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Too Like the Lightning

(Terra Ignota #1)

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  11,820 ratings  ·  1,894 reviews
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 Mycro
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published May 10th 2016 by Tor Books
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Ada Palmer Great question! Separate answers on gender & religion, but parallel in some ways: in these books I'm attempting to depict a future that has developed …moreGreat question! Separate answers on gender & religion, but parallel in some ways: in these books I'm attempting to depict a future that has developed very well on some fronts, but badly on others, with some great successes (150 year lifespan! World peace!) and some great failures (Another world war, censorship...) Two of its greatest failures/tensions are on the fronts of gender & religion.

On the religious front, fear of organized religion, caused by religious violence, has led to severe censorship of religious discourse & the outlawing of any organized religion outside of "reservations" <= an intentionally very alarming term. All people are expected to have religious opinions, and have religious discourse with licensed "sensayers" in a one-on-one therapy setting, but to even discuss it in a group is both taboo and illegal. The book then looks at the effects this has on people, and looks especially at the problems created by stifling discourse, especially when something which appears to be a genuine miracle occurs but no one is allowed to talk about it, let alone deal with its global consequences.

I certainly intend the book to be respectful of and positive about religion, and to be commenting on a tension which has been growing in our society of late, between people who feel it's important to be public/out about religion, and people who feel uncomfortable when asked about their religion, as if it were a violation of privacy. I've had a mixture of reactions to the book, from some readers who say it feels like a paradise having religion be silenced and private like that, to others who say it feels like an oppressive dystopia with no place for them if they can't have religious gatherings or wear a religious symbol in public. That split is precisely what I was aiming for, since much of my goal is to look at a tension within our own society that isn't discussed much, and to demonstrate how people who want religion to be public and people who want it to be private can be in tension with each other even if they both happen to be believers, or even share the same faith.

As for gender, this is only begun in book 1 and really fleshed out in book 2, but this is intended to be a future that botched its gender development, where a our current efforts to secure more openness toward gender variation, our transgender rights efforts, our feminist efforts, a vast array of social efforts related to gender, all failed without people realizing that they failed. The narrator argues that the society he lives in is not a gender neutral society, but just pretends to be gender neutral; the only acceptable pronouns are they/them/theirs, and gendered expression is taboo, something which most people think is a great step toward equality without thinking about what it stifles. While people in this world believe that gender is a thing of the past, the narrator believes that gender is still a powerful force in how people think, creating tensions, inequalities, vulnerabilities, and suppressing self-expression. Because the society has declared that gender is gone, all dialog about the issue ended, so all efforts toward improving on it are now impossible. The conversation ended too soon, and now people who want to express gender can only do so in secret or transgressive ways. Over the course of the book, the reader is supposed to think about the narrator's opinions about gender in this society, and decide whether we believe his analysis.

The narrator applies gendered pronouns to the characters, but we know that the narrator is doing this himself, without the consent of those he is gendering, and we also know that he's doing it, not based on bodies/assigned gender, but based on his opinions of people's personalities and how they fit his own sense of gender. Sometimes he oscillates or professes uncertainty about which to use. Gender identities other than "male" and "female" come into play more in book 2, and we see some of our narrator's ineptitudes in dealing with them. This narrator seems to be comfortable with "he" and "she" being related to personality rather than anatomy, but struggles when people are in-between, demonstrating how he too is trapped in this future's failure to complete gender liberation.

The whole reading experience -- experiencing this gender-silenced world and the narrator's inept obsession with gender -- are supposed to show the possible negative consequences of us giving up the conversation too soon. From time to time you hear people say things like "Feminism is finished" or "Women have the vote, feminism is done, it's time to move on," which is, of course, deeply false, and indeed dangerous, since we have so much further to go. This book posits a future where society DID move on too soon, both from the feminism conversation and from the gender/transgender/intersex/divergent gender conversation, achieving the surface victory of gender neutral pronouns and declaring it to be a kind of liberation whereas it is actually a vast act of censorship masking the fact that the much deeper, larger liberation which we're fighting for now has, in this future, been thrown away. Looking at a world that failed on gender is uncomfortable, intentionally so, but I hope it will help people come away with the conviction that we must do better than this, offering a new way to prove how important it is to keep fighting.

