Thursday, July 6, 2017

Too Like the Lightning

Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning takes place in the future, a 25th century whose views of our modern day are as colored by weird historical narratives as our views of our own history. The book is described as "political science fiction", a genre I'd never heard of, and its philosophical leanings make it a good partner to Stephenson's Anathem, in that both books academically examine political and philosophical structures that don't --- quite --- exist in our present reality.

This book is excellent. I can see why it's a 2017 Hugo nominee.

I love an unreliable narrator, and the gradual reveal of different layers of story was done very well. The narrator is educated and wary of his audience, but also makes vast assumptions about our familiarity with philosophical, social, economic, and political history and theories. He plays fast and loose with ideas and with pronouns. He has very little free will and yet manages to make pivotal, important decisions for the plot. He is an open liar, but still an interesting narrator. (Many chapters ended with cliffhangers, which isn't my favorite style, but they varied and were interesting and none of them ended up feeling like cheap gimmicks.)  The fact that this highfalutin' philosophical world where everyone is ideally healthy and educated ends up being... bad [spoiler: corrupted by the same interpersonal intrigue as a typical HBO show] is very intellectually crunchy and satisfying. I immediately purchased the sequel book, although it can't jump to the front of my queue since I'm trying to read all of the Hugo nominees before the voting deadline.

One lingering unfinished thread: the title is an oblique reference to Romeo and Juliet (the balcony scene, act 2, scene II), and wasn't ever referred to during the novel. Shakespeare is mentioned a few times, as a famous bard (page 54), as someone now only understood with footnotes (page 55), and as a literary wordsmith alongside Voltaire (page 337). Romeo and Juliet are mentioned only as being one of many famous pairs of lovers depicted in a gallery of paintings (page 132). "Lightning" is referenced as the usual weather pattern, and only once it is used to reference a person: "I am the window through which you watch the coming storm. He is the lightning." (page 220), but this doesn't mesh well with the phrase "too like the lightning"; while many plot points are too rash, too unadvised, and too sudden, the character thus referenced has not ceased to be ere one can say he lightens. Is this an extremely oblique way of foreshadowing his death?

It's an ongoing mystery, and one I'm happy to seek in the sequel, much more sensically named Seven Surrenders --- since there are seven nation-states, this one seems easy to decode.

This post's theme word is aretocracy (n), an invented structure for electing government officials according to from-each-citizen personal nominations. Its exact details are not clear. The Humanist faction-state favors an aretocracy, but this is susceptible to charismatic cults of personality.

No comments: