Fiction Reviews

Too Like the Lightning

(2016) Ada Palmer, Head of Zeus, £8.99, pbk, 533pp, ISBN 978-1-8669950-3


Too Like the Lightning is the debut science fiction novel by Ada Palmer.  Palmer uses her knowledge of history – which she teaches at the university of Chicago – to give the text a historic feel, despite being set in the future.

Mycroft Cannings is a convict who is required by law to perform tasks to any and all who request such and can only be rewarded with gifts of food. He however has some regular clients who call on his more specialised services in data manipulation and intelligence. Through these tasks he has become the confident of many people with political power and possibly one with a power that can’t be explained. Mycroft is the primary narrator of this tale as if it were his recollections of the time, occasionally getting someone else to narrate when he was not present for the scene.

Society has outlawed organised religion, but not personal belief, the discussion of religion is subject to a number of rules to stop the formation of cults. Geographical nations no longer have meaning in the digital age and have largely been replaced by a less tangible definition of identity. The nuclear family has been replaced with groups that you choose rather than one you are born with.

Palmer essentially takes all that we currently believe as being solid and unchanging and throws it in the air to land in a pickled but recognisable way. She then introduces a child that can do miracles to a largely godless society. Like a broken mirror that reflects a scene in pieces we can see ourselves in this vision of the future. If our affiliations are merely an accident of birth, geography or a taught frame of reference then what do they really mean? What are the values that we would align with if we had a choice? Would we simply look for the group which has the most perceived influence on our world or would we seek to join one that represented something we identified with? Would we be happy to maintain the balance of power between different groups or would we want ours to have the edge?

Mycroft guides us though the future society, explaining it to us as if we are a reader in a further distant future, consigning his accounts to be read as an informal history. While he is present for much of the action and plays his role when asked, he is not really a protagonist with an agenda of his own.

The characters we meet in the story are not always nice, honest or likeable, but they do feel real. Palmer contrasts the public perception of powerful people with what they say and how they act in private; the large-scale politics with the impact on the individual. Mycroft’s position in society makes him an almost invisible observer of the private lives of the powerful and the ordinary.

Palmer’s take on gender within the novel is an interesting one. Gender is inferred from behavioural traits rather than reproductive capacity. Referring to the gender of an individual seems to be considered almost indecent, as if you are picturing them naked or in a sexual act.

Too Like the Lightning is a powerful, beautifully written novel.  Palmer leads us through a complex and strange society, but in such a way that we feel it almost makes more sense than our own.  The intrigues and questions lead us to keep reading and lose ourselves in her world.  It is a mystery, historic document, social commentary and futuristic science fiction all combined to make an excellent novel.

Karen Fishwick

See also Mark Bilsborough's take on Too Like the Lightening.

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