Book Review – Too Like the Lightning

Readers who know me only through Putanumonit may suspect that my reading material consists of nothing but research papers in economics and post-rationalist blogs. That’s not true! I have a shelf full of books at home, without which I would be utterly unfuckable.

The books are actually my fiancee’s, almost none of them are mine. I have a Kindle and a New York Library card. But still: I read books!

My reading list is split 50-50 between non-fiction and fiction. Among the latter, my favorite genres are Irish fiction and speculative fiction, aka sci-fi. In the next couple of posts I’ll give my thoughts on some thought-provoking science fiction I had the pleasure of reading lately. We start today with Ada Palmer’s philosophical history thesis novel Too Like the Lightning which is the first in a series of at least four books .

too like the lightning

This is not a critical review in the common sense of the word. I’m not going to score the books on a 1-5 scale or pretend that I know anything about comparative literary criticism. I like books that make me think, and I will write about that part first and foremost. I am writing both for those who read the book and for those who may want to in the future. I will keep spoilage to a minimum, referencing only plot points that show up in the first couple of chapters or that are immaterial to the main narrative.

A few words about the genre of science fiction. I love sci-fi, but some people see it as inferior to “serious” or “literary” fiction. The worst of these arguments are made by people who saw the Ender’s Game movie but never read the book. The best arguments may touch on an actual truth, one that is grounded in statistics.

A great work of literature can have a great plot and/or great insight into emotions and the human condition. A great work of science fiction can do both, but also a lot of other things. Some of my favorite sci-fi writers excel at building worlds (Iain M. Banks), some get me excited to learn a science (Greg Egan) or dive into history (Connie Willis). The best sci-fi, especially shorter format, has at its core an exciting speculative idea: what would the world look like if… humans didn’t need to sleep? if we invented a telepathy drug? if we decided that there’s nothing wrong with incest?

If literary fiction teaches you about humans through their (imagined) reactions to possible drama, sci-fi explores the human condition through our reaction to speculative drama. There’s no reason why the latter should offer less insight, especially as speculative scenarios have the annoying habit of becoming possible sooner rather than later. Labor force automation may be the biggest social issue of the 2020s, but my favorite take on it is a zombie story from 1996.

Because a work of science fiction can become famous for reasons other than plot or emotional resonance, popular sci-fi books will be inferior in these two categories on average. It’s the same statistical reason why attractive guys seem more likely to be jerks and trendy restaurants seem to have worse food. If a non-genre novel had neither a captivating plot nor deep insight, it would have nothing else to recommend it – and you would have no reason to know it exists.

This preamble is very pertinent to Lightning. The best facets of the novel are really good, and the worst parts are really bad. Let’s start with the ugly.


Like every writer, I occasionally find it irresistible to compose self-indulgent nonsense, content that is clearly more fun for the author to produce than it is for the reader to consume. Parts of Lightning read as if Palmer is barely even trying to resist that instinct.

Example 1: the characters in Lightning supposedly speak many languages, which are rendered in English and marked by clever typography, like double brackets for French. All languages but Latin, which is reported in both original and translation, along with the translator’s notes. Palmer would like you to know that not only does she speak Latin, but she feels sorry for you that you don’t:

The Emperor frowned. “Credisne ut in periculem sit? (Do you think they’re in danger?)”

“Nullo cursus pacto. (A very strong form of ‘No.’) Non ciccus est hic nebulo vero fidus canis. (This scoundrel is not [the membrane around a pomegranate seed, i.e. a negligible thing], [but/truly] the dog [is] faithful.)

This is how the text actually appears in the book, and it’s as annoying and incomprehensible in context as it is outside it.

Example 2-8: the book is written in the voice of a 25th-century narrator (ok so far) who addresses a 26th-century audience (I guess), and then imagines them critiquing him (uh-oh) in 18th-century language (huh?) about his use of pronouns (the fuck?).

Again, this is an unedited excerpt:

Certainly you too, reader, like Carlyle, had formed a portrait of Thisbe who existed only in that bedroom […] But let me ask you this: would you have labeled her a stay-at-home so easily had I not been reminding you with every phrase that she is a woman?

Then stop, Mycroft. Drop these insidious pronouns which force me to prejudge in ways I would not in the natural world. At times I think thou makest me a hypocrite of me simply for the pleasure of calling me one.

I have no idea what these passages are supposed to achieve, other than book-shaped dents in my living room wall. Even in our backward 21st century, the sorts of people who read science fiction don’t associate female pronouns with housewives. Absolutely no one in any century thinks that way of “Thisbe”, who is introduced in the very first chapter of the novel as a central and hyper-competent character. This passage would be infuriating enough in isolation but it repeats every 50 pages or so throughout the book, practically every time Thisbe steps out of her bedroom.

