And then, occasionally, one happens on a work that achieves its lofty goals, whose very scope is its prime recommendation. Here, we may use "ambitious" as unqualified praise, as a straightforward descriptor.
And such a work is Ada Palmer's "Too Like The Lightning", her first novel, released earlier this year.
Possible spoilers below:
With the better works of SF, I often find myself using Suvin's idea of the novum in thinking about them: what are the new ideas, the big concepts at play? Here, besides Bridger's magic, there's only one other novum. But, like the best inventions, it has consequences so big and new that the gizmo itself doesn't take up much of our attention. And just to put the icing on the cake, Palmer's world-transforming invention is one of the oldest and campiest in the stable: the flying car. We're not given a technophilic tour of these cars—it's not that kind of SF—but we can piece together a few things. By and large, they're not privately owned, but are called when needed. They're astonishingly fast—over 900kph—and they've practically replaced all other form of human transportation. Finally—and this is the kind of novel it is—the massive universal mobility they afford, in conjunction with some other factors, put paid to the idea of the geographic nation. People may now voluntarily join a "Hive" based on shared principles, as well as self-identifying with any number of "strats" (cultural identification, political groups, interests, hobbies).
|Voltaire looms large here.|
Besides these giant world-shaping political ideas and their manifestation in jet-setting court intrigue, Palmer also serves us too many smaller but no less brilliant ideas to recount, from a whole nation of Utopians dead-set on defeating death and colonizing Mars to an Academy Award category for "smelltracks". There's also a minimally-explained class of people called "set-sets" that are raised in virtual environments from birth to have unusual mental abilities that I can't wait to hear more about, and who remind me a bit of the conundrum of the azi in Cherryh's SF.
All to say: this novel is chock full of ideas both heavy and light, and often with clear reference to their historical sources. Palmer, who teaches history at the University of Chicago (and whose twitter account, by the way, is a stream of cool pictures of sculptures etc. from her travels), has explained her work as extrapolating a future from a little larger dataset than most SF—rather than just looking at a current or near-future technology, she's looking at long-term patterns, like the way transportation patterns have unexpected ramifications.
Goodness, I've gotten this far into the review without mentioning the most unforgettable part of this book: its narrator, Mycroft Canner, and the style he imparts to the book. This will be challenging for some readers, rewarding for others—I'm hesitating to recommend this to some bookclubs, but excited to hear what others think. The novel is written in the form of an 18th century confessional novel, with Mycroft breaking the fourth wall to address the reader directly throughout. Indeed, it's almost aggressively whimsical. It drops into a script format at times. Mycroft will interject in a scene that he's not actually present for, to remind you that this is a reconstruction and possibly inaccurate. Didactic monologues from characters and narrator alike are gleefully constructed and sometimes overtly begged pardon for. Mycroft addresses his novel to a future reader—so Palmer maintains this slightly discordant frisson around every infodump, Mycroft giving context to an audience that he assumes will need some help; since we're in the his past and not his future, though, there's sometimes this intriguing and, I suspect, completely intentional mismatch between what his actual and putative readers need. He even engages in arguments with "us", bowing to or failing our supposed demands.
It's an astonish feat, especially at such length, though I imagine many readers will be turned off by it. However, without this sort of volubly, apologetically unreliable narrator, Palmer wouldn't be able to pull off one the novel;s most sophisticated tricks, which is the way it approaches sex and gender.
The ending of this! To run into a cliffhanger after such a slow-burning buildup! The way that Palmer maintains a rising tension and tempo for this length—especially couched in such academic fittings—is another example of ambition achieved. While one is trying to parse the Black Sakura affair, and wondering when Bridger is going to show up again, distracted and enlightened by lengthy exposition—Palmer sneaks up on us with revelations about Mycroft's horrific, Hannibal Lecter-ish criminal history, with a literally orgy of power, with strong hints that one of the world's elite might be a neuro-atypical but literal god. Oh, and there's this warehouse full of toys that is just begging to be animated, suspenseful situations galore...and then it just ends! Fortunately, the next in the trilogy is already on its way to shelves, and one hears the third is written, so we'll not be left hanging long.
In conclusion: a really brilliant novel, one that really adds to the great conversation of speculative fiction, and and one that I imagine will be strong contender for a slew of awards. It is a challenging novel, and I don't want to skip over that from a recommendation standpoint; it's also a deeply rewarding novel, and I can't wait to talk about it with more folks.