Last month saw the release of Perhaps the Stars, the final volume of Ada Palmer’s highly-respected Terra Ignota series. I’ve been meaning to read these books for years, but somehow they kept sliding down Mount TBR. Then Mayri the BookForager suggested we buddy read Too Like The Lightning – and friends, I’m so glad I didn’t tackle this on my own.
Ada Palmer’s ambitious debut is also the sort of work that really benefits from having someone to discuss it with as you go. This tale of political conspiracy and social upheaval in an allegedly utopian future is dense with ideas, presented in plush prose and has precisely zero fucks to give about whether you can keep up with its obscure plot and unreliable characters. Thankfully, Mayri and I could compare notes as we went along, yell about developments – and mysteries – and get lost down the rabbit hole of glorious world-building.
Having come out the other side, we sat down to take a look back at the experience – and we’ve somehow managed to keep the resulting discussion broadly spoiler-free!
Mycroft refuses to introduce himself up front. How does knowing / not knowing Mycroft’s crimes change our perception of Mycroft and of this history – and to what extent does the mystery of his identity act as a narrative hook?
Mayri: I guess the first thing to say about Mycroft is that they’re a definitively unreliable narrator. I’m still not at all sure I like them, but by not introducing themself, by not sharing their crimes with us from the get go, then yeah, they acted as a very effective hook when everything else made no sense.
Actually, I don’t think it matters whether we like them or not – they’re not addressing us exactly, they’re talking to an imagined future audience, which places us at a remove. Looking back on this now, I appreciate that distance. Not only because of what we discover about Mycroft later, but also because it means I don’t have to care about any of these characters as I’m not sure there’s a good one among ‘em.
imyril: I was alternately fascinated and frustrated by not knowing who Mycroft is / was and what they had done. But I think the bigger mystery for me was why all the most powerful people in the world leaned on them. It makes Mycroft a useful window into the highest echelons of this society, but it left me itching to know why they felt safe trusting the most infamous criminal in the world. Still, I think it was a good secret to keep – both as a hook, but also because the crime invites so many more questions! It would have been quite the distraction from what’s already a very confusing narrative (and I’m not sure I’d have kept reading if it was disclosed early on: the truth about Mycroft is pretty damn dark. Not that anyone else looks much better in the end, you’re right!)
Mayri: That’s a very good point though: why Is Mycroft so trusted? Or, looking at it from another angle, how can all these powerful people be so sure Mycroft is no longer a threat?
And oh my goodness, yes! There are so many questions surrounding their past now that I don’t even know where to start!
Let’s talk world-building!
There is a lot of world built and not all at once. What aspects stood out – and did your impressions change over the course of the book?
Mayri: This is the one thing I feel 100% enthusiastic about coming away from this read. I really enjoyed the worldbuilding. While the story was often frustratingly sparse or confusing, every scrap of information about how this future works and what it looks like, was great. Not because it’s an attractive future – decidedly scary, if you ask me – but because it’s so weird and there are sooo many ideas bouncing around all over the place.
imyril: Yes! The world remained intriguing even when I was struggling to find a character to care about (let alone figure out what was going on). I enjoyed the extent to which Palmer reimagined the world, and I loved the way the details slowly emerged to let me question Mycroft’s assertions about it being a utopia. It did teach me my answer to the question ‘what matters most to you as a reader – plot, character or worldbuilding?’. I’m a worldbuilding geek and I loved the focus on it here, but turns out character is most important. I really missed not having anyone to root for – I would have liked more time with the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash, and (argh, I can’t help it, I love a terrible person with a rigid code) ended up finding Saladin the most interesting – and he’s barely on page!
Mayri: Absolutely! Characters to root for are so much more important than I would have said they were before I read this book! (Qualification: in sci-fi. I already feel they’re important in other genres, but sci-fi can keep me interested with a bigger idea-to-character ratio than most other genres).
I certainly have questions about Saladin, but the characters that I really wanted more of were Eureka and Cato. Eureka because their whole attitude was just awesome, and Cato because when we finally started to see what’s being denied them my protective instincts kicked in and now I care. Just a little bit.
imyril: Poor Cato! The cinnamon roll we needed all along.
Hives and bashes – how/where do you think you would fit into Palmer’s future?
Mayri: I’ve been thinking about this and I have a question too, which I’m going to start with: all people united by a transport system that makes the world small, yet only seven Hives? I mean, all people. In their infinite variety, coming from a history in which there are thousands of belief systems and philosophies, all people pick one of only seven Hives, or to be Hiveless?
imyril: I hadn’t considered that while we were reading but now you point it out… it’s pretty unlikely, surely? That said, the Hives largely emerged from pre-existing power structures and in the context of a world war – so I guess (I can’t recall) there was a lot of consolidation. And now we’ve seen how the world works, I’m certain nobody played fair!
Mayri: Hmm, yeah, you’re right of course. And you only have to look at superstores to see this pattern played out in the here and now.
So where would I fit? I’m not sure. As we discussed while we were reading, we never see ordinary everyday citizens to know what life is like for someone in our equivalent position. This is very much a book about the elite and a few chosen minions.
The Hive that appealed to me most though, was the Utopian Hive. I liked that they were looking upward and outward, and that if a Utopian dies, the Hive works to solve the problem of whatever killed them (disease, murder, whatever) and to eliminate it. Also, I want a Griffincloth coat. And a visor. And a U-beast!
imyril: Ha, I think you’ve found your niche! I suspect, rather dully, I would remain European. It’s an aspect of my identity that I’m very passionate (if very bruised) about, but given my fascination with history and archaeology and language it’s also a really good fit. That said, I also loved the compassion of the Cousins – in a world where (I think?) basic needs are taken care of, it would be very lovely to devote yourself to kindness and helping others. I love the idea of the bash too – I do love found family! I’m not entirely clear how they go about finding them though? The only bashes we see feel non-typical…
Mayri: The Cousins are an awesome group and I love them in theory. But Julia has sown a seed of doubt now and I can’t shake it.
European seems an excellent fit for you and not boring at all! History, Archaeology, languages – all awesome awesome things.
imyril: I’m hoping Julia is an outlier rather than representative!
Utopia, dystopia and/or tightly-manipulated oligarchy?
Mayri: I’m going to go with tightly-manipulated oligarchy decorated with utopian sprinkles. Decorated being the key word there. The ‘utopian’ bits look pretty, but they don’t have any nutritional value.
imyril: This brings me back to your comment about not knowing how ‘normal’ people live in this world. I find it hard to judge the system when I don’t feel I’ve seen its broader impacts. We see a self-indulgent, self-interested elite and we get a glimpse of the Servicer program – and it still horrifies me that this seems to be a form of lifetime indenture, when our only yardstick for what crimes earn this punishment is Mycroft (who everyone thought would get a death sentence). And they don’t even get to eat except at the whim of others. So I’m reserving judgement, although I always get very suspicious when an unreliable narrator assures me I’m looking at a utopia…
Mayri: Mycroft does seem insistent (and maybe a little bit smug?) that their world is utopian, and then provides plenty of evidence to the contrary. As you say, the Servicer program is highly questionable, there’s a lot of power in too few hands, and I wonder: are those sensayer sessions voluntary or compulsory?
imyril: …ooh. Ohhhh.
Head on over to Book Forager to catch the second half of our discussions, where we meander across to topics of consent, gender and faith. And the more I think about it, I realise we were able to talk so much without revealing any major spoilers because we never actually talked about plot. Which is about right – half our reading notes boil down to WHAT IS GOING ON HELP…
My review of TOO LIKE THE LIGHTNING will follow next month.