Very infrequently when I’m reading sci-fi I’ll forget it’s not Iain Banks. (Excluding here Charles Stross and China Miéville, who I’ve been reading since the beginning of my return to sci-fi.) Only once have I read a book where I’ve been so seduced I could believe it was one of the many works Banks would have written if he’d not be killed by cancer. That one was Ann Leckie and her profound Ancillary Justice. Then I started Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, and here was a second.
That fucking good. Seriously huge, and just like Leckie, her first novel. With Lucretius, and sliding through Baroque and Renaissance and Age of Reason (pretty sure Leibniz was omitted though) in a twenty-nth century post-nation state future. There’s stacks to like about this, and like it I did. Until I didn’t like it so much.
It’s half a story. If you want to read the second half, you have to wait, then pay. A bit like The Hunger Games — Mockingjay or The Hobbit getting split into two and three pieces. Without knowing the second half, I can’t say whether it could have been all fitted into one large-ish volume. Even if there’s no way, I wanted a proper, non-cliffhanger conclusion, something Leckie managed to do in Justice. I’m feeling coerced to buy Part II and find out what happens, even though with a couple of issues I had with Lightning I’m not sure I want to.
As with Leckie, the conversations that got me into buying this were around language and gender—ok, it was the sci-fi and the cover—the use of standard personal pronouns to usurp identity. Leckie did this phenomenally well by having the entire cast use ‘she’ and ‘her’, and provide scant identifying characteristics to nail down her mob. Some people hated it. I can’t understand why they are incapable of basic comprehension, but I am the one whose favourite Banks is Feersum Endjinn (Reading it 6+ times confirms that).
Palmer attempts something similar, but rather than all bodies and identities accruing to one set of third person singulars, pronouns were applied according to public role. I think. Which is why I say attempts. Towards the latter quarter of the book, when a hidden Parisian world of resolute gender heteronormatives come to light, I considered that contra Leckie’s quite radical (in the sense of revolutionary or even militant) gender fuckery, Palmer was kind of a crypto-conservative—or that her engagement with elusive and slippery banged headfirst into binary. The only way I could be sure would be if I drew a giant chart of every character and their nomenclature (a very Enlightenment thing to do), and see if it’s internally consistent. Ain’t gonna happen. I also trust my “I smell bollocks” sense, even when I can’t immediately say what those bollocks smell of.
The other uncomfortably fitting identity aspect was visual signifiers of ethnicity. Which I’m not going to talk about here. Maybe only to say that as with binary gender signifiers, there isn’t a one to one relationship.
I’m reminded of two somewhat opposing remarks on gender – paraphrasing here – the first from Judith Butler, who said gender is a useful generalisation; the second Deleuze (maybe with Guattari) who said there are as many genders as there are bodies. Both those statements can have gender replaced by ethnicity, and in doing so reveals the pragmatic approach of Butler, and the superficial individuality of Deleuze.
So more than any narrative – and with the story being split into two volumes, I’m feeling hazy on what the actual plot or endgame is – Lightning is a structuring of identity. Which I am hell yes down with. I just think it says more about Palmer’s own thinking of this, and her place in a specific culture and period in history, that it does about a hypothetical human future. And nothing convinced me more of this than when this half a millennium in the future global culture used United States date format.