of praise.
The novel I’m referring too was Ada Palmer's Too Like The Lightning, which won The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer at the Worldcon 75 Hugo Awards. It has been a huge hit with sci-fi readers and has catapulted debut author Palmer to fame amongst sci-fi fandom. It was the talk of Worldcon, and I had to read it.
Upon reading Too Like The Lightning, the first thing I noticed was that is not a hugely accessible book. This is not a negative point, if you this is the type of book that you enjoy. One of my least favourite features of a sci-fi novel is clunky info-dumping, describing exactly how a star ship or society functions. Making a novel accessible can come at a cost.
One of my favourite novels is Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief, which drops the reader straight into a far future universe and expects them to find their own way. Too Like The Lightning is not dissimilar. The book throws a lot at its readers and expects them to keep pace. This is a book that respects the reader's intelligence.
The narrator, Mycroft Canner, does explain a few features of life in Palmer's twenty-fifth century Earth, such as example how their society idealises our own eighteenth century. It does help, reading this book, if you have a basic knowledge of Voltaire, De Sade, and other luminaries of the eighteenth century. Their ideas are central to Palmer's world and the story she is telling.
Where many sci-fi novels delight in the particulars of particle physics or cosmology, this novel is hard-social-science fiction. Having a basic grasp of the principles being discussed will help the reader. I have always been more interested in the societies and politics of sci-fi worlds, as opposed to their gadgets or weapons, and so I really enjoyed this aspect of the novel.
The world that Palmer has created seems complex and strange to us, but after spending a few hours there it becomes as believable as our world. The rich details that Palmer has used to develop this world and the philosophy behind it - drawing on her own expertise as a professor of history at the University of Chicago specialising in early modern Europe and the Renaissance, make it an entirely plausible future where we don't have nation states, genders or wars.
Palmer's world is not perfect. This society is not utopian or dystopian. They have solved some of the problems of our world and created some new problems of their own. Like any society in our world, some of its aspects we could learn from and others we would find frightening. This world is as detailed, complex, flawed and beautiful as our own.
The plot of Too Like The Lightning is engaging and interesting. I will avoid saying too much about it here, as I think you'll enjoy the book more coming to it with little prior knowledge of the plot, as I did. The opening chapter is especially strong, grabbing the reader's attention and immersing them in the story while the strangeness of this world unfolds around them.
There are a lot of interesting meanders along the way, although I felt the plot did lose some focus in the final third. It's worth noting that this novel is the first in a series, and it doesn't have a definite conclusion. The final chapter of Too Like The Lightning is a work of brilliance, transforming much of what has just been experienced in the mind of the reader. It left me wanting to start the sequel, Seven Surrenders, as soon as possible.
The characters are very strong. There are many of the them and each has their own life and a sense that they are an independent person with their own fears and desires, not just pieces being moved about in a story. Some of the standout characters are the narrator, Mycroft, who is an excellent guide to Palmer's world. Carlisle Foster stands in for the reader as someone new to the events of the plot and asks the questions that we want answers too. The Alphas, the seven leaders of this future, are all really interesting characters whose personalities reflect the diverse societies that created them. The Alphas’ court politics is both fascinating to read about and is as believable as any history of the nobility of the eighteenth century.
Too Like The Lightning is a really interesting book, filled with the imagination that makes science fiction such a fun genre to read. Palmer's world is a great place to spend a few hours and her characters are likeable companions while you're there.
If the description above has intrigued you, then go read it. I strongly recommend it - but, be warned, this book is not for everyone. Those who like this type of interesting and imaginative social science fiction will love this book.