These occasional digressions don’t ruin the story, but they don’t add anything either, and that’s actually a problem. It’s a problem because Too Like the Lightning is, to its credit, a highly ambitious work. It tries to do so many things at once that every paragraph that isn’t in service of the novel’s many aims is doubly frustrating.

For example, Lightning likes to drop bombs of French Enlightenment philosophy:

Observe, Chagatai, the protagonist of every work of fiction is Humanity, and the antagonist is God.

It offers trivia about French Enlightenment philosophy:

Sade writes the least erotic sex scenes you might imagine, alternating with long stretches of dialogue on moral philosophy, politics, religion, family life, the origins of the state and patriarchy, much as one might find in Locke or Montesquieu.

It does both while ostensibly being set in a civilization that has implemented French Enlightenment philosophy. Now to be fair, Palmer knows infinitely more than I do about Locke, Montesquieu, de Sade, Voltaire, Diderot et al. But one thing I can confidently say about these Enlightenment greats is that the misuse of gender pronouns was the last thing they worried about.

Marquis-in-prison.jpg
de Sade in prison, serving time for saying “she”

In fact, the world of Lightning looks suspiciously like a utopia conjured by the 2017 New York Times. Besides gendered pronouns, Lightning’s 25th century is also short on war, crime and disease. Anti-aging drugs and flying cars are available to all. Religion has been proven to be the root of all evil and is banned in public. Instead of birth nations, every person chooses a membership in one of seven global hives based on cultural ideology. The hives are ruled by an elite clique of rulers who are as competent as they are sexy.

Everyone is free to pursue fun hobbies like competing in the “best movie smelltrack” Oscar category and going to nonheteronormative sexy dress up parties. Everyone except for the few geeks (called Utopians) who actually work inventing all the cool stuff but aren’t invited to the sexy parties.

How realistic is this world? First of all, the Oscars are barely relevant in 2017, let alone 2454. Second of all… nothing. Every other detail of Lightning’s setup fits like a mosaic piece to form a universe that is credible, engrossing and rich. Writing utopias is notoriously difficult, let alone one that both feels like a real destination and actually makes you want to pack your bags and move there.

That’s exactly how I felt about the world Palmer created: I actually wanted to be there. After closing the book I would fantasize about living in 2454, what I would do for fun and how much I’ll piss everyone off with my pronouns. And then I would think: wouldn’t it be nice if someone started a war to make things interesting? Waking up back in 2017, I would realize that it’s a very strange thought for me to have.


My political beliefs are basically geared around making our own world more like the world of Lightning. More personal freedom, cosmopolitan connection, and technological progress. Less coercive national governments, nativism, and retrenchment. I grew up in a world that has been moving in the direction I like, which makes me rather risk-averse when it comes to politics.

Last year, I felt some sympathy for working class Trump voters who don’t benefit from a free global economy like I do. But I couldn’t understand those fellow educated coastals who voted for Trump just to “shake things up”. They asked me if I was really happy with “more of the same old shit” under Clinton and I replied that yes, of course I was! I agree that USA-2017 is less than a utopia, but I didn’t want to risk losing things like free trade, NATO and abortion rights just in hopes that injecting chaos and conflict into the system might accidentally improve things.

And yet, when Palmer showed me the world of my political dreams, I felt an immediate and overwhelming desire for some chaos and conflictOf all the things I thought that a science fiction novel could be, I didn’t expect one to subversive of my political worldview.

Bertrand Russell, a symbol of liberal pacifism, explains:

A great many of the impulses which now lead nations to go to war are in themselves essential to any vigorous or progressive life. Without imagination and love of adventure a society soon becomes stagnant and begins to decay. Conflict, provided it is not destructive and brutal, is necessary in order to stimulate men’s activities, and to secure the victory of what is living over what is dead or merely traditional. The wish for the triumph of one’s cause, the sense of solidarity with large bodies of men, are not things which a wise man will wish to destroy.

All Utopias that have hitherto been constructed are intolerably dull….[Utopians] do not realize that much the greater part of a man’s happiness depends upon activity, and only a very small remnant consists in passive enjoyment.

Palmer understands this sentiment perfectly, and not just because conflict makes for a better story. There’s an undercurrent of belligerent restlessness that swirls beneath Lightning’s utopia, growing more ominous as the characters themselves begin to notice it. Palmer’s meticulously crafted world contains both a beautiful landscape and a barrel of gunpowder poised beneath it.

20111123-je-usher-uc-fire-1890.jpg
J.E. Usher – “University College Fire” 1890

 

Strangely enough, I don’t know if Palmer is planning to tell the story of that world.

