Too Like the Lightning
July 26, 2019 12:38 AM - by Ada Palmer - Subscribe

From the winner of the 2017 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, Ada Palmer's 2017 Compton Crook Award-winning political science fiction. 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.
posted by Cozybee (18 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I fell in love with this book. Then I read Seven Surrenders and realised that I don't really understand what I fell in love with. Then I read The will to Battle and it broke my heart.

But I can't wait to read Perhaps the Stars.

This is my recommendation, and also my warning.
posted by hat_eater at 4:46 AM on July 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm obsessed with this book in a way that hasn't happened in a long time. It's richly detailed and alien and plausible and engrossing and I also hate almost every character.

I hate the centralized, hidden power of the hive leaders meeting in secret. I was particularly disappointed to find that the Cousins were caught up in it too.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 6:37 AM on July 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

I love this series. They're some of the only things I've ever read that genuinely deserve to be called "provocative". As the best utopic/dystopic fiction does, these books are just constantly prodding the reader to ask themselves what trade-offs they're willing to accept. But they do so in a way that isn't just a trite, Slate-pitchy "what if all the stuff you think is good is ACTUALLY BAD???" kind of thing. Palmer really digs deep to ask, "Yes, this is good, but what are you willing to compromise on to get it?"
posted by tobascodagama at 7:50 AM on July 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

This is a hard book to describe but the anachronistic style is an amazing accomplishment. It’s also engrossingly plotted and sexy (in reasonable measure) without being skeevy.
posted by sixswitch at 8:01 AM on July 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

These are interesting books, but it sometimes feels like the world has maybe 30 people in it.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:01 AM on July 26, 2019 [9 favorites]

I tried to read this and Ninefox Gambit at the same time and it broke something in me.

This book is wonderful, but it definitely needs all of my attention and I needed a little time to get into the world.
posted by dinty_moore at 2:27 PM on July 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

So, there’s a lot that I found fascinating about this book, especially the worldbuilding and the hives. But certain aspects left a pretty bad taste in my mouth and I’m curious to hear how y’all who loved the books interpret them differently. Basically, the combination of Mycroft and Saladin’s deeply fucked up romance and the “everyone actually totally gets off on traditional heteronormative gender roles” stuff with the black hole, made me feel like the novel’s take on gender/sexual orientation is at best regressive and essentialist and at worst homophobic and transphobic. I’m guessing that’s not the way others experienced it though?
posted by overglow at 11:06 AM on July 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

If this were the Seven Surrenders thread, I'd be able to give a better answer. I totally get where you're coming from, though.

But even in the context of this book, it's worth remembering that nonbinary gender is the norm in this world. The folks doing binary gender stuff -- including Mycroft -- are explicitly doing a form of fetish play that is actually illegal. Whether it's illegal because it's hot or it's hot because it's illegal is an open question, intentionally.

And then there's the position of Mycroft as an unreliable narrator. Consider, for instance, Carlisle Foster -- the closest thing the story has to an unambiguously good person, I think. Carlisle is absolutely a non-binary person who uses "they/them" pronouns, both in public and in private. Mycroft makes a point of calling them "he" while constantly talking about how weird it is to be doing so because Carlisle fits so perfectly into the feminine role of the Cousins; Mycroft has specific, in-universe ideological reasons for doing that. Mycroft is, let's say, "gender-critical". But we're not necessarily supposed to agree.

(As for Sniper, Sniper is impossible for me to discuss without reference to the later books...)

That being said, I can totally see how a book that asks "Is being denied a gender any better than being assigned a gender?" can come off as transphobic. It's become a lot more common lately for SF to play with gender in "safe" ways (see also: Ancillary Justice), and the Terra Ignota books are definitely not safe in the ways they play with gender. That's one of the reasons I think "provocative" is a good description. Personally, for me, I think they justify the unsafe things they're doing by making them an explicit part of the narratie, but I can absolutely understand how others would disagree. And I'm actually really glad you brought it up, because there are definitely people who would otherwise be interested in these books who will find the way they treat gender triggering or otherwise see that as a dealbreaker.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:30 PM on July 27, 2019 [7 favorites]

There's a lot going on in this book and its sequels, and I'm probably going to have to reread all three when the next one comes out so I'm not totally lost. Also can't remember all of which plot bits go in which book, so will avoid too much detail here.

