A Divisive Contender: A Review of Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning

Too Like the Lightning (2016)
Written by: Ada Palmer
Genre: Speculative Fiction
Pages: 433 (Nook)
Series: Book 1 of Terra Ignota
Publisher: Tor

Why I Chose It: It was nominated for the Hugos. Also, a friend who knows my taste very well sent me the link and explained that I had to read this book, and I was going to adore it. Was she right? Read on!

The Premise:

Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer–a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.

The world into which Mycroft and Carlyle have been born is as strange to our 21st-century eyes as ours would be to a native of the 1500s. It is a hard-won utopia built on technologically-generated abundance, and also on complex and mandatory systems of labeling all public writing and speech. What seem to us normal gender distinctions are now distinctly taboo in most social situations. And most of the world’s population is affiliated with globe-girdling clans of the like-minded, whose endless economic and cultural competition is carefully managed by central planners of inestimable subtlety. To us it seems like a mad combination of heaven and hell. To them, it seems like normal life.

And in this world, Mycroft and Carlyle have stumbled on the wild card that may destabilize the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life…

Few to no spoilers.

Discussion: A cursory review of other reviews (some formal, some informal) of Too Like the Lightning suggests to me that this is perhaps one of the more divisive contenders for the Hugo. And I have a theory as to why, which requires we take a very short digression into why people seem to love or hate not this book, per se, but another: Snow Crash.

How you feel about Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash? I happen to love it. I will frequently name it my favorite speculative fiction novel. Have you read Snow Crash? Did you like Snow Crash? Why or why not? Because whether people like or hate that book tends to turn not on the plot, or the characters, but on the answer to a single question utterly unrelated to either: How you, the reader, felt about the parts of Snow Crash where Stephenson bleeds an ocean of ink explaining Mesopotamian mythology, linguistics and programming languages instead of moving the action along. Maybe you loved it (I did). Maybe you hated it (I know several readers who I thought would have loved Snow Crash who utterly hated it because they could not stand these parts). Maybe you sort of grit your teeth and tolerated it while muttering “that’s what an appendix is for, Neal.”

If you’ve read Snow Crash, think really hard about how you’d answer that question. Now think about whether you want to read a novel that’s 433 pages of Snow Crash-ian info-dumping, with a heavy layer of jargon that doesn’t always get explained until 30 pages or more after the term starts getting flung around like it’s something important. Add to that a cast of extremely interesting characters, some astonishing visual description and at least one character who made me want race out and begin dressing like a 1800’s dandy. That’s Too Like the Lightning in a nutshell.

You might get the impression I did not like this book. In a manner of speaking, I didn’t LIKE this book. I LOVED this book. This book was to me as the sweet sound of the wet food can being popped open is to my geriatric elder cat. But I am one of those people who read Snow Crash and went “you know, what this book was missing was another 100 pages of the Librarian explaining the concept of neurocognitive hacking and how it relates to the Poetic Edda and the making of fine Italian loafers.” I got to the end of Too Like the Lightning, looked up from my tablet, and declared that what I wanted most out of life at that precise moment in my life was another 400+ pages of Palmer tilting her head, chewing on her pencil eraser thoughtfully, doing a crushing amount of research and then extrapolating a sometimes almost-nightmarish/sometimes almost-utopian scenario of what happens when gender norms get deliberately eroded, religion is shoe-horned entirely in the most personal of spheres and self-driving flying cars become not only commonplace but have changed nearly everything about how most of human society functions.

Oh, and there’s a little boy who can animate the inanimate, and the very first thing we see him do is struggle with the concept of death because one of his troop of little green army men met a melodramatic end. That’s not a major spoiler, by the way: I promised few to no spoilers. This scene happens in the first five pages of the narrative proper. And I say the narrative proper because the book really does not begin with the moment we see Bridger (said child) and Mycroft (our erstwhile protagonist and narrator) contemplate whether little green army men (or any of us, really) have an afterlife and what the moral ramifications of re-animating a little green army man said child animated in the first place are. It begins in the pages that immediately precede it, in which we are told what secular and demi-religious institutions approved the writing of this book of Mycroft’s, what its rating is, and are put on notice that Mycroft (by which we ultimately mean Palmer) has chosen to write it in a style that is not just anachronistic by Mycroft’s future, but our present.

This book is often funny (by certain values of funny — I admit contemplating the afterlife of little green army men made me giggle hysterically), sometimes frustrating (I have a high jargon tolerance and this book made even me wish for footnotes), but always fascinating.

In Conclusion: A witty work that occasionally suffers from the negative effects of its own meticulously thought-out and researched worldbuilding. I believe it would be a worthy winner if it is selected for the Hugo, but I fear its chances may be diminished by an over-reliance on jargon that is not always explained in a timely fashion.


  • Elena August 11, 2017 at 10:09 am

    I have such mixed feelings about this book. I really liked the world-building, but by the end of the second book, I hated the plot and all of the characters. (This may have something to do with my longtime aversion to secret societies.) I ended up feeling like I’d wasted my time – and like the author wasted an amazing setting on a boatload of despicable characters.

  • Lane Robins August 11, 2017 at 10:50 am

    Sounds fascinating. I don’t know if it’ll be to my tastes or not (not having read Snow Crash!) but I’m determined to give it a try.

    • Shara White August 11, 2017 at 12:16 pm

      I thought of seeing if you’d read this book originally. It seemed up your alley!


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