What happens when a University of Chicago history professor writes science fiction? Apparently, you get an ambitious, sprawling, four-book series written in the vernacular of the Enlightenment. Ada Palmer’s debut, Too Like the Lightning, set in the 25th-century world of Terra Ignota (Latin for “land unknown”), is so chock-full of philosophy, sociology, and technology, you could create an entire semester’s syllabus out of it.
Mycroft Tanner—a convict sentenced to a life of public servitude—narrates the collapse of Terra Ignota’s political system in a voice reminiscent of Dante and Candide. Throughout the novel, the “Reader” interjects his or her own opinions, questioning Mycroft’s version of the story, and sometimes additional narrators provide the Reader with a new perspective. Shifting points of view and breaking the fourth wall could have easily led to a fractured reading experience, but Palmer weaves the narrative in such a way that the structural and stylistic flourishes are more exciting than they are jarring.
If you, like the “Reader,” experience impatience during the novel’s first 100 pages, you wouldn’t be alone. Palmer pumps the brakes on worldbuilding and jumps straight into the political situation, with only a hint or two of far-future strangeness: nuclear families have been replaced by ‘bashes’; countries have been replaced by ‘Hives’; flying cars can travel the globe in hours; and a secret list of the most powerful people on the planet, the ‘Seven-Ten list’, has been stolen.
The story hinges on the extraordinary abilities of Bridger, a young boy who can make objects and drawings come to life. Though Mycroft originally appears to be the protagonist, it is Bridger who controls the fate of Terra Ignota, while Mycroft is simply his chronicler. “I am the window through which you watch the coming storm,” Mycroft says. “He is the lighting.”
Mycroft’s determination to protect Bridger and his family soon collides with the mystery of the stolen Seven-Ten list. Eventually, the truth behind Mycroft’s crimes come to light, and the surprises keep coming until the very end. But don’t expect a conclusion on the last page: the story will continue in the second book in the Terra Ignota series this December, Seven Surrenders.
One aspect of Too Like the Lightning that is emerging in our own century is the way Palmer has structured the gender roles of Terra Ignota. “They” has become the universal pronoun, gender specifications are all but banned, and everyone wears neutral clothing: wraps and shawls meant to hide sexual characteristics, designed instead to display their chosen factions and allegiances. Organized religion, too, has been sanctioned. This is where Carlyle Foster comes into play, a “sensayer” meant to guide people through their personal explorations of faith.
Too Like the Lightning simultaneously dips its toes in the past and soars into the future, bathing in the imaginative possibilities of technology and society, revealing how even the smallest shifts can destabilize a utopia. Bursting with historical and classical allusions, Palmer’s political and social commentary is as astute as one would expect from a scholar. At times, her prose can be daunting, but the reward—a host of fascinating ideas—makes the book well worth the discipline required to finish it.
FICTION – SCIENCE FICTION
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
Published May 10, 2016