Hope these answers help?(less)
Mike A belated answer.

While the narrator says he's writing in an 18th century style, that's not how the book reads. If you imagine a knob where 0 is 21st c…more
A belated answer.

While the narrator says he's writing in an 18th century style, that's not how the book reads. If you imagine a knob where 0 is 21st century prose, and 10 is Jonathan Swift or Laurence Sterne, or whoever: for most of the book, the knob is set at around 2. Just enough to make the language a bit distant, but not enough to make it difficult. It's a good choice, and it works well.

However, during the asides to the reader, that knob gets turned to 11. These asides are mostly short. But you also need to think about what's happening. These "dear reader" moments are, first, not anything I remember in 18th century lit. We're talking 19th century: Tony Trollope, not Larry Sterne. (And Trollope's dear readers never argue back. Mycroft's do.) [Well, I re-read Sterne, and he does a "dear reader" that's a lot like these. Sterne pushes the envelope, before there even was an envelope. But again--that is absolutely part of a very complex game the author is playing.] And these moments are written by a fictional 24th century author who is self-consciously imitating that 18th century voice. And, if you really know how 18th century English language works, they're not always correct. The knob is turned to 11, not 10, and that's not an accident. Even given that Mycroft is a brilliant polyglot, he can't always be right about everything. But what games is he playing? What games is his language playing?

If the question is simply "will the antiquated language slow me down," I'd say probably not. But there is a much bigger question: what is that language doing, and why is it doing it? Nothing in this book is accidental; it's been a long time since I've read anything this carefully written. Thinking about the problem of language in this book: that might indeed slow you down. (less)

Community Reviews

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Average rating 3.85  · 
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Start your review of Too Like the Lightning (Terra Ignota, #1)
Update 1/5/17:
Re-read complete! And one thing I can definitely say without hesitation? : Definitely better the second time around.

It's still mightily dense with ideas and worldbuilding and truly fascinating characters that always manage to surprise, surprise again, tease me to death with hints and portents, and then managing to slam me up against the wall in a very civilized fashion before disemboweling me. It's just that kind of novel.

I'm loving the Marquis De Sade commentary as much this time
Althea Ann
Mar 08, 2016 rated it liked it
This is a hard one to review.

It's a very ambitious, very complex, very intelligent novel.

However, it also tries too hard. It's a bit too impressed with itself for being intelligent, ambitious and complex.

More than once, I just felt like sighing and saying, "Relax! Drop all the meta- stuff and just let the inherent qualities of the story shine through without pointing them out to me." However, the book does have many good qualities, and I felt that some people would definitely appreciate its tw
Apr 05, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Stages of me reading this:

Before reading.
You all might notice that my TBR list is always tiny. I get too much anxiety when it's huge, so I'm very picky over putting anything on it. But, when I saw a funky sci-fi that is set in the future:

First few pages
Hum, the author is breaking the fourth wall by talking to us as readers. That's a little annoying, but I can handle it. Oh, I also notice that there will be words like "thee" and "thou" in a book set way in the future.

First chapter
What the hell
4.25ish stars

I won't even attempt a brief summary. The briefest summary I could manage would still be TL;DR. I'll say this: It's ambitious, it's complex, it's confusing, it's got a lot to say.

There are still a lot of things I'm unsure about:

1) Can't quite tell if it's a mess or it's brilliant, probably somewhere in between. I just know that I'm pretty sure I liked it.

