Ada Palmer throws readers right into the deep end with Too Like the Lightning, the first book in the Terra Ignota series. This is a complex, immersive, fleshed-out and idea-filled work of science fiction. Set in the 25th century, it is a world unrecognizable in its political, economic and social makeup.
Travel anywhere in the world is measured in minutes. This has led to a breakdown in traditional governments and let people all across the world associate based on common interests rather than geography. Religion is outlawed but may be discussed privately with sensayers, who tend to a person’s spiritual well-being. Gender distinctions are mostly taboo. A handful of corporation-like clans mixed with philosophers and remnants of nation states guide world affairs.
Mycroft Canner is a convict. His sentence is to be useful. To other people and to all of society. That he is a criminal is never hidden, but the nature of his crimes are not revealed to the reader until deep into the novel. Committing crimes is infinitely more difficult, but not impossible. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer who lands in the middle of Mycroft’s life and a secret he is concealing: Bridger. Bridger is a boy who can make wishes reality. That ability could threaten the entire interconnected world.
Too Like the Lightning is an ambitious and challenging book. There are almost too many ideas expressed to discuss or even fully absorb. It is a mystery as well as a political treatise. It is a distant future with a reverence for the 18th century, particularly Voltaire. The narrator breaks the fourth wall and at times speaks directly to the reader. Palmer does a magnificent job of placing you in this fully realized world and letting you pick up the rules as you go. The pace at which significant pieces of information are revealed are timed for maximum effect. She keeps you unsure of who to trust and how far to trust them. You are likewise puzzled about the many plots and subplots at work, but always given enough information to keep frustration from setting in.
I suspect this book reveals more every time you read it. The characters are people you would want to spend time with and be alternately charmed by and terrified of.
If anyone was still afraid that science fiction was out of ideas after Ann Leckie’s wonderful Ancillary series, Ada Palmer will put any remaining fears to rest. This is an exciting and important work.
One word of caution. The book ends abruptly as it is the first of two parts. The second part is slated to come out before the end of the year so it is not a long wait. Not only should you read this book, you should make all your friends read it because you are going to want to talk about it. A lot. Highly recommended!
I listened to the audio version of this book narrated by Jefferson Mays who did an outstanding job with it. The narration places you directly in the world and the melodic voices of the characters keeps you glued to the story. This is a story, particularly in audio form, that both demands and rewards close attention.
I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.
Description: Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer--a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.
The world into which Mycroft and Carlyle have been born is as strange to our 21st-century eyes as ours would be to a native of the 1500s. It is a hard-won utopia built on technologically-generated abundance, and also on complex and mandatory systems of labelling all public writing and speech. What seem to us normal gender distinctions are now distinctly taboo in most social situations. And most of the world's population is affiliated with globe-girdling clans of the like-minded, whose endless economic and cultural competition is carefully managed by central planners of inestimable subtlety. To us it seems like a mad combination of heaven and hell. To them, it seems like normal life.
And in this world, Mycroft and Carlyle have stumbled on the wild card that may destabilize the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life...