Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer is the first book (of 4) in the Terra Ignota series. Appropriately-named for a series that takes the charts and maps drawn up in the 18th and 19th centuries and says, “alright, but what’s over there?”
The book is “written” by Mycroft Canner, a convict in the year 2454, bound to a penance only a social engineer could dream up: eternal servitude to his fellow man. Myrcoft’s world is, as the publisher’s summary says, a “hard-won utopia,” divided into a number of “Hives,” pseudonations not bound by geography. Mycroft is the guardian of a young boy with miraculous powers. An anonymous crime drags Mycroft through the inner circles of all the world leaders, and also threatens to reveal the secret of the boy he’s promised to protect.
That sort of sums it up, but not really. Because this book is about 70% Experience and 30% incredible, intricate plotting. Mycroft’s conceit in writing this book is to adopt the voice and style of an 18th-century philosopher. Ada Palmer (the real life author, in case you forgot), is a historian – but you’d figure that out just by reading this book anyway. The references to Enlightenment thinkers whip dizzyingly by; everything from little throwaway jokes to massive plot points draws on one historical reference or another. The world-building comes straight out of Enlightenment thought – and admits as much to the reader. We’re told that the great men and women who created this world intentionally modeled it on philosophers from all eras of human history.
There’s enough History in this book to write a dozen dissertations, but I want to draw your eyes to the all-important Language.
(I’m a little biased – I did my undergrad in linguistics, and TLtL scratches my itch for linguistic sci-fi so well that I’d be staggered if I ever saw someone do it better).
First up, Pronouns. This world of 2454 is post-gender (or claims to be, at least). “He” and “she” are shocking, sexual words, inherently reminding everyone what the subject has down their pantaloons. “They” is the word of choice…but Mycroft Canner, our author/narrator, uses “he” and “she” to make us feel some kind of way about characters. At one point, we’re introduced to a character who puts her arm around her “husband,” at which point Mycroft interjects that their word, “partner,” is too empty for someone who is so clearly performing wifehood.
This is awesome. This is practically an instruction manual on How To Write About Gender. The story weaves these sociolinguistic ideas in so flawlessly that you stop noticing the “they’s,” and start noticing the “he’s” and “she’s.” Mycroft (or Ada Palmer – I’m never sure where to draw the line in a book that is conscious of being a book) guides the reader to feel this “genderlessness” the same way a citizen of the 25th century might.
The other aspect of language I want to laud from the mountaintops is that of the polylingual. English is a world language in 2454…but so is Japanese, and Spanish, and French, and, curiously, Latin, the prestige language of the Mason Hive. Ada Palmer tips us off to these languages in unique ways. All but Latin are written in English, but use punctuation specific to that tongue. So Spanish gets the upside-down exclamation and quotation marks. Japanese gets those little high bracket quote marks. Latin is written out in Latin, with a parenthetical English translation following (which, as Ada/Mycroft point out, is the style that would’ve been used in the Enlightenment texts which TLtL references so often). The best part, though — and the part that tickled my language bone the hardest — was that characters speak in the syntax of their language.
Here’s what I mean: word order and sentence structure differ by languages – some are Subject Verb Object, for example, while others might be Subject Object Verb. There are more subtle differences, too – how prepositions get strung together, where secondary clauses fall in the sentence, etc. When a Mitsubishi character speaks Japanese, it’s written in English – but follows what Japanese sentence structure might look like, translated. The same goes, incredibly, for Latin. And it’s noticeable. Not just because Mycroft tells us it is – you can feel the difference when a character is thinking in Latin and speaking in English.
Again: This is Awesome. It’s a crazy amount of effort, but it goes a long way towards making the world of Terra Ignota feel solid, concrete, like a place where real people are speaking. One character in particular has fascinating language mannerisms – J.E.D.D. Mason, who is the consummate polyglot and thinks in a combination of all the world’s major languages.
Building a Future World
Okay, I’ll get off my language horse for a bit. The world built in this book, like I said, could be the subject of a thousand theses. And what Ada Palmer does really, really well is time her reveals.
I won’t give away any major spoilers, but our main character (Mycroft Canner) is a convict. And the nature of his crime isn’t revealed until a specific point in the narrative. It’s been there in the background the whole time, you realize, and been there in his interactions with major characters, and that knowledge changes the way you look back at those interactions. (Not to mention it makes a re-read more interesting). But it’s not just major plot twists and character moments. There’s a massive amount of world building, and it all comes at the right time. There are seven Hives, for example, and each one is introduced slowly, in its own way. First there’ll be a mention of the Cousins, let’s say. Then we find out what people think about the Cousins. Then we find out how Cousins act, what they do. Then, much later, we find out the origins of the Cousins. And all these reveals are timed carefully to hit the reader in just the right way.
This is world building at its finest. You could just write all this info up in a wiki (and honestly, that might not be a bad idea for a re-read; having a reference guide handy to keep track of the head-spinning politics and pseudo-incestuous intermarriages). But the art of Too Like the Lightning comes in taking that information and handing it out at the right time. Or, to use an analogy: you can shine a white light at someone, and technically all the colors are in there. But the art comes in separating out those colors in such a way that it paints a picture. Of a dog or whatever.
Alright, I’ll pick one nit I had – the whole book essentially establishes the rest of the story. From what I gather, there will be four books total. The second is due in December, the third is finished, and the fourth is “well underway.” And this is not a light volume by any means. But I almost got the feeling that I was just being introduced to this world, that the real action will kick off in Book 2. That’s not to say there was no action in Book 1 (believe me!), but I came away with the feeling of an opening chess gambit. The pieces are in place, the initial pawns have been bumped away, but the dances of the knights and rooks are yet to be seen. Or, to use another analogy – this was our tutorial mission for Terra Ignota. We’ve seen the mechanics, how this world works, how the characters tick, and we did the intro quest.
I really don’t mean that disparagingly, because I had a hell of a time, and I guarantee I’ll be re-reading this in the next few months, and then again a third time before Book 2 comes out. But nobody should approach this book looking for a fast-paced sci-fi adventure. It’s a wandering, metaphysical story, more about showing us this world and the people who inhabit it. But if you liked Asimov’s Foundation, you’ll find a worthy heir here.
In conclusion? Don’t you dare miss this book. It’s got everything: swords, miracles, animated toy soldiers, a man named for God, future-Romans, gender politics, metaphysics, and staggering conspiracies.
Ada Palmer’s website - http://adapalmer.com/
Ada Palmer’s blog Ex Urbe - http://www.exurbe.com/
Fantastic interview at The Qwillery - http://qwillery.blogspot.com/2016/05/interview-with-ada-palmer-author-of-too.html?