2) I say pretty sure because I don't really know if I understood it enough to like it. I'm not very well versed in the philosop
Jo Walton
Aug 27, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Updated to add my review:

But the short version -- they're science fiction that has a solid and fascinating world, great characters, and also that make you think about all kinds of things. Since I read these, hardly a day has gone by when something hasn't made me think of them. It's easy to find books that blow your head off making you think about things in new ways when you're fifteen, it's a lot harder when you're fifty. These books show a future
Jan 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites-2019
I’m so conflicted about this rating that I’m more using this rating as a placeholder. I don’t think a book like this can be properly rated using a star rating system. That’s too simple for a book this complex and layered. I’ll be doing a full review on my channel :)
Mogsy (MMOGC)
3.5 of 5 stars at The BiblioSanctum

Has a book ever made you feel completely uncertain of how you’ll rate it? Like, what if you’re blown away by its ideas, but at the same time they make you feel utterly out of your depth? Or maybe, a book that you didn’t think would fit your tastes actually ends up surprising the hell out of you. Truth be told, it’s not often that I experience such conflict with a novel, but I’m also not surprised to find myself feeling l
Feb 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
[Ok, DEEEEEP BREATH, Basia. You can do this!!!]

Hmmm. I have been a VORACIOUS reader since I can remember, first in Poland, and then in the US. I've mentioned previously that I credit my love of reading with becoming fluent in this language in only six months. Some of you may also know I have edited since I learned the language; it came to me naturally, as I had no preconceived ideas about what the words might look like until I met them; I learned to read, write, and speak these simultaneously, a
Feb 28, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I can't believe I made it! Do you know the kind of dream in which you try to run away or push something open but your limbs are just too gooey, too slow? As if you were under water? Getting through this book was like that.

The story is about the far future. The author deliberately made it "weird" to the reader by creating a world in which gender is not indicated when talking to or about a person, where religion may not be talked about in a group of 3 or more unless an overseer (a sensayer) is pre
Jan 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
If you know anyone who doubts the inventiveness of Science Fiction as a genre, who questions the form’s ability to encompass work of literary value, lend them a copy of Too Like the Lightning. This is a novel of massive ambition, fusing 18th century philosophy and ideas with a very well-built and awesomely convincing science fiction scenario that makes me excited for the future of my favorite genre.

Palmer’s novel sets up a complex future unlike any other I’ve encountered. This is a future earth
Jul 19, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017, owned
Oh wow, I noped hard reading this one. I pushed through swearing and making faces. Because while I really wanted to find the answers to some of the questions, and to see what happens with the premise, the journey... yeah, the journey was mostly interesting and sometimes gripping but... NOT enjoyable. And not for the right reasons, either.

The short version: this book is very messy and some of it is on purpose but I'm not convinced it's worth it, while other ways are (I think) not on purpose, and
Stevie Kincade
(Re-read, original review below)
I loved every minute of re-reading this book. It was completely different reading Ada Palmer's prose from my initial experience listening to the brilliantly performed audiobook. The first time through it seemed like the audiobook required every neuron of my brain to focus on the story to follow it. I was constantly rewinding and writing notes while thoroughly absorbed. This time I could just enjoy the experience and revel in Palmer's (insert superlative) orgasmic
May 28, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: scifi, review-freebie
Originally reviewed at Bookwraiths.

Ambitious. Complex. Thought-provoking. Ada Palmer’s debut novel, Too Like the Lightning, is all those things and more. The book truly an intellectual piece of science fiction literature, not only in its themes (political, societal, philosophical, and religious) but also in the ornate, elegant, and nuanced writing style. Demanding your full attention, this novel’s complete depth cannot be appreciated without devoting time and effort to first consuming it before
Mar 03, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned
Philosophy, science-fiction and theology brought in a compelling faux 18th century style
Man is more ambitious than patient. When we realize we cannot split a true atom, cannot conquer the whole Earth, we redefine the terms to fake our victory, check off our boxes and pretend the deed is done.

A whole new world
Since when are we powerful enough to battle rumor? Truth is water in a sieve. It’s not enough to put your hand across the holes and hope.

