Julie's Reviews > Too Like the Lightning

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
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2017 Hugo nominee for Best Novel, and oh my god, what am I going to say about this book. I think it's getting my second-place vote -- first-place honours going to A Closed and Common Orbit because it's a tightly-constructed, intimate examination of themes that made me cry, but Too Like the Lightning is just so goddamn ambitious and original that I have to give it props.

I kept mentally comparing it to Ninefox Gambit (possibly appropriate, considering Palmer & Lee know each other and she mentions him in the acknowledgments), except that Palmer knows how to present a world far, far better. You're thrown in the deep end here, but I could swim: slowly unearthing more about her world of the 25th century, and I was constantly riveted to find out more about how it worked. It was just familiar enough, and there's a point to all this nutty worldbuilding. It's a massive sociological, psychological, utopian experiment. It's a portrait of a futuristic society that reflects back on our own treatment of politics, gender, sexuality, and even convict rehabilitation.

The plot, in the simplest terms: An ex-convict investigates a newspaper break-in that may threaten his protection of a young boy raised in secret who has the miraculous ability to bring imaginary things to life. The world is set against the familiar framework of cyberpunk corporatocracies, e.g. Mitsubishi now being something like a nation in its own right. And the world has also become multicultural and globalist, as revolutionary changes in transit speed have broken down the divisions between nations: you can lunch in Chile before having a meeting in Paris, then sleeping in your apartment in Tokyo.

But it is so much more than that. It's a world that has tried to censor everything problematic and yet isn't quite dystopian, that contains several different societies (Hives) striving to find the best way to run a world. Society has become de-gendered and gender neutral in an attempt to eliminate prejudice. After crippling Church Wars, even any discussion of theology has been outlawed except in carefully-supervised one-on-one environments. Which may make these hot-button issues seem neutered and toothless and safe, but as the book goes on, you of course realise there's a secret illicit underbelly to all of this, and there's always ways to circumvent the rules.

The book is slow-going, more anchored in philosophical meanderings than fast-paced plot, which might make it a tough read along with its purposefully antiquated writing style that evokes the 18th century, in order to engage with the Enlightenment and the philosophers that the narrator constantly namedrops and discusses (another source of confusion if you're unfamiliar with them, but I managed to stay afloat).

Non-spoilery detailed thoughts below the cut and separated by subject, but there is just So Much to talk about that this review turned into an incoherent essay:

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(view spoiler)

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I literally don't know how to sum this up. It's about everything. Case in point, here are my GR shelves: cyberpunk, dysfunctional-families, futuristic, i-truly-hate-cliffhangers, lgbtqa, on-language, politics, religion-and-religious-identity, terrible-people, thrillers-crime-mysteries, unreliable-narrators, your-mileage-may-vary (esp. seeing how many people shelved this under abandoned/dnf)

It's crazy ambitious and a bit of a mess but I really, really like it because of how hard it tried. A quote from Palmer's impassioned, earnest acknowledgments at the end: 'I wanted [to be an author] 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.'

It succeeded in that, at least. I genuinely disliked philosophy when I studied it in college (these fusty, dried-up old white men just vomiting their words into the ether!), but this is a more direct, dynamic engagement of those subjects, and made me actually care about philosophy and has given me so damned much to think about.

So kudos, Ada. You did good.
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Reading Progress

April 28, 2017 – Shelved
April 28, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
April 28, 2017 – Shelved as: hugo-awards-2017
July 10, 2017 – Started Reading
July 12, 2017 –
35.0% "This book is bonkers & takes a little getting used to, but I am kinda falling in love."
July 14, 2017 – Shelved as: cyberpunk
July 14, 2017 – Shelved as: unreliable-narrators
July 14, 2017 – Shelved as: futuristic
July 14, 2017 – Shelved as: dysfunctional-families
July 14, 2017 – Shelved as: i-truly-hate-cliffhangers
July 14, 2017 – Shelved as: lgbtqa
July 14, 2017 – Shelved as: on-language
July 14, 2017 – Shelved as: politics
July 14, 2017 – Shelved as: religion-and-religious-identity
July 14, 2017 – Shelved as: terrible-people
July 14, 2017 – Shelved as: thrillers-crime-mysteries
July 14, 2017 – Shelved as: your-mileage-may-vary
July 14, 2017 – Finished Reading
August 14, 2017 – Shelved as: dmla

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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Philip Wonderful essay! Haha you actually do bring up lots of great points and have even given me a little refresher before starting Seven Surrenders (soon!) Thanks for sharing that link to the tor article! This is just such an exciting series! Not even in terms of plot, just in the sheer amount of speculation going on.


Silyara You said about like... all my feelings on this book. Also, I too need to read the second one. But I'm unsure if I should reread this first because it's been like a year.


Caitlin Just finished this yesterday and you summed up my thoughts so well! I think this could be required reading in first year philosophy classes and it would engage people much more than conventional philosophy texts! You should check out the print book, it’s beautifully designed with 18th century typographical elements.


Julie @Caitlin: AGREED. I would've looooved to read this shit in Arts One, omg. Also, thank you for inadvertently reminding me I need to finish my review for the third book! I purposefully read the physical copy of that one since I'd heard about the typographical elements in the previous books, but unforts #3 didn't seem to have too much of that going on :( Clearly I'll just have to find the previous ones in-store and flip through.


Caitlin They're really great touches at the beginnings of chapters, mostly. And there is a frontispiece that gets more elaborate. I started Seven Surrenders today because what else am I going to read after this!?


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