Mycroft's narration feels not only unreliable but also kinda dirty, and when there are eventually some chapters not narrated by him, the contrast is a bit of a shock. Reading his take on events (including misgendering people all over the damn place) leaves an oily film over the whole thing, and all his explicit warnings about himself and his history don't do anything to clean it off.

My favorite thing: how much is this book (et sequelae) about transportation? There's tons of SF where near-instantaneous travel or self-driving cars exist, but not nearly so many where this much of the world and plot rest entirely on how they work and what they affect. This kind of thing is usually just an excuse to get your characters farther and faster than they'd be able to go with existing Earth tech, and the implications aren't explored in much detail and aren't plot-relevant. (Or when they are, it's a limited-availability thing rather than worldwide, as in Steven Gould's book Jumper.)

Also, I'm totally here for all the Latin.
posted by asperity at 8:13 AM on July 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

I believe Palmer has said that the whole genesis of this story was essentially "what if flying cars?" and then extrapolating from there. (With more than a little of her own area of academic expertise peppered in, because why not use all that research in your non-academic work as well?)
posted by tobascodagama at 8:28 AM on July 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm in the middle of this now. And, thanks to tobascodagama for creating words to explain the thoughts I'm having while reading this, that is the "this is cool, but do we not have this now...hmmm" thoughts.

It is a very weird book and I am constantly fighting against the narrator. It's frustrating and exciting at the same time.

I'm still not sure if I'll continue on to the sequels when I finish, though.
posted by snwod at 1:06 PM on August 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

I love this series so much and can’t wait for the next one to come out.
posted by lazaruslong at 1:37 PM on August 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

I know, I've been eagerly awaiting Perhaps the Stars. Seems like it's currently expected for early next year.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:10 PM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

I am grateful to find some folks with ambivalent-to-negative feelings about this book because my partner and his friends who’ve read the series are obsessed. And I get it — I don’t think they’re wrong that the world is intriguing and offers a lot of food for thought — but I am also at nowhere near their level of enthusiasm. Possibly the books are suffering a bit due to the level of hype I experienced going into the series. I plan to finish it, but there’s just enough that’s off-putting to me (all the torture and abusive and exploitative relationships, especially) that I won’t be finishing quickly.

I do appreciate though, that Palmer expects a lot from the reader while still remaining fairly accessible. It’s quite a skillful balancing act, keeping the reader so in the thick of the world and struggling to find orientation in it without losing the thread entirely. I might not particularly like this world or most of the people I’ve encountered in it, but I can’t deny I’m curious about it and where it’s going. I feel like it’s got a similar hook in me as Dangerous Liaisons did — what are these richly drawn monsters up to and what will become of them?
posted by EvaDestruction at 7:53 PM on February 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

I've found them interesting and will definitely read the final book. That said, just today Jo Walton was saying they're on the level of Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun for her, and I don't see it.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:02 PM on February 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

So all the books are out now. Anyone up for a reread or at least putting up a thread for PtS?
posted by Wretch729 at 8:55 AM on November 19, 2021

Just finished the first book. I feel ambivalent about the miracle child(ren) business. But the narrator kept talking and hinting about the world leaders' friend/family connections, and about how they keep everything stable. And Mycroft may not be a historian, but the author certainly is, so I decided to stick around for that train wreck.

I am tempted to reread the first book immediately - but the narrator was lying, omitting, and burying ledes all the way through, so forging ahead is probably the better option.
posted by mersen at 7:26 PM on November 20, 2021

I posted about Perhaps the Stars and figure we can talk about the whole series there.
posted by brainwane at 8:02 AM on July 26, 2022

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