Author: Ada Palmer
Title: Too Like the Lightning
Series: Terra Ignota #1
This was a recommended read – both Bart and Jeroen were enthusiastic about this series, and wrote such lengthy reviews of the books, that I had no choice but to join the discussion – and here I want to offer my thanks to them both.
Palmer’s debut novel seems to evoke strong feelings across the aisle – people seem to either love it or hate it, with not much in between. And that’s why writing this review proves harder than usual – for usually I’m one of the firebrands with strong opinions delivered gleefully and with no compunction, equally passionately for both positive and negative reviews. And here I am left in the middle, not too moved either way, able to appreciate the many strengths of this book but equally able to point out the weaknesses. So, then, let’s dive into it.
Palmer’s novel is set in the 25th century. In her world, humanity has changed drastically, at least in terms of culture and worldviews. After brutal wars religion had become more or less forbidden, a taboo, but spiritual need is recognized as legitimate and universal, and non-factional (or are they?) people of the cloth pay weekly visits to their parishioners to talk about ethics and afterlife. Gender has also been deemed outdated, though no real reason is given for this, and everybody sports neutered pronouns and frowns when an uncouth “he” or “she” enters the discussion. Anne Leckie’s example has been waved over Palmer’s head long enough, so I’m not going to dive into the motivations, I will just proceed to dissect the illogicalities of Palmer’s execution of this choice. But that will come later. Nations have also been dissolved, as well as nuclear families; people live in Hives, large global organisations divided into bash’es, which in turn are small, mostly voluntary groups of mostly unrelated members who share similar views and vocations, and Hive affiliation. Because nuclear families, and multi-generational too, for that matter, were removed from their dominant position as a fundamental unit of social organisation, sex has become an idle pleasure akin to grooming among apes – shared without jealousy between many consenting individuals and deprived of significance we tend to assign to it – but with an exception I’ll write about later. Work is also a big theme, for in this world of abundance everybody works of their own will (mostly, I guess economy wasn’t Palmer’s concern, and that’s fine) and works a lot – a sort of Marxist utopia of people spending most of their waking hours on things they love to do and being paid for it. Death penalty is non-existent; prisons have been removed from the picture entirely – instead, we have a form of institutionalised slavery where criminals cannot possess anything and work for food. Everybody in this world is tracked; instead of one Big Brother we have an oligopoly of them, a tight-knit group of rather incestous world leaders who nevertheless seem to have humanity’s best interests at heart. Which also leads to me the sadly typical shortcoming of depicting the political scene as something consisting solely of cliques and conspiracies, here in full regalia of Emperors and Presidents and Madams and some such.
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