Ideas evolving and the world changing because of that
Scott  Hitchcock

You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my
Mar 24, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sci-fi
This is a fascinating and demanding read. One so complex that I don't find it easy to recommend it without adding a 'but.' It's a very ambitious book with an epic scope and intriguing world building. To like this book, you (probably) must either enjoy Voltaire, the 18th century, philosophy, or all of the above. It feels, at times, like the prose and the way Ada Palmer chose to write this book is more important than the plot itself, and not everyone is willing to put in that kind of work.

It plays
Allison Hurd
Second read, Oct 2019--

There were parts that were more upsetting this time, like the strangely specific ethnic markers and the same issues I had the first time. But knowing how this story goes, I was able to appreciate a lot more of the subtlety and construction as well. I'd also read a few interviews in the interim that allowed me to trust more in the process so I could relax and enjoy it. Audio narrator was pretty good.

I've never read anything like this, and I've read a
I recognize that — like many books I love, but even more than most — this book might leave the folks who read it feeling alienated, confused, and estranged from its world and its characters. It’s unquestionably unusual in structure, approach, language, subject, and plot, but it worked its wickedly witty and deeply intelligent spell on me. I found it mesmerizing, as I delighted in parsing its oddities, and I fell in love with its ambitious approach to thinking about humanity’s interconnectedness. ...more
February 2020 Re-read: Combined re-read review of books one and two in spoiler tags. My original review of book one remains below. There aren't actually any spoilers in the re-read review, so feel free to click through. I just wanted to keep the amount of text minimal.

(view spoiler)
Finally finished it... a long read for not a long book.
Did I very much enjoyed parts of it? sure
Did I very much find some parts of it disgusting? again sure
Is this book brilliant?it definitely is

So how I'm going to review this excellent and at same time weird SF book?The story is told by Mycroft Canner the ex mass murderer and convict who now serves society and mostly high powers as a servicer which is now a lighthearted pacifist. This is a new high tech world which countries aren't powers anymo
✘✘ Sarah ✘✘ (former Nefarious Breeder of Murderous Crustaceans)

DNFing this one preemptively.

Because reasons Jilly. Don't blame me, blame her! She mentioned the author Breaking the Fourth Wall of Doom and Disaster and Utter Destruction of All Life on the Planet (BtFWoDaDaUDaALonP™) AND writing never-ending descriptions, which caused this quite unexpected (if a little allergic) reaction:

💌 A very private message for Jilly: thank thee kindly for saving my lovely derriere exoskeleton and stuff.

Mar 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Erik by: Stevie Kincade
Let us, dear reader, began with an examination of the New: many are they who profess a wonderment and a bittersweet nostalgia at the child mindset, for whom all is novel and therefore exciting. If you can indulge my own example, I remember demonstrating basic physics (gravitation) to my three year old nephew. I was highly curious, would he possess the ability to note basic patterns and take delight in them, as I do?

So I gathered many objects, different in shape and material: a small book, a fluf
Para (wanderer)
I’m not sure where to even start with this book – I’m not sure a review can do it justice. I picked it up because I heard about the 18th century references and it turned out to be one of the craziest, best, wildest, most cursed rides involving a lot of quite uncharacteristic incoherent screaming. It has to be experienced to be believed. As hard as it was to tell from my commentary while I was reading it, I think I might have a new favourite series. Definitely not for everyone, but very up multip ...more
Dawn C
10 stars!