Two pages into the book, we are told that the protagonist of the series’ (but not the first book’s) story is Bridger, a child with godlike powers. Bridger can bring toys to life and create resurrection potions from a drawing. The weakest extent of Bridger’s powers that is plausible after what is described in the book’s first chapter is enough to break any story. The characters who know about Bridger’s power casually mention that he probably has the ability to magick superplagues or black holes at will, but then proceed to go about their business as if anything else matters.

This is similar to people who, when told about the possibility of self-improving strong AI that is smarter than humanity, worry about its effect on the unemployment rate. To Palmer’s credit her characters’ behavior is consistent with normal human psychology, just not with common freaking sense.

Seven Surrendersthe sequel to Lightning, arrives on my bookshelf tomorrow. Ada Palmer’s writing is impressive enough that she they have earned the benefit of my doubt for 400 more pages. It’s quite likely that the story she they want to tell is much better than the one I want to hear. It’s just incongruous that a novel that venerates Voltaire and Diderot chose to go against the truth which both men preached: the natural world is more interesting without the supernatural.

Voltaire also ridiculed the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds. In the best world, we’d be reading rationalist fanfic set in Palmer’s world.


What do I make of Lightning after all is said and done? Unlike brunch places and mutual funds, I don’t mind a book that overpromises before it figures out what it can deliver. I’m not even sure what the book has delivered. I have a suspicion that Lightning tries to teach the reader some philosophy in subtle subtext, but it’s lost among all the philosophy you are beaten over the head with in the text. Palmer created a real, riveting utopia, but not yet a story that is worth the world it is set in. Lightning also made me realize that the End of History may not be attainable for Homo Sapiens in principle, more that the Trumps and Brexits did.

For all my criticisms, Too Like the Lightning not only made me rush to get the sequel but also inspired me to write my first novel review. That’s high praise indeed.

 

17 thoughts on “Book Review – Too Like the Lightning

  1. The pronouns are mostly about making the future believably weird. There’s no way that in hundreds of years gender relations will be what they are now so the lack of acknowledgement of gender seemed to me like a very successful way of invoking what Eliezer called Weirdtopia.

    I’ve been a fan of the author’s music for a while and I’ve had a chance to meet her a few times. She’s certainly a she.

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      1. I think the Yale University class of 2027 would be yelling that gender-blindness isn’t the same as anti-sexism if I were to just extrapolate current trends. Or everybody getting their own gender or something. Not the complete suppression of gender in public discourse with the attendant abolition of all gender studies programs.

        And it’s not just gender that’s gone but also religion and family. At least according to the society of 2LtL. But of course, as the books show, they’re all still very much there and active even if people aren’t acknowledging them.

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  2. I have no idea what these passages are supposed to achieve, other than book-shaped dents in my living room wall.

    Ha! Yes, exactly.

    I kind of feel like 2LtL cheated: weirdtopia should be weirder than its world is (as you say, it’s just the NYT utopia), but it instead gets to the same feeling of alienation by just having the narrator be really bizarre at you all the time. Then later on it turns out the world really is pretty weird, but that’s the Tweest, so I’m not sure it counts either. Still some great philosophy though.

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  3. Thanks for this review. I’d heard good things about it and reserved a copy at my library but then I forgot to pick it up when I got to the front of the line. Maybe I’ll put myself back on that list.

    Re: pronouns. Did you read the Ancillary Justice trilogy? The author used “she” for every character and it was a plot point that the protagonist would be confused whenever she visited a planet that had gender. Anyway, the author could start lecturing occasionally. It was a good enough story that I tolerated it.

    Do you use LibraryThing? I prefer it to goodreads. I use it to remember what I’ve read and to send to somebody who wants to buy me a book.

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    1. I haven’t read Ancillary Justice, but I just found out that AJ, Lightning and the next two books I’m reviewing were all featured in the Wired book club. Why is everyone reading the same 2-3 sci-fi novels each year? Are there really so few good ones being written?

      I clicked on LibraryThing but don’t feel like making an account yet. Can you describe why you prefer it to Goodreads? I feel like most of my friends and all of my books are on Goodreads already. I mostly use it like iMDB to keep track of what I read and see user ratings. If LT does those things much better, I may switch.

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      1. I use librarything similarly. I tried to use goodreads, but I couldn’t find a way to add a book to your shelf without giving it a rating. Another thing I like is the librarything app which lets you scan a book’s barcode to add it which is great if you care about getting the correct edition/printing.

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  4. I was interested enough that I’d read the sequel, but then got really pissed at it for the “Surprise! Omelas!” at the end and wanted to burn it in frustration.

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  5. Can you elaborate on why you felt the imagined need to disrupt utopia, and how sure you are that you couldn’t scratch the itch with controlled competition?
    (I know I should read the book to see for myself, but I probably won’t).

