Every now and again I read a book that I hated but appreciated nonetheless. I found so much frustration with Kit Reed's 'Mormama' but left it wanting to read more by Kit Reed. I absolutely loathed Nisi Shawl's 'Everfair' but I'm still haunted by it and the unusual ways in which she wrote it. As I wrote in my review: "I couldn't put it down but I never want to pick it back up again."
And now there's 'Too Like the Lightning', the first book in the Terra Ignota trilogy by Ada Palmer, which was a finalist for the Hugo in 2017. There's so much here that I admire, not least the sheer ambition apparent in what is an impressive debut novel (she's published non-fiction in her everyday role of historian). This is an amazingly well-developed 25th-century future Earth in which we explore through the 18th-century prose of a particularly unreliable narrator's memoirs, who has almost a fetish for the classics.
The worldbuilding is so insanely detailed that I can't hope to do it justice here but I'll try to summarise. We're in 2454. A set of religious conflicts known as the Church Wars in the 22nd century led to the demise of the nation state. Now, people identify with the particular Hive of their choosing, each of which is an easily identifiable state even though it can't be defined on a map beyond most having a capital city. Instead they're identifiable by the laws they apply (below the Universal Laws), the language they use, even the form of government they take.
As befits Palmer's background, these are mostly extracted from history. The Masonic Empire, for instance, a non-hereditary absolute monarchy centered in Alexandria, whose people wear suits and speak neo-Latin, is an extrapolation of Masonic lodges. Mitsubishi, however, is a shareholder democracy, based in Togenkyo, Indonesia, which owns two thirds of the land on the planet. Europe is now a French-speaking parliamentary democracy with home base in Brussels, while the Humanists run their flexible-constitution democracy out of Buenos Aires giving power proportionate to the vote received.
The balance between these Hives is tenuous and these particular ones may be descended from others. There's a whole lineage going on here and things may be shaken up once more by the theft (and speedy return) of a Seven-Ten list, which is insanely important for reasons I never quite grasped.
It seems that every year, each Hive publishes their own individual Seven-Ten list, detailing who they believe are the ten most influential people in the world, ranked in order. These lists have great social, economic and cultural impacts and an investigation is quickly started to figure out who stole the unpublished Mitsibushi list, for what reason and why it was then planted in the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash' (or family home).
Somewhere in this complex tangle of suspicion, there's Bridger. He's a young boy who has the mysterious godlike power of making anything real, from clay sandwiches to toy soldiers. We might be able to assume that he's part of the story and that might be why we're focused on the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash' (he lives here in careful seclusion), but we might not because Palmer doesn't go that far in this first volume.
And that's just the beginning of the frustrations I found reading this book. Bridger is clearly destined to change everything but, 130 pages in, all he's done is talk to a sensayer (a sort of spiritual guide in a world without any religion) about the ethics of bringing a dead toy soldier back to life. When we get to end of this novel, he still hasn't done anything except become an unlikely McGuffin for a few people who don't know who or what he is except a mystery in a bigger picture.
Palmer is a very aware writer, not just about what she's writing but how the reader is receiving it. There are whole sections here where we, the readers, actually argue with the narrator about things like this. Why hasn't Bridger done anything? Patience, dear reader. This is playful stuff, albeit playful within an archaic and verbose framework that many will find difficult to get through.
Just as I appreciated what Nisi Shawl did as a writer in 'Everfair', even if I hated the result as a reader, I appreciate what Palmer does here. She has a very believable 18th-century writing voice. She references the classics at every opportunity, philosophises for pages at a time and switches languages just like that (and not merely to Latin, but French, Spanish, German, Hindi, Japanese and Greek). She lapses into play notation (something else that is rather annoying, even after we voice complaints within the book itself so that our beleaguered narrator can explain to us why it's necessary).
But, as much as I appreciate the talent it took to conjure this into being, I struggled with it as a reader and I'm a firm fan of Victorian literature. It doesn't help that our narrator, Mycroft Canner, who withholds his brutal history until late in the book after we've become sympathetic to his causes, apparently works for everyone. The cast of characters here is truly massive and it doesn't help that they all seem to have many wildly different names depending on who's talking to them.
To confuse matters further, this future world has evolved the idea of gender to go beyond biology and that means that every character is "they". Even on the rare occasions where "he" or "she" is used, it changes from one to the other depending on context. Some characters begin as one and later change to the other, even though there's no biological transition. They just decide to identify in a different way or Canner just decides to change which prefixes to use. Palmer really doesn't want to make it easy on us.
And, even with such obstacles placed in our path, my biggest struggles were about where we're going. This isn't a short novel, running over four hundred pages, but it's surprisingly difficult to summarise it without resorting to Palmer's admirable worldbuilding efforts. A suggestion of "a piece of paper, whose importance we distrust, is stolen and returned and nobody knows why" seems simplistic and flippant but that's really the plot here. Everything we read ties to the international intrigue Mycroft Canner finds himself caught up in while investigating. Oh, and then there's Bridger, who is the promise of everything but who delivers precisely nothing.
What we have here is a piece of literature, not necessarily science fiction but literature period, which is most praiseworthy for being praiseworthy. As a writer, I have massive admiration for Palmer's worldbuilding, her ability to echo the period style in which she chose to write and the neat linguistic trickery she employed throughout. As a reader, I was constantly engaged by her prose but just as constantly confused by what she was telling me. To the final page, I struggled to figure out what was truly important and what was just flimflam thrown out there to distract us. I still don't know.
This ends, not as a single story that will become part of something larger, but as the first half of a story that became a trilogy and is about to see a fourth book added to it. For all her impeccably-detailed worldbuilding, I'm not entirely sure that Ada Palmer knows what's important, because she might just be indulging in an exercise in linguistic pastiche without any care for a story at all. I'm almost convinced that, at the beginning of book two, she might just kill off everyone we've met and start afresh. Who knows. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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