What’s old is new again in Ada Palmer’s debut novel, Too Like the Lightning, which imagines a future world bound so tightly to the ideas of the past, so fetishizing of ancient philosophers, that it has become largely incapable of adjusting to new ideas, and one free-thinking man can upend the entire social order, and change everything, with a bit of help from a young man who can make his toys come to life.
In Palmer’s future, criminals are wandering rōnin: masterless, homeless, and bound to help anyone in need. “Need” can be anything from menial chores, to hard labor, to illicit sexual encounters. The criminal class can own nothing, have no permanent residence, and eat nothing not provided in the form of a handout. Is it a form of slavery, or a zen-buddhist vision of ultimate freedom? Palmer avoids moralizing. Mycroft Canner, our narrator, is a criminal. His past is mysterious, though we’re given to understand that his crimes were serious, and unusual. Highly intelligent and well-connected, he’s defeated the tracking system that should allow for constant monitoring of his activities. His freedom makes him an easy target for those who know his secret, but also incredibly valuable to the political and social leaders of the 2400s. He can go anywhere, and his low social status means he can do it well under society’s radar.
The world Mycroft inhabits has been thoroughly and rather precisely developed, both by the author and by the founders of that future civilization. Ada Palmer herself is an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago, and her background in the classics infuses every page. The largely stable semi-utopia in which humans live is deliberately based on the works of classical philosophers like Voltaire and Denis Diderot, with the “Hive” as the governing principle. Eschewing the nation-state as we know it, humans choose to live among the particular Hive whose moral codes most closely align to their own. Contact between different Hives is limited, and complicated by the taboo nature of learning languages beyond your own. Mycroft has mastered a number of them, making him both a pariah and useful tool.
As the story opens, Mycroft is investigating the theft of a significant document (a crime for which someone appears to have been framed), as well as in illicitly protecting a young child. In a world that’s been carefully constructed around revered ideas of the past, the boy is the most dangerous thing imaginable: he’s something new. Bridger has powers that are, if not magical, then so close to magic that it makes no difference. Mycroft’s position within Bridger’s family (or ’bash, in Palmer’s densely engineered future patois), as well as his role on the global stage, make him an ideal guide.
The plot is dense in a way that can be almost challenging, but the sheer invention carries you through. Mycroft narrates in anachronistic 18th-century language while using the terminology and jargon of a future world. Does one get the feeling Palmer is eating her cake and having it, too? Certainly. A story of the future rather self-consciously told in the language of the past sounds like exactly the kind of thing that a sci-fi loving history expert would do…and what of it? The Victorian filagrees that survive into the 2400s provide a sizable hook for the author’s style, and it’s no more jarring than a million other invented vernaculars in a million other genre novels (it might even make you feel smarter for parsing it out). Once you adjust to the unique rhythms of the story, the rewards are many. There an intriguing mystery at the heart of Too Like the Lightning, and a love of history and language that bleeds through from the very first page.