Best Novel Nominees: Too Like the Lightning

I had been excited for Too Like the Lightning for at least eighteen months before it was published.  Ada Palmer is a historian (specializing in the development of thought, religion, and philosophy in the Renaissance, among other related topics); she is the blogger behind Ex Urbe, in which she makes complex topics (like the influence of Machiavelli on modern humanism, or the various art-historical aspects of Catholic saints, or the many layers of history stacked on top of each other in Florence and Rome) accessible to the lay reader.  I’d been following her blog for a few years when I attended a panel she was on at Loncon 3, during which she mentioned that she was working on a novel that addressed historical ideas of how governments and countries worked, combined with the distributed-culture model that the Internet and social media seem to be developing.  I read it shortly after its publication in early 2016, and it was one of the novels on my nominating ballot, so I am certainly pleased to see it among the finalists.

The setting of Too Like the Lightning is a utopian culture about five centuries in the future, in which nations are no longer the dominant means by which humanity organizes and governs itself.  Rather, humanity is organized into seven “Hives”, each with its own ideals and corresponding form of government, and which are each spread across the planet; most major cities have neighborhoods or districts belonging to several different Hives.  There is a baseline set of laws agreed to by all Hives (and that even Hiveless people must abide by), though some people choose even to forgo the protection of those laws in exchange for not being bound by them in their own behavior.  Beyond that, each Hive may define and enforce its own laws that apply within its own territories.  The seven Hives each have their own character and ideals, and the distinctions between them make it easy for the reader to imagine how they would fit into one Hive versus another; they are rather similar to the Houses of Hogwarts in that way.  (Though the Hives are not the only axis along which people sort themselves; most people denote both their Hive and other affiliations through specific, distinctive articles of clothing or accessories.  National origin is considered to be one of these affliations, on a par with membership in a professional society or hobby group.)

Against this backdrop, we have our story, written by a self-admitted unreliable narrator, Mycroft Canner, the most notorious criminal of the last few decades.  Canner has as a result been sentenced to a lifetime of public servitude, but the same qualities that enabled him to commit a world-spanning series of grisly, torturous murders (the motive of which remains opaque, as we get tiny bits of detail about his crimes over the course of the book) also make him an indispensable servant to several of the most powerful people in the world.  Through his viewpoint, we get a slowly unfolding story of the use and abuse of power, triggered by a theft of information that for some reason threatens the balance of power among the world’s governments.  The investigation of that theft culminates in the slow realization that this society is not quite as utopian as it may have appeared, and that in fact its stability is only maintained through covert and unethical means.  The heads of the seven Hive governments, in theory a set of independent peers, are tangled together in an incestuous web of intrigue and power struggles.  Meanwhile, the appearance of a boy with unusual paranormal powers, thus far kept hidden from the public, threatens that stability in a different way.   Too Like the Lightning closes with the world balanced on a knife’s edge, and the question that remains isn’t whether the utopia that has prevented war among humanity for two centuries will collapse, but rather when and how it will inevitably do so.

As the first part of the Terra Ignota series, planned to span four books, Too Like the Lightning avoids resolving any of its plotlines; it is essentially a tour of the world that puts all the interlocking parts of the narrative in motion, gradually revealing both backstory and the intrigues of the present.  The climax of the book is essentially the reader’s realization of just how fragile the Hive system actually is, clarifying one mystery that had been subtly threaded through the storyline but still presenting us with several others.  The next book in the series, Seven Surrenders, was released earlier this year, and it’s going to be one of the first things I pick up as soon as I’m done with my Hugo reading.

I do have a few minor complaints about the story so far.  The description of how the current society was developed from our present-day post-Westphalian system of nation-states feels a little contrived, as is the notion that our single viewpoint character – a known murderer, at that – is, of the billions of people on the planet, among the closest confidantes of the most powerful people in nearly every Hive.  But those inventions, artificial though they may feel, certainly contribute to the way the story is told, giving the reader a personal, ground-level look at the secrets and intrigues that drive the politics of the world.  Though, as one of the author’s specialties as a historian is the politics of Renaissance-era Italy, the tight web of interpersonal connections tying together all of the Hive leaders feels similar to the politics and intrigue among the various factions of that period.

Too Like the Lightning was one of my favorite books of 2016, but I feel like Terra Ignota hasn’t quite hit its stride yet; for its length and complexity, it feels in retrospect like very little happens in the first book.  Still, with all the pieces in place, I am happily anticipating the fractures and strife yet to come in this doomed utopia, and I suspect I’ll be discussing Seven Surrenders in this same post series next year.


#1 Mike Scott on 07.04.17 at 8:43 am

I regret to inform you that Seven Surrenders is not as good as Too Like the Lightning. The flaws of the first book are magnified in the second, and it has no new virtues to counter-balance them.

#2 Jo on 07.04.17 at 9:01 pm

Unusually, I totally disagree with Mike. I think Seven Surrenders is full of fascinating resolution and even better than the first book.

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