Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review- Too Like the Lightning

Usually, when people describe a work as ambitious, it's a kind of unintentionally back-handed compliment: its successes aren't substantial enough to comment on, but we'll award it consolation points for the scope of its intentions. One hears it of concept albums, of political agendas that are laudable but unlikely; one uses it for novels whose elevator pitch is in the clouds, even if the execution stumbles badly.

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:

Well, and what's it about? Set on Earth in the 25th century, the novel has two main plotlines. In one, an opaque and convoluted conspiracy threatens to upset the balance of power, possibly ending a centuries-long peace. In the other, we meet Bridger, an orphan child with potentially world-altering and frankly magic abilities: Bridger can bring images to life, whether that's a plastic toy soldier or a crayon drawing labelled "healing potion". One thinks, fondly and perhaps inevitably, of  Lynne Banks' "The Indian in the Cupboard" (1980) or Mary Norton's "The Borrowers" (1952), and Palmer capitalizes on some of the same themes—smallness, secrecy, displacement, childhood—to evoke frailty, humanity, ethics. Bridger's essentially Socratic dialog with another character as they debate whether or not to bring one of the toy soldiers back to life is a brilliant scene, and a microcosm of this novel—using elements both fantastic and science fictional to set up a discussion of very real problems and ideas, drawing heavily on real historical ideas throughout. That Palmer can successfully juxtapose Bridger and the gang of toys with a larger, adult, and non-supernatural world is but one example of the daring strategies here.

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).

Palmer's world of flying cars thus puts one in mind a bit of the "jaunting" in Bester's "The Stars My Destination" (1957), bringing about social upheaval, or the farcaster network in Simmons' "Hyperion" (1989), allowing people to commute between worlds as easily as stepping from room to room. However, her fast and easy transport plays out as an exploration of identity, of the way that material conditions modify the social contract. This kind of boundary-less, voluntary and mutable self-presentation is like an ideal take on identity in the internet age, or an extrapolation of the never-quite-realized promise of telecommuting.

In the list of groups and attributes one may align with, there's one conspicuously absent: religion. The flying car enabled the post-geographic nation, but the transition was motivated by the Church Wars, a series of near-apocalyptic conflict attributed to religious belief. In the present of Palmer's novel, a globally-held First Law prohibits more than two people talking together about theological ideas, as this would constitute a church. Against this regulated absence of religion, however, Palmer introduces the profession of "sensayer", a kind of theologist-counselor who helps people come to their own conclusions in one-on-one sessions. One hears some resonance with Card's Speakers, and indeed there's a striking number of similarities between "Too Like The Lightning" and Card's stronger work—the tangled importance of family, the debates over political and ethical theory even in the midst of the action, the memory of the disruptive supernatural in an otherwise materialist SF world (here, Bridger, there, Jane). One can't quite imagine Card weaving a world with so many shades of grey in it, however, and one must rather chuckle thinking of what he'd make of Palmer's take on gender and sexuality. More on that in a minute.

Voltaire looms large here.
Bridger the magic child, set against a conspiracy in this post-national, post-religious world (the conspiracy is a fairly flimsy thing, dangerous only for how it reveals the incestuous cronyism of the very elite and, perhaps, the way that demographic shifts may be leading the world away from its current equilibrium)—are enough to give you a sense of the plot. Plot, however, is not why you should be reading this, nor will it be what most folks are talking about. The ideas themselves—in scope, in range—propel "Too Like the Lightning" into a rarefied class, SF works that ring clear as novels of ideas, bringing to mind recent works like KSR's "2312" (2012), Stephenson's "Anathem" (2008), or particularly Walton's "The Just City" (2015) and sequels—although stylistically quite different, if the concerns and intellectual rigor of Walton's Platonic investigations struck your fancy, you should most definitely read "Too Like the Lightning". The political structures of this world, which I've barely sketched above, are fascinating in their own right, richly detailed, and self-reportedly draw on a host of real traditions including ancient Rome and (most prominently) the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau.

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.

As an aside, I have to point out that placing "Too Like The Lightning" in a science-fictional family tree would require many lines drawn back to Herbert—"Dune" (1965) most obviously, with its emphasis on character-driven politics (or is that the other way around?) and sustained musings on the course of history and religion, not to mention a sort of calculated anachronism, but Palmer's novel actually had me thinking of Herbert's sadly underdeveloped ConSentiency universe, with its teleportation, complicated legal and bureaucratic systems, its hints of a just but somewhat anarchic political order.

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.

In this future, we're told, society has completely moved past the question of gender—people don't generally use the words "man" or "woman" or gendered pronouns. However, Mycroft, to better explain power dynamics and cultural cues to his supposed audience, genders his cast as he describes them—but unreliably, moving back and forth from "they" to "he" and "she" for the same character, or forgetting to gender someone for pages at a time, or prominently drawing attention to the mismatch between sex and gender for a certain character, while reminding us throughout that the characters themselves don't primarily think of themselves this way. All while deflecting the protestations of his supposed audience—an inversion that's almost a parody of some readers of gender-experimental SF. Where so many readers of Leckie's "Ancillary" books I've talked to seem obsessed with knowing what sex or gender a character is, really, Mycroft's readers are aghast at his archaic and utterly inappropriate gendering of these characters. It's a fascinating strategy, and while it certainly lacks the efficiency of Leckie's project, it's also a much more nuanced and centralized discussion of gender dynamics. I doubt if it's her final word on the subject, but the last quarter of the book or so seems to characterize gender as merely a kind of fetish, granted a potent and ancient one, which is perhaps the most cutting analysis yet presented in the genre.

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.

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