Too Like the Lightning - review
I just gave up on reading Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. It took me a while to work out what the author’s intentions are, with this book, and the attractive but vanilla sci-fi cover is no help. This looks, from the cover, like a slice of space opera, but it is very much not. Right from the get go, it is obsessed with religion, and not in a good way. The belief system in this future is claimed to be a unification of Earth’s religions, but the sad thing is that this unification has produced something so medieval and Western. A list is even given of all the religions that have been blended to create this new credo, and it is not long. In fact it is flabbergasting in the range of thought and belief that is not represented. The religions listed are Christianity, Islam, and Paganism. And that’s it, all of Earth’s other religions ignored in favor of just these three options. Bonkers. The characters in the story even call the representative of this religion their priest, which makes me think the appearance of Paganism and Islam on the list with Christianity is lip service at best.
I was so confused by this decision that I went to the author’s homepage and even downloaded her CV, trying to work out where she was coming from with this book. It all clicked when I saw she is a manga and anime consultant, and has multiple history qualifications. This story is like one of those manga set in a high-tech version of the past, except this weird past has been given a sci-fi makeover so it can do duty as a future. I guess the idea was maybe to write something like Full Metal Alchemist.
Imaginative reinterpretations of the past can work in manga, but can such a scenario form the basis of a satisfying sci-fi novel, supposedly set in the future? As I started to read, I had my doubts. Why would we be plunged into a romanticized, manga-like, religious dark ages in the future? It could happen, I guess, but I’m going to need some hint of an explanation of how. There simply isn’t one. Instead it’s an artistic choice, I assume, rather than an attempt at futurology. And if you accept that, it also makes more sense that everyone talks like they are pretending to be in a Shakespeare play. It is just a style choice.
However there is some stuff that goes beyond style into substance, and it is problematic. For example, there is some disreputable stuff about where a child’s parentage can be kept secret by something called a DNA gag order. Apparently this is only done in the worst cases, which is not rape, apparently, or even incest rape, but something really bad. This idea, which is vile, begs the question of what could be worse than incest rape? According to the author, an example of a much worse scenario is a queen being raped by Thersites. I had no idea what this meant because I wasn’t familiar with who, or what Thersites is, so I went to Wikipedia.
Thersites, apparently, is an unattractive Greek soldier from the Iliad. Again, I may be lacking in classical education, but I can’t understand the distinction between rape and rape perpetrated by an ugly Greek guy. I would suggest that there isn’t any difference and the use of the highfalutin classical reference is necessary to hide the fact that the thinking behind this nasty plot point isn’t very deep.
There is also a lot of talk of miracles and, in my opinion, a story that takes this idea seriously isn’t sci-fi at all. This is world building done not by somebody who wants to see the future, but somebody trying to return to a lost world of the past. Then we find out prisoners are allowed to go free, based on some ancient Sumerian version of criminal punishment. It’s all too weird. It is very learned, but hard to swallow, and also hard to enjoy.
There are real problems with the storytelling, too. Chapter one and two are caked with info dump. Paragraph after paragraph is given over to telling, not showing, from the books narrator, a character called Mycroft… groan. And the city that gets described is hilarious. There is no hustle and bustle, just a sea view and flower trench for every inhabitant, hah, I’d like an info dump on how that is achieved. But no, there is no hint given as to why something called the “hive” is more like a pleasant suburb.
As if all this isn’t enough, then the bloody Masons turn up, or at least one of them does, and the whole thing starts threatening to degenerate into real farce. This Mason starts talking about some weird group, or maybe it’s a person, called Black Sakura, and how they wrote something really important on a piece of paper. He explains that they used paper because they are old-fashioned, but it has been stolen. It’s all very confusing. I can understand that the story maybe needs all these pieces in play, but do I have to be forced to get my head round it all in one go?
As I’m dealing with that, and before we actually get to see this world-shaking note, I hear a reversing alarm and another dump-truck full of information is unloaded onto me. Apparently, in this future, because of an argument with a great thinker called Adolf - Yes - Adolf - everyone lives in hippy communes instead of family units. Okay, I’m out. A book that names one of its great thinkers Adolf is not okay. I realized I was starting to hate read this book, so I decided to stop. I may return at a later date, but I am not feeling any urgency to do that. I can’t say anything about the story it may or may not contain, because I was not presented with anything as distracting as a story to get in the way of all the information about this strange backward and bookish world the author has built.
I hate saying bad stuff about sci-fi, but this one is to be avoided.
Start Reading the Dark Galaxy Trilogy
Galaxy Dog is an epic space opera. What starts as an ordinary invasion of an alien planet, brings to light an ancient archaeological site of huge importance. A young man called Knave makes a life-changing discovery there and rises from a lowly position as an infantry trooper to become a player among the powers of the galaxy. This is the story of his rise, and the story of the fierce and independent woman and the feisty robot who help him.