Ada Palmer’s Alien Future
The evolution of society is a curious phenomenon for if we look back a few hundred years, people from our own species look like complete strangers to us. The further back we look, the more alienated we feel from our ancestors, realizing they had different beliefs, values and essentially ways of living that are completely obsolete in the modern world. Needless to say, if we were to reverse to roles, our world would seem just as strange and inhospitable to them. We can only hypothesize as to how strange and unrecognizable the future will be, something Ada Palmer has done at great length in Too Like the Lightning, the first novel in the Terra Ignota series.
As the story begins we are taken into the 25th century and make the acquaintance of a convict by the name of Mycroft Canner. As is the custom of the times, as punishment for his crimes he is basically sentenced to forced altruism (quite ironically) and is made to wander the world, making himself as useful as possible to the people he meets. We are then also introduced to another character, Carlyle Foster, who is a spiritual counselor. What makes her line chosen line of work so interesting as that she lives in a world where public practice of religion has been outlawed. Slowly but surely, their paths intersect and they make a rather startling discovery that could uproot this technological utopia: a boy who can seemingly make his wishes come true and bring to life inanimate objects. With a power such as this in play, it’s only a matter of time before the world learns of it and either fears, respects… or covets it.
A Plausible Path for Humanity
To begin with, I will warn you that this is definitely a rather slow book that seeks more to establish the world, its dynamics and the people populating it to set the stage for bigger events. It’s a very deliberate beginning that wants to dot all the i’s and cross the t’s so to speak… however, that doesn’t mean it’s just one descriptive paragraph after another detailing a strange future for humanity. We are presented with a number of major plots that are quite promising, and the author understands the value of using limited exposition so that not everything is clear and apparent to us. She makes us think and guess on our own accord, and I find that made the novel much more engaging than it could have been otherwise.
As for the world itself, Palmer tried to build on the tendencies we’re observing today to see how far they can be extrapolated, the extremes they might one day reach. As a result, we’re presented with what is described as a genderless society, one with some very specific rules and customs which more often than not simply feel strange. We get to see the culture from the outside and compare it with our own, and ultimately it presents some interesting ideas about topics such as: the factors we will use to divide ourselves, the qualities by which we will identify one’s worth, and our relationships with religion and technology. However, I will say that I wasn’t a big fan of the author’s fourth-wall-breaking and usage of 18th-19 th century language, for ultimately they just felt out of place.
The Plot Snowball
While it does take a little while for things to get going, with all the setting building and whatnot, once the plot picks up it feels like there is a decent payoff for the slow pace until then. The story has many layers to it, touching on political intrigue, societal strife, serial killers, superhuman abilities, and of course, the forever misunderstood complexity of human nature. As we get closer and closer to the end we get not only more action, but a growing feeling of tension and uncertainty as to what awaits not only our beloved protagonists, but also the rest of the world. Speaking of them, Mycroft and Carlyle are rather endearing characters from the get-go as the author aptly makes us sympathize with their struggles that come with being outsiders of this society. It feels like we can never learn enough about them, and as we get more revelations we also see the potential for deeper development… which is rather encouraging considering they’ll be here for a few books.
Unfortunately though, as you might imagine with this being the first book in the trilogy, the major plot points we’re presented with don’t exactly get a resolution, but are rather developed enough that the stage is set for the big events to happen… in the next book. Personally, I don’t find this to be a problem seeing as how I myself am a fan of slow-burners that span across multiple books, but this is an aspect some readers may want to take into consideration.
The Final Verdict
Ultimately, despite having a couple of minor issues Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer is a wonderful first novel that shows immense promise and potential. It has entertainment and food for thought in equal measures, presenting us with a strange, detailed, mysterious and unique world populated with people we can’t help but want to get acquainted with. If you enjoy utopian science-fiction, then I feel this is definitely one novel you ought to give a try, especially considering the lack of literature in this genre recently.
Ada Palmer is an American writer and historian and recipient of the 2017 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer for her first novel, Too Like the Lightning. It was even nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel. She pursued her foray into the world of books as she kept on adding to the Terra Ignota series, penning other well-received sequels such as Seven Surrenders, The Will to Battle and Perhaps the Stars.