Too Like the Lightning
by Ada Palmer
Tor Books, $26.99, 432pp
Publication: May 2016
Too Like the Lightning takes place 400 years in the future, after humanity has reorganized itself into social polities, called hives, based on shared interests and abilities rather than countries of origin; as a consequence, humans tend to be happier and a great deal more productive. (Intriguingly enough, Hugo-award winner Robert Charles Wilson recently explored a similar theme in his SF novel The Affinities; this may be an idea whose time is coming.)
Furthermore, since the social factor that historically gave rise to the most wars has been outlawed, most people get along reasonably well. This is not a Utopian society; people still cheat, lie, steal, even murder, but most of them don’t have to spend their lives in a desperate struggle for survival, food, shelter, employment, or affection. Instead, they get to live on the higher levels of Abraham Maslow’s pyramid, concentrating on friendship, play, creativity, achievements, and problem-solving. People can give indications of their alliances via articles of clothing, jewelry, insignia, etc. These indicators are fascinating -- everything from color-coded sashes to swords, from rings to boots. The narrator’s attention to these revelatory details reminds me of the training in observation Kim receives before he embarks on The Great Game, when -if he spits, or sneezes, or sits down other than as the people do whom he watches, he may be slain. It turns out that this future society is, itself, transitional. With the birth, survival, and protected upbringing of a boy called Bridger, radical changes and breathtaking new possibilities are in store. Some might hail Bridger as a Messianic character; others as an expression of evolution, possibly one of many born over centuries with similar abilities, but the one who actually had the goo d fortune to survive all the dangers that so easily overtake children, especially the different ones. Bridger’s guardians include a fierce woman named Thisbe, a murder, and a living doll. The murderer, Mycroft Canner, is also the narrator.
The penance for crimes that rob the world of something irreplaceable, like a human life, is to become a Servicer, a sort of permanently indentured servant to the world at large. Mycroft has any number of skills that make him valuable to men and women who wield tremendous power, so he travels is rarified circles, but protecting Bridger is his self-imposed priority. To say that his various loyalties and obligations come into conflict is a huge understatement. The trouble starts when somehow Mycroft is framed for the theft of a politically sensitive document, which brings the world’s most dangerous investigators right into Bridger’s home.
At the heart of Mycroft’s narrative is the mystery of why he is the most notorious murderer on the planet. Just how many people did he kill, or who, and why, and how? The answers to these questions unfold like the petals of a poisonous flower.
Another crucial character is Carlyle Foster; himself something of a mystery that Mycroft sets out to solve. Carlyle is a Sensayer, a sort of self-imposed Servitor driven by a mix of dedication and necessity. Sensayers are not criminals; they prevent criminal behavior by providing a safety valve for the controlled release of the single most dangerous of human tendencies. Carlyle discovers Bridger by accident, but quickly becomes another of his guardians, a most essential one.
There are too many wonderful characters for me to pick a favorite. That said, I admire Palmer’s method for providing a warrior’s perspective and authority in the form of the Major, with a chorus of fighter viewpoints from his squad. If wars are a thing of the past, how can there be soldiers? Well, that’s part of the surprise of the first chapter, so I’ll not give it away, but it’s ingenious.
The least political and the least populous of the social groups is the hive of the Utopians. There is an interval in which the narrator describes their work, what motivates them, and what they create; which is the part of the story I love best. Given that the author also wrote a song called Somebody Will with the following chorus, I hazard a guess it would be the hive she would join:
But we are willing to sacrifice something we don’t have for something we won’t have so somebody will, so somebody will someday.
Too Like the Lightning is a tour-de-force. Ada Palmer, known to some of us as the composer-writer-chief performer of the song cycle Sundown: Whispersof Ragnarok, is a scholar, linguist, visionary, and master of literary devices. She is a master because she serves what she loves: the art of storytelling, and stories themselves, that have a life of their own, but only live when someone gives expression to them. I have this image in my mind of Palmer at her computer, with three or four muses clustered around her: Calliope certainly; Clio, beside her; Thalia and Melpomene competing, perhaps, for the dominant voice and last word. Here’s the thing of it: when writers like Steven Brust and Robert Charles Wilson endorse a newcomer, you may be sure you are in for something truly special, for they simply would not give their word of honor on behalf of anything less. ~~ Chris Paige