Too Like the Lightning is narrated by Mycroft Canner, condemned by his future society to life as a slave for unspeakably horrible crimes. Thing one I disliked about the book is that although Mycroft's crimes are eventually revealed, and they are horrible, terrible, disgusting, and very, very bad, they are completely irrelevant to the plot. Maybe they will become relevant in the projected sequel, but for now let me offer this general rule of writing fiction: when your narrator has committed unspeakable crimes, this must matter to the story. Mycroft has somehow become the protector of a boy named Bridger who has magical powers so extreme they seem to prove the existence of God and may point to some dramatic shift in the human condition. No explanation is given as to how Mycroft acquired this sensitive post, or really anything else about this part of the plot, but there it is.
Actually I'm wrong, the first thing that annoyed me about the book is that much of the writing is confusing; you just can't tell what is going on or why. I will not attempt to guess whether this was a deliberate strategy of dislocation, or just poor execution, but I know that I found it intensely irritating. Sure, when you are dropped down in an alternate universe with different rules and institutions it should be a little disorientating, but other writers have done much better with even weirder worlds (Anathem comes to mind), so that's no excuse for failing to describe things adequately.
But let us move on to the thing that seems to fascinate people most about the book, the future society it describes. In the 21st century this version of our world was engulfed by the "Church War," which is not really described but seems to have been a nuclear conflict between the United States and the Muslim nations. Most of the world's people wanted no part of this catastrophe, so they withdrew their allegiance from the nation states that started the trouble and formed seven great, trans-national associations. Two of these, in Europe and Asia, are more-or-less territorial, but the others (Humanists, Utopians, Masons, and I forget the last) are worldwide, with citizens everywhere. (This made me wonder: if government is not territorial, who repairs the sewers?) Instead of nuclear families people grow up in a bash', a sort of extended family/business/little world of its own. Because of the terrible experience of the Church War, organized religion has been banned; any two people can talk about religion all they want, but if a third person appears they must stop, lest they create a church. The Great Men who set up this new order were, we are told, much inspired by the Enlightenment. People talk about Reason, and quote Voltaire, and some of the characters even dress in eighteenth-century costume.
And the thing that really, really bothered me about this book is that much of it focuses on the government of the world, and it turns out that this allegedly Enlightened world is run about about twenty people. All of these world-bestriding titans and titanesses are gorgeous and glamorous and amazing. They all speak six languages and do higher math for fun, besides finding it trivially easy to manipulate lesser mortals. No stolid, regular folks politicians like Angela Merkel or Joe Biden in this fantasy. However, these beautiful masters all seem to need help running the world from none other than our narrator Mycroft, who is always being summoned away from cleaning public toilets or whatever the other servicers are doing to assist the mighty with the business of government. The reliance of the whole world on this one convicted criminal was so extreme and absurd that I kept waiting for it to be revealed as his schizophrenic fantasy, but no; this really seems to be the way Ada Palmer imagines the future of the planet. And of course this narrow elite of amazing rulers all turn out to be playing sexual games with each other; in one scene two presidents are overcome with lust in the middle of an intense crisis meeting and have to duck out for a quick boff in an adjacent bed chamber. A meeting, I might add, held in a secret brothel where everyone dresses and speaks like it's 1770 again.
If you're like me, you're thinking: if this government was inspired by the Enlightenment, how did it end up as a caricature of the Old Regime? Where are the real Enlightenment politicians – the Tom Paines, the Thomas Jeffersons, the Benjamin Franklins? Because what this system needs is a good Revolution, preferably with a Robespierre to drag these preening, sex-besotted presidents out of their boudoirs and march them to the guillotine. (Now you are perhaps thinking, John, no wonder you didn't enjoy this book, if you spent the whole time dissecting the political theory behind it and fantasizing that all the characters would be murdered by revolutionaries, and I answer, exactly.) But in this book nobody stands up for the actual values of the Enlightenment in either their radical or moderate form.
Behold a sample of how this world is run:
"Good," Madame proclaimed, "we are all friends again. And now" – a kiss on the cheek for MASON – "I shall contact you all" – a kiss on the cheek for Spain – "when I have made arrangements with the Outsider. Meanwhile, dear friends, please, for your own health, do take some minutes to enjoy yourselves."Don't ask me why the King of Spain is such a consequential character in a world without nation states, because that isn't explained, either. And yes there are important figures known only as The Anonymous and The Outsider. But at least they are all having joy.
Joy followed. The Anonymous attacked laughing Bryar's bodice, which their earlier haste had left intact. It was Spain's turn with Madame, and His shy Majesty prefers a private room, so they departed, while MASON stretched back to watch modest Danae help her brother get into position for her husband's sport. . . .
The reason for the complete absence of actual Enlightenment thought from Too Like the Lightning may be a flaw in Ada Palmer's education. So far as I can tell, the only eighteenth-century writer she has read with any care is the Marquis de Sade; certainly he is the only one discussed at length. Now we stray into broader territories of things that irritate me, because interest in de Sade has been an academic fad for the past twenty years or so. I remember reading an annoying essay by some professor who claimed that de Sade was persecuted because he offered such an incisive critique of bourgeois society; "No society could leave such a trenchant critic unjailed," or some such nonsense. Actually de Sade was jailed for violent assaults on prostitutes and eventually condemned for murdering one of his servants, and if you like to imagine living in a such a free society that rich men can get away with torturing and murdering their employees, well, bully for you. If you ask me de Sade was about the least interesting person of the whole eighteenth century, except for the remarkable way that he manged to be both offensive to any conceivable morality and deeply boring.
I never know what to make of academics and their de Sade thing. Are they just trying to tease people like me for our prudery? Do they really think there is something to de Sade's tedious books, with their alternating passages of philosophy and sex? I suspect boredom, actually; they are just bored by all the big books that everybody is supposed to read and comment on, and at least de Sade has some sex and scandal to pique their interest. Into this category I now place Ada Palmer. She wants to imagine future worlds, but she refuses to take the slightest interest in how they would work. None of that stolid Constitutional Convention sort of thing for her. Instead her world government is just a bunch of glamorous people breaking all the rules, lording it over the dreary peasants while they rough each other up with such abandon that the furniture is smashed. Palmer also has a thing for torture, which she manages to work into the story in half a dozen different ways. None of them, so far as I can see, consequential. I tend to think that if you are going to have someone tortured in your story, this ought to be important, but for Palmer torture is just a bit of dark background like a stormy night or a gibbous moon. Say what you want about George Martin, at least he understands that torture is a serious and seriously evil act.
Ok, fine, it's a novel, and I don't really expect any novel to convey the complexity of governing a planet. But other writers have focused on a few characters while still conveying that much more is going on out of the picture. Gore Vidal's Lincoln does this wonderfully, and so does Asimov's Foundation. Even The West Wing manages to connect the heroes and heroines to the broader world off-screen and show that things like elections matter. None of that dweeb stuff for Ada Palmer, though, nor anything else about the infrastructure of her world. I'm not even sure why this is called science fiction, since Palmer is much more interested in describing people's theatrical costumes than anything to do with science or technology. Me, I wanted to know more about the flying cars.
If that's your idea of an enjoyable fantasy, go ahead, read Ada Palmer. Plenty of people like this book. I found it first confusing, and then irritating, and by the end it had filled me with righteous revolutionary rage. It does, I admit, have an awesome title, but it's all downhill from there.