Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer is perhaps the oddest, most frustrating novel I’ve read this year. Fortunately, there is something about buddy-reading that makes even the most difficult of books a lot more fun and this was definitely the case here. I was so grateful for imyril’s company as we explored Palmer’s 2454. (Thank you imyril! *big we-did-it high-five*).
A more professional introduction and the first half of our conversation can be found over at imyril’s here and this is definitely where you should start.
If you’re visiting me having read that first post, then hello and welcome!
So, to continue …
This book presents a world in which choice and consent appear to be paramount, and yet as we dive deeper this seems less and less to be the case. Thoughts and feelings about this?
Imyril: While I recall noting and loving the emphasis on consent in the baffling opening credits, there’s a surprising amount of non-consensuality along the way isn’t there, (and not just at Madame’s house of forbidden pleasures)? Mycroft lives at the beck and call of every mover and shaker on the planet (who even have arguments about allowing him time to eat and drink when they have competing priorities!) and Cato has given up a lot for his bash. But where it gets very muddy for me is the notion of consent in the context of JEDD Mason. I can’t tell to what extent JEDD’s people consent because they seem to lose all autonomy when engaging with him: he changes how people think with a few words; he intrudes on their privacy by overriding their trackers and snooping along; nobody can say no to him. JEDD – even more than Bridger – is the big mystery for me in Too Like The Lightning. Mycroft can assure me the bash aren’t a cult, but Dominic certainly makes it look like a cult. And I don’t know how to read it: is JEDD literally divine / supernatural (if it weren’t for Bridger, I’d dismiss this, but… there’s Bridger) or a savant whose insights are irresistible? Sorry, I’ve derailed the question a bit!
Mayri: No, no you haven’t. If anything you’ve cut right to the heart of it – what is JEDD that they have such an effect on people? I don’t like (read: can’t accept) that they are presented as a person so wise/rational that they can put people on the righteous path with a word. I don’t like messianic figures particularly, full stop.
Then there’s the trackers everyone wears. Yes, they can be taken off for short periods, but as you’ve mentioned already, they can also be overrode/piggybacked. They are necessary for travel, and connectivity, but I can’t help worrying about how easily abused they can be.
Erm … sorry, what was the question again?
Palmer – or Mycroft – plays fast and loose with notions of gender. Thoughts?
Imyril: I was conflicted by the handling of gender. I appreciated that leaving gender behind has proven tricky, but that the society was trying to. There were odd dissonances though, such as the fascination with Cardigan’s gender, and Mycroft personally seemed absolutely stuck in the gender binary. I read these as evidence that there was still quite the gap between ambition and reality.
Mayri: Yes, why this focus on gender if it’s no longer an issue in this future? And as Mycroft is writing for some further future audience, doubly why?
Imyril: I disliked Mycroft ignoring convention and arbitrarily assigning gender to people based on… well, it wasn’t always clear what it was based on! Were the choices supposed to illuminate the society being described or the transformed society Mycroft is writing for? If gender is not important, why highlight it at all? The choices were often nonsensical, such as an aide being assigned male because their boss was male and that would be ‘less confusing’ (erm). On the flipside, it meant that I didn’t trust any of the gender references – so Palmer successfully created an ungendered cast by virtue of having me doubt the way they were presented to me.
Mayri: Yes, this is how it struck me. Mycroft’s assignation of gender was so random that I was quickly unconcerned about anyone’s gender. But I didn’t feel this was the most successful way that that could have been done, (I’m thinking that Ann Leckie achieved the same result more elegantly in the Ancillary trilogy, for example, just by using ‘her/she’ for everyone).
Imyril: I also hated Mycroft’s conflation of gender and sex – imagining people in a sexual context if their gender was clear. These sexualised projections could have pushed me into a DNF if I had been solo reading: in fact, one of my biggest peeves – especially through the final act – was the amping up of sexual content, which felt so at odds with the tone set by the rest of the narrative.
Mayri: 100% agree. I just didn’t see the need for any of the sexual stuff. It didn’t add anything and was just … eww.
How do you feel about Bridger’s miracles? Where do you think this aspect of the story might be going? (And, just … why?)
Mayri: As you know imyril (from my constant complaints) Bridger is my biggest problem with Too Like the Lightning. From the first ‘miracle’ we witness, to Mycroft insisting that Bridger is the reason for the way the world will change/has changed, I just … I really struggled with the child’s place in the story. So much so that I was very happy to just put all the Bridger bits to one side in my head while I was reading and not deal with them.
I think my biggest problem is with the word ‘miracle’. What Bridger can do is like something out of a fantasy novel, but I can’t see how it is possible in a science-fictional world.
Imyril: I absolutely agree that Bridger confounded me. He went from mind-boggling plot centrepiece to peculiar subplot as the narrative wandered off into political conspiracies. Like you, I don’t know how to reconcile his ability with what is otherwise apparently our world. Bridger’s ability has so much potential for really intriguing story – I was fascinated by Carlyle Foster’s sessions exploring ethics – but I felt it was mostly sidelined (and the implication from the framing device is almost that Bridger’s place in the narrative is on sufferance; Mycroft thinks Bridger is important, but nobody else does… which begs an awful lot of questions about what is to come). I have no predictions for where any of it is going – one book in, and I don’t feel I have enough of a grasp on anything to even spin out my own conspiracy theories!
Mayri: Ha ha! Yep, I’m with you there!
It’s been a while since we finished – lingering impressions? Any temptation to continue?
Mayri: Dagnabbit, I do want to continue. This was a frustrating, challenging, often downright annoying book, but I still want to see where Palmer takes some of these ideas, and I want to see if a plot ever surfaces. I think there’s a bit of bloody-mindedness at play here too.
Imyril: Saaaaame. Or rather – I don’t want to continue – Too Like The Lightning was one of the most frustrating books I’ve ever read, but I kinda do want to see where Ada Palmer is going with it all. That final reveal completely threw me: it was a plot that could have hooked me from the start and that flies in the face of everything we’ve learned and affects the only people I’m slightly interested in… and it was buried.
Mayri: Right? Right?!
Imyril: But I also saw in the teaser that the next book starts with another bloody sexposition scene between our kinky villains and eh that will take some working up to.
Mayri: (I couldn’t bring myself to read the teaser chapters after finishing- kudos for looking, however briefly!)
Imyril: Those scenes combine two things that piss me off and throw me out of a narrative: eye-rolling sex and moustache-twirling monologues. I get the literary reference, but if I wanted to read de Sade, I’d read de Sade – and he’s over there on my shelf, being ignored. I just want to like something – or at least care about a character and an outcome – and in that sense Too Like The Lightning left me completely cold. It’s an entirely intellectual exercise. So I’m curious, but conflicted. I definitely don’t want to read it alone! (…and I’d much rather read Ancient Light first, hint hint)
Mayri: Yeah? Thank goodness! Let’s do that! I was pining for Orthe only the other day! (Then maybe we can brave the continuation of Mycroft’s tale when we feel up to it … or when we’ve finished our tbrs? Cue delirious laughter).