    Humans are empirically able to get pretty invested in the success of arbitrary factions at meaningless contests.

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    1. Humans are empirically able to get pretty invested in the success of arbitrary factions at meaningless contests.

      ETA: Unless the people implementing the religion ban have taken your previous post to heart, but I assume you’d have mentioned something like that.

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    2. arbitrary factions at meaningless contests

      You got me thinking, and I realized that my anger is actually stemming more from transhumanism, which I’m not sure is something Trump voters care about. If I woke up in Palmer’s 2454 I’d be pissed off that 99.6% of people only care about arbitrary factions, meaningless contests, and perpetuating their comfortable lifestyle. It seems that someone like Elon Musk does as much to advance the human species in a year as the six hives do in a decade.

      The characters in Lightning call ours the “Exponential Age”, and I think that humanity is making some impressive progress in the 21st century given how messed up our world is. I wish I could donate all my money to anti-aging research, but there are actual children dying of malaria. The US government could 20x NASA’s budget, but it has to spend a trillion dollars on its military. In contrast, the entire population of 2454 is The Complacent Class, which would make a very interesting reading companion to Lightning.

      I don’t think Palmer is necessarily unrealistic, maybe if we didn’t have the threats of poverty and war people would stop caring about progress. And if so, I would be rooting for something to light a fire under them.

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  6. I don’t think the society shown is straightforwardly utopian. When Mycroft goes on weird digressions about pronouns, the intended effect isn’t for the reader to think “yes, this guy knows what he’s talking about, gendered pronouns are evil”, but rather “this society where people think using pronouns brainwashes you into putting people into gender roles is weird”. There are also many subtler bits where he refers to people who are physically male as “she” and vice versa, which reveals other points about how he sees the world. There is a lot more about gender roles in the sequel that will probably make things clearer.

    Regarding the Enlightenment themes, I think the book shows one way a society could develop from Enlightenment ideas, rather than just straightforwardly promoting them. Some of that development mirrors that of the real world, which is why a lot of the setting seems familiar/utopian. But the gender abolition/religious prohibition bits are (IMO) meant to be slightly off-the-wall developments of Enlightenment thought, in the same way that steampunk is a slightly crazy development of early steam technology. This mirrors one of the points I think Palmer was trying to make: that Enlightenment philosophers weren’t just promoting science, democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and all the other stuff we take for granted nowadays; they also had some pretty weird ideas that didn’t go anywhere.

    From the first few chapters of Too Like The Lightning, it’s clear that Palmer’s making an ambitious choice in including a character (Bridger) with god-like powers, but keeping them somewhat in the background. You might find it interesting to view the character of Bridger as a challenge to rationalfic. In rationalfic, the obvious thing to do when you encounter even mildly supernatural powers is to use them to bootstrap yourself into godhood. Bridger almost parodies this, as he is already pretty much omnipotent; no rationalist munchkining is needed.

    But he also challenges it in two ways: morally and practically. Suppose Mycroft was a typical rationalfic HJPEV expy. He would want to somehow use Bridger to gain god-like powers and solve all the problems of the world. The moral problem comes from the fact that his path to doing so is very clear: he is very good at manipulating people, and Bridger is very vulnerable, so treating him as a puppet would be easy. If you hold typical rationalfic utilitarian moral views, the choice to do so should be easy. Even if Mycroft had to torture Bridger to get control of him, the fact that doing so saves literally everyone else in the world ever means it is still clearly morally correct. But Bridger is an innocent child. This kind of challenge to utilitarianism is nothing new, but it’s interesting in this literary context.

    There is also a practical challenge. Bridger can heal any disease, and bring people back to life. Rationalfic would often regard possession of those abilities as meaning victory by itself. But Too Like The Lightning points out that on a global scale, those abilities are just the start. If you actually want to use them, you need to work out the logistics, and social and economic consequences, and so on. There are probably implications here about both markets and AI, but the book doesn’t explore them (probably for the best, it’s dense enough as it is).

    It will be interesting to see what you think of the sequel (I just finished reading it). You’ll be pleased to know that there is no more Latin dialogue (apart from the occasional word). The ambitious decision to include Bridger but not as the focus of the book is resolved. The resolution was deeply unsatisfactory, but I’m pretty sure it was meant to be. If rationalfic is “intelligent-decision-making-and-power-gain porn”, the relevant part of Seven Surrenders is almost the exact opposite. The book as a whole expands a lot on the theme of war you picked out from Too Like The Lightning, which suggests you may enjoy it. It is pretty different in my opinion; I can’t decide whether for better or worse.

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    1. In lieu of editing:
      In general, I think a lot of the weirdness in style (18th century language, random conversations with the reader) is about setting up Mycroft as a character. He’s not meant to be a reliable narrator.

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