Friday 14 July 2017

Too Like The Lightning — Book Club Review

No book has divided our book club as much as Ada Palmer's Too Like The Lightning.

While half the group decided its inventive world building put it at the top of their ballots, the other
One of the most
ambitious novels of
2016 divided our club.
Image via
half ranked it below "No Award."

That being said, there was some common ground: the dense prose and awkward narration were a significant barrier to our enjoyment of the novel, and the speculation about the evolution of social dynamics was engaging and enjoyable.

The book is set in a 25th Century that has abolished all organized religions, abandoned nation states, dispensed with the family unit as we know it, and as far as is possible gotten rid of gender differences. Thus stripped of most of the root causes of conflict, the human race has known peace.

Narrated from the point of view of Mycroft, a convict serving a life sentence of community service, the story involves a theft, religious miracles, and the undermining of the checks and balances that has kept this utopian system stable for most of the previous two centuries.

Unrestrained prose poses problems

The most prominent flaws in the book — that our group almost universally had troubles with — are related to the narrative voice. Mycroft tells his story in the style of Greco-Roman personal histories, complete with interjections, dialogues with an imagined reader, and unnecessary passages in Latin. This dense prose obfuscated the larger ideas that the author was playing with.

It is an ambitious novel, but there was some debate in the group about how fully that ambition was realized.

The claims that the family unit no longer exists are undermined by the familial bonds that govern the protagonist's home life. The statements about the lack of nation states and nationalism are undermined by the geopolitics. And the repeated declarations that gender no longer exists are undermined by the narrator's obsession with gendering each person you meet.

Author Ada Palmer's career as a historian
informs and influences her writing style.
This may present some barriers to readers
who are unused to dense prose.
Photo via

Some of our book club saw these as deliberate authorial choices in order to make a point about the immutability of human nature, but others saw it as the author not being able to follow her philosophical ideas to their logical conclusions.

Too Like The Lightning spends more time on world building than telling a story or character, perhaps because it is the first part in a four-part series. Because of this, the book drags in sections, especially when the narrator is spending full chapters on an infodump about enlightenment philosophy and how it informs 25th Century society.

Her aversion to paragraphs and tendency to overwrite simple scenes will likely feel tedious to many readers. It's clear that Palmer's day job as a historian has found a creative outlet and her fellow travellers will likely enjoy the cadence of the long passages. For many in our group, it felt contrived.

Stylistic Nostalgia

The pseudohistorical style of writing was reminiscent of Theodore Judson's excellent novels Fitzpatrick's War and The Martian General's Daughter, as well as Robert Charles Wilson's Hugo-nominated Julian Comstock. Ada Palmer has taken this style of writing to a more extreme level, but there is debate over whether she has accomplished the style as successfully as those previous works.

Despite these flaws, one member of our book club felt that Too Like The Lightning was not just the best of the Hugo nominees this year, but the best book he had read in several years. Although he stands alone in this assertion, it is clear that this is a book that will have a very strong appeal to some readers.

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