In every presidential election I’ve been eligible to vote in, there is a running sort-of joke that, if the other guys wins, voters will move to Canada. The implication is that, if the other guy wins, things will be so messed up in this country that it isn’t even worth sticking around for the next election cycle. In Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning (the first half of a longer novel published in two parts), the world’s population has voted with their feet. In the 2400s, the world is governed by Hives. The legal, criminal, educational, and religious systems are regulated by the best ideas the world’s philosophers have come up with since the days of the Roman Empire. The world is not perfect by any means, but it might be as close to utopia as humans can ever get—at least it would be if the whole thing weren’t teetering on the edge of global war.
Our narrator is the notorious Mycroft Canner. We don’t know until much later why Mycroft is so notorious. All we know is that he committed a serious crime and is now serving community service for the rest of his life. In addition to manual labor, Mycroft serves the world’s leaders as a translator and troubleshooter. He is also the secret guardian to a boy named Bridger, who can work miracles. This is where we meet Mycroft, after a short introduction in which he tries to tell us a bit about his world and its rules. Too Like the Lightning has a long learning curve, but I very much enjoyed the philosophical discursions and history lessons.
There is too much plot in this 400+ page book to summarize in any kind of depth. Besides, it’s the first half of a much longer novel. The rest will be published this fall. Still, I’ll take a stab. After meeting Mycroft, Bridger, and seeing a bit of their home place, Mycroft is called in to help investigate a theft and a frame up. The theft is just the tip of the iceberg in a global conspiracy. Every chapter in this book deepens the mystery and kept me guessing about who was really behind it all.
On top of the plot, I was completely hooked on the worldbuilding in Too Like the Lightning. At times, the book felt like what YA dystopias only dream of being. The people who set up Mycroft’s society really did comb through centuries of philosophy, psychology, and legal texts to cobble together something like a utopia. After borrowing from Voltaire, Carlyle, Diderot, the Romans, and other thinkers, the founders offered people floating citizenships. Citizens could join up with nations that most closely aligned with their values and tolerances for liberty-limiting laws. The founders did everything they could to create a system that would ensure that there would no longer be huge disparities between haves and have-nots.
There are two problems with striving for utopia is that the ideals of the society must always fight against the inherently self-interested nature of human beings. There will always be people who want more. Hence the mysteries and conspiracies and assassinations and subterfuges. The other problem with seeking utopia is simple change. The world is a complicated, chaotic system. Something will eventually come along to throw everything out of whack. Neither of these problems has dissuaded our species trying, however, and it sure is fun to watch people take a stab at perfection.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 10 May 2016.