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 .
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.
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 conflict. Of 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.
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 Surrenders, the 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.