(2016) Ada Palmer, Head of Zeus, £18.99, hrdbk, 448pp, ISBN 978-1-786-69948-0
Too Like the Lightning is the first in a series, 'Terra Ignota', and as such has a lot of world-building to do. It’s also Ada Palmer’s first published novel, which usually means it is not quite the real deal. But this book and its author have won awards (The 2017 Compton Crook Award for best first novel and The John W Campbell Award 2017 for best new writer) and made the 2017 Hugo shortlist, so expectations should be duly raised.
Ada Palmer’s day job is teaching history at the University of Chicago, and it shows, both in the attention to world-building detail in this novel and the tone, which manages to make the 24th century sound at times almost ancient. Palmer was aiming, I think, for 18th century – the time of the Enlightenment – that inspires the ideas in this ambitious novel.
And there is an old-fashioned feel to this narrative, despite the setting, which is deliberate. Maybe it’s the direct address ‘dear reader’ style, or the rather contrived ‘chapter the first (etc)’ chapter headings. Or maybe it’s the characters. Mycroft Canner narrates the story – he is a convicted criminal, which in the future means he’s stripped of everything he owns and is effectively homeless, forced to wander around the world doing good deeds as a Servicer. But because he’s a genius he ends up helping the rich and powerful, the great people who now rule the world in seven separate ‘Hives’. He is asked to investigate a theft, which leads to mysteries, conspiracies, and a thirteen year old boy with special powers that threatens the existing order. As a counterpoint to Canner, there’s the spiritualist ‘sensayer’ Carlyle Foster, offering a different philosophical point of view.
The Hive leaders get ranked every year, which affects the standing, power and influence of their Hive. But the list gets stolen just before publication, leading to speculation about its potentially destabilising contents – and its thief.
But that’s just plot. What the book is really about is an exploration of the ideas of the French Enlightenment played out in the future – Voltaire is the starting point (well, Palmer is an historian after all). Role of the people in politics, role of religion (God’s been banished), role of women (everyone is supposed to be gender neutral, with ‘they’ the preferred personal pronoun), even the functioning of the criminal justice system (which allows mass-murderer Canner freedom and power) – all are explored.
The book’s admirable in its scope and attention to detail, less so its pace and clarity: it’s not a page-turner, but it never purports to be that. What it is, though, is a book that’s quirky and makes you think. Does it meet those Hugo expectations? I think so, and the second volume, with presumably less world-building and more narrative, should be even better.
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