Okay, but seriously. I’ve never read anything like this before. Written like a memoir, the narrator, Mycroft, speaks directly to we the readers, drawing us in by constantly breaking the fourth wall, sometimes even having internal debates with us. The language style is an approximation of late 1800s, while the plot takes place in an unrecognizable society in 2454, where nations don’t exist, people pledge allegiance to a Hive with its own set of rules (or they stay Hiveless), and gendered
Dec 12, 2016 rated it liked it
It's the 25th century and our narrator is Mycroft Canner, a Servicer, a property-less criminal made into a servant of society. The world is interconnected by mass transit that means nowhere on Earth is more than a few hours separated, and that, as well as ubiquitous network access and tracking has made the old nation-states largely irrelevant. Instead the social structure of this time is made up of Hives, chosen nations of like-minded individuals, some descended from the old nations, and some fr ...more
Dec 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Three and half stars

(apologies for mistreating the English language)

Crazy, seductive, dizzy, frustrating at times but also with some great ideas... I would need many more adjectives to review Ada Palmer’s novel.

I admit it, in the first chapters (I have reread them three times) I seriously considered to give up, but at last I think the effort was worth.

The author imagines a very detailed and full of nuances future society set in the twenty-fifth century. It reminds me another fascinating book,
This is going to be an incoherent review, so I'll apologize right off the bat. This is not an easy book. It was 430 pages of struggle for me. There are few info dumps. The style is different. Mycroft Canner (the main character) is writing this book in the style of the 18th century (sort of- most of the book is written perfectly normally) to address someone reading it from the future. He frequently addresses the reader, breaking the flow of the narrative to address the reader in thee and thou and ...more
Feb 12, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: giveaways
Too Like the Lightning is a consistently brilliant novel and a relentlessly exhausting one. Ada Palmer clearly possesses a high intellect and a fervent imagination, and her debut novel bears the fruits of that combination with aplomb.
I feel like this is going to be a much talked about and debated novel, and possibly a polarizing one. For now, I think the less said about it the better. But I might find myself inclined to jump into a conversation or two about it down the road.
Some recommendations
Manuel Antão
Jun 27, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2021
If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.

Multifaceted Literacy: "Too Like the Lightning" by Ada Palmer

“I think there is no person, myself aside, so hated by the ambitious of this world as Bryar Kosala, since those who fight viciously to grasp the reins of power cannot forgive the fact that she could rise so high and still be nice. Think of Andō struggling make himself the main head of the Mitsubishi hydra, think of Europe’s Parliamentary campaigns, of the glitter and furor of
Sherwood Smith
Dec 17, 2015 added it
Shelves: sf
The chief appeal of this Novel appears to be that, rather than the entirety of the Interest hanging upon one or two Characters, as is generally the case in novels, the sly narrator introduces us, at first, to a whole ‘family’—herein known as a bash’—every individual of which excites the interest, and both puzzles and Intrigues the Reader.

Initially, the plot seems simple—indeed, more simple than the complexities of bash’ relations—as we discover that what amounts to a yearly list of Popular Figur
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Other books in the series

Terra Ignota (4 books)
  • Seven Surrenders (Terra Ignota, #2)
  • The Will to Battle (Terra Ignota, #3)
  • Perhaps the Stars (Terra Ignota, #4)

Articles featuring this book

  Few things compare to the electric anticipation of the next entry in a series you're obsessed with–you get to drop back into worlds your...
62 likes · 17 comments
“Is it not miraculous, reader, the power of the mind to believe and not believe at once?” 15 likes
“I wanted it so much. So much sometimes it felt like I couldn't breathe. Sometimes I would cry, not because I was sad, but because it hurt, physical pain from the intensity of wanting something so much. I'm a good student of philosophy, I know my Stoics, Cynics, their advice, that, when a desire is so intense it hurts you, the healthy path is to detach, unwant it, let it go. The healthy thing for the self. But there are a lot of reasons one can want to be an author: acclaim, wealth, self-respect, finding a community, the finite immortality of name in print, so many more. But I wanted it to add my voice to the Great Conversation, to reply to Diderot, Voltaire, Osamu Tezuka, and Alfred Bester, so people would read my books and think new things, and make new things from those thoughts, my little contribution to the path which flows from Gilgamesh and Homer to the stars. And that isn't just for me. It's for you. Which means it was the right choice to hang on to the desire, even when it hurt so much.” 11 likes
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